Draupadi, Kunti, Sita, are the names we usually come across in the context of the epics. The strong women in the epics of south India are less well known.
The Shilapaddikaram, a Tamil verse epic composed by Ilango Adigal, 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 which was different from that of the queen, 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 , the sequel to the Shilapaddikaram written by Kulavanigam Chittalai Shattanar (also spelt Cattanar), tells the story of the beautiful young daughter of Kovalan and the dancer Madhavi. After Kovalan’s unjust death, the courtesan Madhavi became a Buddhist nun. Her daughter 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. The text itself has been dated by various scholars between the second and sixth centuries CE. It consists of a preface followed by thirty verse chapters. It has many aspects of an epic, with a number of characters, magic, talking statues, and numerous sub-stories.
The text is considered a Perumkappiyan (Sanskrit: Mahakavya) or great kavya of Tamil literature.
Though her age is not mentioned, Manimekalai is a young girl when the story begins. She was pursued by Udayakumara, prince of the Chola dynasty, as handsome as the god Murugan, but she eluded him. The ocean goddess Manimekala, after whom she was named, cast a spell on Manimekalai to make her sleep, and carried her through the air, leaving her on the island of Manipallavam, far away in the middle of the sea.
The goddess then returned to the city of Puhar. She went to prince Udayakumara, and warned him to leave Manimekalai alone. Then, the goddess woke Sutamati, Manimekalai’s best friend, told her that Manimekalai would return in seven days, and asked her to go to Madhavi and tell her that the goddess Manimekala had arrived, and had stated that Manimekalai was destined for a life of asceticism and renunciation.
On the island, Manimekalai was initially afraid, but seeing a magical pedestal of the Buddha’s image, her life and destiny were revealed to her. She received a magic bowl, which could provide her with an inexhaustible supply of food, to feed the hungry. Many more adventures awaited her, while the Chola prince still pursuing her, was accidently killed. After narrating her past life, the goddess explained that before proceeding on the Buddhist path, Manimekalai would have to live as an ascetic and study other religions. But as a young woman would not be taken seriously, the goddess gave her secret mantras, through which she could change her appearance and travel through the air. She also revealed some magic words, which would nourish Manimekalai in case she had no food. The goddess then disappeared.
Manimekalai, Madhavi and Sutamati went to the great Buddhist teacher, Aravana Adigal. Manimekalai narrated to him all that had happened so far, and he told her more about the past lives of her mother and friend Sutamati. He also explained some points of Buddhism. The mass of people, he said could not be drawn to the noble Buddhist path, but a few may be influenced to follow it.
He then requested Manimekalai to use the bowl and wander through the world, feeding the poor and hungry, for ‘There exists no more meritorious act towards gods or men, than to assuage the pangs of hunger.’
There are many stories of other people too in this text, connected in some way with the main narrative. Manimekalai went from city to city feeding the poor. She was captured and imprisoned by the queen, but released when the queen understood the girl’s own pure nature.
After further adventures, Manimekalai reached the city of Vanji. Disguised as a man she debated with the teachers of various sects and religions. After discussions, she understood the major religions and philosophies prevalent at the time, and felt that none of them provided the right solution to life.
Aravana Adigal then began to teach her the truths of Buddhism. He explained to her how and why the first Buddha, who was already a being of light, incarnated on earth, and the need for understanding the four truths regarding suffering, and the means of freeing oneself from suffering through freedom from desire and through detachment, and by love towards all beings. Manimekalai became a follower of the Buddhist dharma, lived in a monastery, and continued to perform acts of charity.
Commenting on this text, the scholar Paula Richman says, “In Manimekalai Cattanar undercuts, reverses and extends conventional ideas about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ behaviour to give his account of a woman seeking to achieve the ultimate state beyond gender distinctions.”
(A PhD in ancient Indian History, the writer lives in Dehradun and has authored ten books)