You know, involving Madurai, the Temple City of Tamilnadu, India there is a great Tamil Epic – Silapathikaram – praised by both Scholars for its excellence and laymen for its legend. Silapathikaram is one of the five outstanding epics of Tamil Language – the others being Manimekalai; Seevaka Chinthamani; Valayapathi and Kundalakesi.
A sample of the words of praise about Silapathikaram will make you understand the true value of this literary work of poems in Tamil.
"The following works of art and literature are among the most remarkable contributions of the Tamil creative genius to the world's cultural treasure and should be familiar to the whole world and admired and beloved by all in the same way as the poems of Homer, the dramas of Shakespeare, the pictures of Rembrandt, the cathedrals of France and the sculptures of Greece..... the epical poem Cilappathikaram, which by its 'baroque splendour', and by the charm and magic of its lyrical parts belongs to the epic masterpieces of the world....." (Tamil Contribution to World Civilisation - Czech Professor Dr. Kamil Zvelebil in Tamil Culture - Vol. V, No. 4. October, 1956)
If you come across Tamilnadu, there may not be persons, even from the illiterate lot, who do not know Kannagi. She is the legendry lady protagonist of this wonderful epic, which speaks about women’s chastity and feminine possessiveness, universally found. The poetry work is by Ilango Adigal, (a Jain saint) brother of Chera King Senguttuvan, who ruled in Tamilnadu in the 1st Century A.D. The story starts in Chola Nadu, heightens in Pandiya Nadu, and ends in Chera Nadu (all the three were kingdoms in ancient Tamil region).
Kannagi is the daughter of a well-to-do merchant in Kaviripoompattinam and marries a lad Kovalan, of equal status. They live happily for a while and then fate plays havoc in their life. Kovalan goes after Madhavi, a dancer (unchaste women of those days) and loses all his wealth. One fine morning, he realizes his mistake and returns to his uncomplaining chaste wife Kannagi. Both decide to start their life afresh and move over to Maduai, ruled by Pandiyan Nedunchezhian.
Kovaln goes with an ornament (an anklet called “Silambu”, a gold tube containing rubies inside to make musical sound while walking) to get sold for money to live. A greedy goldsmith sees the Silambu and informs the King that he has got the thief, who stole the Silambu of the Queen. Nedunchezhian, in a hurry to go to Queen’s place and appease her, orders the death of Kovalan and bringing back the ornament. Kannagi becomes furious on hearing the news and rushes to the Royal Court of the King. She proves by breaking her remaining Silambu that it contains rubies and not pearls, as in the Queen’s Silambu. Pandiyan Nedunchezhian regrets his injustice and dies on the throne, followed by the Queen.
Kannagi goes out with rage un-solaced and curses the entire Madurai city to get fire – leaving Brahimins, chaste women, ascetics, old people, children and cows. Then she goes to Chera Nadu, sits under a tree fasting and dies to join her husband Kovalan in heaven.
Thus Silapathikaram is about ordinary people living in those days, and differs from other epics of the world to have Kings and Nobles as their heroes. It serves as a guide to know the early history, lifestyle and culture of the Tamil people. Present day Tamil and Kerala women worship Kannagi as Goddess of Chastity.