Kannagi (Kannaki) a legendary Tamil woman is the central character of the South Indian epic Silapathikaram. Legend has it that Kannagi took revenge on the King of Madurai, for a mistaken death penalty imposed on her husband Kovalan, by cursing the city with disaster.
Kovalan, the son of a wealthy merchant in Kaveripattinam, married Kannagi, a young woman of legendary beauty. They lived together happily in the city of Kaveripattinam, until 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, penniless, Kovalan realised his mistake, and returned back to Kannagi. Their only asset was a precious pair of anklets (Chilambu – hence the name of the epic), filled with gems, which she gave to him willingly. With these as their capital they went to the city of Madurai, where Kovalan hoped to recoup his fortunes by trade.
The city of Madurai was ruled by the Pandya King Nedunj Cheliyan – 1. Kovalan’s objective was to sell the anklets in this kingdom so that he and his wife would be able to start their lives over. Unfortunately, around the time he set out to sell the anklets, one anklet (out of a pair) was stolen from the queen, by a greedy court member. This anklet looked very similar to Kannagi’s. The only difference was that Kannagi’s were filled with rubies and the queen’s filled with pearls, but this was not a visible fact. When Kovalan went to the market, he was accused of having stolen the anklet. He was immediately beheaded by the King’s guards, without trial. When Kannagi was informed of this, she became furious, and set out to prove her husband’s innocence to the King.
Kannagi came to the King’s court, broke open the anklet seized from Kovalan and showed that it contained rubies, as opposed to the queen’s anklets which contained pearls. Realizing their fault, the King and the Queen died of shame. Unsatisfied, Kannagi tore out a breast and flung it on the city, uttering a curse that the entire city be burnt. Due to her utmost chastity, her curse became a reality.
The city was set ablaze resulting in huge human and economic losses. However, after the request from the goddess of the city, she withdrew her curse and later, attained salvation. The story was narrated by the poet Ilango Adigal. A fascinating, but ironic, fact about this epic is that it portrays Madhavi, Kovalan’s amorous lover, as an equally chaste woman. Manimekalai, another ancient Tamil epic, is written in praise of her.
After setting fire to Madurai City, Kannagi on her way to Kodungalloor in Kerala, gave “Darsan” to the natives at Attukal in Thiruvananthapuram. They constructed a Temple at Attukal. It is also believed that Devi finally reached Kodungalloor and settled at Kodungalloor Devi Temple south of Guruvayoor. The events related to Kannagi have high influence in the traditions and culture of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Perceptions of Kannagi
Kannagi (Kannaki Amman) is eulogized as the epitome of chastity and is still worshipped as its goddess. She is praised for her extreme devotion to her husband in spite of his adulterous behaviour. She is worshiped as Goddess Pathini in Sri Lanka by the Sinhalese Buddhists, Kannaki Amman by the Sri lanka Tamils Hindus’ and as Kodungallur Bhagavathy (Kodungallur Devi / Kodungallur Amma) and Attukal Bhagavathy (Attukal Devi / Attukal Amma) in South Indian state Kerala.
It must be noted that Kannagi is also viewed as a brave woman who could demand justice directly from the King and even dared to call him “Unenlightened King”. The point here is that while she was behaving in a non-interfering manner with her domestic problems, she was no meek woman that would brook injustice in the rule of the law.