Book: The Cilappatikaram (The Tale of an Anklet)
Author: Ikanko Atikal (translated by R. Parthasarathy)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 419 (including Introduction and Postscript)
Format Read: Paperback
I have always been intrigued by the ancient Tamil epic Cilappatikaram. Hard not to be, really – there has always been something mystical, and magical, about this epic, something that revealed itself in glimmering shades of wonder through its verses.
The author, Ilanko Atikal was, as he says so himself in the Prologue, the younger brother of the Chera king Cenkuttuvan. The Penguin edition I own has a detailed map; the Cilappatikaram is set in the Chola and Pantiya kingdoms (roughly modern Tamil Nadu) and its author is from the Chera kingdom (roughly modern Kerala.) Ilanko Atikal, having heard of a wondrous event that took place in Madurai, proceeds to tell the story of Kovalan and Kannaki in Tamil.
Kovalan and Kannaki have the perfect marriage and their romance is perfect, until Kovalan meets the beautiful and highly accomplished dancer Matavi. He leaves the distraught Kannaki for Matavi, enchanted by the dancer’s grace, and music, and beauty.
The Cilappatikaram reads like music, and with poetic interludes and snippets of song. The author has also, through astute poetry, recreated the charms of ancient Pukar – its ports and streets and mansions, the Yavana (foreigner) traders who speak many languages, the temple festivals (especially the festival of Indra, described in great detail in Canto 5, page 46.) The poem proper is divided into sections. The Book of Pukar chronicles the lives of Kovalan and Kannaki, and Kovalan’s introduction to Matavi, the Book of Madurai sees Kannaki transform into Devi after a repentant Kovalan returns to her and is unjustly executed for theft. And the third section, the Book of Vanci, follows the events afterwards, with the Chera king making an appearance in the narrative.
And intertwined with Kovalan and Kannaki’s story are brief interludes that include songs; Ragas are elaborated, stages are described, and there are some very, very intriguing song and dance sequences like ‘The Round Dance of the Herdswomen’ (page 171) that uses musical notes assigned to young bulls.
The women of Cilappatikaram are strong and well detailed, and they play a crucial role in the unfolding of the events in the story. Kannaki, who was abandoned by Kovalan, is treated with respect, and not pity, and the eventual rage she displays when her husband meets his untimely end is as unexpected as it is powerful. Matavi, the dancer, is very well characterized, and is far from the scheming ‘other woman.’
Accompanying the text is a very detailed introduction that the translator R. Parthasarathy provides, with a wealth of information and a pronunciation guide, and a useful postscript.
I really enjoyed this edition of the Cilappatikaram, and frankly, I am not sure Ilanko Atikal’s masterpiece need be compared to the Greek epics, or any other epic, for that matter.
The Cilappatikaram is an intensely lyrical text that has inspired generations, and that alone is indicative of its greatness.
Notes: Except for Chera and Chola, I’ve used the same spellings of proper nouns, including names, as the translation.