Structural Identity in Old Tamil Narratives

Structural Identity in Old Tamil Narratives

The nature of composition of an epic consists of synthesising or joining a number of myths, legends, stories and poems existing previously, and a reservoir of earlier available knowledge transmitted orally or through recorded material. But the epic poet subordinates most of this material to his epic purpose. His purpose is to transmit the inherited material along with his own creation. But he leaves a number of clues about the materials he has used, pointing backwards to earlier ages. This is what we call as the identity of a narrative. At the same time it has also its own embellishments and additions which we may consider as diversity. No epic is different in structure from the above said procedure.

Old Tamil culture is constructed mostly through the materials available from the Cankam Classics , Tirukkural and the singular epic Cilappatikaram. Among these poems, we can call Cilappatikaram the founding narrative, which is ontologically the first epic in Tamil. It has served as a reference point for subsequent epics produced in Tamil. The cultural authority, and the disseminative power of this epic narrative work have remained unshaken for centuries.

The role of Cilappatikaram in producing the history of the Tamils by establishing them as a cultural community and giving them a group identity has been great. The creation of a nation involves the positing of a history, the past – with a pride. The story of Cilappatikaram addresses its group of readers in such a way as to pull them into the Tamil community. What is transmitted through literary means of remembrances of things past in Cilappatikaram is appa- rently embedded in the collective consciousness of the people of Tamilnadu. Jonathan Culler calls such narratives as foundational narratives. He says: “for foundational narratives it should be crucial that the story exist independently of the narrative presentation.” (Narrative: a seminar, 1994: Sahitya Akademi, p.9) This is true of Cilappathikaram, which has various versions of its story in folk tales, folk ballads, and other forms of narratives found in Jaffna, Tamilnadu, Kerala and Malaysia.

Not only Cilappathikaram, but all the five great epics (Aimperum Kappiams) in Tamil are taken for analysis here. These are the ‘old Tamil narratives’ referred to in the title. These five epics were singled out and made into a group in the olden days because they belong to the ideology of Jainism and Buddhism and they stand against Vedic tradition. This itself is a point of identity among these. Among these, Cilappatikaram is not totally a-vedic, and hence its popularity.

Among the five epics, Cilappatikaram, Manimekalai and Civaka Cintamani are men’s texts, whereas the other two are women’s texts, according to their point of view. Cilappathikaram tries to fashion a noble woman who is virtuous to her husband even when he errs, but who fights for his cause even after his death. Civaka Cintamani portrays its hero as a perfect male, who subdues a number of women through his prowess and skills. The main theme of the story seems to be this: “Be subservient to women, you will get ruined; make them subservient to you, you will get name and fame”.

Manimekalai’s story is set in a different vein, though it follows the story thread of Cilappatikaram in a linear way. The daughter of Madhavi, Kovalan’s concubine, Manimekalai becomes a Buddhist nun. She serves the society with her Akshaya Patram by giving food to the poor and disabled, and preaches Buddhist doctrines till her death. Though we can take the epic Manimekalai glorifies the daughter of a courtesan, we can take it to mean if she wants to lead a virtuous life, the only way is to become a nun. This is a kind of sexist bias prevalent from old days till now. Thus the independence of womanhood is established beyond doubt against Cathanar’s own objective.

The stories of the other two kavyas are somewhat radical, revolting against male chauvinism; that might be the reason why they were forgotten and lost. The story of Kuntalakesi is that of a woman who kills her husband (when he wants to deceive her into death) and becomes a Buddhist nun. The story of Valayapati is the story of a woman who challenges her husband to give her due place as his wife and succeeds in her vow. She is enticed by a man to having sex, and is abandoned by him eventually saying that she was after all a prostitute. She challenges him saying that she will establish her identity as his wife one day and that too, through his own son.

The story of Cilappatikaram points towards the earlier independent existence of many legends and stories, whereas many folk songs and other materials are also woven ino the texture of the epic.
The story begins at the beginning in Pukar, the river port at the mouth of the Kaveri. It reaches the plains in Madurai. Then the shadow of the story continues in the third book of Vanchi on the hills, as if the epic is progressing upstream and uphill on a structural antithesis.

The themes in the epic develop from one position to an opposite position. The state of ideal lovers Kovalan and Kannaki breaks down when Kovalan, leaving Kannaki at home, becomes engrossed with a dancer, Madhavi. As Kovalan thinks that he has found an ideal life with her, that also breaks down on the sands of the sea shore beach (where nothing could grow). Disenchanted, Kovalan returns to his uncomplaining wife.This brings a complete swing of the pendulum for Kovalan.

Three events which are mentioned in Cankam literature, which have no inter connection among them, have formed the basis of the story of Cilappatikaram, we can guess. The first event is the story of Kannaki in Purananuru. Kannaki is the wife of Pegan, a chieftain. This is akin to the first movement of Cilappatikaram story-the story of Pukar Kandam.
In the second movement of the epic, the couple matures to ideal wife and husband through a long journey together upstream through fields (from Neytal to Mullai land). In the cowherdess Madari’s humble home, it looks as if Kovalan was Krishna himself (the name Kovalan itself is a variant of Gopala – Lord Krishna) -the man-divine in rustic disguise, and Kannaki, the little Radha (or Nappinnai in Tamil), in the house of Yasodha (Madari). This reference is made by the author Ilanko Adikal himself, and the celebration of Aychiyar Kuravai (Dance and Songs in praise of Lord Krishna) reinforces this idea.

Kovalan’s punishment and his vindication after death bring to our memory the episode told in Narrinai that a woman who ate a mango fruit which came away in a stream from the Chieftain Nannan’s garden, was punished with death and afterwards she took vengence on him.

Kannaki disfigures herself by tearing away her left breast and orders Agni, the Fire element, to burn Madurai. In Narrinai we come across a similar incident. A woman. who was abandoned by her man, tears away her left breast in grief.

What follows in the third book of Vanchi is the process of mythification in which the events of the first two books become shrouded in a legend and then into a myth, leading to the deification of Kannaki as the Goddess of Virtuousness. This virtuous wife has become the cause of a national expedition by the Cera king Cenkuttuvan to the Himalayas. This politicization of the legend of a virtuous individual may seem antithetical to the very principles for which Kannaki sacrificed her own life. It is like a nation waging an imperial crusade to spread the virtuous principles of a Faith.

This subplot might have been introduced in the epic as an after thought. This mythification contains the reminiscences of the conflicts of early ages (presumably in the Indus valley and after) when Dravidian kings were continually required to fight against the incoming foreigners (Aryans), and were attempting to hold the line of control as far north as possible. That they were obviously marking the limits of their sway on the peaks of the Himalayas is remembered in the epic.

The Cera King Cenkuttuvan when proclaiming his expedition, in fact, recalls previous such attempts by Dravidian kings leaving their marks on the Himalayas. He also remembers his own earlier conquests while taking his mother to bathe in the Ganga when he had to fight his way against several thousand Aryan soldiers.
In the present expedition, the poet compares this battle to the three other such battles-this is also a mark of identity: the war that lasted eighteen years between Devas and Asuras, eighteen months between Rama and Ravana, eighteen days between Kauravas and Pandavas. This battle of Cenkuttuvan lasts only eighteen nazhigais (one nazhigai being 48 minutes).

Apparently memories of many heroic struggles have coalesced into three or four major battles, that are preserved in the Indian epics. In fact, these conflicts may have been historical, as well as racial or cultural struggles for superiority. The racial and cultural struggle is obvious in Cilappathikaram as in Ramayana or some other Puranas.
Apart from the elements told above, everything else is the author’s own contribution-his diversity from the older narratives. Before Ilanko Adigal, the only narratives found in Tamil were Pattuppattu and Paripatal. They were not fictional narratives. It was Ilanko Adigal’s ingenuity to form a story from a few elements he acquired from Cankam literature and give the Tamils a national identity.

A kind of structural analogy can be found among the five epics, as shown below:
The structure of Cilappathikaram can be presented like this:
Kovalan (Lover/Husband)


Pandya King (Offender)

A similar structure can be found in Manimekalai:

Udayakumaran (Lover/Husband in previous birth)


Chola Queen (Offender)

A similar structure can be found in Civaka Cinthamani too:

Women (Lovers, Symbolic of various qualities, wives)


Kattiyankaran (Offender)

Besides this common structure, the three protagonists have divine powers or powers bequeathed to them by divine beings.They gain a victory over the offenders and gain superiority. This makes them Men’s Texts, as pointed out before.

The structure of the stories of the twin epics which were lost, Kuntalakesi and Valayapati is somewhat different. (Women’s Texts).

Kuntalakesi-(Challenge to her life)-

kills her husband-

becomes a nun and preaches Buddhist doctrines-

(a superior position attained).

Valayapati-(Challenge to the wife’s life/honour)-

challenges her husband-

wins over him-

(a superior position attained).

Cilappatikaram is different from the other epics in that it presents multiple points of view, and focalizers like Kavunthi and Madala Marayon. For example, in Kanal Vari itself, Kovalan’s point of view is presented in his songs, and Madhavi’s point of view is presented in her songs. In the first two cantos, Kavunti acts as a representative voice to Ilanko Adikal, but in the third canto, Madala Marayon gains superiority. Yagnas and other rituals are performed according to his directions.

In all other epics the stories are presented only through the omniscient point of view. We can guess that Manimekalai could have been written against the indoctrination of Cilappathikaram. Religious conflicts were in vogue largely at that period. In Cilappatikaram, Kavunti explicates the virtue of giving protection to others when she introduces Madari. Catanar, the author of Manimekalai, in an episode (Kathai 5) tells that Jains did not give protection to a girl who was given by Sudhamati’s father. At the same time he creates a character Aaputhran who even gives away his life for the sake of others. Cilappatikaram portrays the effects of Uzh or destiny, and says that no body can challenge it. But Manimekalai presents the view that even downtrodden women can win over Uzh. Kuntalakesi and Valayapati are also of a similar view (‘You can shape your own destini’).