The work is divided into three parts. Interestingly, each part is situated in a different kingdom. The first part of the epic starts with the city of Poompuhar, talks of Kannagi and her husband Kovalan the almost pathetic whimpering of Kannagi as she witnesses her husband cheat on her, as he falls in love with Madhavi, a dancer. She seems to be this irritatingly benign character who is willing to forgive all her husband does.
The second part deals with the reconstruction of their lives as they decide to move onto the Pandian kingdom. All they have is a pair of Kannagi’s anklets. Kovalan attempts selling them, and is wrongly convicted of having stolen the queen’s anklet. He is executed by the state. This is where the character of Kannagi (chaste in the first part) makes a connection with the justice-seeking woman who moves Agni (Fire God) to burn down an entire city (Madurai), having proven that the anklet recovered from Kovalan was hers, and not the queen’s.
The third part is in the Chera kingdom, largely to do with the “discovery” of Kannagi and how the King Senguttavan decides to venerate her. The central identity of the protagonist is that of a married woman. Because she’s a good married woman (forgives her husband, is chaste), she becomes powerful. Her grief – that of losing her husband also gives her the moral right to burn down a city. I may be wrong – but the epic never talks of the couple having a child. Which is rather interesting, because while epics tend to source women’s power from chastity (like Sita in the Ramayana or Gandhari in Mahabharata) – motherhood being a venerated state also gives them the benefit of virtue. Besides, anger in a mother is read as being an extention of protective maternal instinct, as opposed to the denial of feminity.
Why is Kannagi a symbol for justice-seeking? You see, she never seeks justice for herself within the “sacred” relationship. She doesn’t question it. Her rage is justified not only because of the injustice of killing a man for a crime he didn’t commit, it is more so the injustice of having widowed her. Is it reflective of Tamil culture? If Tamil culture believes that the power of women is in their chastity, then yes, it is. Even Madhavi, the source of temptation suffers – while her love for Kovalan is absolute, she shaves her head (a sign of renouncing sexuality – the dangerous sort of power for a woman) and becomes a nun. That is to say, she has no use for her sexuality after her relationship with that one man is over. However, unlike Kannagi she is a mother. She gives birth to a daughter fathered by Kovalan. (One wonders, would the story be different if the child had been a son?)
My interest in Silappathikaram grew when I did a paper on storytelling and cultural identites. I came across Eric Miller’s work (1991) Tamil Nadu’s Silappathikaram. Epic of the Ankle Bracelet:Ancient Story and Modern Identity. It’s a long read but extremely interesting and insightful. He travels through Tamil Nadu, taking pretty much the same route that Kannagi had travelled, reflecting on contemporary identity in Tamil Nadu. His conversations with people along the route give him a clearer perspective on why the story of Kannagi appeals to the psyche and is seen as representative of the culture.
Most importantly, however–and this measure was instituted before Dr. Karunanidhi’s time, in the early part of twentieth century–the story of the Epic of the Anklet was taught in Tamil schools, starting at the earliest levels. This early start was judicious in terms of getting maximum saturation, for the number of years that children stay in school beyond that age varies greatly.
Teachers explained to me that the story is used in school to teach three lessons: 1) Fate cannot be escaped; 2) A chaste woman is all-powerful; 3) An unjust ruler will be struck down by the goddess of Justice.
These may be the lessons that those teachers were aware of, but the real lesson being taught is that Tamil Nadu has a great culture of its own. In addition, one may interpret the story as a political fable (and Tamil nationalists have done so): especially, 2) Tamil Nadu, holding onto its chaste language and behavior, like a chaste woman, will become all-powerful; and 3) the northern government is the unjust ruler which will be struck down.
As a feminist it’s hard to relate to Kannagi’s story. This submissive woman who finds strength only in her relationship with a man and whose rage is only because that relationship is destroyed. However, Eric Miller’s work made me question it even more – reflective of an entire culture. What do we worship? What is sacred? And what is profane?
In case you want to read an English translation of Silappathikaram – Alain Daniélou’s work may be of interest.