The Book of Vanci Summary
[CILAPPATHIKARAM) Ilango Adigal
llango Adigal was a Chera prince supposed to live in the 2nd century AD/CE, and is the author of Cilappathikaram, one of the five great epics of Tamil literature.
He was the brother of Kodungallur or Muziris-based Chera king, Cheralathana Chenguttavan, who had ruled parts of what is now known as Kerala, but formed a part of the Tamil Land.
He was also among those who challenged astrology and became a monk. According to a legend, an astrologer predicted that he would become the ruler of the land and to obviate such a happening, especially when his elder brother, the rightful heir was alive, the prince became a Jain monk taking the name of Ilango Adigal.
It is believed that once when the king was traveling through the mountains, some tribal girls told him of a mysterious woman. The king assigned his brother, Ilango, the responsibility to collect the full story of the mysterious woman and to write it as a book of verse, and Cilappathikaram was written.
He was an ascetic who renounced the world. He embraced the principles of Jainism and lived outside the city of Vanci, inspired by Kavunti, a Jaina nun and Kovalan’s spiritual guide. As a result, this epic revolves around Jainism and its principles, too.
There are also claims that Ilango Adigal was a contemporary of Sattanar, the author of Manimekalai, another great Tamilian epic.
The story of the Cilappathikaram (or, the Epic of the Anklet), the ancient text was written in verse. This text is attributed to Prince Ilango Adigal and considered dated as having been written approximately 1,600 years ago. He brings a stolid sensuality and all-embracing humanity to his tale of a woman’s vengeance.
The written version has its origin from the oral traditional tales spoken by people from the village of Tamil Nadu and it is said that Prince llango Adigal wrote down the events of the story as they were told to him by eye-witnesses. In any case, the varying details of the different versions as we get to see, tell us about people’s different perceptions of the story. The additional episodes that revolve round the main stories depict the versions from different regions of the state.
The whole poem revolves around the value of chastity. Also it is a fine synthesis of mood poetry in an ancient Tamil Sangam tradition and the rhetoric of Sanskrit poetry, including the dialogues of Kalittokai (poems of unrequited or mismatched love), chorus folk songs, descriptions of city and village, lovingly technical accounts of dance and music, and strikingly dramatic scenes of love and tragic death.
One of the great achievements of the Tamil genius, the Cilappathikaram is a detailed poetic witness to Tamil culture, its varied religions, its town plans and city types, and Tamil people, and their arts of dance and music.
The epic consists of around 5000 verses and is considered as a long poem that describes the achievements of Kannaki, the heroine and of a Pandya and a Chera King, who are considered as the heroes of the epic.
Three story elements that are found here, are :
1)“A king punishes himself or his family members for misdeeds”. 2) “A woman is miraculously served by nature due to her selfless devotion (her chastity) in relation to her husband”.
3) “A woman in fury gets justice and becomes a goddess”.
III. The Story
The story revolvs round the heroine, Kannaki, the virtuous wife of Kovalan, a rich merchant of Poompuhar, who suffered two personal disasters in her life. The first misfortune she pardoned gracefully but to the second one, she countered and retaliated. She was all through guided by her chastity (Pativrata Dharam) as her motivator.
Kannaki, after getting married to Kovalan with all the pomp and glamour, within a very short spell, lost him to an artful dancing courtesan, Madhavi, who was well versed in classical music and dance but her family only had eyes on his wealth. Within three years of time, Kovalan lost all his wealth and returned to his wife Kannaki. As a virtuous wife (Pativrata), Kannaki accepted him and offered her only the remaining jewellery, a pair of anklets (Cilambu) that he could sell to establish a new business. To begin a new life the couple, being escorted by a Jain nun, left for Maturai , the capital of Pandiyan king.
At Maturai, Meenakshi, Goddess of Maturai, warned Kovalan not try to sell Kannaki’s anklet there. Kovalan did not listen and fell into another trap of the chief goldsmith of the city, who had stolen the queen’s gold anklet. The goldsmith impeached Kovalan as the thief and gave away the anklets to the king. The king, out of his anger and annoyance, without much investigations dictated execution order of Kovalan without trial, and that order was carried out immediately
. Kannaki became infuriated after she found out the bitter truth about her husband’s fate and the injustice meted out to her husband. She set out to prove Kovalan’s innocence to the ruler of Maturai. She rushes to Pandiyan’s court, accuses the king of injustice, and proves her case by breaking the cilambu that was recovered from her husband, as the anklet of the queen was filled with pearls whereas Kannaki’s anklet was filled with rubies. The shock of remorse killed the king and the queen on the spot in shame.
But Kannaki was still not satisfied and demanded justice. She tore out a breast and threw it on the city and cursed that the city of Maturai will be burnt to ashes and only the elderly, the disabled and the children will be spared. The curse came true due to her supreme chastity. Kannaki’s rage turned to the city of Maturai and she burnt it down by her spiritual powers of a chaste wife.
The city of Maturai was engulfed in flames which resulted in huge losses both in terms of human lives and economy. Finally, Meenakshi, the Goddess of the city requested her to withdraw her curse, which she did and later achieved salvation. After the incident at Maturai city, Kannaki left Maturai and reached Kodungalloor and lived in Kodungallur Bhagavathy Temple, south of Guruvayoor.
The story actually ended with this tale of two cities. As an extension, the third city Vanji of Chera dynasty, on the west coast, came into the epic. The Chera king portrayed the story into a poetic literature and glorifies the incident in the adoration of Kannaki as the goddess of Chastity (Pattinidaivam). The Chera king built a temple for Kannaki.
His younger brother Ilango, a Jain monk, composed the poem. The story itself was built around two main beliefs—the uprightness of Tamil kings and the divine power of chastity of married women.
The beauty of the epic lies in the portrayal of the life-style and traditions of Tamils 2000 years back along with the high cultural levels of Tamil civilization. It also indicates that the mixture of Tamil and Sanskrit cultural practices that appear in many a place in the epic poem. The wealth of the three regions of royalty is portrayed in three places beautifully
The first region was Chola country (Cholavala nadu) in the east, famous for its rice cultivation in the Cauvery river basin.
The wealth of the second region of royalty of Pandiya country in south was pearl (the saying goes, “Pandiya nadu muthudaithu”). Pearl collection (Muthukkulithal) from the Southern Ocean was the ancient primary business activity of Tamils of this region.
The wealth of the third region of Chera royalty in the west was of course ‘elephants’. When the Chera king Chenguttuvan returned from his campaign (Digvijayam) of the north and brought the Himalayan stone for sculpting Kannaki’s idol, people greeted him with elephants in the forefront.
V. Main Characters of the Epic [A] Kovalan
Kovalan is the one of the main characters of the epic. He, the son of a wealthy merchant, Machattuván, married Kannaki, the lovely daughter of another rich merchant, Manayakan. At the time of his marriage, he was sixteen years old. They lived together happily in the city of Kaveripattinam. Kovalan met the courtesan Madhavi and infatuated by her beauty, fell in love with her.
He was so obsessed that he completely forgot his wife and spent his time with Madhavi and in this way Kovalan spent all his wealth, inherited from his parents, on his base beloved. During the annual festival held in the honour of Indra, they had a misunderstanding and being completely dejected, Kovalan returned to his chaste wife, Kannaki, who welcomed him whole-heartedly, despite his being penniless. They decided to start a new life in Maturai city.
Kovalan, along with his wife Kannaki, started their journey towards the Maturai city at the stroke of first light. A Buddhist nun also accompanied them in the journey. After walking for many days, they reached the city. In the middle of the journey, Kovalan had sent word to his parents about his intentions of starting a new life in a new city. Upon arrival, impressed by the grandeur of Maturai city, Kovalan set out to sell one of Kannaki’s anklets, the only left-over asset they owned, with which he intended to start the business. Kovalan entrusted the anklet to be sold to the Palace’s Chief jeweller, who promise to fetch him good money from the king. The king, being tricked by the Chief Jeweller, ordered to behead Kovalan without a trial, on account of stealing the Queen’s anklet. Thereby, Kovalan died in the city of Maturai.
[B] Kannaki : Wife of Kovalan and the Heroine of the Epic
Kannaki is a legendary Tamil woman who forms the fictional central character of the epic. She is eulogised for her tremendous dedication and loyalty to her husband Kovalan despite his disloyal behaviour. Kannaki, according to the epic, took vengeance on the ruler of Maturai for mistakenly punishing her innocent husband, Kovalan, by imposing a death penalty on him for a theft, not at all committed by him. She, as a symbol of purity and womanhood, cursed the entire city of Maturai with a grave disaster.
Kannaki was an innocent woman who had a virtuous life. Even when Kovalan went back to her, she welcomed and accepted him with no complaint. She was a chaste woman who had been co-opted by patriarchy and did not question her husband.
Kannaki was also idolized as a brave woman who demanded justice directly from the King of Maturai and even taunted him as the unenlightened king.
Kannaki, later on, was revered as a goddess because she stood for justice. No doubt, her victory over the king was a moral one.
As a result, Kannaki is inscribed and glorified as the quintessence of womanly chastity and is worshipped as a goddess by all the Tamilians. She is worshiped as Attukal Bhagavathy and Kodungallur Bhagavathy in the South Indian state of Kerala. In Sri Lanka, Kannaki is adored and worshipped as goddess Pattini by the Sinhalese Buddhists.
The virtue and justice are the founding principles of everything. The transformation of Kannaki from an ordinary.woman to a deified woman is a contrast to the presentation of Ram and Krishna in The Ramayana and The Mahabharata respectively.
Madhavi is an important character in the epic. She was a beautiful courtesan dancer by profession, at a time when such women were considered of low status: who were considered to be a little more than the playthings of rich and sensual men with ample means to indulge the universal human appetite. Madhavi, however, was different – not one of the dancing girls who sold themselves to supplement their meagre earnings: even though she was born into the dancing-girl caste Parathiyar, she practiced chastity.
She lived with Kovalan happily for some time. During that period, Madhavi’s mother stole all the wealth of Kannaki, the wife of Kovalan by using Kovalan’s ring Kannaiyali, without the knowledge of Madhavi and Kovalan. After three years, Kovalan learned the truth about Madhavi’s mother’s crime, during the festival of the god Indra. He grew angry with Madhavi and again returned to Kannaki. After Kovalan left her, Madhavi came to know of her mother’s theft and showed her moral worth by returning all the wealth of Kovalan to his father and renouncing the world to become a Buddhist nun.
[D] Other Characters
Machattuvan : A wealthy grain merchant and the father of Kovalan and, as presented, led a life of peace and piety.
Chitravathi : Madhavi’s Mother, a rather wicked and covetous woman.
Vasavadaththai : Madhavi’s female friend.
Kosigan : Madhavi’s messenger to Kovalan.
Madalan : A Brahmin visitor to Maturai from Kaveripattinam, Puhar.
Kavunthi Adigal : A Jain nun.
Neduncheliyan : Pandya king.
Kopperundevi : Pandya Queen.
Manimegalai : The daughter of Madhavi and Kovalan, who is the main character of another epic called “Manimegalai”.
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