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Cilappatikaram (The Ankle Bracelet) also spelled as Cilappadhikaram or Silappadhigaram, is one of the five great epics of ancient Tamil Literature. It was written by Prince Ilango Adigal, brother of king Cheran Chenguttuvan (in modern day Kerala), in South India.

Prince Ilango Adigal wrote Cilappadhikaram as an erotic verse romance trilogy novel. It is a record of moral values, marriage, religion, art, music, dance, caste, myth, intercultural behavior, politics, military tactics, and idiom instruction. Although written about 1,700 years ago, it has numerous parallels with, as well as contrasts to, present day South Indian society.

Individual choices and purposes dominates the four moral lessons of Cilappadikaram: Divine Law takes the form of death when a king abandons duty, all must bow before a faithful wife, the ways of fate are mysterious, and all actions are rewarded.

Cilappatikaram was written between 200-300 AD. The story is rooted in the ordinary lives of the early Tamils of the Pandyan Kingdom. Written at the end of the third ancient Tamil Sangam, Cilappatikaram is only one of three surviving Great-Poems. No texts survive from either of the first two sangams. Coupling this extraordinary rarity with rich cultural information makes Cilappatikaram irreplaceably valuable in understanding both modern and ancient South Indian thinking. The reader starts chilappadikaram acutely aware of the cultural differences between the two worlds. He finishes it reflecting on the similarities.

The story narrates the history of three kingdoms: Chera (western), Chola (eastern), and Pandian (in the middle of South India).

The story in brief

Kovalan, the son of a wealthy merchant in Kavirippattinam, married Kannagi, the lovely daughter of another merchant. They lived together happily, until, at a festival at the royal court, Kovalan met the dancer Madhavi and fell in love with her. In his infatuation he forgot Kannagi and gradually spent all his wealth on the dancer. At last he was penniless, and returned repentantly to his uncomplaining wife. Their only fortune was a precious pair of anklets (cilambu--- hence the name of the epic), filled with pearls, which she gave to him willingly. With these as their capital they went to the great city of Madurai, where Kovalan hoped to recoup his fortunes by trade.

On their arrival at Madurai they found shelter in a cottage, and Kovalan went to the market to sell one of Kannagi's anklets. But the queen of Nedunjeliyan (king of Pandyas), had just been robbed of a similar anklet by a wicked court jeweler. The jeweler happened to see Kovalan with Kannagi's anklet, and immediately seized it and informed the King. Guards were sent to apprehend Kovalan, who was then killed on the King's orders. When the news was brought to Kannagi, she went to the king, her eyes ablaze with anger. She asked him what the queen's anklets contained - gemstones, and broke hers to reveal the pearls there, proving her husband's innocence. But her anger not abated, she tore out her left breast in her strong emotion. At this cue, a fire erupted and spread through Madurai and proceeded to destroy the city. Meanwhile, weakened, Kannagi made her way to a hillock outside the city, where she soon died.

Further reading

  • The Cilappatikaram of Ilanko Atikal: An Epic of South India (Translations from the Asian Classics) by R. Parthasarathy (1992)
  • A summary of the cilappathikaram: [1] (

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