India in Silappadikaram

Written by London swaminathan

Article No.1844 Date: 4 May 2015

Uploaded at London time: 8-36 am

(This article was sent for publication in the Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi souvenir last year)

(S Swaminathan was a Senior Sub Editor of Dinamani, a Tamil language daily, in Madurai before taking over as the Producer of the BBC Tamil Service in London. Later he started teaching Tamil as a part time tutor at SOAS, University of London)

Tamil epic Silappadikaram (also written as Cilappatikaram) is an encyclopaedia of art and music of the ancient Tamils. Ilango Adikal, author of Silappadikaram, has dealt with almost all the topics under arts and culture of the land. But not many people know that Ilango was equally proficient in the geography and history of India as well. I would like to point out the amazing knowledge of Ilango about the Indian subcontinent. But for his reference to King Gajabahu of Sri Lanka, we wouldn’t have fixed the date of Kovalan and Kannaki. Though the story of Kannaki and Kovalan happened around second century CE, the epic must have been written a few centuries later. The language and style of the poetry in the epic serve as strong pointers in this direction.

The epic runs to 5270 lines and it contains 13,870 words. This is the biggest work closer to the Sangam period. It is worthwhile to compare it with the oldest Tamil work Tolkappiam. Tolkappiam, the Tamil grammar book, runs to nearly 4000 lines with 13,708 words. But again there is some controversy about the dating of Tolkappiam and particularly the third chapter of the grammar book, namely Porul Adhikaram that is considered a later addition by many scholars.

The epic is divided into three Kandams (cantos) on the basis of geographical and political divisions of Tamil country Choza, Pandya and Chera corresponding to Pukar, Madurai and Vanji. These are the capital or major cities of ancient Tamil Nadu. The use of the words Kandam for divisions is copied from Valmiki Ramayana which has seven Kandams(6+1).

We see a very clear shift from the four fold natural divisions of Sangam literature (Kurinji, Mullai, Neithal and Marutham) to a fully fledged city culture in the epic. The graphic description of Pukar(5-6/40) and Madurai streets (Ur Kan Katai) is remarkable. There is no denying the fact cities did exist even during Sangam period. But that was not the main basis of those poems. We see such descriptions in Madurai Kanchi, a Sangam Tamil work. In short we read more about urban culture in the epic than the rural culture of the Sangam literature. The absence of Kurinji, Mullai, Neithal and Marutham in the epic is noteworthy. Ilango mentioned even Ujjain (6-29) and the forests of Vindhya Mountains (6-29) in Madhya Pradesh.

Ilango did not miss the opportunity to describe in detail the two great rivers Kaveri and Vaigai that run through Choza and Pandyan territories. The beautiful descriptions of these rivers are a treat to nature lovers. The River Kaveri has not changed much in the past two thousand years, but Vaigai has lost its beauty. Even in Paripatal, an anthology of Sangam Literature, we see beautiful descriptions of Vaigai.

Ode to River Kaveri (kanalvari)

Hail, Kaveri!

Robed with flowers, swarmed by singing bees, you roam,

Sinuous and fanciful,

Casting dark glances from your swift

And carp like eyes

Your gait and charming looks are the pride

Of your lord, whose virtuous sceptre’s never gone astray

Hail, Kaveri!

(Another two stanzas are there in the epic)

River Vaigai in the background

Vaigai and the city of Madurai are described in the ‘Puranceri Irutha Katai’:-

The Vaigai River, daughter of the sky, wanders ever on the tongues of the poets, who sings the generous gifts she bestows on the land she has blesses. Most cherished possession of the Pandya Kingdom, she resembles a noble and respected maiden. Her dress is woven of all the flowers that fall from the date tree, the Vakulam, the Kino, the white Kadamba, the gamboges, the Tilak, the jasmine, the Myrobalan, the pear tree, the great Champak and the saffron plant. The broad belt she wears low around her hips is adorned with lovely flowers of Kuruku and golden jasmine, mixed with Musundai’s thick lianas, the wild jasmine, he convolvulus, the bamboo, the volubilis, the Pidavam, the Arabian jasmine. The sand banks, edged by trees in blossom, are her youthful breasts. Her red lips are the trees that spread their red petals along the shore her lovely teeth are wild jasmine buds floating in the stream. Her long eyes are the carp, which playing in the water, appear and vanish like a wink. Her tresses are the flowing waters filled with the petals (13-151/174).

Both Kannaki and Kovalan cried out in wonder, “This is not a river but a stream in blossom”.

This beautiful description of River Vaigai is different from River Kavery. This shows his skill and his love of nature.

River Kaveri (Cauvery)

Holy Mountain and Holy River

Tamils were very familiar with the Himalayas and the River Ganges. We have lot of references to these in the oldest part of Sangam literature such as Purananuru. There is no wonder that Ilango also referred to this mountain and the river in several places in the epic. Sangam poets used Himalayas and Pothiyam Hill in pairs (Puram 2-24), probably an indirect reference to sages of the Himalayas and Sage Agastya who had settled in the Pothiyam Hill from the North. The very concept of taking a stone from the holy Himalayas and bathing it in the holiest of the Indian rivers, Ganges, (Vazthu Katai) show that the ancient Tamils considered the big land mass from the southernmost Kanyakumari to the northernmost Himalayas as one entity that belonged to everyone in the country. Chera King Senguttuvan was praised as the ruler of the land between the Himalayas and Kumari.

Reference to holy shrines such as Venkatam where the most famous Balaji temple is located at present, and Srirangam (11-40/41), is also interesting.

Ilango’s reference to Senguttuvan’s sea expedition to destroy the pirates (23-81) and the foreign intruders are examples of his knowledge about the seas surrounding the peninsular. Marine trade with Rome and the West was flourishing during the first few centuries of our era. Though Silappadikaram is a post Sangam work, the Tamils must have felt very proud of their success in the foreign trade. Yavanas are mentioned in four places in the epic 5-10, 14-67, 28-141 and 29-26. The epic says that Chera king ruled the prosperous land of the Yavanas (28-141 and 29-26), may be the North West region of India. It was under the Indo-Greek kings for few centuries.

Ilango’s knowledge of the seas, rivers, mountains, cities and other spots of natural beauty, is amazing. To make the epic more interesting he had added some interesting details about the caves or underground tunnel routes (Katukan Katai)  to Madurai from Alagarkoil, a Vaishnavite shrine near Madurai. As of now we don’t know any such route linking Madurai with Alagarkoil, but in his days probably mountain pass or caves must have existed. Until very recently Alagarkoil hill was very green with thick forests.

In the Venir Katai, he defined the boundaries of Tamil Nadu between Venkatam and the Southern seas. He refers to the semi mythical land Uttarakuru (2-10). Strangely the earliest reference to the River Jamuna and Krishna comes from Sangam Tamil Literature (Aka 59-4) and Ilango refers to it in Aychiyar Kuravai(17-22).

Gajabahu and King of Malava

At the end of the epic he narrates the consecration ceremony attended by Gajabahu, King of Sri Lanka and Kings from Malava (30-157/160). Earlier in the poem he refers to the Satavahanas, who were his friends.

Author’s e mail: swami_48 @

Books used

The Cilappatikaram, translated by Prof.V R Ramachandra Dikshitar, 1939. Second edition, The South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society Tinnelvelly Limited, 1978

Shilappadikaram (The Ankle Bracelet), translated by Alain Danilelou, A New Directions Book, New York, 1965