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Shilappadikaram

Shilappadikaram or the Ankle Bracelet is one of the five major epics of Tamil literature. It was composed as a verse romance in Tamil by Ilango Adigal, a Jain prince who lived in the second century ad and was one of the most renowned classical poets of ancient India.
Shilappadikaram is a tale of wonders and misfortunes, of hapless mortals and capricious deities, of magic and heroism in a bright but also cruel world in which the law of karma rules and where ‘actions committed in past lives must always bear fruit’. Thus the peerless young Kovalan will leave his loyal wife Kannaki for the courtesan Madhavi and though he returns to her, still meets his death because of her ill-omened ankle bracelet. It has been called an epic and even a novel, but it is also a book of general education. Ilango packed his story with information: history merging into myth, religious rites, caste customs, military lore, descriptions of city or country life. And four cantos are little anthologies of the poetry of the period (seashore and mountain songs, hunters’ and milkmaids’ songs), thereby giving us a vivid picture of early Indian life in all its aspects.

Thoughts : Shilapadhikaram is one of the five great epics of Tamil Literature (The other four being Manimekhalai, Valayapathi, Kundalakesi and Sivaka Sinthamani). If you guys are awayre of my Indian Reading Challenge, you’ll know that I was supposed to read Ponniyan Selvam for the Tamil Nadu portion but when I was offered Silapadhikaram, one of the five epics, by the producer I couldn’t help but grab it.

This is, at the root of it, the story of a betrayal. Man leaves chaste wife for a dancing girl whose mother robs them of their wealth. There are, of course, many finer points and involves the gods and the Indian ideal Pathi Vrathai (the woman who will be absolutely obedient and do anything for her husband) but at the root of it, it is about a naïve cheating husband who comes back a fool. They decide to sell the wife’s last bit of inheritance, an anklet, from her family so they can continue living and somehow, his lack of wealth gets him mistaken for a thief by the king’s men who recognise the anklet as a royal bit of jewellery. He is arrested and killed. When his wife comes to hear of this she wreaks havoc on the kingdom, proving her husband’s innocent and her purity.

The story style is terribly flowery, flowery enough to put Shakespeare to shame, and if you cannot tolerate that, you ought to skip reading this. I assume the original is just as, if not more, flowery. The attention to arbitrary detail is quite great, right from the weather in each chapter, to the kind of flowers blooming to what fabric the curtains are made of. But this is supposed to be poetic and that, it is in a way. It would be very enjoyable if you were to read a chapter at a time instead of flying through it, as you would a modern novel.

My problem with it is the attention to women’s body parts in each chapter. There is a line here, I’m not quoting it exactly because I forgot to tab it, but it goes something like this “Oh graceful woman whose slender waist bends with the weight of her breasts.” This is such a terribly annoying line and if this language annoys you, please avoid this book. Women in this period are only valued for their “virtue” their looks and their wealth, nothing more, nothing less and if you cannot stomach that, this isn’t for you.

A note about the “songs” or the poetry. I don’t know how this sounds in it’s original language so i can’t comment on the translation but I do find it lacking rhythm. But I suppose translating epic poetry isn’t really an easy task so i will say that a lot of them were very enjoyable. Particularly the ones that Kannaki sings to her husband.

It is for you, however, if you love the epics and the flowery writing style that our original authors are known for. And this one in particular if you want to read an epic with a main female character (Silappadhikaram is the only epic among that five to have a female lead. This actually brought it a lot of flak at the time but later on critics praised it for its forward thinking.) which is why I wanted to read it. It’s the olden days’ version of femme Friday and that made me grab it.

Silappadhikaram was a very interesting read for me, particularly since I hadn’t read anything from Tamilnadu before. I can’t really compare it to anything that you may not have already heard of but if you want to know about Tamil culture and are willing to suspend your disbelief or imagine this is mythology and fantasy, please grab Shilappadikaram on amazon here.

Aleph also has a few other translated works available like The Tirukkural, Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader and The Adventures of Amir Hamza.

Big thanks to Aleph for giving me a copy to review. Opinions are my own.

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