Silapathigaram, one of the five great epics of Tamil, composed about 15 to 1800 years back tells the story of Kannagi, who is famously believed to have burned down the city of Madurai seeking justice for her murdered husband.
For those who are not familiar with the story, here it is, in brief.
Kannagi and Kovalan, who lived in the ancient port city of the Cholas called Pumpuhar came from rich trading families. They were married and spent a few years of wedded bliss, rejoicing in each other’s company. But one day, Kovalan happened to come across a beautiful courtesan and talented dancer named Madhavi.
Smitten by her beauty, he fell in love with her. Soon, abandoning his wife, Kannagi, Kovalan started to live with Madhavi. Years passed. During this time, he expended his entire fortune on Madhavi and gradually lost all his riches. One day, suddenly, he got angry with Madhavi over a trivial issue, fell out with her and decided to return home to his wife Kannagi.
Kannagi, who had been patiently waiting for her husband to return to her all these years, was overjoyed to see her husband come back. Kovalan and Kannagi then decided to start a new life together in a new place. They decided that they would go to the Pandiya capital city of Madurai, where Kovalan would set up his business. But unfortunately, having wiped out all their riches lusting after Madhavi, Kovalan had nothing left with him to restart his business.
In order to help Kovalan, Kannagi gave him her anklet (Silambu in Tamil) and asked him to sell it and use the proceeds to start his business. Hoping to start an all new life. the couple travelled to the city of Madurai where Kovalan went to the market to find a goldsmith who would buy the anklet from him. Unfortunately for Kovalan, the goldsmith he found, turned out to be a wily man and also a thief.
The goldsmith had stolen the Pandiya queen’s anklet that looked very similar to Kannagi’s. So he made Kovalan the scapegoat and reported him to the King as the thief who had tried to steal the queen’s anklet. Hearing this, the king was furious. Without bothering to enquire into the matter or conduct a fair trial, the king ordered Kovalan to be executed.
And so, poor Kovalan, who could certainly be held guilty of several wrongdoings, but not this one, was killed without a fair trial. When Kannagi came to know about her husband’s death, she was shocked and enraged. Burning with anger, she stormed out to the Pandiya King’s court, demanding justice for her murdered husband. There, she proved to the king that the anklet that Kovalan had carried was hers, and not the queen’s as the goldsmith had wrongfully claimed.
This she proved by breaking open her anklet, from which spilled out blood red rubies. Whereas, the queen’s anklet was filled with pearls, which were a specialty of the Pandiya kingdom. Horrified to see the blood-red rubies falling out of Kannagi’s anklet, the Pandiya king realised that he had made a horrible mistake by having Kovalan executed.
Shocked by the lapse of justice, the king fell down dead and so did his wife, the Pandiya queen. But Kannagi could not be pacified, not yet. Seething with rage, she plucked out her left breast and threw it at the city of Madurai, and the city burst into flames. Except for the children, women, the aged and the disabled of the city, everyone else in the city perished. Her anger unabated, Kannagi left the city and started to walk towards the neighbouring Chera kingdom.
Angry Kannagi was later pacified by the guardian deity of Madurai who told her that Kovalan had died an unwanted death because of a sin that he had committed in his past life when he had been responsible for the murder of an innocent man. Hearing this, Kannagi finally calmed down.
The epic’s story more or less ends here. The rest of the epic is about Kannagi’s long walk to the Chera country, her reunion with her dead husband, her recognition as a chaste woman and her eventual apotheosis. Young, simple Kannagi is thus elevated to the position of Goddess Kannagi by the people and Chenguttuvan, the Chera king who later builds a shrine for her in his country.
Silapathigaram is an amazing story of retribution, righteousness and justice. The epic’s author Ilango Adigal ties up all the lose threads neatly in the story, and every character is given a closure. Except one! The goldsmith. No doubt, he must have perished in the fire, with everybody else. But the epic does not tell us explicitly what happened to him.
And so the nagging question remains, why wasn’t the goldsmith who was responsible for the murder of Kovalan, the death of the Pandiya king & his queen and for burning of the city and its people given his proper dues? On the other hand, we find later that instead of punishing the individual, an entire community was punished for one man’s wrongdoing.
After the fire…
According to the epic, the city of Madurai that Kannagi leaves in flames faces a severe famine following several years of drought. In order to bring the rains back, Ilanchezhiyan, the successor of the dead Pandiya king, sacrifices a 1000 goldsmiths to Goddess Kannagi or Pattini, as she is often referred to. Goddess Kannagi is thus appeased and she finally showers rains on the city. Prosperity is thus restored.
If we think about it, killing a thousand goldsmiths for the fault of an individual smacks of genocide. Of course, we do not know if a 1,000 goldsmiths were actually killed or killed symbolically to please Goddess Kannagi. Nevertheless, it is a disturbing thought that the actual guilty person was never confronted with his sins and punished. Instead, a 1000 innocent people were executed (whether actually or symbollically) in his place.
The different folk narrative
Interestingly, this part of the Kannagi story is told differently in the folk ballads of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka, where Kannagi is worshipped as a goddess. In many of these stories, goddess Kannagi appears before the wily goldsmith and kills him. He pleads guilty and begs to be forgiven, but Kannagi doesn’t spare him. And…in these stories, the execution of a 1000 goldsmiths is rarely mentioned.
And so one finds more appropriate justice being rendered in the folk versions of the epic than in its original. Why is that so? There is also the other nagging question as to why Kannagi burnt the entire city that killed the lives of several innocent people for the fault of one person? The same Kannagi who forgave her husband for leaving her for another woman and destroying all their wealth, unleashed such terrible fury when he was killed. Why?
Classicals vs Folk literature
The answer to these questions lies in understanding the difference between classical and folk literature and what they choose to focus on. Folk literature tends to focus on the here and the now. So, it chooses to address the immediate concerns rather than ponder over abstract issues such as justice and righteousness. Classical literature, on the other hand, tends to focus on the esoteric, elusive issues such as karma and dharma.
The canvases are different for both. Folk literature is composed on a small scale for sharing among a small group of people and is thus satisfied addressing issues that are relevant to the village context. So,in the Kannagi story, the folk storyteller meets out instant justice to the goldsmith, who in his eyes, is the key culprit. How could he forgive him?
On the other hand, classical literature is mounted on a large canvas and tends to contemplate on the universal questions of life, ponder over cosmic justice and seeks answers for life’s greatest riddles. In doing so, it often tends towards exaggeration. And that is why Ilango Adigal mounts his epic on a larger-than-life canvas, where the entire city burns for the murder of one innocent man and a thousand goldsmiths die in place of one. True to this spirit, the epic holds the king, who is the upholder of law & justice, as the key culprit, and accountable for the wrongs committed by his subjects, in this case, the goldsmith.
So, while the folk story focuses on the near view of the story, the epic takes an elevated view. And we, as the rasika, the audience, need to see both, the near and the far, to get a deep insight into the Kannagi story and its message.