Sunday, 7 February 2010


The Shilappadikaram by Prince Ilango Adigal is the story of a doomed young couple. The husband abandons his wife for a dancer. He squanders his fortune on his mistress, breaks up with her over a somewhat petty tiff and then goes back to his wife, who naturally accepts him. Broke and disgraced, he drags her on an arduous trek to Madurai, where, using his wife's gold anklets as capital, he will start afresh. Unfortunately, in Madurai, the queen has just lost a gold anklet, so he is captured and executed while trying to pawn his wife's anklet. His wife, in a frenzy of grief, confronts the king, who, learning of this miscarriage of justice, dies of shame. Then, the girl wanders around, rips off her right breast and causes the city of Madurai to burned down in divine retribution. We are told that it is all because of past life sins - the standard Hindu explanation for anything and everything.

I really don't care much for the central story.

What I did love were the numerous vivid descriptions of *everything* - from the tuning of a musical instrument to the many weird and wonderful magical creatures and places along the way to things like the layout of the city of Madurai and the weapons and torture instruments kept at the sentry posts in its walls. No one in this story can carry on a conversation with anyone else without telling a dozen or so apropos anecdotes, and these stories-within-the-stories are a treasure trove of morally edifying and quaint folk tales. There are several interludes of song and dance where the words of all the songs everyone sings are written down, and these passages often achieve a high degree of beauty, even in a translation that seeks to preserve neither meter nor rhyme.

The translation I have is the one made by Alain Danielou for Penguin. It is full of anachronistic words, such as genii, fairies, Eros and so on, when it would have been more accurate to use the appropriate Indian word, whether it was apsara, rakshasa and so forth and footnote it the first time. The use of words from completely different traditions was extremely dissonant. I could also have done with more comprehensive introductory material, putting this work in better context, exploring tropes and storytelling devices, and with some amount of annotation - this translation has none at all.

All in all, a fascinating book for all the peripheral detail even if I thought the story itself was the sort of thing that still forms the staple of normative melodramatic cinema and television shows.

7 comments:

Jellicles said...

ilango adigal was a jain monk..not hindu iirc.

JP said...

He was a Jain monk but the story is filled with Hindu concepts and gods.

Jellicles said...

of course..he was certainly a hindu before he became a jain monk. the reincarnation bits are certainly for the audience.

in it's sequel manimegalai too (by a diff author), the attraction of the chola prince and manimegalai is explained by reincarnation. altho'..brahmins and jains are villified and the heroine becomes a buddhist nun...this story was set in current tamilnadu and present day sri lanka.

having said that, i'd contest the notion of 'hindu' during ilango adigal's time. there were the dravidians and then those who were the 'aryans'..it was aryanism that became brahminism..they certainly didnt like each other. old sangam literature sing praises of dravidian kings skewering aryan soldiers when they went up north to trade with china.(yes...everyone wanted to trade with china..even way back then!)

silapadikaram and manimegalai were just a couple of works under sangam literature. sangam literature(despite the buddhist origins of the word)is tamil/dravidian. you have to think of it as a seperate culture from what we now know as hinduism(a recent invention, no doubt..that is a hodge podge of beliefs, people, culture and languages). what is special about sangam times is that the literature was a beautiful mirror that reflected the tamil/dravidian, jain and buddhist cultures of the time. manimegalai and silapadikaram were only two of the five Big tamil epics.

it is also worth remembering that sathannar who wrote (the buddhist themed) manimegalai(which is supposedly a sequel to silapadikaram) was a good friend of ilango adigal. he had already written the story of manimegalai and he showed it to ilango adigal...asked him to write a 'prequel'(as it were)..thereby birthing the story of kannagi and kovalan and madhavi. the prequel depicted two of the three great kingdoms of chera and pandaya...jain and dravidian culture. manimegalai was about cholas and buddhism. (i am not sure of the timeline, but there was a time when cholas conquered sri lanka and had to deal with a very hostile sri lankan king...i am forgetting the name of the story..but that's more recent..not an 'epic')

[to be contd]

Jellicles said...

anyways..the idea was to put together a story and it's sequel to showcase the three great kingdoms of the south(and it's territory, sri lanka) along with the three major faiths of the time.

on a different note, i like kannagi's undisguised rage. and of course, the language. i wish you were able to read it in tamil. it's something else.

on a yet another different note...the five great tamil epics of sangam literature..not one is 'hindu'. the others, valayapati, kundalakesi and seevaga chintamni are jaina, buddhist and jaina respectively. kundalakesi had a jaina rebuttal called neelakesi. if anything silapathikaram is 'secular' but only in the loosest sense as both madhavi and kovalan do convert to buddhism.

kundalakesi is quite interesting as it's the exact polar opposite of kanagi. kundala kesi means curly haired one. a beautiful girl with curly locks falls in love with a thief. he was to be imprisoned..she tells her father of her love. the father rescues him by paying the city coffers. she playfully refers to him as 'thief'..it annoys him greatly and he is about to kill her by throwing her off a cliff. she asks for a last wish..that she pays her respect to him by going around him once as he is her husband. he agrees. she goes around him and pushes him down the hill. she regrets her actions and becomes a buddhist nun..:)

neelakesi, on the other hand..means blue haired one. goddess kali used to be offered animal sacrifices. jains opposed this and somewhat successfully stopped it. the goddess..angered..sends forth her yakshini..a demoness called neeli(neeli, sooli are all demoness' that do the bidding of the goddesses)..neeli has a change of heart and becomes a jaina nun. then she debates and wins many philosophical/religious arguments with jains and hindus. one has to remember that during this time, there was significant rivalry between the many faiths. what we now know as 'hinduism' is the core of brahminism that has embraced many indigenous native beliefs of the land. in those times, jain monks and buddhist monks(as new comers) would travel in bands and defeat the locals through debates about their religious philosophy. often, the local dravidian kings embraced jainism or buddhism. when the native debaters were defeated, they had an option to either embrace the new religion or be 'seated on a spear'..think king vlad's favourite passtime..not dracula..the real king vlad.

religion was *always* enmeshed with politics. most of these big five(esp kundalakesi and valayapati) were destroyed by anti-buddhists/jains as they were the literary weapons through which the jains and buddhists could spread their memes. even in secular silapathikaram, the chera prince ilango adigal spared a criticism of the chera king..but painted the pandya king as flawed. in the pages, he cursed and burned the city of madurai(pandya kingdom).

while such historical perspectives are interesting...the literature is breathtakingly beautiful for the power of it's language.

Jellicles said...

jains and buddhists came up with such epics...which in effect...allow the people to believe that even though they belong to a different faith, they do have a choice to convert to jainism/buddhism in their current reincarnation. rebirth was a powerful concept..most of the heros and heroines converted to jainism/buddhism(depending on the author's agenda)...it gave permission for the people of the native faith to change their faith..put them at ease..letting them know that their lives so far is a result of their past 'sins'/'karma' and that they have a chance to rectify it...to escape their past by embracing the new..more forgiving/more englightened..religion. it was an escape from the cycle of birth/death/karma.

the 'hindus' on the other hand(by this time, dravidian faith had already meshed with aryan-brahminical beliefs) came up with other works of literature. adi shankara, for example, was most famous for his debates in which he 'defeated' jains/buddhists and thus 'saved' hinduism.

and then there is thevaram..a gem amongst all tamil devotional poems.

here > http://www.shaivam.org/siddhanta/applife.htm

and my favourite:

Maasil Veenaiyum Maalai Madhiyamum
Veesu thendralum veengila veynilum
Moosu vandarai poygayum ponradhee
Eesan endhai inayadi neezhalee.

Jellicles said...

re jains and south india..i thought you might find this interesting. its terrible tho'..the transcription, but if you are forgiving and learn to read ignoring the typos, you would find it very interesting.

http://www.archive.org/stream/studiesinsouthin00ramarich/studiesinsouthin00ramarich_djvu.txt

the two centuries in the BC era to eighth century was the peak of jain presence in tamil lands. their association with a particularly cruel king during the 5th-8th century made them unpopular. the saiva sect..esp under sambandar sealed their fate. what happened then can be described as pograms against jains. on the other hand, the jains too were exceedingly power drunk before this period by abusing the power they enjoyed by their royal patrons. one must remember to take everything with a pinch of salt as history has always been written by the victors. and victors take turns.

having said all that..there is no doubt that tamil literature is nothing without jaina contributions. their contributions in the field of literature and art make the tamils walk proud today. they were somewhat successful in inculcating the principle of ahimsa in a land that belonged to forest tribes...and people of the 'naga' clan. hunting and animal/human sacrifices to primitive deities were not uncommon. the dravidians too eagerly embraced the more peaceful teachings of lord arhat. jaina contributions to debate, logic and philosophy are much treasured. even today, the most important book on sanskrit grammar is a tamil-jaina work.

its all very fascinating.

of course, buddhism didnt stand a chance in the south. i hope you are able to read it! i am not exaggerating when i say that the typos are terrible. but i am just grateful that it was transcribed..

Space Bar said...

jellicles: just saw this comment stream and wonder if you will read this at all.

Thanks for this - so much to read now!

(and were you referring to Kalki's Ponniyin Selvan?)