Posted in Books, Buddhism, India, Manimekalai, Tamil

Manimekalai — a Tamil epic of south India

Here is the introduction of a short book I am planning on the text, Manimekalai.

Tamil belongs to the group of Dravidian languages and Tamil inscriptions in Brahmi script date back to at least the second century BCE.
The earliest Tamil literature available today is known as Sangam literature, believed to have been composed at three sangams or assemblies of writers and poets held at the city of Madurai. These may have been the first literature festivals! Much of this literature has disappeared, but some parts of the third sangam still exist. These include the Pattupattu (Ten Idylls) and Ettutogai (Eight Anthologies). A Tamil grammar, Tolkappiyam also belongs to the end of this period. Two Tamil epics, Sillapadikaram and Manimekalai mark the next stage of Tamil literature. The Tirukural of Tiruvalluvar is another important early work. Jivakachintamani, another epic, was composed by a Jain poet.
The Tamil alphabet does not follow the same sequence of letters as most other languages of India. Some of its consonants have no equivalents, and also are pronounced differently depending on the context. Thus the consonant ‘k’ can be pronounced as ‘k’, ‘h’, or ‘g’. The palatal ‘c’ can be ‘s’, ‘ch’ , ‘j’ or can represent the Sanskrit ‘sh’ or ‘s’; the retroflex ‘t’ is pronounced as ‘d’. Some letters have no equivalent sound either in English or Sanskrit, for instance ‘l’ . The method of transliteration into English, therefore differs. Alternative spellings are often used, for instance, Tamizh instead of Tamil, Cankam instead of Sangam, Matavi instead of Madhavi. Here we have used spellings that are closer to the way the words are pronounced, or are more familiar to readers in English. Alternative spellings are provided in brackets.
Manimekalai is the sequel to the Silapaddikaram [Cilappadikaram], a verse epic, that narrates the story of Kovalan and Kannaki, a married couple. Kovalan fell in love with the dancer Madhavi, and spent all his money on her. Kannaki however remained faithful to Kovalan, and penniless, the couple reached the city of Madurai. Kannaki then took off one of her anklets, and gave it to Kovalan to sell, but in the market he was accused as a thief, as the queen had lost a similar anklet. The falsely accused Kovalan was put to death, and Kannaki, when she heard of it, stormed through the city in grief. Finally she was taken to the king, and when she showed him her remaining anklet he realised he had falsely condemned an innocent man. ‘I am no king’ he said, and in shock he fell down dead. Kannaki then tore off one of her breasts and threw it in the city, which went up in flames. Thus she destroyed the king and his city, and finally retreated to a hill where she died a few days later, rejoining her husband in heaven. Kannaki is worshipped as the goddess Pattini in the Tamil region, a symbol of a wife’s chastity, devotion and loyalty to her husband.

Manimekalai, written by the merchant Shattan [Cittalai Cattanar], tells the story of Manimekalai, the beautiful young daughter of Kovalan and the dancer Madhavi. After Kovalan’s unjust death, Madhavi, once a courtesan, became a Buddhist nun. Manimekalai, despite her beauty, shunned the pleasures of the world, and sought truth, finally gaining ultimate knowledge. The story is set in the second century CE in the Tamil region, when the Chola, Chera and Pandya dynasties ruled the region of south India where most of the action takes place. The text itself has been dated by various scholars between the second and sixth centuries CE.The text consists of thirty verse chapters.


A writer with twelve published books, on history, religion and philosophy, along with several articles, book reviews etc. My latest book is J Krishnamurti: A Life of Compassion Beyond Boundaries.

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