Burning Down Madurai

By Rohan Kamicheril

In honour of a trip to Chennai tomorrow, here's a post dedicated to a gem of Tamil literature that I recently revisited after many years. R. Parthasarathy's translation of Ilango Adigal's Tamil-language epic, the Silapadikaram, or the Epic of the Anklet is a fantastic read, not least of all for the hallowed place the original occupies in the world of ancient Indian literature. The book strikes a very different tone from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana or other, more familiar Indian epics. At just over 5,000 lines, it is considerably shorter for one thing, and consequently, features far fewer characters and has a much less involved plot.

The book is striking in many ways, though, and Parthasarathy does well to preserve much of what makes it such a remarkable work. He draws the attention of the reader to the significance of an epic poem that revolves around a female protagonist--an unfortunate rarity in the canon, but where his efforts can best be appreciated are in the still musical language, the quiet domestic scenes that riff strangely with the book's larger-than-life theme, and finally, the firecracker of a finale with which the book ends.

The Silapadikaram is the story of Kannagi, a young woman whose husband Kovalan leaves her for another woman shortly after their wedding. After wearing out his profligacy (and fortune), he returns, is forgiven by Kannagi, and the couple set off for the Tamil temple city of Madurai to sell Kannagi's sole remaining possessions--the gem-filled anklets of the story's title. After installing Kannagi on the outskirts of Madurai, Kovalan enters the city to go about the business of selling her anklets. It is here that he is spotted by the king's corrupt jeweller, indicted for the recent theft of the queen's own anklets (for which the jeweller is actually responsible), brought before the king and executed after a perfunctory trial. When Kannagi learns of Kovalan's death, she storms into the city and confronts the king. She demands to know what the queen's anklet had been filled with, in a bid to prove Kovalan's innocence, and when the king answers that it had been filled with pearls, Kannagi throws the second of her anklets to the ground, breaking it open and revealing the precious gems inside it.

For most modern readers, the seminal action of the poem begins here; when we see the apotheosis of Kannagi into the elemental force that brings down the city. Parthasarathy illuminates this aspect of the story in his very useful preface, but there's little that can prepare the uninitiated reader for the doom that Kannagi visits upon the city of Madurai. The king and the queen are the first to go, dropping dead the moment they realize their wrongdoing. Next, Kannagi takes to the street, marching around the city three times and then finally tearing off her left breast and throwing it to the roofs of the city, asking that the entire city be consumed by fire, and that only the righteous be spared. Agni obliges, and the mighty, holy city of Madurai is utterly destroyed.

The first time you read it, it seems too fantastic to be true--like some hyperrealized amalgam of Amata's running through the streets in the Aeneid before the fall of Latium and the Levites's procession around Jericho, Kannagi's rampage through Madurai is a moment of both hysteria and deathly gravitas. After the city has been destroyed, Kannagi crawls, spent, to a hillock outside the city and is assumed into the heavens along with Kovalan and a host of the righteous.

There is much apart from Madurai's fiery end to recommend the Silapadikaram, and particularly Parthasarathy's translation of it, but I've always been particularly attracted to the final section. Many see Madurai's destruction as a vindication of Kannagi's suffering and I suppose you could understand the story as a cautionary tale, but it's really the narrative dash with which justice is served that made the book memorable for me and brings me back to it. I've always seen it as an oddity of epic literature, a conundrum that satisfies the more you puzzle over it.

Parthasarathy's translation is currently available from Columbia University Press and in a paperback edition from Penguin India.


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