Let's Draw: The Twin Epics of Tamil Literature
Right at the crotch-end of India lies a lovely little land called Tamil Nadu.
The people will politely stab you, the cuisine will give you heartburn, the fashion is monotonous, the architecture is blinding, and the literature is as moralistic as a grandmum. And what better way to acquaint ourselves with the last one than the preachiest works of them? Ladies, gentlemen and turtles, I give you... the Twin Epics, a smaller part of the Five Great Epics in Tamil literature. They were produced in the Sangam period, which covers the years around late BC and early AD. Tradition claims the period is even older: by ten thousand years, give or take. The poems are old as balls, is what I am trying to say.
Also, goes without saying, but SPOILERS.
1. Silappadikaram (சிலப்பதிகாரம்)
A glorious tale of one woman's vengeance against donuts.
Silappadikaram is perhaps the only tale that any Tamilian can recite in their sleep. The poem was written by Prince Ilango Adigal, and it's about human rights and due process of trial and jewelry causing the collapse of kingdoms. Yeah.
The merchant Kovalan is intoxicated with love for the beautiful dancer Madhavi and showers all his affection and wealth upon her, distressing his wife Kannagi. One day, Madhavi sings of pining for a lover. Finally understanding his wife’s pain, Kovalan asks for Kannagi's forgiveness and reconciles with her.
The penniless couple travels to the famed kingdom of Madurai to build a new life. Kovalan sells one of his wife's gold anklets for start-up capital. The royal goldsmith, noticing that the anklet looks very similar to the Queen's, proceeds to keep the Queen's anklet for himself. Taking Kannagi's anklet to the King, the goldsmith tells how some guy called Kovalan tried to steal Her Majesty's anklet, but that he heroically attacked and drove him off. The king pronounces Kovalan to be swiftly executed, without holding a trial.
You won't get mad at the goldsmith if you knew the whole story. The whole story is that I basically hate Kovalan.
Patience exhausted, a furious Kannagi marches into the royal court and proves her husband's innocence. The anklet of the Queen was filled with pearls and Kannagi's anklet was filled with rubies. The King's regret kills him. The Queen kills herself, unable to bear widowhood. But Kannagi ain't satisfied with some individual accountability. Swearing against the whole system that conspired to kill her husband, she sets fire to the city with her virtue. The fire rages till the Goddess of Madurai herself asks her to stop. Kannagi reunites with her husband in heaven, so it’s all good in the end.
So like, Antigone, in a way?
I am forced to state for the record that this may not be how it really went down. Stupid Hitle I have awesome editors.
What was all that about?
I guess it's all laid out in the prologue:
The epic was the very first in Tamil lit to mix poetry and prose. It also praises the Sun, Moon, and ordinary stuff like rivers and cities at the start, unlike the usual invocations to a deity. It broke a lot of new ground in literature. Silappadikaram offered detailed descriptions of the Tamil people, markets, towns and villages, religion, law, and classical arts such as dance and music that had never been seen before in any medium. It introduced folk songs in the literary genre, sealing their cultural importance. Visually, the epic has been mostly performed as dances and dramas in theatre, but there's an obscure 1942 film without subtitles on YouTube for all you nutters. There’s also a brief comic book, with actually good illustrations.
2. Manimekalai (மணிமேகலை)
Manimekalai is a sequel to Silappadikaram, written by the poet Chitalai Sattanar, detailing the adventures of Manimekalai. Remember the courtesan, Madhavi?
Tonight I‘m gonna daaaance for you
Madhavi had previously given birth to Kovalan's daughter, Manimekalai. Following the events of Silappadikaram, Madhavi was so affected by Kovalan's death and the power of Kannagi's purity that she stopped dancing, became a Buddhist nun, and raised her daughter in a similar ascetic manner, not wanting her kid to live the same life she had thus far.
Tonight I am gonna meeeeditate
Her dad's tragic death weighs like a ton on Manimekalai’s head, and she determines on renouncing everything. But the handsome prince Udayakumaran adores and proposes Manimekalai, and she likes him too! Choices, choices.
Drat it, eternal knowledge awaits, son! Supporting Manimekalai’s life choices, Manimekala, her guardian deity, puts her in a trance and deposits her at some remote island. Good going, there?
Manimekalai wakes up and wanders about the island in loneliness until she comes across a shrine where Gautama Buddha himself once sat and mediated a dispute between two Naga clans, who both wanted some great throne. Manimekalai, prostrating before the shrine, has a revelation about her previous life. She and her husband (reborn as Udayakumaran, because of course) had received a Buddhist sage warmly, and Manimekalai offered him food. Because of this, she was granted the honour of being a Bhikkuni, or a Buddhist nun, in the next life.
Manimekala grants the power of flight to Manimekalai, and she flies around till she reaches a magical pond, from which she gets a magic inexhaustible food bowl (which is a whole 'nother story). Manimekalai returns to the kingdom. Udayakumaran hears about her feeding the poor and hungry, and goes out and asks her why she has to live such a plain life. Manimekalai, finding it hard to turn his pleas down, disguises herself as another woman, Kayasandikai. When the real Kayasandikai's husband turns up and flirts with her, she doesn't respond. Growing angry, the husband kills the prince, suspecting Kayasandikai of adultery. Manimekalai gets arrested, but is later released.
Manimekalai then has an illuminating conversation with her godmother, Kannagi, in the temple. She later learns about the merits and faults of all major religions, meets up with this famous Buddhist sage and has a rad time with him, discussing Buddhist dharma. At the end, she happily settles to live a life of a Bhikkuni.
Traditional Buddhist robes? Eh, just slap on some orange.
What was all that about?
Obviously, both epics differ from each other in a lot of ways. Manimekalai certainly provides less literary value than the original work. It's more on the entertaining side, whereas Silappadikaram places more importance on morals. Manimekalai is also more supernatural in nature and the plot is kinda all over the place. Some critics do not consider it an epic and I guess it isn't one technically, but then again, a critic couldn't win against a dragon, so frankly I don't see any reason to listen to them. Manimekalai gives us a good idea of Buddhism and its tenets such as brotherhood, kindness, peace and renunciation. Like Silappadikaram, it offers glimpses of Tamil culture between the lines. It discusses ethics, religion, politics, and gender issues, and it has a simple, powerful message:
Uh, I mean, damn commies. Admittedly, there is unsubtle propaganda in the epic. When Manimekalai's friend's father tries to seek medical help, he is turned away by Jain monks, and helped by Buddhist ones. Some people are hotly divided on the whole Silappadikaram-Manimekalai debate, and arguments abound on which is the better story. Your thoughts?
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