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“The Story of the Anklet” or Shilappadikaram is a very long epic poem in Tamil, a major Dravidian language of southern India. In some respects, Anklet is south India’s response to the slightly older Sanskritic tales making up the Ramayana. Both great epics are built of widespread stories featuring idealized husbands and wives, the tragic effects of foolishness (even only momentary foolishness), the ubiquity of moral frailty (not to say overt wickedness), and the eventual ability of virtue to triumph over suffering.
While centered on conjugal love and connubial duty, both story cycles are also filled with spirits and magical beings, mighty kings of petty states, and accomplished ascetics seeking a more meaningful relationship with the cosmos (and gaining mysterious powers as they do so).
And both are adventure tales, with lots of room for storytellers to add and subtract adventures and sub-plots, and for theatrical troupes through the centuries to tweak and twist the tales to delight even audiences who already know the story.
Just as Lord Rama, the avatar of Vishnu, and his magnificent wife Sita are honored in temples all over India, over the centuries Anklet’s Kannagi has become a symbol of a chaste and virtuous wife and is venerated in Tamil-speaking towns in southern India and Sri Lanka.
The work as we have it today is usually attributed to a certain Ilango Adigal, a shadowy figure believed possibly to have been a prince of the south Indian Cheras kingdom, writing in the 100s AD. Some scholars assign the text just as probably to the first century BC or slightly after. Others, on the basis of style and diction, place it from the 300s to the 500s AD. The historical events it mentions appear to be made up and do not help to date the text or the story.
The story (and subplots making it up) are almost certainly much earlier than the text, circulating as popular tales long before they were written down.
The story is set in the three most prominent Tamil-speaking kingdoms of ancient southern India: named for their ruling houses, the Cholas, Pandyas, and Cheras. It ends in the Pandyas city of Madurai.
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Kovalan is the handsome, talented, and entirely charming son of a wealthy merchant family in the city of Puhar, the capital of the ancient state of Cholas. As the story begins, he has come of age to be married.
Kannagi is the chaste and charming daughter of another wealthy merchant in the city of Puhar, the capital of the ancient state of Cholas. Slightly younger than Kovalan, she too has come of age to be married. As the story usually begins, Kannagi’s parents are fitting her out for marriage, and have just given her two beautiful anklets (silambu), made of precious metal and hollow, so that precious stones inside them jingle when the anklets are warn.
Soon their parents arrange for Kannagi to be married to Kovalan, and both families endow the young couple with rich gifts.
Although it is an arranged marriage, Kannagi loves Kovalan very much, and Kovalan loves Kannagi just as much. Kovalan is initially a very attentive and generous husband, who showers Kannagi with gifts. It is clear that they will lead a long and happy life together.
One day they are invited to attend an event at the palace of the Cholas king. This event, as it happens, will include a dance by a beautiful young dancer named Madhavi, who has never danced in public before.
Kovalan is totally entranced. He moves in with Madhavi, spends lavishly on her, and in time they have a daughter, named Manimegalai, and on whom, Kovalan spends much as well, scarcely noticing that his financial resources are diminishing even as his generosity toward those around him increases.
Meanwhile Madhavi’s mother “borrows” Kovalan’s signet ring and uses it to sign over much of his wealth to herself.
Finally all that is left are two anklets given to Kannagi by her parents before her marriage, which do not belong to Kovalan.
As the money runs out, Madhavi is urged by her mother to eject Kovalan. Kovalan meanwhile is strangely moved by the preaching of a Jain nun, who advocates restraint and renunciation, and he begins to see his luxurious life as meaningless rather than exciting.
When little Manimegalai is eight, at the Indra festival which should be a time of great merriment, Kovalan and Madhavi quarrel over the selection of songs at a festival, and Kovalan withdraws.
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Finally realizing that Madhavi and her mother have taken everything he once had, and that the luxury no longer available to him was hollow anyway, Kovalan is broken hearted at his betrayal of Kannagi.
Returning to Kannagi, Kovalan is repentant, but what is done is done. Weeping and filled with remorse, all he can do is to beg his wife for forgiveness.
Kannagi, ever the loyal, patient, and forgiving wife, agrees that they should move southward, away from Puhar and the people who know them, and start fresh in the great city of Madurai, the capital of the state of Pandyas. There they can sell the two remaining anklets, which she still possesses, and with luck they can make enough money to begin a small mercantile business and begin a new life together.
Along the way the pause to rest under a grove of trees, and there they meet a Jain hermit (adigal), a holy woman named Kavunthi, who knows the past and can foresee the future. Since she is planning a trip to Madurai herself, she offers to go with them, which is quite welcome since she proves able to do a certain amount of magic.
As they approach Madurai, they are overtaken by Vasantamalai, Madhavi’s maid, bringing news that Madhavi has been driven to madness by Kovalan’s departure. Kovalan, at first distressed, suddenly realizes that Madhavi had no idea where he was going. So how did the maid find him? As he realizes that this cannot be the real Vasantamalai, she vanishes, for she is actually only a forest spirit.
For ancient audiences, the telling of their journey to Madurai included many such adventures, as it brought them across landscapes understood as metaphors for human activity and emotions. Crossing mountains could stand for love; crossing deserts symbolized yearning; traveling through forests represented painful delay on the way to a goal; farmland symbolized fighting; the seashore could stand for pining. (Audiences were kept busy when they listened to ancient epic poetry.)
Kavunthi does not enter Madurai with them, but remains in a hermitage outside. However she is able to arrange with a believer to take them home to his house in the city and provide them shelter.
Unfortunately, as they arrive in Madurai, the city is full of the news that a major theft has just occurred, and one of the queen’s beautiful, new, treasure-filled anklets has been stolen. Throughout the city people are on the lookout for a possible thief, who might try to sell it or might break it up to sell the golden shell separately from the jewels inside. Kovalan and Kannagi, of course, know nothing of this.
Kovalan has no very clear idea how much money he can get by selling Kannagi’s magnificent anklets, and he does not want to seek out old associates of his father until he has reestablished himself. But he spots a master goldsmith and his assistants walking toward the palace. Taking the goldsmith aside, Kovlan shows him the anklet. The goldsmith had in his youth been apprenticed to the man who made this very anklet. When he became a craftsman in his own right, he moved to Madurai, where he had made identical ones for the queen.
Now in fact the goldsmith himself had stolen one of the queen’s anklets that he had made, and in Kovalan’s arrival with an identical one from his old master, he sees an opportunity to cast blame away from himself.
Telling Kovalan to wait for him while he sets up an appointment with the king, the goldsmith heads to the palace, where he reports that he has caught the thief of the queen’s stolen anklet.
King Nedunjeliyan summons his guards and instructs them to arrest Kovalan and, if he in fact has the bracelet, to behead him immediately.
The royal guards head to the house where Kovalan is innocently awaiting an estimate of the anklet’s value. Bursting in, they accuse him of the theft. He says he didn’t do it, but that is what all thieves say. And besides, he has “the” anklet in his possession. He is promptly beheaded.
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When Kannagi learns what has happened, she is overwhelmed. She loves Kovalan, but she also knows full well that he was completely innocent of the theft. He had given in to the seduction of Madhavi, to be sure, but he had no other failings whatever. And he was no thief! And as if there were any doubt, she heard the voice of the Sun God himself tell her that he was no thief, and that the city which so wronged him shall perish in a great fire.
And so the incensed Kannagi, in a remarkably impressive rage, marches to the palace, bullies her way past the guards into the presence of the king, and confronts him for unjustly killing a man who was innocent, and who was not even given an opportunity to defend himself against the charges made against him.
Producing the mate to the anklet that Kovalan had hoped to sell, Kannagi demands that the queen bring out her own anklet, not the one that was “returned” to her, but the one that was never stolen. They look identical, but what cannot be seen are the jewels inside, the jewels that make the lovely jingling sound when the anklet is worn. Challenged, the queen explains that her original anklet —the one that was never stolen— contains pearls. In her rage, Kannagi smashes the “stolen” anklet to show that the jewels inside hers are rubies, not pearls.
This vivid demonstration shames the king, who like his ancestors before him has always before been famed for the justice of his court and the fairness of his rule. Kannagi, her rage mounting and mounting, curses him and his whole city.
Defenseless in the face of such an avalanche of justified rage, the king’s famously straight scepter wilts and he promptly dies.
In a continuing rage, Kannagi curses the whole city. She rushes screaming out of the city. Thrice she circumambulates the city walls calling for their destruction. Then, hysterical, she rips off one of her breasts, waves it at the town, and hurls it into the dusty street, where it explodes into the god of fire, disguised as a priest.
The god of fire has been charged to undertake the destruction, but, having better conrol of his temper than Kannagi does, it strikes him as a bit excessive to destroy everybody for the offense of the king alone —well and perhaps a few others. And so he tries to calm her down and asks her if no one should be spared.
She agrees, in the end, to spare Brahmins, as well as truthful women, cripples, old men, and children. Also, of course, cows. Madurai being Madurai, like all cities a place full of sin, that still leaves plenty of people to be destroyed, it seems, including nearly all of the non-Brahmin men.
And so the destruction is carried out.
And thus perishes Madurai, the great city whose kings were once known for their straight scepters of justice, except for one who had allowed a moment of passion to sway his judgement and who had failed in his duty and whose scepter had wilted. And so the city will need to be rebuilt by people of patience, justice, and virtue.
When the fire dies down and the ruin that was Madurai still slowly smolders Kannagi, dragging herself morosely through the streets, is followed by the city’s goddess, who finally reveals herself and, in a story-within-a-story, tells Kannagi of the goddess’s own distress at the destruction of this city, once so magnificent, merely because of the momentary injustice of one king. And then she tells Kannagi about the errors of her former life, and of the former life of her husband, and explains that our passions are sometimes caused by events in former lives that we do not remember.
Kannagi leaves the ruins of Madurai and wanders for fourteen days and fourteen nights. She now repents of the destruction she has brought about. Suddenly a rain of blossoms falls down over her, and she hears gods singing above and around her. Looking up she sees Kovalan among them, and she rises and floats up to join him in the land of gods.
The dancer Madhavi meanwhile, having discovered her mother’s criminal proclivities, succeeds in recapturing all of the wealth she and her mother had gained from Kovalan, which she returns to Kovalan’s father. She then abandons her scheming mother; and, in despair at the loss and death of Kovalan, she becomes a Buddhist nun.
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Background Design: Text in Tamil Discussing the Shilappadikaram