Tamil literature is a treasure trove of fascinating characters and stories that have a lasting impact on anybody who comes in contact with it. One of these legendary characters is Kannagi, the calm yet courageous heroine from the Tamil epic "Silapathikaram" authored by Ilango Adigal. Her tale and persona are so strong that despite being a literary character, she is revered as a Goddess in Tamil Nadu.
Kannagi Statue in Marina Beach by Balaji Ravichandran
Being a Tamil, Kannagi was not an unfamiliar figure for me. Since childhood, I heard about the inspiring woman through my family and friends. However, I didn’t know who she really was and why she was such a revered personality in my town. So, I decided to dig into this character on my own.
THE STORY OF KANNAGI
In the old town of Puhar, there lived a wealthy merchant and ship captain called Manayakan. His only heir was his daughter Kannagi. Her long hair and mesmerizing appearance entranced hundreds, but it was her attributes that made her so desirable. Despite being the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in town, Kannagi was known for her innocence, simplicity, and generosity. When she reached a marriageable age, her parents married her to Kovalan, a young man from a very rich family of sea traders. Although this definitely looks like a perfect match, unfortunately, their life as a happily married couple was short-lived.
As a trader, Kovalan traveled to different places to secure good business deals. While he traveled across the country, Kannagi stayed at home doing all the chores expected out of a housewife. One day, during one of his tours, Kovalan met an enchantingly beautiful dancer called Madhavi. Being a great patron of dance and music, it didn’t take much time for Kovalan to fall for her charming beauty and graceful dance. To his great rejoice, Madhavi reciprocated his feelings, and with time, Kannagi was forgotten. So, he left his home and moved in with Madhavi with absolute disregard for his wife's feelings.
Meanwhile, at home, Kannagi sobbed from loneliness with the hope that her husband will return. The poor woman, absolutely clueless about her husband’s newfound love, longed for his arrival. Later, when she came to know about Madhavi, her heart shattered. She became speechless and hopeless. Despite Kovalan’s infidelity, Kannagi could not think of replacing him in her life. This is quite understandable as in those days, young girls were preached to stay with their husbands for the rest of their lives without expecting anything in return (including respect and care). So, like a dutiful wife, she patiently waited for her husband's return.
Finally, the day for which Kannagi awaited arrived. Kovalan realized his mistake and returned to his wife but was no longer a wealthy merchant. He was now a poor man who had bestowed all his riches on pleasure. Despite everything Kovalan did to her, Kannagi forgave him happily. Like every couple who have their share of ups and downs, they decided to start a new life in the big city of Madurai.
However, destiny had other things in store for them.
As the couple had no money, Kannagi offered Kovalan to sell her only possession- a precious pair of anklets that contained rubies. She removed one of her anklets and handed it to Kovalan. Kovalan hesitated to sell it, but he had no choice. So, he went to a nearby shop. However, the vendor suspected Kovalan of theft as from his shabby appearance, he didn’t look like an owner of such a valuable anklet. Coincidently, in the royal palace of Madurai, the queen’s anklet was also reportedly missing. The vendor thought that he had actually solved the mystery of the missing anklet and immediately took Kovalan to the palace. Without a second thought, the Pandya King, Nedunj Cheliyan ordered the execution of Kovalan on account of theft of the Queen’s anklet.
On hearing this gross injustice, Kannagi rushed to the palace. Like the justice-seeking goddess Kali, she left her long hair untied, held the remaining anklet in her hand, and looked at the king with fierce eyes and a vengeful heart. Aggressively she broke open her anklet and showed everybody the rubies in it. This made the king realize his misunderstanding as the queen’s anklet was made of pearls and not rubies. He couldn't handle the heavy guilt that engulfed him and ended his life immediately. Even though Kannagi had proved her husband's innocence, she couldn't bring him back to life. In grief, she cursed the entire city of Madurai to be burnt. Soon, the capital of the Pandyas was engulfed in flames. Her rage was so great that no man could pacify it. So, the Goddess Meenakshi descended from heaven and requested Kannagi to stop the fire.
Thereafter, Kannagi became a symbol of justice throughout the kingdom reminding everyone how a fast act of injustice can lead to catastrophic results. Today, she is lovingly revered as Kannaki Amman across Tamil Nadu.
Pratha Content Writing Intern