Kundalakesi: A Tamil Epic of the Sangam Age
Kundalakesi is one of the celebrated five Tamil epics of the Sangam period, other than Silappatikaram, Manimekalai, Civaka Cintamani, and Valayapathi. Like the rest, Kundalakesi is also a valuable gem in the treasury of the Tamil literature. Kundalakesi is a fragmentary epic in nature, or Khandakavya according to the standards of Sanskrit poetics. Kundalakesi had been authored by Nagakuthanar. The estimated date of the composition of Kundalakesi is 6th-5th century BC. The text of Kundalakesi is not available in full. Kundalakesi was a Buddhist didactic text by nature, which was perhaps a reason of getting destroyed.
Kundalakesi: The Sources
Of the five Tamil epics of the Sangam period, Silappatikarm, Manimekalai and Civaka Cintamani are available in full. Unfortunately, the complete texts of the rest, Kundalakesi and Valayapathi, do not survive till date. In fact the original text of Kundalakesi has not been found. We come to know about Kundalakesi only through quotations and citations and references made in other texts of its time as well as of the later periods. The original text of Kundalakesi had 99 verses. Only 19 of them exist till date and those are quoted in texts like Tolakappiyam, Yapperungalam, Veera Sozhiyam, Thakkayagaparani and so on. Some verses occur in Neelakesi which was a minor epic. Neelakesi was a Jain epic composed to confront the Buddhist ideals preached in Kundalakesi, and accordingly there are some references to Kundalakesi as well.
Five other verses are also often attributed to it but scholars cannot assert if they were actually from Kundalakesi or somehow interpolated later.
The noted linguist K. Zvelebil has remarked that Kundalakesi was a Buddhist didactic text and this was why the antagonists of Buddhism destroyed it.
Story of Kundalakesi
The storyline of Kundalakesi has been adapted from the tale of the Buddhist nun by the same name mentioned in the Dhammapada. Kundalakesi, the main character of the epic by the same nomenclature, was the daughter of a well-to-do merchant family in Puhar. Unfortunately, she lost her mother at a very young age and had to live in the shelter of others. One day, Kundalakesi found a thief being taken prisoner by the city streets and got infatuated to him. The name of the thief was Kalan. Kalan was sentenced to death. Out of the infatuation for Kalan, Kundalakesi asked her father to save Kalan. Kundalakesi's father accordingly prayed to the king to save Kalan. Kundalakesi's father paid the king the gold equal to Kalan's weight, in addition to a tribute of 81 elephants. Kalan and Kundalakesi got married and lived in peace and happiness for some years.
One day, almost jokingly, Kundalakesi called Kalan a thief. Kalan got furious. Kalan planned to kill Kundalakesi. Taking Kundalakesi to the peak of a hill, Kalan expressed his desire to kill Kundalakesi by pushing her off from that peak. But even in that dire danger, Kundalakesi did not lose her nerves and hit on an idea. She prayed for one last wish to Kalan; she wanted to go thrice round him as worship. Kalan agreed. As soon as Kundalakesi went behind Kalan, she gave Kalan a push off the summit and killed him. Then, Kundalakesi became a Buddhist nun, having realized the worthlessness of love and life. Kundalakesi spent the rest of her life for the benevolence of mankind hereinafter.
Manthiri Kumari, a Tamil film produced in 1951, used the story of Kundalakesi as its subtext.