Yes, The Tamil Epic Silappadhikaram Is Deeply Rooted In Vedic Values

by S Krishnan - May 22, 2021 09:44 AM +05:30 IST
Yes, The Tamil Epic Silappadhikaram Is Deeply Rooted In Vedic ValuesA statue of Kannagi
  • 'Silappadhikaram' (Story of Anklet) is the oldest of the five listed great epics of Tamil literature, illustrating the life of an ordinary couple - Kannagi and Kovalan.

    A careful study of the epic leaves no doubt that it reflects the deeply rooted Vedic culture in Tamil land right from Sangam age and beyond.

Of the five listed great epics of Tamil literature, Silappadhikaram (Story of Anklet) is one text which stands out unique in number of aspects. It was the oldest of the five, in terms of the chronology.

Unlike the epics of those times which mostly involve stories about kings and the royals, Silappadhikaram illustrates the life of an ordinary couple Kannagi and Kovalan. It also details out the Sangam age Tamil society, its culture, traditions, festivals etc.

More importantly, it was written in a dance drama format and has references to the musical and dance traditions of yesteryears. It also has some of the historical details of the great Sangam age kings such as Karikala Chola, Pandyan Nedunchezhian and Cheran Senguttuvan.

In addition, through its three kandams (cantos) it describes the three major kingdoms, Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas . Hence, it also assumes importance for researchers to understand the Tamil pre-history and history to a great extent and helps in fixing the timelines of some of these Kings.

One of the other key aspects of this text is that it doesn’t allude itself with any specific religion. Further, the details about the author, Ilango Adigal are vague and there are debates about whether he was the brother of Cheran Senguttuvan and also about his religion. Hence, there were lot of assumptions attributing both the epic and its author to a particular religion.

It is interesting to know that the listing of five great epics of Tamil was in fact done during the 10th-11th Century CE and verses such as ‘Pathigams’ were added to Silappadhikaram to give a specific religious colour to it. This was used by some vested interest groups to drive home their agenda that the Vedic Hindu religion didn’t exist during the Sangam age. Some of them even go to an extent saying that this was a ‘pre-Hindu’ text.

However, if one dwells deeper into the epic, it can be inferred clearly that it reflects the Vedic culture and Hindu way of life throughout.

The Story

Silappadhikaram starts with the marriage of Kovalan and Kannagi as per the Vedic rites and concludes with Cheran Senguttuvan performing the Rajasuya Yajna. There is no further proof needed beyond this to establish that the epic is all about the Hindu traditions. Still, we will go in detail to explore this aspect of the epic further.

Both Kovalan and Kannagi were from the rich merchant families living in Kaveripoompattinam (Poompuhar). They were married according to Vedic traditions. The lines ‘mamudu paarpaan maraivazhi kattida, thee valam vanthu’ tells that an old Brahmin conducted the marriage rites with the couple going around the holy fire as part of the rituals.

Ilango Adigal goes further and mentions that the marriage happened on the day in which ‘vaan oor mathiyam sagadu anaya’ - the moon which moves through the sky was near the star Rohini.

The Puranas speaks about Chandra being close to Rohini, of all the 27 stars. Hence it is considered as an auspicious day for marriage. Further, as part of the marriage rituals ‘saali oru meen thagaiyal’ was seen by the couple. The phrase refers to the star Arundhathi. Even today, Hindu marriages follow these rituals including ‘Ammi mithithu Arundhathi’ parthal’. Seeing the star Arundhathi is an auspicious marriage tradition.

The rituals also included ‘Paaligai muLai kudam nirathal’ which is filling a number of small pots with grains. This is another tradition followed till date in Hindu marriages.

Then Ilango introduces Madhavi, a dancer in Arangetru Kathai. Here he refers to the Puranic story in which sage Agastya curses Apsara Urvashi and Jayanta, son of Indira.

Urvashi had to go to earth due to this and perform dance in a king’s court for some time before redemption. Madhavi was said to be born in the race of Urvashi, in a family of dancing girls. She was an expert in dance and singing.

In the same chapter, the nuances of Natyashastra by Bharatha Muni are detailed by Ilango Adigal while describing the dance programme of Madhavi. Attracted by her dance, Kovalan stays with her, leaving his wife Kannagi.

It is known that the Natyashastra of Bharata mentions about the Indra Vijayotsav, festival of Indra, at the beginning.

Similarly, Ilango Adigal also introduces ‘Indira Vizha’. The Chola country celebrates the festival of Indra, King of Gods, in Poompuhar every year.

During this festival ‘Dwaja Arohanam’ takes place which happens in most of the temples even today during festival times.

The temples listed out by Ilango Adigal are ‘Pirava yaakkai periyon kovil’ - Shiva temple, ‘Arumuga Sevvel Ani Thigazh Kovil’ - Murugan temple, ‘Val Valai Meniyon Valiyon Kovil’ - Balarama temple, ‘Neela Meni Nediyon Kovil’ - Vishnu temple, ‘Maalai Venkudai Mannan Kovil’ - Indra temple. This verse shows clearly that all the major Hindu gods were celebrated during the Indra Vizha.

Vedic sacrifices were also offered in these temples. There were also worship of ‘Naal Vahai Tevar’, meaning four categories of devas which include eight Vasus, twelve Adityas, eleven Rudras and the two Ashwini devas.

After the festival, Kovalan leaves Madhavi due to a misunderstanding. He then asks Kannagi to leave for Madurai as he had decided to start a new life in a foreign place. Along with Kavunthi Adigal, a Sramana Saint, they leave for Madurai.

There is an interesting incident described by the author while the party was travelling to Madurai.

Kovalan feels thirsty and reaches a pond to quench his thirst. A Vana Yakshi (Vanasarini) falls in love with him and changes her appearance to that of Vasantha Malai, a friend of Madhavi. She goes near Kovalan and starts talking to him. Kovalan grow suspicious of her sudden appearance in the midst of a forest. He recites ‘Pai Kalai Pavai Manthiram’ - mantra of Goddess Durga. Not able to stand before the power of the mantra, the Yakshi disappears after telling him the truth.

Reciting of the mantra of goddess to chase away bad elements is another age-old practice as given in the text.

Then they reach Madurai. Kovalan leaves with Kannagi’s Silambu (anklets) to sell it for setting up a business. Unfortunately, a goldsmith plays spoilsport and complains to the King Nedunchezhiyan that this was a stolen anklet from the queen.

The king orders for beheading Kovalan and he is killed.

Hearing about this sad news, Kannagi comes to the court and proves that the anklet, in fact, belonged to her. Realising that he had wronged Kovalan and Kannagi, Nedunchezhiyan dies and so does his wife Kopperundevi. Kannagi sets fire to Madurai and leaves for Chera Nadu. There, the Gods come to visit her and take her to heaven.

This story was narrated by a poet Chatthan to Chera King Senguttuvan.

Moved by the story of ‘Pathini Deivam’, Senguttuvan decides to build a temple for her. For this, he wants to bring a stone from the Himalayas. Ilango Adigal says that Senguttuvan was a devotee of Shiva through this verse - ‘Senjadaik Kadavul Vannachchevadi Manimudi Vaithalin’. He had kept the Feet of Lord Shiva in his Crown.

When the priests from the ‘Adaga Madathu Amarnthon’ (Lord Ananthapadmanabha from Thiruvananthapuram) brought the prasadams, he kept that on his shoulders. By narrating this, Ilango implies that Senguttuvan revered both Shiva and Vishu as two important Gods.

After bringing a holy stone from Himalayas and soaking it with the holy water in Ganges, Senguttuvan starts building a temple for Kannagi.

The process of building the temple and deifying Kannagi is same as the one described in the Agama sastras.

The story concludes with Senguttuvan moving to a Yaga Sala to perform Rajasuya Yaga in Varantharu Kathai. Thus, the intertwining of Hindu customs, traditions and the way of social life can be seen throughout the story.

The Gods

While Ilango details out various Hindu gods and their temples throughout the story, there are three specific gods mentioned in the text and the verses attributed to them are worth looking at.

It is customary for the Tamil poets to sing about the Five Thinais (division of land) in the kavyas. Ilango Adigal too followed the same tradition and brings each of the thinais at appropriate places and also sings the praise of the Lord of those thinais.

In the Vanchi Kandam, which happens in the hilly region (Kurinji Thinai) Lord Murugan is worshipped in Kundrak Kuravai. Similarly, he sings about Thirumal (Vishnu) in the High Lands region as part of the Mullai Thinai and Kotravai (Durga) in the Palai Thinai (Desert region) before Kovalan and Kannagi enter Madurai.

Let us start with Kundra Kuravai. Here the God of the Kurinji region, Lord Murugan was worshipped by the inhabitants of the hilly region of Western Ghats. Kuravai means a variety of dance and here the Kuravars of the hill perform this dance in praise of Murugan.

Ilango Adigal mentions about the key abodes of Murugan in Tamil Nadu in this chapter which includes Tiruchendur, Tiruchengode and Swamimalai. Murugan is revered as a six-faced God who killed the Asuras, riding on a peacock and carrying a spear. The fact that he was reared by six mothers (Karthigai Pengal), he being the son of ‘Alamar Selvan’, Dakshinamurthi (Shiva) are also mentioned in the Kuravai. All these references are from the biggest of Puranas, Skanda Puranam.

Similarly, Ilango Adigal sings about Vishnu and his avatars Krishna and Rama in Aichiyar Kuravai. 'Aichiyar' refers to the womenfolk of the cattle-rearing community.

Kannagi and Kovalan stay at their place in Madurai, before Kovalan goes out to sell the anklet. Aichiyar in the meanwhile see some bad omens. They perform this dance dram to pray to Lord Vishnu.

Here, Ilango Adigal refers to various instances from the Itihasas, Ramayana and Mahabharata along with references from the Srimad Bhagavata.

Three artists enact the roles of Krishna, Balarama and Nappinai (Radha of Brindavan) in the drama. Krishna’s leelas such as Gopika Vastrabakarana (Aruvai Oliththan), eating the mud, killing Kamsa (Kanjanar Vanjam Kadanthanai) all finds a place here.

Further, Krishna going on a mission on behalf of Pandavas (Panchavarku Thoothu Aga), hiding the sun using his Chakra (Kathir Thikiriyan Maraitha) during the Bharata war are also mentioned.

During the Rama avatar, he going with his brother to the forest, waging a war with Ravana and destroying Lanka (Thol Ilangai Kattu Azhitha) are referred by Ilango in the same chapter.

Ilango also speaks about Samudra Manthan (Kadal Vayiru Kalakkinai), Trivikrama Avatar (Mu-Ulagum Er Adiyal) in the Aichiyar Kuravai. Such a detailed narration of Hindu Itihasas and Puranas establishes the fact the Ilango Adigal is well versed with all these holy texts

While both the above Kuravais go along with the narrative part of the story and fit seamlessly, Vettuva Vari introduced by Ilango at the beginning of Madurai Kandam stands out from the core story.

The travelling party rests in the Kottam (temple) of Jayai (Goddess Durga). The hunters in the place offer poojas to the Goddess and perform this Vari, which is a form of a musical dance.

Kottaravi, the goddess of the Palai thinai is praised in this Vari. The verses praising Durga are “Mun Nilai Paraval” – praises in front, similar to Stotras from the Vedic texts

Kanathu Erumai Karunthalai Mel Nindrayaal

Vanor Vananga Maraimel Marayagi

Gnanakkozhunthai nadukkindriye nirpai

The verse means that Goddess Durga stands as the epitome of knowledge atop the Mahisha, worshipped by Devas and She is beyond the comprehension of Vedas.

Interestingly, the phrases used by Ilango Adigal to glorify the Goddess are mostly drawn from Lalitha Sahasranama according to the Tamil Scholar A.Sa.Gnanasamban. Few examples are quoted here

Silappadhikaram-Lalitha Sahasranama

“Mathiyin Venthodu Soodum Senni” - Charu Chandra Kaladhara

“Pavala Vaichi” - Nava vidhruma bimbhasri nyakkari radana chhadha

“Nanju Undu Karutha Kandi” - Kalakanti

“Silambum Kazhalum pulambum Seeradi” - Sinchana mani manjira manditha sri padambuja

“Malavarkku Ilangilai” - Padmanabha Sahodhari

“Painthodi Pavai” - Kankangadha Keyura Kamaniya Bujanvidha

“Aikalai Paavai” - Kalathmika

“Arungalappavai” - Sarvabharana Bhooshita or Sarvayutha Dhara

“Kannuthal Bagam Aludaiyal” - Sri kandartha sareerini

“Viri Kathir Am Sothi Vilakkagi Nirpai” - Udyath bhanu sahasrabha

“Mani Uruvinai” - Padma raga samaprabha

A.Sa.Gnanasambandan wonders if Ilango was in fact a Shakta who was well versed with Lalitha Sahasranama and thus uses the Mantras in his text praising Goddess Durga here.

Nevertheless, the influence of Lalitha Sahasranama from the Brahmanda Purana in Vettuva Vari proves that the Hindu tradition and ritualistic way of goddess worship is prevalent in Tamil Nadu since ages

By exploring the Silappadhikaram through its three main Kandams and the associated chapters, it can be easily inferred that the epic speaks about the Hindu way of life, rituals etc, draws references from the Hindu texts such as Puranas, Itihasas and refers to various Hindu Gods throughout the story line. There is no doubt that it is an epic which reflects the deeply rooted Vedic culture in Tamil land right from Sangam age and beyond.

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