17. Kannaki (Tamil Epics - Cilappatikāram)

In our seventeenth episode we discuss Kannaki, the heroine of the earliest Great Tamil Epic, The Cilappatikāram. We talk about karma, the power of women's rage, and what makes a virtuous woman.


,The Cilappatikāram: The Tale of an Anklet (R. Parthasarathy translation)

,,Translation by V. R. Ramachandra

,Sangam literature | Indian literature

,Cilappatikaram – the Tale of an Anklet – Part 3

,From Kannagi to Col Neil: A brief history of Chennai's statue conflicts

Transcript below:

Musical intro

Zoe: Hello and welcome to Mytholadies, the podcast where we talk about women from mythology and folklore all over the world. We're your hosts--

Lizzie: I'm Lizzie--

Zoe: --and I'm Zoe. And today, Lizzie, you did the research, so who are we gonna be talking about?

Lizzie: So today we're gonna be going into a Tamil Epic known as the Cilappatikāram, and we'll talk about the main character who was called Kannaki.

Zoe: Awesome!

Lizzie: Have you ever heard of this epic?

Zoe: So you've mentioned it to me, but I don't actually know anything more about it.

Lizzie: Okay, so. The Cilappatikāram is an example of Sangam literature, which are the earliest writings in the Tamil language in India, thought to be produced from the 1st to 4th century C.E., though some scholars think earlier or later.

Zoe: Awesome, that's so cool!

Lizzie: Yeah, I'm excited to talk about her! (laughs)

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So, Sangam epics are unique among early Indian epics because they are largely nonreligious, talking instead about love and heroism. Though some do also have allusions to mythological figures as we'll see today, but the difference is that they don't focus on celebrating or worshipping these mythological figures.

Zoe: That's so cool. Oh my gosh. Okay.

Lizzie: (laughs)Yeah, so, there are thought to be five Great Epics of Sangam literature, of which the Cilappatikāram is thought to be the earliest. Three out of five of the great epics, including the Cilappatikāram were written by Jains, and the other two were written by Buddhists.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: According to R. Parthasarathy, an Indian poet and scholar who translated the Cilappatikāram into English, the Cilappatikāram is to Tamil culture what the Iliad is to Greek culture.

Zoe: Wow.

Lizzie: He also contrasts the Cilappatikāram with the Mahābhārata, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Ramayana.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: In contrast with both the Mahābhārata and the Iliad, the Cilappatikāram doesn’t focus on war, which makes sense because it was written by Jains, who focused on nonviolence.

Zoe: Uh huh.

Lizzie: Also in contrast with the Iliad and the Mahābhārata, and perhaps more importantly for this episode, the protagonist of the story is a woman.

Zoe: Yes! (laughs)

Lizzie: And not a deity or a warrior, but just an ordinary woman facing extreme grief.

Zoe: Oh.

Lizzie: Yes.

Zoe: Awesome. Quick question, just for my own personal interest. Is it written in verse, or is it written in prose?

Lizzie: Uh, verse. And it's a specifice verse that's, um, found in Tamil literature that I forget the name of, but yeah.

Zoe: Okay. Okay! Awesome, yeah.

Lizzie: So. Cilappatikāram is made up of 2 words: cilampu,which means anklet, and atikāram,which means "the story about." The title literally means the story of an anklet.

Zoe: Oh!

Lizzie: Yes. So the author is known as Iḷaṅkõ Aṭikaḷ (Ilango Adigal), which is a pseudonym meaning “the venerable ascetic prince." Little is known about him, but he is believed to be a Jain monk and brother of a Chera king.

Zoe: Alright!

Lizzie: The heroine of the story is called Kannaki, whose name means “virgin” in Tamil. This will become important later, as we’ll see, as she is a woman celebrated for her chastity.

Zoe: Oh. Oh boy (laughs).

Lizzie: But let's get into the story! (Both laugh)Okay. So, in the city of Puhar, the capital of the Chola kingdom, there were two children of merchants named Kannaki and Kovalan. When it starts off, Kannaki is twelve years old, beloved by Kovalan, who was 16 years old. So--

Zoe: Hmm, okay.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Okay (laughs).

Lizzie: So they were married, and it was a very joyous occasion. And everyone celebrated, and Kannaki and Kovalan were very happy and in love. And several years passed in bliss.

Zoe: Okay...

Lizzie: So, there's another character called Mātavi, and she studied dancing, singing, and enhancing her beauty for seven years. She's also twelve years old. And mastered--

Zoe: Wait, wait, was she--she was twelve years old and then it was seven years? And now she's not twelve years--

Lizzie: (overlapping) No, she's--she's twelve years old AND it's been seven years. So she was, like, five.

Zoe: So she was five!Oh! Oh my gosh.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: Different times.

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie: Um, and she mastered all three of these arts, and she's frequently referred to as "Mātavi of the long, flower-like eyes."

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: So, she was so good at dancing that she was allowed to dance in front of the king. She performed her song and dance so beautifully that the king gave her a garland of flowers and 1,008 pieces of gold, which was a customary gift for dancers that performed for the first time.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: So Mātavi asks her maid to go out into town, where the elite walked about, and offer the garland for sale, saying that whoever buys it will become her husband.

Zoe: Hmm.

Lizzie: The garland is bought by none other than Kovalan.

Zoe: Uh oh!

Lizzie: He “came under her spell the instant he took her in his arms” and promptly forgot about his own wife at home.

Zoe: Oh no!

Lizzie: Yeah. So, as Kovalan and Mātavi were living in marital bliss, Kannaki was depressed at home.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: She stopped wearing jewelry, she stopped putting oils in her hair, her eyes no longer sparkled, she didn’t smile anymore. But she didn't complain. She was just very sad.

Zoe: Okay. And she never knew what happened. Her husband just didn't come home.

Lizzie: I think she knew what happened.

Zoe: Oh! Okay.

Lizzie: Like, she knew he was unfaithful.

Zoe: Okay. And she's no longer twelve years old.

Lizzie:No, it's been a few years.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: I don't know how many years. I assume she's probably, like, still a teenager, but.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: I don't know exactly.

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie: So, during the festival for Indra, the rain god, there is a singing competition.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: Mātavi takes her lute and puts it in Kovalan’s hands, and he sings songs about a woman who hurts her lover.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: Mātavi assumes Kovalan is no longer interested in her, so she takes the lute and sings about a woman betrayed in love.

Zoe: Wow. There's a lot of assumptions happening (laughs).

Lizzie: Basically, yeah. And Kovalan also thinks this song is about someone else, and leaves her. She tries to get Kovalan back, and sends him a letter, but Kovalan refuses to read it.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: Yeah. So, meanwhile, Kannaki has a dream that she went with Kovalan to a great city, where Kovalan was accused of a crime he did not commit. In the dream, Kannaki pleaded in front of the king. And she wakes up, and she is very distressed by the dream. And so Kovalan returns to Kannaki, having lost all of his wealth after spending it all on Mātavi. Actually, Mātavi's mother sort of swindled him out of the money--

Zoe: Oh.

Lizzie: --but anyway. He's out of money now.

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie: So, Kannaki takes him back, saying that hope is not all lost because she still has a valuable pair of anklets she can give to him. Kovalan says he will take the anklets and sell them so they can get some money back.

Zoe: Hmm.

Lizzie: So they travel--

Zoe: Hmm.

Lizzie: What.

Zoe: (laughs)I--I'm suspicious of him, I don't trust him.

Lizzie: That's a--that's a fair thought. But, um--(laughs)okay, so--

Zoe: Alright, alright. Continue.

Lizzie: They traveled to the city of Madurai, which is in another kingdom, hoping to win back some of their fortune. The journey is very long and tiring, especially for Kannaki, and there’s a passage in one section where Kovalan has to face the fact that their suffering is caused by his past deeds.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: He's told that he performed good deeds in past lives, but these good deeds are exhausted and that’s why he and his wife are facing distress. And now he has to face his fate and not grieve the fact that his karma has shown itself.

Zoe: Okay! Okay.

Lizzie: So, yeah. And during this journey, Mātavi also has Kovalan’s daughter, who is named “Manimekalai”, who then gets her own eponymous epic.

Zoe: Oh!

Lizzie: Yeah! But anyway, back to our story. Kovalan sells one of the anklets to a goldsmith in the city. The goldsmith had recently stolen a similar anklet from the queen, and he seizes his chance to pin the theft on Kovalan.

Zoe: Oh no.

Lizzie: And Kovalan is arrested by the king, and executed without a trial.

Zoe: Oh my gosh! Oh no!

Lizzie:Yeah, so he's--he's just executed.

Zoe: Alright. And then her dream came true!

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly. So when Kannaki learns of this, she is angry, and weeps and falls to the ground “as if the rising moon had fallen with the clouds on the wide earth.”

Zoe: Wow.

Lizzie: She "mourned for him in sorrow and wrath," weeping over his body, and decides to go to the king to demand an explanation. So, she goes to the king and explains her plight, accusing him of executing him unjustly, and he at first says that it isn’t unjust to put a thief to death.


Lizzie: So, Kannaki pulls out the other anklet and says that her golden anklet contains gems, whereas the stolen anklet contained pearls, and shows him the anklet as proof.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: The king realizes his mistake and that he has failed in his kingly duties, and says, “Let me depart from this life." And he dies.

Zoe: Oh!

Lizzie: Yeah. Kannaki curses the people of the city, saying, “I shall not allow this city to flourish but will destroy it along with its sovereign. You will see the truth of this.”

Zoe: Awesome. Okay.

Lizzie: Then, and a bit of a TRIGGER WARNING for self-mutilation, she tears off her left breast and throws it into the street. And her curse sets the city on fire, the only people being spared being “brahmanas, the righteous, cows, chaste women, the aged, and children.” So everyone else is killed in the fire.

Zoe: Okay, there's a lot to unpack there.

Lizzie: So--yeah. Cause basically she says, I'm gonna set this city on fire unless you're a righteous, or innocent, or, you know, like a child.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And then the city goes up in flames.

Zoe: Yeah. And of course the only, like, pure women and the upper-caste people are, like, spared.

Lizzie: Yeah. And children (laughs).

Zoe: And the children! Okay, that's good, that's good. And the aged.

Lizzie: (overlapping)But all the unrighteous people are killed.

Zoe: Yeah...alright!

Lizzie: Anyway. I'm gonna read a quote, and it says, "The matrons who unfailingly attended to household duties and entertained guests rejoiced greatly. They worshipped and praised the fire-god, whose flames rose high, saying, ‘Losing her husband, whose chest shone with a beautiful garland, this lady won her victory with her anklet. Is this war waged by her breast unjust? Not so." People were, like, on her side.

Zoe: Okay, yeah.

Lizzie: And then the goddess Maturāpati speaks to Kannaki and calms her down. So Maturāpati was the family deity of the Pantyan King, so the man who just died.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And Maturāpati tells Kannaki that she and Kovalan had been connected in their previous life. In their past life, Kovalan had killed Kannaki’s husband by mistake, and Kannaki had then committed suicide.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: So both had committed the sin of taking a life, and even though Kannaki was virtuous in this life, you can’t escape your past sins.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: Yeah, Maturāpati says, “When actions in a past birth by those devoid of goodness yield their result, no amount of penance can stop them.”

Zoe: Wow. Okay.

Lizzie: After fourteen days, Indra, the king of gods, took Kannaki up to heaven in a divine chariot. So, at this point, Kannaki has died, but she becomes a goddess of chastity.

Zoe: Oh!

Lizzie: Her goddess name is Pattini, and she is especially celebrated in Sri Lanka, where she is the goddess of fertility and health, and particularly protection against smallpox. She is honored in fertility rites and is still worshipped to this day, and she still has about six temples dedicated to her in Sri Lanka as far as I could tell, but, uh, back to the story.

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie: The third section of the Cilappātikaram is dedicated to the king of Chera learning about Kannaki’s story and building a statue of her. And a temple to her was built as well, and he says, “Because it is a fact that gods will worship her who worships not God but worships her husband, Kannaki, that jewel among the women of the earth, became a goddess and the guest of the ladies of heaven.” So the temple was built, a royal sacrifice was made, and the temple was endowed, and the goddess herself blessed the occasion.

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie: And thus ends the Cilappātikaram.

Zoe: Alright!

Lizzie: I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Zoe: Well! (laughs) So obviously there's a lot there, um.

Lizzie: Yes.

Zoe: It seems like, you know, essentially she's being worshipped for being, you know, the ideal woman.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: You know, for being pure, and chaste, for being totally devoted to her husband.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: Being self-sacrificing...

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly.

Zoe: And--yeah. And so that's basically what she seems to be worshipped for. And it seems very interesting because it's very much a story of a woman who doesn't want anything good for herself, but then gets all the good things anyway. So, you know, it's sort of like the message of if you want, like, good things to happen to you, you can't--I mean, you can't be, like, greedy, you know.

Lizzie: You have to be humble.

Zoe: You have to be humble, yeah, exactly. And there are honestly, like, a lot of aspects of this story that remind me of the Virgin Mary. And so, like, the particular is the fact that Kannaki is worshipped for being chaste, and honored for being chaste, as the Virgin Mary is, and then particularly the fact that when she dies, she dies because she is taken up physically into heaven.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: And that's exactly what happens to Mary in the Bible. That's, like, literally exactly what happens.

Lizzie: That's interesting.

Zoe: And so--I don't know, I mean, like, I just think that's very interesting that it's, like, the same thing. I kinda wanna know what happened to Mātavi?

Lizzie: Well, we'll find out in a bit.

Zoe: Oh! Really?

Lizzie: Yes. So, in terms of Mātavi's fate, she found out that her mother was sort of taking all of Kovalan's money--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --and she returned all the money to Kovalan's parents, and she then became a Buddhist nun.

Zoe: Okay! Well, good for her, I guess (laughs).

Lizzie: Yeah! So, Mātavi is an interesting character. First of all, there are pages and pages dedicated to talking about how good she is at her craft and how talented she is. I feel like her depiction is, like, actually kind of positive as far as depictions of courtesans go, like there is an extent to which she’s portrayed sort of negatively since she’s the “other woman”--

Zoe: Uh huh.

Lizzie: --who drains Kovalan’s money, but when she finds out that so much of Kovalan’s money was taken by her own mother, she repents and becomes a nun.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So she renounces her wealth and retires to a monastery, so now it’s like, this woman has a strong moral compass.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: You may have previously thought of her negatively, but now she’s being shown to be moral and righteous. And that’s where her story ends.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: Which I think as far as endings go, it's pretty positive.

Zoe: Yeah, definitely. I think it's honestly a pretty positive ending cause, like, it's definitely, I think, still to some extent is a condemnation of the life that she had before, but it's not as strong as if, like, it had been like, oh she dies, or, like, she commits suicide, you know?

Lizzie: Ex - yeah, exactly.

Zoe: Um, instead it's like, oh, she sees the error of her ways and becomes, like, a better person, which is, like, nice! You know, like.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: It's--I mean, it's a soft lesson instead of a hard lesson, you know?

Lizzie: Exactly.

Zoe: Instead of being like, if you continue like this you're gonna die, and be condemned forever, or whatever, you know.

Lizzie: Yeah, and it's also the fact that Mātavi and Kannaki aren’t depicted as enemies or jealous of the other. Like, they both love Kovalan--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --but to my recollection there aren't any moments of, like, hatred for each other.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: If anything, they’re just, like, shown to be sort of opposites, as Mātavi is a courtesan and Kannaki is a chaste woman, but in the end they’re both shown to be highly moral and righteous.

Zoe: Okay, yeah!

Lizzie: Which again goes back to the theme of acting righteously so as to avoid karma or atone for past mistakes--

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: --whereas the other principal character, Kovalan, is the one who suffers for his lack of morality and his past mistakes. So he suffers the worst of everyone.

Zoe: For sure, yeah. And I think that him being punished for a crime he doesn't commit is basically, like, the most clear representation of being punished for your past mistakes, like, mistakes in a past life.

Lizzie: Exactly.

Zoe: Because it's not really anything, like, him in this life has control over, as far as, like--but he's still, like, is punished for it anyway because this is what has to happen in order to, like, keep balance, or...

Lizzie: Yeah, I mean, it's karma--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --like this seems to me to be a pretty rare depiction, even among modern stories, where the female characters are shown to be moral and good and are rewarded for it, whereas the male character is shown to be the one who is punished for his actions.

Zoe: Yeah! And so then it--in some ways, it reminds me of Oiwa's story.

Lizzie: Interesting!

Zoe: Because, like, what was his name? The main male character of Oiwa's story.

Lizzie: (overlapping) Iemon.

Zoe: Iemon, yes! Him. He was really awful the whole time, and basically ends up being sort of tormented his whole life by Oiwa's spirit, who doesn't really find happiness, and then he ends up being killed out of mercy.

Lizzie: Yeah, he gets the worst fate because he behaved so badly.

Zoe: Yeah. And, like, obviously, none of the female characters in Oiwa's story are necessarily, like, shown as pure and virtuous and rewarded for their actions.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: Even though, like, as we discussed, they are treated relatively sympathetically. But, like, in this case, I think, again, we're seeing, like, the man who treats people the worst gets the worst results.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: And so there's that justice in that way based on, like, whatever's, you know, pulling the strings.

Lizzie: Yeah. For sure. Any other thoughts about Mātavi?

Zoe: Well, I think she's super cool. I think it's cool how talented she is. I think it's great that she got 1,008 pieces of gold from the king--

Lizzie: (laughs) Yeah.

Zoe: Or however much it was. Like, that's a lot of gold! Her story, like, started by reminding me of Salome, from the Bible--

Lizzie: Yeah, that makes sense.

Zoe:Um, but it didn't go that way at all, so that was cool.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Because it was like, you know, she danced for the king and the king was so enthralled that he was like, here's a bunch of rewards, but obviously no one--well, yeah. She didn't have anyone get killed. Or, well, she sort of did, but--

Lizzie: No, I wouldn't say that she did.

Zoe: Not really. I mean, like, in a very indirect way, but then we're really coming down--

LIzzie: (overlapping)No, I see what you mean, with karma and everything, and she...

Zoe: Yeah, it's like, well he lost all the money, and then he had to go to this, but then you're really, like, pulling, like--you're really, like, looking at it very closely and thinking about it and it's like no, it was the goldsmith guy.

Lizzie: Yeah. It was definitely.

Zoe: And then it's also, like, you--you know, from a karma way, it was Kovalan who was--you know, had to repent for the-the sins he commited in his past life.

Lizzie: Yeah. And there's also the fact that she's the mother of Manimekalai, who gets her own epic.

Zoe: Mm hmm!

Lizzie: So I think that's pretty cool.

Zoe: Yeah, definitely.

Lizzie: Which is also one of the Five Great Epics, by the way.

Zoe: Awesome.

Lizzie: Yeah. So, in terms of politics of the time. So this was a time when epics were written to worship deities and kings, so it’s very notable that this epic is about an ordinary woman, and that it features criticism of the king.

Zoe: Oh, yeah!

Lizzie: So it has the message that not even the king will be spared when he makes an error of judgment, and that a woman with high moral standards will be respected, and even worshipped.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: So that's very cool.

Zoe: Yeah. And it's very cool. I think, you know, when we're thinking about karma and--even the king has to, um--

Lizzie:Submit to his fate.

Zoe: Pay up, um, for what he's done, you know.

Lizzie: Exactly.

Zoe: Has to deal with the consequences. And that is huge because, like...

Lizzie: He's a king!

Zoe: That didn't happen a lot, and that wasn't allowed a lot.

Lizzie: Exactly.

Zoe: So, like, yeah, I really like that depiction for sure. I think that's very cool.

Lizzie: Good to be critical of your rulers.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So, all in all it has the message that one's deeds in both their present life and their past lives are vital to their fate, and that karma is very important.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So, R. Parthasarathy, who I mentioned before, tranlsated one version of the Cilappatikāram, said, “Denied love, Kannaki turns into an outlaw: she has no father, husband, or son to live for, and under patriarchy a woman does not live for herself alone.”

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: Yeah. So there have been, as you can imagine, criticisms by feminists of Kannaki’s characterization--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --considering she is a woman whose virtue lies in relation to the men in her life and also her chastity.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: This is obviously a very fair criticism, but personally I think her anger and her wrath are so powerful within the narrative and it’s so cool that she’s the principal hero of the story, that, like, I’m not actually upset about the anti-feminist implications considering the time period.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: I just think it’s cool that she gets to be the main character, and her rage is very justified and not dismissed in any way.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: There’s definitely something to be said about the fact that she never would have become a goddess if not for the way she behaves as a loyal wife and a chaste woman, but there’s also a sort of power to the way she reacts to injustice. Kannaki isn’t docile or fragile, but she’s angry and powerful.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Which I think is very cool.

Zoe: Yeah, yeah. One of my thoughts--I feel like, could it be said that she's sort of acting as a force of karma?

Lizzie: Interesting.

Zoe: Because when she curses the city, and calls for all the unrighteous to be killed, isn't that sort of calling for everyone to pay for the crimes that they've committed?

Lizzie: That's a--yeah.

Zoe: And the bad deeds that they've committed. And so, in the way she's sort of, like--

Lizzie: She's carrying out their-their fate.

Zoe: She's carrying out their fates, and she's sort of causing the karmic results of their, you know, crimes--

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: --and their bad deeds they committed.

Lizzie: But you could say she's just more of an agent of karma, rather than a force herself.

Zoe: Yeah. Yeah, she's sort of, like, you know, a conduit, you know. She's making it happen, she's calling for it to happen. But then, of course, she's, like, the fact that she's even calling it to happen when it's such a powerful force is really, like, significant.

Lizzie: For sure. She's so powerful, and her rage and wrath are very powerful, and very interesting.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And in my opinion, the most important aspect of the story, and the most striking aspect is her wrath.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Like first of all, she’s shown to be righteous and justified, and is even celebrated for her actions, even though she killed people and set an entire city on fire.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Women’s rage is often not shown in a positive light, but in Kannaki’s story, her rage is transformative, healing, and ultimately one of the reasons she becomes a goddess herself.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: It may not bring her husband back, but it brings a sort of justice to the events.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: Yeah. She decides that this place isn’t acting in a moral and just way, so she punishes everyone and destroys the city. And that’s so powerful.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Yeah! Like, you know, she's bringing justice where there hasn't been justice, or she's sort of, like, allowing for the justice that needs to happen to happen.

Lizzie: Exactly.

Zoe: And that's super cool.

Lizzie: Yeah, and I also think it's notable to mention that though she does mourn and grieve, her principal reaction to losing her husband unfairly is anger, rather than sadness.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Okay.

Lizzie:She spends very little time crying over how unjust the situation is, and instead takes action. I find this very powerfulm especially because it strikes me as very rare. Women’s grief is much more acceptable when it’s characterized by crying and mourning, but Kannaki takes action against the unjust actions of the king and doesn’t even stop at his death. She wants to destroy the very foundation--

Zoe: (overlapping)Yeah!

Lizzie: --of the system that killed her husband, so she sets the city on fire!

Zoe: Mm hmm. And it's interesting because we talk a lot about how women's grief is depicted in mythology, and how it has, like, a lot of power behind it.

Lizzie: Exactly.

Zoe: And a lot of the time, it's because of, like, the weeping part, you know. Like they cry so much that they flood the world.

Lizzie: (overlapping)Which is also powerful.

Zoe: Yeah! And then this is also an aspect of grief, and the anger part of grief, which also shows its power.

Lizzie: Exactly.

Zoe: And then, like, what you said was that a lot of the people really thought it was a good thing, what she did.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: Like she was--everyone--it wasn't like oh, she was vilified afterwards, but then she was taken up into the heavens, and then everyone was like oh, she's great after all. You know, like everyone loved her for what she did, immediately saw what she did was right and just, and, like, celebrated her for it.

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly. And she even gets temples built to her because of it, like, it's great.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Lizzie: And there's also something to be said about the fact that even though she was extremely angry, she still takes the time to say that she doesn’t want righteous and innocent people to suffer--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --no matter how immoral the city is to her. And she spares a lot of lives as well.

Zoe: Yeah. And isn't there um, a god that comes down to tell--to call her to calm down?

Lizzie: Yeah. Maturāpati.

Zoe: Right, yeah. I do, like, think that's interesting.

Lizzie: And it's a female - female god! It's a goddess!

Zoe: Yeah, so, it's a woman, which is cool. I think it's also interesting that, you know, there's someone who intervenes and tells her to stop. So she's not allowed to fully unleash her rage.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: And that's probably a good thing. But, like, there is something keeping her in check. There is someone.

Lizzie: Yeah, but also Maturāpati also explains everything that happened to her, like, all this past life stuff and everything.

Zoe: Right, yeah.

Lizzie: So that's also very cool.

Zoe: Yeah, like, helps her see the big picture of everything.

Lizzie: Yeah. So, a bronze statue was built of Kannaki in 1968 in Chennai, the capital of the Tamil Nadu region of India. It features Kannaki holding an anklet and demanding justice for her husband.

Zoe: Awesome!

Lizzie: The statue was erected as part of an initiative to make statues of ten Tamil icons who were associated with the history of Tamil literature. So, uh, 33 years later, in December 2001, the statue disappeared from its pedestal, which was reported to be because a truck had damaged the pedestal and the statue had to be removed for its safety. Basically what happened was there was this politician called J. Jayalalithaa, who was the chief minister of the Tamil Nadu from May to September 2001, and she resigned due to corruption charges. After the statue disappeared in December, another political party claimed that the statue had been removed on the advice of Jayalalithaa’s astrologers, who claimed that the statue could bring her misfortune.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: But the statue was reinstalled in 2006 under the leadership of M. Karunanidhi, who had called the removal of the statue “a challenge to Tamil pride.”

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie: Which goes to show you how big the Cilappatikāram is in the Tamil Nadu region.

Zoe: Definitely, yeah.

Lizzie: So, as for the anklet, the titular anklet. So, anklets provide protection against evil spirits, probably deriving from the symbolic value of the circle, so taking a person’s anklet represents robbing that person of their strength and dignity.

Zoe: Oh, okay.

Lizzie: So the fall Madurai begins with the goldsmith’s theft of the Queen’s anklet, and Kovalan arrives in Madurai at this crucial moment, unaware of what he was stepping into, trying to sell an anklet himself, which is already an omen in itself.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Kannaki appears in front of the king and breaks her anklet in front of him, another--

Zoe: Oh!

Lizzie: Yeah, another inauspicious omen. And the anklet, a symbol of her chastity, becomes a symbol of her vengeance.

Zoe: Wow!

Lizzie: Yeah. And so the anklet is both a symbol of Kannaki’s wrath and power, and also again a symbol of the motif of karma, that our fates are predestined by past actions. The theft of the queen’s anklet by the goldsmith was a catalyst to the events of the epic, and ultimately led to the destruction of Madurai. And nothing could get in the way of that ultimate destiny.

Zoe: Uh huh. Yeah!

Lizzie: And even now, any depiction of Kannaki is recognizable by her wielding of the anklet, notably in the bronze statue I mentioned earlier.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Well, that's really cool! I think that's really interesting it becomes such, like, a symbol of power. And, like, the fact that he's selling her anklet and that means he's selling her protection and dignity...

Lizzie: Yeah! And she's--and she's happy to give it up because she loves him so much, but.

Zoe: (overlapping)Yeah. And then, like, like, that's also interesting considering her role as this chaste, virtuous woman, and, like, how that compares to that. But then also compared to how he's really hurt her, he left her for another woman, she's been grieving for a really long time, and, like, how now he's taking this bigger symbol away from her.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: And how that probably, like, contributes to the reason why he's facing up to repercussions for his actions, and, like, the things that he's been doing.

Lizzie: Yeah, for sure. Like, he definitely has a lot of things to atone for, from, like, cheating on his wife and breaking her heart--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: To actions in his past life, and yeah.

Zoe: Mm hmm. But yeah! And then it becoming a symbol of her dignity and vengeance.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: Even when it's broken, like, when it - this anklet is broken, taking away--supposedly taking away her protection, instead it becomes more of her protection, becomes more of her vengeance, and her anger, and her wrath.

Lizzie: (overlapping)Yeah, and this is when she sort of becomes a goddess, you know?

Zoe: Yeah. And she's challenging, like, everything around her.

Lizzie: (overlapping) And she becomes super powerful, and everything.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: And that's really great. Thank you so much for sharing this, this is super cool!

Lizzie: Yeah, I really loved her story.

Zoe: I'm so excited, if there's more, to hear more. And thanks for listening! If you enjoyed our episode, feel free to leave us a review, and tell all your friends, and we'll be back here next week with another episode!

Both: Thank you!

Zoe: Buh-bye.

Outro, underscored by music:

Zoe: Mytholadies Podcast is produced by Elizabeth LaCroix and Zoe Koeninger. Today’s episode was researched and presented by Elizabeth LaCroix, with help from Margot and Zaïn. You can find us on Instagram and Twitter (and now Tumblr) @mytholadies, and visit us on our website at Mytholadies.com. Our cover art is by Helena Cailleaux. Our music was written and performed by Icarus Tyree. Thanks for listening! See you next week.