A brief introduction to history of Silapadikaram

I consider it a pity that we Tamilians don’t know any of our epics. Most of us only know the very basic story of Silapadikaram. We don’t know much about Civaka Cinthamani or Manimekalai. We are also pretty much unlucky since two of the epics have been lost and only some verses are available.

I find it being serious insult that an epic which has been translated into English, French, Czech, and Russian has not been read by most of Tamilians.

I am planning to write series of essays which would form the abridged version of Silapadikaram. Here I wish to provide small details about things which we usually don’t know about Silapadikaram.

Silapadikaram has wealth of information about various arts like music and dance of those times. It also provides great details of life style of people, landscapes, religion, myths and lot of details about religious practices and gods which are not present today.

I am starting off with my first essay about Silapadikaram.

A brief introduction to history of Silapadikaram:

Story of Pattini Deivam(Kannagi) must have been prevalent years before Silapadikaram was written and people must have been very familiar with this legend.

  • The motif of women tearing their breast(Kannagi tears one of her breast and invokes fire which destroys the Madurai) have been found in two of Sangam literature which is dated earlier to Silapadikaram.I am here quoting two poems which have this motif.

278. பெரிது உவந்தனளே!
பாடியவர்: காக்கைபாடினியார் நச்செள்ளையார்
திணை: தும்பை துறை: உவகைக் கலுழ்ச்சி

“நரம்புஎழுந்து உலறிய நிரம்பா மென்தோள்
முளரி மருங்கின், முதியோள் சிறுவன்
படைஅழிந்து மாறினன்” என்று பலர் கூற,
“மண்டுஅமர்க்கு உடைந்தனன் ஆயின், உண்டஎன்
முலைஅறுத் திடுவென், யான்’ எனச் சினைஇக்,
கொண்ட வாளடு படுபிணம் பெயராச்,
செங்களம் துழவுவோள், சிதைந்துவே றாகிய
படுமகன் கிடக்கை காணூஉ,
ஈன்ற ஞான்றினும் பெரிதுஉவந் தனளே!

Puram 278

Many said,

“That old woman, the one whose veins show

On her weak, dry arms where the flesh is hanging,

Whose stomach is flat as a lotus leaf,

has son who has lost nerve in battle and fled.”

A that, she grew enraged and said,

“If he has run away in the thick of battle,

I will cut off these breast from which sucked,”

and, sword in hand,she turned over fallen corpses,

Groping her way on the red field.

Then she saw her son lying there in pieces

And she rejoiced more than the day she bore him.

(Poet: Kakkaipatiniyar Naccellaiyar, Translated by Geogre L Hart)

In this poem we see a motif of a woman willing to tear her breast. Similarly in Narrinai 216 we see these words in line 9 ஒரு முலை அறுத்த திருமாவுண்ணிக் which means I would tear of one of my breast.

  • In Vaisyapuranam a commentary to grammar work Yaapparunkalak karikai , there are some verses which are supposed to be Laments of Kannagi which are not found in Silapadikaram
  • Yaapparunkalam a grammatical work during Kulothunga Cholan reign also has poem attributed to Kannagi or Pattini.
  • There are various folk versions of Silapadikaram, which are detailed in work of Brenda Beck’s ‘The study of a Tamil epic: several versions of Silappadikaram compared’.
  • The cult of Pattini Deivam is still prevalent in Kerala and Ceylon.
  • As tradition says, Illango Adikal hears the story of Kannagi from Sathanar(who wrote the sequel to Silapadikaram, Manimekalai)

The points listed above gives us the idea that Pattini Deviam or Kannagi story was prevalent and very famous all over Tamilnadu , this is acknowledged by scholar Basham when he says the poet of Silapadikaram “could afford to be irritatingly allusive and terse in important narrative passages and lingers lovingly over interesting descriptions.”

Since there are lots of facts to prove the occurrence of the original events long before the epic was written, when did the original event happen?

  • The events couldn’t have happened latter than 250 AD.
  • There have been records of Ceran Sengutuvan to have brought Rock from Himalayas to carve Idol of Pattini in both Silapadikaram and Patirruppatu.
  • Ceran Sengutuvan is dated around 100-250 AD.
  • Atiyarukunallar a medieval commentator on Silapadikaram dates the year of Kannagi and Kovalan leaving Puhar for Madurai to be 174 AD based on astronomical calculation.

If the events happened earlier to the writing of Epic when was the epic written?

  • There is great divide among scholars and historians regarding this.
  • There is a famous theory called Gajabahu synchronization. The last Canto of Silapadikaram has the following lines கடல்சூ ழிலங்கைக் கயவாகு வேந்தனும which translates to Kayavaku the king of Sea grit Lanka. This Kayavahu is believed to King of Sri Lanka Gajabahu I. He also lived in same period as Ceran Sengutuvan and as per Silapadikaram he visited the Chera land during the opening ceremony of temple for Kannagi.
  • Hence some scholars believe that Silapadikaram was written during that period hence around 170-250 AD.
  • But other Linguist have an argument that the Silapadikaram in current version could not been written earlier than 5-6th century since the language is much different than the language used in Sangam Literature (which dated between 100BC to 250 AD)
  • Silapadikaram also quotes some Didactic literature such as Thirukural and Palamolinanuru(which are dated around 4 -6 AD)
  • Some Scholars claim that Silapadikaram must have been work of many authors and initial work should have been as earlier as Sangam age. This due to the fact out of three books of Silapadikaram, the story of Kannagi and Kovalan ends in the first two books itself and third book gives more insights into Ceran Sengutuvan conquest of north rather than story of Kannagi and Kovalan
  • But the language (diction and style) used in all three books is homogenous and accepted by most linguist as work of a single author. Also first two books give insights into relationship between Kovalan, Kannagi and Madhavi hence Akam and last book glorifies war hence Puram. Also each book is based on one of the capitals of the three great kings of Tamil Nadu. Hence the books must have been written by the same author.
  • Patirruppatu which chronicles the lives of 10 generations of Chera Kings have no mention of Illango Adikal the supposed Chera prince who gave up his throne to become a saint. He is neither mentioned as son of Imayavaramban or brother of Sengutuvan.
  • Hence it is safe to accept the theory that Silapadikaram was written around 5th-6th century AD, while the original events happened much earlier.

Why is Silapadikaram important in historical point of view?

  • It explains about the cult of Pattini Deivam.
  • It is the first literature to describe Tamil Nadu which has had Aryan Dravidian mingling.
  • It is the literary evidence for the fact that Tamil land had attained nationhood (Tamil Nadu instead of just Chola ,Chera,Pandiya land) by then.

My next essay would be abridged version of initial few chapters of the first book of Silapadikaram.


The Smile of Murugan: Tamil Literature of South India by Kamil Zevelbil

The companion studies to history of Tamil Literature by Kamil Zevelbil

Silapadikaram(The Ankle bracelet) by Alian Danielou

Poets of the Tamil Anthologies by George L Hart

Please leave your comments.

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  1. religious lore, especxially of that near the Indian continent is always fascinating. I would like to see more love poetry

  2. the world should learn 3 lessions.
    we should not do commit blunders.
    fate will come to teach lession .
    good women will be appreciated .

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