Of the twin epics of Silappadikaram and Manimekalai, the former is one of the oldest and most excellent poems in. Tamil Literature. It portrays the Tamil culture in all its aspects in very clear language. The three main divisions of Tamil Literature—Iyal, Isai and Natakam (Literary Tamil, Music and Drama)—find the best expression of their excellence in this epic. The just administration of Tamil kings, the high character and chastity of women and the respect in which they were held in society, the services rendered by Tamil kings for the encouragement of poets and Tamil Literature, the proficiency of the people in the knowledge and appreciation of good music and dramatic performances, the festivals, the habits, the types of food, and the entertainments of the
Tamil people can all be gleaned from a study of this work. Of the five great Kavyas, (the Silappadikaram, Manimelcalai, jivakachintamani, Nilakesi and Kuna’alakesi), Silappadikaram comes under the category of a poem which narrates a continuous story. As regards the excellence of its language, experts have hailed it as the limit of the highest level of Tamil literary endeavor.
Tragic elements preponderate in the story. The hero Kovalan gets separated from his wife, the heroine of the poem, the chaste Kannaki, and is captivated by the charms 0 f Madavi, a dancing girl, and lives with her. He, however, leaves Madavi on the occasion of the festival to Indra on the suspicion that she loves another. He then starts with Kannaki for Madurai to begin a new life. The journey from Pukar to Madurai, the ominous dream of Kannaki, the equally fearful dream of Kovalan, the unjust execution of Kovalan as a thief at Madurai, the inconsolable grief of the heroine at the injustice meted to her husband, her demand for a full trial and justice at the hands of the Pandyan monarch Nedunchezhiyan—all come, in due succession, deepening the tragic clement.
The monarch and his spouse die the moment the great injustice is discovered with the help of the silambu or anklet. Madurai is destroyed by the fire of Kannaki’s chastity. On the advice of the guardian deity of Madurai, she goes to Murugavel Kunram, sheds her mortal coil and finally reunites with her husband in Heaven. She is deified by the Chera King Senguttuvan who raises a temple for her.
We need not exercise our minds on the exact date of this work, as there seems to be considerable difference of opinion among scholars who assign to it dates varying from B.C. 200 to A.D; 200. Ilango Adigal, the younger brother of the Chera king, Senguttuvan, and the author of the epic is said to have lived in the 2nd century A.D. The absence of any mention of the Pallavas in the work is suggested as a prominent reason for assigning the work to a date earlier than the Pallavas. Some scholars suggest that Ilango was a Jain; some say he was a Buddhist; some others say he was ‘Saiva’; whatever his religion, his even outlook and expression of the tenets of each religion as one belonging to that group, are highly commendable
The events described in the Kavya take place in the first instance in Pum-Pukar the capital of the Chola country; the scene then shifts through the banks of the Kaveri to the banks of the river Vaigai and the capital of the Pandyas— Madurai. And when Madurai is destroyed by fire, Kannaki moves to the Kongu country—a part of the Chera territory, and is deified. Thus all the three major divisions of the Tamilnadu contributed to the set up of the epic—a sign of the essential unity of Tamil culture and the area in which Tamil was then spoken. The Silappadikaram is composed in the Kavya style in Tamil Literature.
We find excellent descriptions of rivers (the Kaveri and the Vaigai) and of the great cities such as Pukar and Madurai. Forms of dancing such as the Kuravaikkuttu, gods like Vishnu, wild forests, celebration of marriages etc., found in the poem furnish excellent material.
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