Silappatikaram: A Tamil Epic of the Sangam Age

Silappatikaram was the first of the five Tamil epics the Sangam Age of Tamil literature had gave birth to.

Silappatikaram: A Tamil Epic of Sangam Age

Silappatikaram [literally, The Chapter on the Anklet] is one of the five Tamil epics of the Sangam Age literature. In fact it is the first known Tamil epic. Silappatikaram is a didactic text on Jainism, though didacticism has not been a hindrance to its poetic excellence. Silappatikaram was penned by the Jain monk cum poet Ilango Adigal, assumed to be the brother of Senguttuvan. Silappatikaram, as a piece of literature, has always secured an esteemed place in the Tamil literary canon. A narrative by style, Silappatikaram is a long didactic poetry containing 5270 lines. And Ilango Adigal had craftily divided the entire text of Silappatikaram into three chapters so that it never becomes monotonous. The date of Silappatikaram is usually mentioned as 1st century CE, though it is very likely that the author, Ilango Adigal, had gathered the materials of Silappatikaram from popular folktales and the Tamil oral literature.

Silappatikaram is centred on Kannagi; it is one of the rarest evidences of ancient literature, not only of Tamil but of the whole of India, where we have a female protagonist. At the Pandya Court, Kannagi was provided with injustice that resulted in an eternal separation with her husband Kovalan. The rest of the text of Silappatikaram narrates how Kannagi the unfortunate woman will take the revenge of her husband's death by ruining the Pandya kingdom. In the course of its narration, Silappatikaram associates the story with the three dynasties – Chola, Pandya and Chera – which is one of the main reasons of the historical importance of Silappatikaram.

The Structure of Silappatikaram

Silappatikaram contains a total count of 5270 lines and those lines are again divided by the author Ilango Adigal in three chapters. The three chapters of Silappatikaram are Puharkkandam or Puhar Chapter, Maduraikkandam or Madurai Chapter and Vanchikkandam and Vanchi Chapter.


Puharkkandam, the first chapter of Silappatikaram, provides a description of the Chola city of Puhar, and the early married life of Kannagi and Kovalan there, until Kovalan leaves for Madabi. Puharkkandam contains ten sub-chapters.


Maduraikkandam, the second chapter of Silappatikaram, provides a description of the Pandya city of Madurai. Kovalan would here be a victim of the misjudgement of the Royal Court. Kovalan was not at all guilty for the theft of the anklet of the Queen. Nevertheless, due to the wrong order of the Court, Kovalan would here end up in losing his life. Maduraikkandam contains seven sub-chapters.


Vanchikkandam, the thrid chapter of Silappatikaram, provides a description of Vanchi, situated in the Chera dynasty. Since Ilango Adigal was the assumed brother of Senguttuvan of Chera, it is quite natural for him to exalt the Chera dynasty by showing the faults of the rests. Here, Kannagi would achieve salvation for her praiseworthy deeds. Vanchikkandam contains thirteen sub-chapters.

The Socio-historical Importance of Silappatikaram

The importance of Silappatikaram is manifold. First of all, Silappatikaram is the first recognized Tamil epic; there might have been many more, especially of the oral tradition, but those do not exist till date. From this point of view, the importance of Silappatikaram is that it is the Beowulf of Tamil literature.

Secondly, the poets of the Sangam Age can claim the credit of the development of the Tamil language. They had borrowed heavily from Sanskrit to transform Tamil from a local language used mainly for oral literatures, folklores and daily communications, to a full fledged language under a heritage of literature under its disposal. While writing Silappatikaram, Ilango Adigal was no exception as well. Ilango Adigal had widely borrowed metaphors, similes and many other things from the celebrated Sanskrit poets Bhasa and Kalidasa. This also strengthened the cultural bond between the northern and the southern parts of India.

Thirdly, Silappatikaram revolves around all the three Tamil dynasties of yore – Chola, Pandya and Chera. Though there can be a wide chance of numerous hyperboles and interpolations, scholars can wisely pick up materials from the epic of Ilango Adigal to develop the contemporary history.

The Literary Value of Silappatikaram

Silappatikaram is very much important from purely literary perspectives as well. It is much more than merely being the first found epic in the Tamil language. Ilango Adigal had widely experimented with his style and diction in Silappatikaram, like the intermingling of verse and prose. Silappatikaram also pioneered the lexicographic tradition of Nigandu.

The Influence of Silappatikaram on Tamil Culture

Being the first recognized epic in the Tamil language, the influence of Silappatikaram is naturally immense on the Tamil culture. It has always been a part and parcel of the canonical Tamil literature, and received with exalted appraisal through ages. In fact, Silappatikaram was said to have been one of the favourite texts of the Tamil people, the king and the destitute alike, through ages. Even in the modern times, Silappatikaram is very much popular in Tamil Nadu. In 1942, a film was made on Silappatikaram which was an immediate box office success. The famous Tamil actress Kannamba played Kannagi's character there, while Chinnappa was projected as Kovalan. There are a number of dance dramas in the Bharatanatyam tradition, based on the storyline of Silappatikaram as well. And finally, there is a statue of Kannagi in Chennai Merina Beach, though belonging to the European school of sculpture, and more resembling a Greek goddess than an Indian woman.

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