Sivakami was painstakingly digging in her pit, hardly conscious of her aching arm or the weather. Being 4m deep, the pit gave her some respite from the Madurai heat. A dreamer at heart, she followed where it led her – to Archaeology. She had a love for Tamil Nadu, its culture, especially Madurai, brought on by her parent’s nostalgic reminiscences of their native place. So she jumped at the opportunity to participate in an expedition in Madurai. After a dutiful visit to the world famous Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple, and the Thirupuramkundram Murugan temple, she kick-started her work.
While digging she heard a light metal sound and got very excited. She started brushing aside the mud with her bare hands and the object came into relief. It was a breast plate! She was just reveling in her discovery when Ananya stuck her head over the pit, “Time to call it a day…..hey found something?”, and jumped into the pit. The two girls carefully lifted the breastplate and decided to examine it in their room.
Ananya, her fact-driven bestie was always a good audience to Sivakami’s imaginative romantic stories. Sivakami tried the breastplate and realized it was made for a woman! Caressing the surface, Sivakami felt some scratches and found a script etched underneath. On close examination the two realized it was an old Tamil script, which they couldn’t read.
“What do you think it means?” asked Sivakami.
“I don’t know, let’s ask the professor”
“Sure, but what could it be? Meenakshi Amman was a warrior princess….you think it might be her’s?” wondered Sivakami.
“Meenakshi Amman is a goddess. Which means, she probably didn’t exist?”
“Oh Ananya…do you have to be so practical? Let your mind adrift!” and added “what about Kannagi?”
“Kannagi was from a merchant family, and who again probably didn’t exist! So why don’t we….”
“Ssh…..just imagine. What if this script means ‘Kannagi-Kovalan’ and was worn by Kannagi herself?” she exclaimed, “Just hear me out…..I can feel a story brewing……
Kannagi was quite the contrarian among the quiet and docile girls of Nagarathar community in Kaveripoompattinam (also called Puhar). Much against her mother’s wishes she learnt sword fighting and horse riding like the Kshatriya girls. Her father could hardly refuse or contain the free spirited girl. However, it was agreed that all this would stop once her marriage was fixed.
Vikraman, the Kshatriya guru, had a soft corner for Kannagi. He could hardly believe that a girl used to luxury would take to such valorous activities. Initially he humored her by letting her play with his pony and practice sword. But soon he realized she meant business. After consulting with her father, he started her formal training. It was a bitter-sweet experience to watch the girl quickly grasp the nuances of sword fighting and maneuver the horse. How will she ever get to realize her true potential? She was meant to marry a rich merchant, bear kids and manage a household. What will she do with these skills? When he heard of her impending wedding to Kovalan, he knew their classes had to come to an end.
After her last class, Kannagi met him to take his blessings and bid goodbye. Her eyes brimmed with tears. He gently patted her and said, “You knew this had to come to an end. You are marrying the wealthiest merchant in our kingdom! There will never be a moment of sadness in your life!”
“How can I ever find happiness in riches, when all I want is to wield my sword, and ride a horse!” cried Kannagi.
“Kannagi, I promised your father that you will stop this once your marriage is arrranged. Don’t make me break my word” he warned her. She merely bowed her head.
“Now wipe your tears and look what I got you” and showed her a beautiful breastplate and a sword. “This is my wedding gift for you.” seeing her happy face, he then asked her to check the inscription underneath the plate.
Reading the ‘Kannagi-Kovalan’ inscription Kannagi turned bashful.
“See? You are ready for your marriage after all!” he teased her. “Remember, you are only leaving us behind, not what you learnt! See that you practice your skill whenever you get a chance.”
When Kovalan’s wedding was arranged, his mother warned him that Kannagi was going to be a handful to handle. She was known to be a free-spirited, sharp-tongued chit of a girl. Though not conventionally beautiful, she was dusky with an arresting look. Intrigued by what he heard, he sent out a few trusted spies to find out more about her. The information they brought back was unexpected, but very interesting indeed.
“How come your arms are so hard muscled?” asked Kovalan. It was a couple of days after their wedding, and the young couple was getting ready to leave for Kovalan’s home. He was getting tired of her docile and submissive manner and decided to push her a little.
“What?” she asked in shock.
“Your arms.” he repeated, and pressed her upper arm to indicate what he meant “they are tougher than mine! How come?” he asked.
“Um….I used to draw water from the well” she said and immediately realized her folly.
“What? You have a dozen maids and you draw water from well?” not getting any response he prodded a little more “What kind of a father is he that makes his child do such grueling work?”
She was stunned, and stared at him seething with anger. “Don’t worry, I will treat you like a princess, as you should be” he said pompously. Lest the situation escalate, she lowered her eyes and excused herself.
The couple set out to the other end of Puhar in a procession of half a dozen bullock carts, carrying Kannagi’s clothes, wedding gifts, her maids, etc. When she waited for her husband to board their cart, he insisted that she board first saying “It will be dark by the time we reach home, and the route is not safe. You go in first, that way you will be protected between the rider and me.” She couldn’t help but narrow her eyes and look at his arms. “Drawing water from well doesn’t make you a warrior, nor can those arms help you defend against bandits”. Incensed, she was about to come back with an angry retort but checked herself and quietly boarded the cart.
Kannagi wasn’t sure if there was something wrong with her, or if the stories of newlywed brides were a lie. She didn’t feel any thrill or excitement at being married. Not even the beautifully decorated cart could lift her spirits. She was hoping to marry a man who would love her, understand her, so she could gradually let him in on her secret. She couldn’t imagine hiding something from the one person she had to spend her life with! But how do you tell this pompous man that you are a trained sword fighter and horse rider? How dare he accuse her father! And his confidence that his puny frame could protect her was laughable. She pointedly turned the other way in the cart and kept to herself.
She was deep in her thoughts, lamenting her bad luck when their cart’s drape was pushed aside and a man dragged her husband out. He had tied a cloth around his face and had a knife in his hand. In an instant she pulled a log from the cart and jumped out. The bandit was shocked at her speed and let go of her husband. She quickly struck his knife away and pinned him down with the log pushed up his jaw.
“My Lord, Help me!” cried the bandit.
Kovalan held her hand and dismissed him. She was breathing hard and was in a daze.
“Is this also part of your growing up? Playing with logs and acting like a warrior?” She realized the trick he had played and her own misstep. She was so infuriated that her whole body was trembling with anger, and her eyes bore into him. He gently drew her close and said “Looks like I not only got a lovely wife, but also a protector”
“You knew about me?” and was even more shocked that he seemed pleased about it.
“Of course I did. And I have been waiting for you to tell me.”
“But men usually…..I mean …..” she stammered not knowing how to put it delicately without hurting his ego.
“Do you know there are a few poor quality pearls in that necklace you are wearing? And your father would have bargained for a good price?” he asked.
Kannagi was confused by the change in topic and blinked at him. “I thought as much. As long as we respect each other’s strength we have nothing to worry. Do keep practicing your skill, I will ensure my people don’t come in your way.” Kannagi’s eyes welled up with tears, tears of happiness and relief and sense of belonging. She could hardly believe her luck and looked forward to spending her life with this man.
Madhavi, an acclaimed dancer and courtesan in Puhar, was known for her beauty. She had earned the worship and admiration of the men folk, and resentment of their women. Her beauty made even the Queen falter in her steps. Kovalan being one of the most prominent merchants of Puhar, received an invite to her dance program in Karikala Cholan’s palace.
“Remember, today’s most important person in the audience is Kovalan. You must make sure all your attention is focused on him” instructed Madhavi’s mother.
“But amma, I can hardly focus on anyone while the King is present.”
“Don’t worry about that. The King will leave soon after your first dance. So just follow what I say.”
“Is Kovalan married? How old is he?”
“Never mind his age! He is married to a girl from a very wealthy family and that is all I have heard. Says a lot about her beauty, don’t you think?” she added contemptuously. “Also they don’t have a child yet, even though it’s over a year since their marriage. Am sure he will be an easy catch for you.”
Kannagi caught her maids whispering and giggling and enquired.
“We were just talking about Madhavi’s performance today.”
“Ok, but why is that funny?”
“No no…it is just that ayya plans to wear his new silk shirt today…..”
“The performance is in the King’s palace and he obviously wants to make a good impression. Go attend to your work now” and she curtly dismissed them.
She couldn’t believe her own maids would indulge in such loose talk. Even after a year, Kovalan treated her as if they were newly married. Despite the snide remarks by his mother, he didn’t seem to mind the fact that she had not borne a child yet. However, her maid’s talk nagged her and made her wonder if she should be worried.
“Kannagi! How much longer do you need to get ready? Come now!” said Kovalan. It was so unlike her to spend so much time in front of the mirror!
Finally when Kannagi came out, he was speechless. She seemed to have done something to her eyes and lips. Some extra bit that he couldn’t comprehend but obviously added to her beauty. He also noticed that she was wearing the lovely saree he got her from Kanchipuram.
“Is something wrong?” asked Kannagi. Realizing that he was ogling at her, he immediately snapped his mouth shut and pulled her along to the cart.
Kannagi was secretly thrilled at the look on Kovalan’s face when he saw her. But her confidence faltered on seeing Madhavi. She had heard of such beauty only in stories. She didn’t need a lovely saree or make-up to draw attention. Her lithe body, graceful movements, seductive glance would affect the strongest of men. She wasn’t sure if her husband would stand a chance. The expression now on his face was proof enough.
Just like the rest of the audience, Kannagi too was mesmerized by the beauty of Madhavi’s performance. She had to appreciate the level of training and discipline it took to dance to such perfection. Once the King left, she realized who the real target of her attention was.
Seeing that all his senses were tuned to Madhavi, Kannagi grew restless. She started tugging at her saree causing her bangles to jingle. Kovalan immediately turn to her with an enquiring look.
“M saree seems to have tangled with my bangle” and she untangled it.
After a while she again started tugging her saree, this time near her ankle causing a tinkling sound. Her husband gave her an exasperated look.
“I think the zari is tangled with my anklet…” seeing his impatient look she added “maybe I should turn into a stone until the performance ends!”
“Don’t be silly, Shall I untangle the zari for you?” so saying he bent down. She immediately stopped him and hissed “Have some shame! We are in public, I can take care of this.”
After a while she noticed that he seemed rather amused. He whispered to her “She is going on about strength and valor, and her attention is focused in our direction. Wonder if she is singing about me or you?”
Kannagi burst into laughter drawing everyone’s attention before she could control herself. Madhavi stopped dancing and asked “Did you find anything funny in my dance?”
“Oh no! Your dance is wonderful.” but her haughty over confident look irked Kannagi, and she added “But I was wondering which Lord’s valor you were praising since the King is not here anymore.” This caused a bit of laughter among the audience. Sensing the tension Kovalan decided to step in, but before he could, “Why? Are you saying Kovalan cannot be equated to a Lord?” challenged Madhavi.
“Of course he is!” and turning towards Kovalan “He is my lord” said Kannagi. For a moment Kovalan and Kannagi were lost in each other. The impatient sound of anklets broke their gaze. He profusely apologized for the interruption, and gave her his necklace as a token of his appreciation.
Before Madhavi could refuse, he had turned and was moving towards the exit.
“Why Madhavi? You don’t like this necklace?” asked Kannagi.
“I don’t perform for such material rewards” said Madhavi. Amused, Kannagi said, “Oh, are you the practical type? Shall I ask my lord to send a sack of grains for you?” she mocked and followed her husband.
The journey back home was very quiet. She wasn’t sure if Kovalan was angry with her or if it was unspent passion on seeing Madhavi. Once they were home, Kovalan dragged Kannagi into a crushing hug and gave her a passionate kiss. Before she could recover he warned her “If you ever look at me that way again, I will not be responsible for what happens next, even if it is in public.” Realizing the full import of what he just said, Kannagi bashfully turned away.
He again drew her towards him and asked “Why were you behaving so strangely today?”
She couldn’t bring herself to admit, her lips trembled and she struggled to get away from him. When he turned her face towards him, her tearful eyes said it all. “Did you really think I would fall for her? Is that all we have between us?” he implored her. Kannagi bowed her head in shame.
Madhavi was struck by how charming and handsome Kovalan looked. She was even more taken aback by the confident and haughty Kannagi. A woman so sure of herself. The fact that the two were talking and giggling during her performance was unacceptable. And how dare he insult her by giving her a necklace, and then walking away in the middle of her performance? Kannagi’s offer to send grains just boiled her blood. She wondered if Kovalan caught alone, might sing a different tune.
Contrary to Kannagi’s misgivings, post-Madhavi’s performance Kovalan grew closer to Kannagi than before. Their marriage was such a beautiful bond, how could she ever doubt him? Even the constant gossip of Madhavi sending for Kovalan didn’t dampen her spirit.
Kovalan was away on a work-related trip to a nearby town. He was supposed to return 3-days ago, but there was still no sign of him. There were no news of any untoward incident either. Kannagi grew weary and was planning to set out to the town to find out for herself, when she saw her maid come in looking very hesitant and tearful. She heard that Kovalan had returned to Puhar, but was staying in Madhavi’s house.
“What? Why is he staying there? Let me go find out.” said a very confused Kannagi.
“No Amma, please don’t” pleaded her maid. “women of our family do not set foot in such houses.”
Kannagi was too dazed to respond. She couldn’t understand why Kovalan hadn’t informed her of his return, and how he ended up in Madhavi’s house. As days passed, there was more humiliation to follow. There were letters with her husband’s seal, asking her to hand over money and valuables. Slowly the house turned completely empty. There was also a lot of news trickling down….of Madhavi’s exclusive performance for Kovalan, lavish feasts, and so on.
Then one day Madhavi strode into her house, resplendent in fine silk clothes and jewelry. She had the arrogant look of a woman who had conquered what she wanted. “Oh is this Kannagi? I thought it is some street urchin” said Madhavi looking down at her. Not getting any response, she further prodded “Looks like your home is completely empty now, just like your life. Wonder if you even have money to feed yourself. Shall I ask my lord to send you some grains?” with an evil laughter she walked away.
In the nightmare that she was living, her only savior was her practice. She practiced her sword fighting until she dropped down exhausted and fell into a stupor. Her only hope was that one day Kovalan will face her and own up to his betrayal. This coward who was hiding inside Madhavi’s house couldn’t be her husband!
Suddenly one day Kannagi’s maid came in running and told her that Kovalan was held captive in Madhavi’s house. He was hardly given anything to eat, and was very run down and weak. All these days she was imagining her husband living a luxurious, even voyeuristic life. But this was so contradictory! How was it possible? She wasn’t sure if she was at the end of a nightmare, or stepping into another one.
Restraining her instinct to rush to her husband’s rescue, she decided to first take stock of her life, and sent her maid to check the lay of the land. Considering what options she would have once Kovalan was rescued, she decided that there was no point in remaining in this town anymore. She only had the jewelry she was wearing, and that should be enough to start a new life elsewhere.
There was an impending storm that drove everyone into their house. Kannagi picked that night to put her plan into motion. She donned her breastplate, sheathed her sword, and covered herself in black clothes from head to toe. She stealthily invaded Madhavi’s house and slashed at anyone who came in her way. When she saw Madhavi, she gave a glimpse of her face, satisfied at her shocked look slashed her and moved on. Her legs trembled when she finally found Kovalan. He was in a pitiful state, tied to a chair and half-dazed. Seeing the black-clad person his eyes widened in fear. On realizing it is Kannagi he was relieved. With her support, the two managed to get out of the house and rode into the night.
The wind lashed at them, threatening a heavy rain. This was made worse when her horse stumbled in a pit and broke its leg. She found these signs ominous and wondered if she was on the right path for their future. Resting under a tree, they shared a quiet meal. Sensing her reluctance to enquire about what transpired at Madhavi’s he recounted what happened.
When Madhavi’s attempts to send for Kovalan failed, he was abducted and taken to her house. Madhavi wanted him to take her as his mistress. Her many attempts to seduce him failed, which led to a lot of ugly scenes and threats on Kannagi’s life. Finally out of spite she locked him in a room just so they can never get together again. Finally the heavy weight in her heart eased, and Kannagi was able to breathe again. Before he would ask, she admitted that there was a niggling of suspicion but she found it hard to believe that her husband would hide away in a courtesan’s house, and not have the guts to own up to his betrayal.
She then told him of her plans to ride to the city of Madurai, known for its prosperity and ruled by the Pandya king Neduncheziyan. They both agreed that selling her anklets that had rubies within would fetch them enough money to start a new business. Despite the heavy rains they continued their journey towards Madurai, as they were weary of being followed.
Once they reached Madurai, Kovalan left Kannagi in the care of a kind old couple and set out to find a jeweler. He managed to find the most prominent jeweler in the city and gave him the anklet for evaluation.
Unbeknown to Kovalan, the jeweler was a cunning thief who had stolen the Queen’s anklet. Seeing the resemblance in Kovalan’s anklet, he hatched a plan to make him take the fall. Leaving Kovalan in his shop, he quietly went to the palace and showed Kovalan’s anklet to the King. and that he had the thief in his shop. The King ordered his soldiers to apprehend the thief and sentenced him to death.
News of Kovalan’s arrest and death sentence reached Kannagi. She thought it must be a mistake and went to the city center to check for herself. There she was stunned to see the lifeless body of Kovalan. Before grief could take over she was livid at the injustice. She marched to the King’s palace and demanded to see him. On being brought to his court, she demanded to know how he could accuse her husband of such a crime. The King explained that Kovalan’s anklet resembled the Queen’s so it must be stolen.
“How can you assume that the anklet was stolen? Did you ask him where he got the anklet? All we wanted was to start a new life in your city and you rewarded us with a death sentence! Where is the justice in this?” she screamed.
“Look here, this is the other pair of my anklet. It has rubies within.” So saying Kannagi broke her anklet and rubies tumble out, whereas the Queen’s had pearl. Realizing the grave mistake he had made the King dropped dead. But Kannagi’s anger was still not appeased. She ran out of the palace and back to the city center where her husband lay dead. She cursed the whole city of Madurai and vowed that her anger will not subside until every single sinner in the city was burned to death. She called out to the Lord to spare the innocent, women and children and burn down the city. A huge fire erupted everywhere swallowing the people around her. The raging fire finally subsided Kannagi’s anger and her grief took over. Despite the screaming of the crowd, a lone women’s heartrending cry was heard, like that of a wounded animal.
“Sivakami! Sivakami!” shouted her friend, bringing her back to the present. Sivakami looked at her friend and asked “Don’t you think it is possible?”
Her friend hesitantly replied, “well, it is plausible” and sheepishly added “surely makes for an interesting read!”
I think a simple Google Search, or the Wiki page will tell you about the original Kannagi story. But I wanted to give you the full import of what the story means. Silappathikaram (story of anklet) is one of the Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature from Sangam period, and written by Ilango Adigal. First, let me briefly tell you the crux of the story before going into its societal, cultural significance.
The story is set in 100-200AD and it is about a young married couple from merchant community, called Kovalan and Kannagi, in Kaveri poompattinam (the earlier capital city of Cholas). One day Kovalan sees dance performance of a beautiful courtesan, Madhavi, and falls in love with her. He starts living with her and neglects (rather forgets!) about his wife. While Kannagi patiently waits for his return, Kovalan has a daughter with Madhavi, called Manimekalai. Madhavi’s mother would have cunningly stolen everything from Kovalan’s house by using his signet ring. One day a song composed by Madhavi triggers Kovalan’s suspicion and he feels she might be pining for someone else. He leaves her and returns to his wife. Seeing his wife waiting for him, and the cunningness of Madhavi’s mother he realizes his mistake. They decide to move to Madurai, a bustling city at that time, to sell Kannagi’s jewelry and start a new life. In Madurai, Kovalan approaches a famous jeweler to sell Kannagi’s anklet which has rubies within its hollow. The jeweler also happens to be the King’s jeweler. At the same time, Queen’s anklet would be stolen by the same jeweler. Since Kovalan’s anklet resembles Queen’s, he hatches a plan to falsely accuse Kovalan of the crime. The King immediately sentences Kovalan to death. On hearing about her husband’s death, Kannagi questions the King’s injustice and proves that the anklet is her’s and not the Queen’s, which has pearl inside its hollow. The King realizing his grave sin falls down to his death. But Kannagi is still lividd and curses the whole city of Madurai to burn down, sparing only the innocent, women and children. She cuts her left breast and strews it across the city, and immediately the city erupts in fire. Kannagi then moves to a neighboring kingdom, and dies from her wound.
The story has many cultural and societal significance. It is a rare story that centers around the common people and their lives, rather than Kings and war. In Tamil there is a famous (in my opinion ‘infamous’) saying “Kallu aanalum kanavan, pullu aanalum purushan” – meaning it doesn’t matter whether your husband is a stone (i.e., stone hearted) or a grass (i.e., a weakling), the woman is expected to be respectful and dutiful towards him. Kannagi’s perseverance in waiting for her husband, and her acceptance of his betrayal is a classic example of this saying. However, otherwise she is not a meek or subservient woman. She shows her bravery when she calls out the King for his injustice. And it is a proof of her chastity that fire erupts and burns down the city of Madurai on her command. Interestingly, Madhavi is also an epitome of chastity. She is very loyal to Kovalan and never takes another lover. When he suspects her and deserts her, she takes up sainthood and becomes a Buddhist nun. Both Kannagi and Madhavi are among the most famous Patthini Penn (Chaste Woman or Pathivratha in Hindi) of Tamil lore.
The jury is still out on whether this is a real story or a work of fiction, but we are in so awe of this story that I had to think long and hard before deciding to reimagine. My treatment of this story could offend fans of the epic, but I still wanted to give it my own twist.