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Tamil Nadu's
Epic of the Ankle Bracelet:
Ancient Story and Modern Identity

by Dr. Eric Miller

A self-published booklet.
First edition: Chennai, July 1991, 1000 copies.



Introduction. __
The Story From Prince Ilango Adigal's text __
The Story in 20 Sentences (Tamil / English) __

Far South of India (to be added) __
Africa-Europe-Asia (to be added) __

The Journey
Prologue __
Poompuhar __
En route __
Mayiladuthurai __
Thanjavur, Tiruchirappalli, and Pudukkotai __
En route to Kodumballur __
Madurai __
Southwest of Madurai __
Thekkadi __
Kodungallur __
Wilderness West of Pollachi __

Conclusion __

Appendix : Media Reports 
A) Oct. 9, '88 Ananda Vikitan (magazine) __
B) Oct. 28 The Hindu (newspaper) __
C) Nov. 4 All-India Radio __
D) Nov. 7 The Hindu __
E) Nov. 24 Dina Karan (newspaper) __
F) Dec. 8 The Hindu __
G) Jan 11, '89 Malai Murusu (newspaper) __



This essay concerns the significance of one story in the culture of Tamil Nadu, south India. The source material for the paper is primarily personal experiences and observations. 

I have been a student of stories and storytelling for a number of years. I have performed as a storyteller, and have written and produced plays. My favorite stories portray the relationship of the individual to society, history, and the cosmos. I find the uncovering of the connection between a single human being and all time and space to be exciting and deeply nourishing. During my early twenties, my scholarly interest in stories was galvanized when I learned that a story can be both a reflection of past social behavior and a model for the future. In various ways, people enact the stories and imitate the characters to which they feel related. 

My own culture is that of the present-day United States. In this culture it is not clear what, if any, stories guide and shape peoples' lives: the Biblical Hebrew and Christian myths are largely rejected or ignored. I felt that if I could observe a culture in which peoples' lives are more clearly affected by stories, my understanding of how stories operate in culture in general would be greatly enhanced. 

The culture of India continues to be alive with stories, so I chose that one to study. More specifically, I chose to visit the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. I chose the South because I wanted to experience and learn about a culture in which the female element is prominent--both on the social and mythological levels. Although matriarchy officially survives only in the jungles of Kerala, the social presence of females is striking throughout Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Goddess-worship, the perception and praise of the divine in female form, also continues to thrive in Tamil Nadu. This survival may be in part a result of south India's geographical isolation from the patriarchal groups (Aryans and Muslims, for example) that have invaded India from the north. 

I studied Tamil language and culture for ten years in the United States before I made my first trip. During this time of preparation, I came across a copy of Silappathikaram, the Epic of The Anklet, beautifully translated from sen(ancient)-Tamil into English by Alain Danielou. I liked the story at once. I was amazed that it was primarily about humans--I had taken it for granted that stories written 1300-1700 years ago in India would be concerned solely with divine figures. 

To conduct my investigation into the meaningfulness of the Epic of The Anklet to Tamilians today, I did two things: I studied the ancient story, and I observed contemporary Tamil society. 

The story was available to me especially in three forms: written, on film, and orally. Before I visited Tamil Nadu, I had read the story in English translation. In Tamil Nadu, I studied other English translations, began to learn to read the original (sen-Tamil) text, saw two cinema and one television version of the story and, of course, listened to people talk about it. 

From July 1988 until July 1989 I lived primarily in Tamil Nadu, although I also took excursions to other Indian states in the course of the year. I decided that a good way to collect folklore pertaining to the Epic of The Anklet would be to walk the route taken by the main characters. During a three month period (October-December) I walked from Poompuhar (where the story begins) to Madurai (where the story climaxes), a distance of approximately 300 kms (220 miles).  

I did not attempt to trace the exact route supposedly taken almost two thousand years ago. I walked on well-paved roads, through cities as well as through rural areas, unlike the hero and heroine of the story who traveled mostly through wilderness. (In general, I found it interesting to note what had changed and what had remained the same in Tamil Nadu since the Epic of The Anklet had been written.) 

I lived in Madurai for much of the year. Kannagi, the heroine of the story, stayed in Madurai for a briefer period. When she left, she headed west. There are differing opinions as to exactly where she went. I visited, by bus, three locales that have traditions of being the final earthly home of Kannagi: Thekkadi and Kodungallur in Kerala; and the wilderness west of Pollachi in Tamil Nadu. [Note for the Second Edition: In 2002, I walked from Madurai to the Western Ghats Mountains, an additional 200 kms, thus completing the Kannagi walk 13 years after I began it. Reflections on the Madurai-to-the-Mountains section of the walk are not yet included in this text.]

This report is composed of reflections on the people, places and things I experienced as I journeyed through the land of the Epic of the Anklet. Included are some answers to the following questions: 

To what extent do Tamilians today know the story, and what are their attitudes towards it? 

What do they think and feel about Kannagi, the story's heroine? 

To what extent do female Tamilians identify with and imitate Kannagi? 

Are the people who live along the fabled route aware of their special relationship to the story? 

Has the story shaped Tamilians' psyches? 

To what extent do Tamilians perceive reality in terms of the story and live it, consciously or unconsciously, within the paradigm provided by the tale? 

The Story (from Prince Ilango Adigal's text)

The classical text of the Epic of The Anklet, attributed to Price Ilango Adigal, is written in sen-Tamil, which, even in Tamil Nadu, is decipherable only to a small number of scholars. Through linguistic analysis, it has been estimated that the text was written between 1300 and 1700 years ago. A brief summary of this written text follows: 

In the olden days there were three kingdoms in the south of India: the Chola kingdom on the east coast, the Pandian in the center, and the Chera on the west coast. 

One day, in the mountainous forest of the Chera region (today, Kerala) tribal girls came across a lovely but distraught young woman. The forlorn young woman told them her story, upon which the tribal people pronounced her to be "Goddess of Chastity." Kannagi's fame spread. 

The king of the land, Shenguttuvan, heard about Kannagi. He requested that his brother, Prince Ilango Adigal, a monk who lived in those mountains, write down the young woman's story. Here is the biography that Prince Ilango Adigal wrote: 

The story begins in the great east-coast seaport of Poompuhar. Poompuhar was the capital of Chola land and home of mighty King Karikala. This is the same King Karikala who, early in his reign, had led a victorious expedition to the Himalayas. 

There in Poompuhar two wealthy merchants had children--one had a boy, Kovalan, and the other a girl, Kannagi. As youths the children were married, and they were set up in their own house, where they lived comfortably and happily for some years. 

One day Kovalan and Kannagi attended the debut of a court dancer/courtesan named Madhavi. Kovalan was so entranced with Madhavi that he became her patron. For a whole year Kovalan showered his attention and wealth on Madhavi. Finally, however, he became disillusioned with Madhavi and returned home to Kannagi, begging for forgiveness. 

Kannagi was delighted to see Kovalan--every day she had prayed for his return. She didn't scold him at all, even though the couple was now virtually penniless. Kovalan proposed that they seek their fortune elsewhere--Madurai. There he planned to sell their remaining valuables--Kannagi's ankle bracelets--and start a business. Kannagi agreed to go with him. 

The journey was extremely strenuous. Kannagi and Kovalan met a female Jain monk who guided them. They came upon fierce tribals--thieves and drunkards who practiced human sacrifice, but who were most hospitable towards Kannagi and her husband. A shamaness (prophetess, priestess) of the tribe went into possession and declared the timid and amazed Kannagi to be the "queen of the Tamil lands"! 

Finally Kovalan and Kannagi reached the outskirts of Madurai. Kovalan entered the town alone with one of the anklets, hoping to sell it. The court goldsmith, who had recently stolen an identical anklet from the queen, saw the one Kovalan was trying to sell. The goldsmith went to the Pandian king and accused Kovalan of being the thief who stole the queen's anklet. 

The Pandian king--who himself was in the bad graces of his queen because he also had been dallying with a court dancer--saw a chance to mollify his queen, and without investigating the case himself, ordered Kovalan apprehended and beheaded. The deed was done. When Kannagi heard of this, she fainted. Upon recovering, she stormed into Madurai and barged into the court. Here she broke open the queen's remaining anklet (containing pearls), the one Kovalan was trying to sell (containing rubies), and her remaining one (also rubies). This proved that Kovalan had not stolen the queen's anklet. The Pandian king, realizing he had abused his power, fell to the ground and died in penance. His queen followed him. 

Kannagi went outside and cursed the city at each of its four gates. Then she tore off her left breast and dashed it to the ground. She commanded Agni, god of Fire, to burn Madurai, permitting only the good to escape. Madurai burned. 

Kannagi, delirious and hysterical, wandered off toward the west. Upon reaching the mountainous forest, perhaps 200 kms to the west, she was discovered by the tribal girls. Eventually, Kannagi was swept up by a sky-chariot driven by her husband, Kovalan, and they went off to heaven together. Thus ends the biography of Kannagi, but Prince Ilango Adigal continues, telling the following epilogue: 

King Shenguttuvan of the Chera land vowed to lead an expedition to the Himalayas in order to get a boulder worthy of being carved into the form of Kannagi. He successfully completed the expedition, subduing all the Aryan kings along the way there and back. Finally, he had the boulder carved, and the resultant idol was installed in a temple built in honor of Kannagi, on the spot where she ascended. He ordered that ceremonies--including the placing of fresh flowers on the idol--be performed there every day. 


The Story in 20 Sentences  (Tamil script to be added)


Epic of the Anklet

SilappathikaramTamilin mihap palaya muthal kappiyamahum. 

Silappathikaramis the ancient and first epic in Tamil. 

Kannakithan athan kathanayaki. 

Kanaki is the heroine. 

Poompuharil aval piranthal. 

She was born in Poompuhar. 

Kovalan Masathuvanin mahan. 

Kovalan was the son of Masathuvan. 

Kannaki Kovalanai mananthal. 

Kannaki married Kovalan. 

Avarkal sila kalam amaithiyaka valnthanar. 

They lived peacefully for some time. 

Kovalan Madhaviyai kathalithan. 

Kovalan fell in love with Madhavi. 

Kovalan Kannakiyai vittu pirinthan. 

Kovalan left Kannaki. 

Avam Madhaviyudan valnthan. 

He lived with Madhavi. 


Avarkalukku oru kulanthai "Manimekalai" pirinthal. 

They had a child by the name, "Manimekalai." 


Kovalan Madhaviyudan oodal kondan. 

Kovalan and Madhavi had a quarrel. 


Avalai vittu pirinthan. 

He left her. 


Avan Kannakiyudan Maduraikku sentran. 

He went to Madurai with Kannaki. 


Kovalan Kannakiyin silambai virka ponan. 

Kovalan went to sell Kannaki's anklet. 


Pandiyan Nedunchezhian Kovalanai kentran. 

Pandiyan Nedunchezhian killed Kovalan. 


Kannaki neethikkaha poradinal. 

Kannaki fought for justice. 


Pandiyan tham kuttrathai eatrukondan. 

Pandiyan confessed his guilt. 


Pandiyan eranthan. 

Pandiyan died. 


Kannaki Thiruchengundram sentral. 

Kannaki went to Thiruchengundram. 


Aval than kanavarudan sernthu serkkathai adainthal. 

She joined her husband and went to Heaven. 

Maps (to be added)

Map of Far South of India 

Map of Africa-Europe-Asia 

The Journey


On the eve of my walk, I was taking a bus southward. It was late at night. We were heading toward a town inland from the coastal town of Poompuhar. I hoped to in the morning catch an early bus to Poompuhar and commence the walk. 

The bus hurtled along the tree-framed, unpainted road. Except for the bus' headlights, the night was absolutely dark. I was sitting in the back row of the partially-lit, sparsely-filled bus. To my left, on the seat against the window, rested my backpack, sleeping bag attached. It was my only piece of luggage--when I travel I like to keep all of my possessions in one piece. Suddenly, the bus made a particularly large bounce--up popped my backpack and out it flew through the rear exit (Indian buses of this type do not have rear doors). 

My course of action was clear: I dashed to the driver, told him what had happened, and asked him to stop, which he immediately did. I told him I had to get off and get my bag. I had no intention of asking him or his passengers to wait. It was a bit daunting to know that in a few moments I would be in utter darkness (I had a flashlight--in the backpack, of course), and that, even if I should find the backpack, I would be alone in a strange environment, but no matter--I had walked at night before and would again. 

The driver motioned for me to sit. He turned the bus around and went back 200 yards, where we all saw my backpack lying on the road. I fetched the backpack and jumped back on the bus. The driver turned the bus around once more and again we headed toward our destination. This time I sat well away from the rear exit, with my arm tightly around my backpack. A Tamil gentleman next to me said, "You are lucky. He did not have to do that." And that was the truth. Throughout my walk, and throughout my interactions with Tamil people in general, this bus driver's calm, protective gallantry would be repeated many times. For that, I am very, very grateful. 


The location designated as Poompuhar today is basically just a beach area. The spot is located 300 kms south of Chennai, the state capital. Legend has it that the original great city of Poompuhar fell into the sea. 

In the 1960's a Tamil leader, Dr. Kalaignar Muthuvel Karunanidhi, then Minister of Public Works, started developing Poompuhar. Some of Poompuhar's landmark structures--as described in Prince Ilango Adigal's text--have been rebuilt: an outdoor theatre, a pool for ladies to ritually bathe in, a lighthouse... There is a museum in which the story of the Epic of The Anklet is portrayed in 49 bas-relief panels. There is a lovely larger than life-size sculpture of Kannagi looking out to sea. There are plans of one day attempting a full undersea excavation of the site. 

Poompuhar is meant to be a tourist destination (for Tamils, especially) as well as an educational center. A branch of Hotel Tamil Nadu (one of which exists in all locations in Tamil Nadu where tourists are expected) has been built there, complete with small cottages and a restaurant. It is extremely economical to stay in Poompuhar (60 cents for a room, $1.20 for a cottage) and yet, not many people do--perhaps partly because local bus service is not convenient. A few bus loads of Tamil tourists on extended tours of Tamil Nadu arrive each day, but the buses leave before dark. School children are also bused in for short visits. 

It is very quiet in Poompuhar. One might almost say it is 'desolate.' The land is flat and composed of sand for a few hundred yards away from the water's edge. The Hotel Tamil Nadu complex is placed where the sparse vegetation begins. Shepherds watch their flocks of goats next to the cottages. Down by the beach, one hundred yards to the left, is a fishing community. Early every morning men go out in boats, which are composed of large planks of wood tightly strapped together. When they return in mid-morning, people stand on that beach and bargain with each other as they buy and sell the day's catch. This is how rural fisher folk have lived for thousands of years in this part of the world. The only visible change is that today the nets are all made of synthetic material. Otherwise, society here has clearly regressed since the glorious days of Poompuhar's teeming marketplaces--if Poompuhar indeed existed here. 

One man who worked in the Hotel Tamil Nadu in Poompuhar told me he had a personality conflict with his boss at another Hotel Tamil Nadu, so he had been sent here for a year as punishment. 

King Karikala was the most famous king of Poompuhar. It was at his court that Kovalan and Kannagi watched Madhavi's maiden dance performance. Karikala's rule is famous for being just and tolerant. The ancient text (written by a minority Jain) stresses that in this civilization practitioners of the three major ideologies of the day--Brahminism, Jainism, and Buddhism--lived together in peacefully. There are beautiful descriptions of the inhabitants of the town: housewives painting the steps in front of their homes, courtesans shopping for flowers that they will use to adorn their hair. The culture described is one in which opposites could co-exist harmoniously. 

The text of the Epic of The Anklet portrays a high level of technology. Sewage ran underground. King Karikala developed new irrigation techniques. The text states that the houses and halls of Poompuhar were built with precious stones and that the merchants were prosperous. Luxury and grandness abounded. Traders came from all 
over the world; the Greeks found it such a gracious place that a whole neighborhood of them lived there permanently (ancient Greek and Roman coins have been found in the area). 

Here we have a picture of a worldwide center--for goods, nationalities, and ideas. I sensed this international heritage among Tamils today, even in small towns: I was a foreigner, but I didn't feel altogether alien. 

The proposition that people frequented Poompuhar by sea from all over the world is perhaps supported by the fact that today one sees a great variety of facial types among the Tamils.  In the United States, the mixture of African and European races 
resulted to some degree in the following characteristic clusters: full-lips/wide-nose/receding-forehead/dark-skin as opposed to thin-lips/thin-nose/vertical-forehead/light-skin. This grouping of characteristics is markedly not the case among Tamils.  Despite the fact that I have lived most of my life in New York City, where I have seen people from all over the world, I was not accustomed to seeing the endless variety in the combinations of features and colors that I saw in Tamil faces. 

I must admit to moments of quiet, internal disorientation over this phenomena. For example: Was the dark-skinned/vertical-foreheaded/thin-lipped/thin-nosed person speaking to me--in English, with a crisp British accent--a "white" person or a "black" person? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the question I was asking was moot, that my system of classification was pointless. Such experiences underlined for me the absurdity of reacting to people differently because of the color of their skin, the shape of their nose, etc. 

One day I mentioned these thoughts to a Tamil scholar. He chuckled, "Yes, we Tamils are neither black nor white. We are a third race." 

The most commonly-held scholarly concept of the origin of the Tamils is that they migrated overland from around the Mediterranean--which would provide yet another explanation for the large number of Tamils who 'look European.' According to this theory, these settlers joined the Negroid peoples who were already settled on the sub-continent. 

On the other hand, it is a traditional Tamil belief is that they come from the island of Lemuria (located southeast of Sri Lanka), which was the equivalent of the West's Isle of Atlantis. In Lemurian civilization, it is said, people could fly, communicate telepathically, etc. These powers of 'mental technology' were not considered supernatural, but simply abilities of a race of high moral and spiritual attainment. 

When Lemuria sank, the civilization shifted to Poompuhar. The special mental, political, and moral powers of the Tamils degenerated along the way, but were still spectacular. 

After Kannagi left Poompuhar, Poompuhar in turn began to decline. In a sense, Kannagi is the prime spiritual descendent from Poompuhar. She would then also be the prime spiritual descendent from Lemuria, and indeed, she did carry on its valorous tradition in one very clear way. It was because of her high moral stature, her "chastity'" (a term I will explore later), that Kannagi could command a natural force (fire), and a supernatural force (Agni, god of Fire). 

Madurai is at the center, the heart, of Tamil Nadu. It is even further away-- geographically and morally--from Lemuria than is Poompuhar. In burning Madurai, Kannagi purged and purified it, regenerating its survivors. 

When King Shenguttuvan and his military expedition went up to the Himalayas in order to secure a boulder out of which to carve Kannagi's image, he was spreading Kannagi's legacy all over India. One the way southward, he forced the defeated Aryan kings to carry the boulder on their heads, symbolizing their defeat and moral transformation. 

The physical restoration of Poompuhar was part of an effort to bring the Epic of the Ankletto the consciousness of every Tamilian. From what I experienced, the effort has been a success: the legend of the greatness of ancient Poompuhar was enthusiastically embraced by every Tamil I spoke to about it. 

Most of all, the legend presents the picture of south Indians ruling themselves--and all India!--prosperously and peacefully. Many Tamils would like to rule themselves, at least, once again. In the 1950s there was a serious secessionist movement in Tamil Nadu: it was felt that this land, the most historically-conscious of the four southern states, should be a separate country. The drive for secession has subsided, but the sentiment lives on in many. 

The racial and cultural base of the Indian people is overwhelmingly Dravidian. (I use the word 'Dravidian' gingerly: it is an Aryan word, a Sanskrit word. It is the word by which the invaders described the people they found in the sub-continent when they arrived 8,000-10,000 years ago. As a student of Tamil culture, I would prefer to use Tamil words, and thus present situations from the Tamil point of view.) 

The Dravidian ritual emphasis was on the performing of pujas on idols of the mother-goddess and her offspring (washing, decorating it, etc.). The Aryans were a taller and lighter-skinned race; their rituals focused on fire worship of paternal sky deities. Today it is language that most clearly marks the difference between the people of North (17 states) and South (4 states). The northern languages--including the dominant one, Hindi--derive from Sanskrit, the language of the Aryans. Modern Tamil, like the other three southern languages, derive from sen-Tamil. 

Hindi is India's official national language. This makes it difficult for Tamils to obtain high-level jobs--they must learn Hindi if they wish to advance. Some Tamils would prefer English to be India's national language, in which case, they argue, all Indians would have an equal chance to advance. Tamils have learned English to a greater degree than North Indians, and many words of English have found their way into local vocabularies. Simply put, modern Tamil culture has embraced the English language, whereas modern north Indian culture has tended to be in competition with English. 

Some Tamils today speak of economic, as well as cultural, oppression. Just as Kovalan was killed by the king in the act of commerce, many Tamilians feel they are being abused by the "centre," New Delhi. 

There are indeed shortages of electricity in Tamil Nadu--and this seriously hinders industry. Depending on the neighborhood one lives in, and how much extra one is able to pay, one's electricity may go out four or five times during the middle of the day. (For example, many times when I wanted to have a photocopy made, I was told to come back later because there was no power.) This sort of thing only encourages the famous four-hour Tamil Nadu lunch-break, when many businesses shut down. When they do reopen, 

businesses often stay open until 8 o'clock at night. This schedule has its charm, but it should not be forced by lack of electricity, many Tamilians argue. In addition, there are perceived shortages in loans and grants from the central government for agriculture, education, etc. Tamil Nadu is one of the least industrially-developed parts of India, which may preserve its beauty, but which also forces it to be dependent to a degree that many Tamils don't like. 

When Tamilian leaders decided to make the Epic of the Anklet the spearhead of a Tamil resurgence, they faced a difficulty. Yes, the story, especially as written by Prince Ilango Adigal, undoubtedly demonstrated their culture's antiquity and greatness. Yes, Prince Ilango Adigal's use of language was worthy of universal praise. However, the text was written in ancient, or, chaste, Tamil (sen-Tamil), and as such it was out of reach to the common man. Tamil leaders had to make the Epic of the Anklet more accessible. One way Dr. Karunanidhi accomplished this (before he entered politics) was to write and produce a cinema version of the story, which was the second cinema version to be done (more about the cinema versions later). 

Another thing Dr. Karunanidhi did was to name the state handicrafts chain, "Poompuhar." There is an outlet in every Tamil city. 

Most importantly, however--and this measure was instituted before Dr. Karunanidhi's time, in the early part of twentieth century--the story of the Epic of the Anklet was taught in Tamil schools, starting at the earliest levels. This early start was judicious in terms of getting maximum saturation, for the number of years that children stay in school beyond that age varies greatly. 

Teachers explained to me that the story is used in school to teach three lessons: 1) Fate cannot be escaped; 2) A chaste woman is all-powerful; 3) An unjust ruler will be struck down by the goddess of Justice. 

These may be the lessons that those teachers were aware of, but the real lesson being taught is that Tamil Nadu has a great culture of its own. In addition, one may interpret the story as a political fable (and Tamil nationalists have done so): especially, 2) Tamil Nadu, holding onto its chaste language and behavior, like a chaste woman, will become all-powerful; and 3) the northern government is the unjust ruler which will be struck down. 

During the 1988 election campaign (for Chief Minister and lesser offices) in Tamil Nadu, Rajiv Gandhi made many trips to the state to campaign on behalf of the Congress-I candidates. In the course of these visits, he made a point of praising Tamil culture. However, he received great criticism among the Tamils he was trying to woo when he compared his Congress-I party to Kannagi, begging for justice. The Tamil press replied with stories about how the corrupt Congress-I bullies were much more like the Pandian King. 

[Note for the second edition: As the original edition of this booklet was being printed, a Tamil woman assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, using plastic explosive strapped to her stomach. The bomb blew away her own mid-section and much of Rajiv Gandhi's head, instantly killing them both. Whether consciously so or not, this horrible act was in part in the pattern set by Kannagi--a female who turned a place of fertility of her own body, her breast, into a place causing destruction. Kannagi's act was immeasurably more honorable than the assassin's for a number of reasons, including: Kannagi did not murder the king--she presented him with the facts and he took his own life. Kannagi did not commit suicide. And, Kannagi did not set fire to Madurai--Agni, god of Fire did it on her behalf.] 

As I began my walk, the 1988 election campaign was just getting under way. Each Indian state has a Chief Minister. Each of these Chief Ministers was either in the Congress-I party (and thus a representative of Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister at the time) or he/she was in an opposition party. 

M. G. Ramachandran, known as MGR., had been the previous Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. MGR., a great cinema star and populist, had died in office. (In his waning years he had had two successful operations at Brooklyn Hospital , which increased Tamil goodwill toward Americans.) 

The main contestants now were the following: 

1) Mr. Moopanar, the Congress-I candidate. 

2) Dr. Karunanidhi 

3) Janaki, MGR's widow. 

4) Jayalalitha, MGR's political protege. 

Dr. Karunanidhi had held office in the seventies but had been overthrown by MGR. Dr. Karunanidhi's party is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK--one of the original Tamil nationalist parties. 

MGR had started an offshoot of the DMK during the 1970's, the AIADMK. (Indian politics is largely based on cult of personality, and to my perception that this is especially the case here. I could not discern any underlying policy differences between the DMK and the AIADMK). In the present election, two candidates were running under the AIADMK banner: Janaki (MGR's widow) and Jayalalitha (MGR's political protege). Janaki and Jayalalitha, like MGR, had been movie stars. 

One of the things Prime Minister of India controls from New Delhi is the single major television station of India. There is constant complaining among opposition parties that this station is used as a tool for spreading the ruling party's propaganda. Opposition politicians claim that they are routinely ignored on the news programs. 

However, owning a television set and watching the daily news is still very much an upper-middle-class activity practiced by a tiny minority. Community sets are used primarily for showing movies. The media that really reach he masses are not as high-tech: newspaper, cinema, and wall-paintings. 

Of these, it is the last, wall-paintings, that is the most pervasive and important element in Tamil Nadu political culture. Many people don't read newspapers--many don't read at all. Many will miss the cinemas that pertain to the election. But nobody can miss the paintings that fill every possible wall. Of course, only the simplest content is communicated in these symbols. The rest comes through speeches and from word of mouth. 

The symbol for Dr. Karunanidhi's DMK is a sun rising between two mountains. Usually the DMK's colors--black and red--are used to create this scene. The rising sun represents the rise of Tamil Nadu, and implies Lemuria and Poompuhar's return. Often this scene was painted in a series of three frames, from left to right: the first showed a sun just peeking out, the second scene's sun is only half-obscured by the mountains, and in the third scene the sun is up in the sky, beaming its rays in all directions. 

Janaki, MGR's widow, was represented by two doves: the large dove had a leafy branch in its mouth which it was in the act of giving to the smaller dove. This represented the widow's claim that MGR had given her his blessing and bestowed upon her the responsibility of continuing his work. 

MGR's political protege, Jayalalitha, was represented by a crowing cock. 

The Congress-I party candidates were represented by the palm of a hand, marked into sections as if by fortune-teller, and facing forward. This could convey the message, "Stop: you and India will have good fortune only if you elect the party of destiny and continue the dynastic rule of Nehru, Indira, and Rajiv." 

There were posters with photographs also: most notably, the widow weeping over MGR's body--which could subliminally be read as Kannagi weeping over Kovalan, imbued with supernatural power to institute justice. But these higher-tech representations were not nearly as omnipresent or impressive as the folk art of the symbol painters. 

En route

As one walks inland from Poompuhar, one immediately notices how 'human-sized' everything is. The road is one-lane. Trees on either side give shade to travelers. Also shaded are the huts in which people live, which are thatched with grass (a type of structure that I had always associated with Africa). All is neatly arranged. At times I felt was not so much traveling into the past, but rather into an enchanted land--everything seemed so peaceful. 

In Prince Ilango Adigal's text, the land is described as moist, full of rivers and luxuriant vegetation. These lines and phrases are formulaic, often repeated in the text with variation and substitution. Such descriptions, like praises of cities and of kings, are a carry-over from orally-composed poems and epics, before the time of writing. 

Another aspect of text--and this is convention in many ancient literatures--is that the moral qualities and behavior of the king, in this case, King Karikala, is presented as being reflected in the health of the land. In other words, because the king is just, rains come, the land is fertile, husbands get along with wives, birds sing... 

Seventeen hundred years ago the rivers may have been flowing and the vegetation on the plains may have been lush, but today, much of the land is dry and many of the same rivers carry but a trickle. The geological aspect of this part of Tamil Nadu that struck me most is that the earth is extremely sandy. It is not just that rain is so scarce and the sun is so hot: the earth just is not the rich brown/block, spongy substance that is taken for granted in most of the U.S.A. As a result, even in places where there is a lot of grass, dry dirt can almost always be spotted between the blades. 

It was not the hottest time of year, but still it was hot. Kannagi and Kovalan did walk during the hottest season--this was a departure from their experience that I was happy to make. South India is in a tropical zone. The heat in south India would seem more intense than the heat in my hometown, New York City, even on a day when the temperatures were the same. The air seems dense, heavy. The feeling is that the sun is more powerful there, that the heat is like a sledgehammer, that it could pick you up and put you down. 

I noticed that the Tamil men around me had white cloths wrapped around their heads. I learned that there was no religious significance in this, unlike the sihks who wear turbans in north India. The white headgear of south Indian men is purely practical: it protects their heads from the heat and it serves an a buffer when carrying things on the head. I lost little time in imitating the cloth-wrapped-around-the-head custom, and found that it did in fact keep my head much cooler. 

For the most part I wore pants, simply because I was embarrassed to wear a dhoti in public. A dhoti is just a swath of colored cloth which can be wrapped around the legs in a variety of ways (often the ends are sewn together to make it a tube). Dhotis are more practical than pants in this environment: for one thing, they're cooler; for another, they can be lifted easily when one wants to excrete. In rural India one doesn't look for toilets--there are none, of course!--or even outhouses: one finds as deserted a spot as possible by the side of the road and squats. One sees Indian men doing this all the time (somehow the women manage to be more discreet). 

Today, at kilometer intervals on every road in Tamil Nadu, there is a small white washed stone at the side of the road which lets one know how far it is to the next major town. Kannagi didn't have this luxury: having barely begun, she asked her husband if they were almost there yet. He laughed and told her they had almost 300 kms to go. 

As one walks, one comes upon villages. The smallest unit of a village--aside from residential huts--is a small structure at the side of the road. It perhaps is not even big enough for a person to stand up in, but goods are kept inside it, and people sit and stand around outside it. It is a tea stand. Its walls may be make of sheet metal or of wood. On a front shelf, there are a number of large glass jars with screw-on tops stocked with candies and crackers. 

Also on the shelf, there is a small stove for heating water and a few glasses. Actually, only one glass is necessary, for a person is expected to pour the fluid into his/her mouth from about a half-inch away, avoiding spread of germs, this making washing the cup unnecessary (although the glass is periodically dipped in water anyway). This practice is an example of the social contract in Tamil Nadu, each individual working for the benefit of the whole with a spirit of cooperation. 

As a settlement gets more elaborate, there will be more things on display at the tea stand--unchilled glass bottles of soda, blocks of soap, razor blades, small single-use packets of shampoo (a modern addition), etc. Eventually, the tea stand becomes a general store. At this point, the location will be populated enough to support another shop, perhaps a tailor. These shops are storefronts--that is, they open onto the street, and there is no door, except for locking up at night. Working in one these shops is virtually living on the street and is an immensely social experience. 

The Tamil Nadu of Price Ilango Adigal's day was, needless to say, much less populated than it is today. His Kannagi and Kovalan come across no tea stands. They walked through fields and forests. No path or road is mentioned, although they must have followed some. 

Another example of the social contract in Tamil Nadu is the way people manage vehicles on roads. Drivers of oncoming vehicles often wait until the last moment before making way for each other--they must decide which of them will drive halfway off the road (it's usually the smaller vehicle that does so). 

A bus or lorry (truck) driver normally signals a lane change by putting his arm out the window and not just holding it there, as a driver would in the U.S., but by gracefully waving it up and down, like a ballerina performing the role of "The Dying Swan." This seeming nonchalance is in high contrast to the hurtling, massive vehicles involved. 

Drivers are also nonchalant about the way they pass. For example, if a motorized vehicle is passing a bullock-drawn cart, an oncoming motorized vehicle will slow down just enough to permit the motorized vehicle to pass the cart and return to its proper lane; simultaneously, the driver of the bullock cart will slow down and go off the road just enough to let the vehicle behind him pass him and return to the proper lane, before the oncoming vehicle arrives. 

Scenarios get a lot more complicated than this, with the inclusion of bicycles and motorcycles and pedestrians, but again here there seems to be a great deal of common understanding among the people of Tamil Nadu. The people involved seem to anticipate the developing situation and know how to adjust, which role to play, to make the system work. 

Nonetheless, wrecks do occur and a crisis is developing in Tamil Nadu as lorries and buses become larger and faster, and private cars become more common. It is typical of Tamil Nadu to have all different class of vehicles co-existing on the same road, just as all religions and philosophies co-exist, as well as ancient and modern medical practices. There can't really be separate roads, so all will have to continue to co-exist. 


The first town I came to, about 40 kms inland, was Mayiladuthurai. It too felt enchanted. Mayiladuthurai was bustling with thousands of people, but somehow it remained gentle and calm. The people were utterly cosmopolitan, in an easy-going way. 

Even in small towns like Mayiladuthurai one can find shops that rent out videotapes and sell audio cassettes. There are stores that sell Indian-made electronic goods (bulky, with a reputation for being low-quality); and there is bazaar, a line of tiny storefronts somewhere near the bus-stand where Japanese electronic appliances are sold. The latter are evidently smuggled in; they are expensive and a status symbol. (A new and positive development is that Japanese and Indian firms are forming partnerships, with the production taking place in India.) 

It was in Mayiladuthurai that I first saw the two films that had been made of the Epic of the Anklet.

One of these films, Poompuhar, made in the sixties, had been produced by Dr, Karunanidhi. Poompuhar had been shot in color but my copy, at least, was faded to the point of being sepia-toned. This version shows the ornately decorated buildings of Poompuhar. The set design and costumes are lavish.  A primary impression I took away from this film is the splendor of the ancient capitol. 

The other film, entitled Kannagi, made in 1941, is in black and white.  Its indoor set design is for the most part simple, even stark. A number of scenes are shot in the countryside. The style of acting is contemporary with today: the actors are very realistic and spontaneous. When Kannagi, early in the story, stunned, quietly repeats, "Madhavi, Madhavi!" to herself, you can sense her building up to the madness and fury that will finally be released in the burning of Madurai. There is also a skilled and dramatic use of superimposition: a close-up of Kovalan's face as he is about to be beheaded is mixed with scenes of his anguished memories and fantasies.  I found the court scene, in which Kanngi addresses the Pandian king in his court at Madurai, to be both believable and awe-inspiring.

I wanted a copy of Kannagi--so I rented two VCRs and the source cassette, and did the dub overnight in my hotel room. I carried my copy of Kannagi for the remainder of my walk. I showed it to people a number of times, including on the community TV in Kodumballur (see page 26). 

There is one other "film" version of the Epic of the Anklet of which I am aware: it was made in 1988, to be shown on Indian television. I was not to see it until months later in Bombay, when its director, Shyam Benegal, kindly screened it for me. This version was composed of two one-hour episodes: it was part of a 50-segment series scanning the entire cultural heritage of India. This version, shot in gorgeous color, features sensational costumes and court scenes. Both Madhavi and Kannagi are fashion-magazine beautiful. The production is entertaining and marvelous to watch, but not deeply involving. Kannagi's fury and pain are not pleasant viewing--so this part was not stressed. 

One has to remember that this kind of film making is what the situation called for: the series aired Sunday mornings to a family audience; and moreover, this was the first film version of the Epic of the Anklet in Hindi language--it would expose millions of Indians to a story they had never heard of before. It was only sensible to make it as light and attractive as possible. 

Thanjavur, Tiruchirappalli, and Pudukkotai

I passed through Thanjavur, and then Tiruchirappalli. (Neither are mentioned in the ancient text.) 

Tiruchirappalli, commonly known as Trichy, is an industrial, business-oriented town. It is about as distant from the romanticized past of India as one can get. When I reached Trichy I knew I was back in the 'real' world--the enchantment was gone. Vehicles and people rush by impersonally, often brusquely. Modern-day grime has set in. 

Groups of young men compete to convince tourists to come with them to the main temple, which is a few kilometers from the bus stand, which in Tamil Nadu is usually adjacent to the commercial center of town. 

"Kannagi slept in the bus stand," I was jokingly told late one night by a young man at the all-night bus-stand news-stand in Trichy. When a kinky-haired, very dark-skinned woman, smiling, apparently having just woken up, appeared from behind a wall, this same fellow and his friends called out that she was Kannagi and they all laughed. This was a mischievous activity for them, for all know Kannagi is from the high world of literature and the glorious past. Also Kannagi is from a high merchant caste and is presented in films as having light skin, as are most Indian heroines. This joking around shows that the Epic of The Anklet is seen as something that can be ridiculed, that it is not something awesome, unapproachable, that must be totally bowed-down to. There is also an element of truth to their joke--Kannagi does descend to the public roads and streets (because of her love for her husband). 

In fact, although Kannagi and Kovalan are members of a wealthy merchant class, and although they socialize with royalty in Poompuhar, neither of them are of royal, warrior, or Brahmin caste. On the way to Madurai it is classless Jain monk and 'primitive' tribals (the Eiynar) who befriend Kannagi and Kovalan; before entering Madurai, the couple stays with gracious cowherdesses; and finally, after the conflagration, Kannagi's greatness is first recognized and acclaimed by mountain tribal girls. Thus, this heroine interacts with all social classes in the course of the story, and it is the lower-class groups that tend to behave in a better fashion toward her. This perhaps helps lower-class people of today appreciate and identify with the story. 

There is no doubt that the story is a common denominator among Tamils today, a string that runs through and holds together all levels of society. It acknowledges that the powerful are often abusive, and it shows that even a poor widowed woman can fight against that abuse. All can relate to that scenario and draw hope from it. 

Each night, hundreds of people do sleep inside Trichy's bus stand, and hundreds more sleep outside on the waiting platforms. In general, as is well known, many people sleep on the streets in India. In the U.S., people who do this are called, "homeless," and are considered anti-social and dangerous (sometimes rightly so). In India, sleeping on a bus platform is often merely the practical thing to do. Whole families do it--perhaps having missed the last bus. Many young men sleep on sidewalks because that is where their jobs are, and they don't want to go all the way to their parents' home every night. The air is warm. The threat of violent crime is virtually non-existent. The tradition of people making religious pilgrimages adds to the sanctity of outdoor sleeping. 

As a visiting white person, I sometimes resented the fact that I had to spend money to stay in a hot, stuffy hotel room when I would have been more comfortable outside. However, I felt I would have attracted too much attention--including police attention--had I indeed slept on the streets of cities, and I did have valuables in my backpack, which could have been lifted. In the open countryside, on the other hand, I often slept outside. 

Only once did I sleep outdoors in a city. I was in Pudukkottai, which is south of Trichy. It happened because I vacated a lodge at 1 AM one night. I did so because the lodge manager would not permit me to go out for a walk. (The entrances of many lodges are locked up at night--a security precaution but also a great fire hazard.) Not permitted my liberty, I indignantly gathered my belongings and headed for the bus-stand down the block. I went to the open-air new-stand, which was open all night. I had met the young men who operated it previously--they had helped me read an article about my walk in a local Tamil daily--and they welcomed me graciously. I laid out my tarp and sleeping bag, put my backpack under my head and proceeded to have a pleasant, uneventful night's sleep. 

En route to Kodumballur

Kodumballur is mentioned in the text as a place that Kovalan and Kannagi passed on the way to Madurai. Thus, I made a point of walking through there. To do so meant once again entering rural areas, and I was happy to do so. 

Walking through the mild countryside on the smoothly-paved single-lane road, I was often joined by school children on their way home from school. Just like in cities, there was often the obligatory request from them--"Pen, pen!" This had a positive and a negative side for me: The positive element was that these kids were not starving, they weren't begging for food, but for something with which to further their education. They were delighted to be making contact with a Westerner and simply wanted a relic from a foreign culture they admired. On the negative side, for me it was one more instance of being seen as an object, an object from which to get things, by the locals. Being treated like this was probably the most wearing aspect of my experience in India. It is sad that these children, who really just wanted to have social interaction, put themselves into a position of begging. 

One day two small boys, despite not gaining pens, got the giggles over me and we giggled and smiled together, and talked a little bit, for about a mile. 

One day I saw in the distance a temple atop a craggy mountain. When I reached the foot of the mountain, I discovered a town. I had lunch there. (Lunchtime fare in Tamil Nadu is invariably "meals"--a heap of rice surrounded by six or seven vegetables, condiments, stews, and sauces, all laid out on a large section of plantain leaf. Dessert is a banana, yogurt, and tapioca pudding. Cost: about 30 cents.) 

After eating, I was shown around the ground-level portion of the temple by an old man who was in charge of it. Fantastic sculptures, both stone and brass, were inside. Then two young men escorted me to the top. The old man accepted a tip, but the young men would not. This was not a unique occurrence. Many Tamil men, even while working, took pleasure in playing host to me and refusing tips--it was a matter of pride to them. 

For example, once in the countryside, a not very "educated" or sophisticated young man overheard me talking to some students at a local restaurant. He heard me saying that I wanted to reach the next major town that night--about 40 kms (25 miles) away. As I set out again, I discovered that I had a guide. As it turned out, this fellow was very helpful, for the usually beautifully-clear stone markers at the sides of the roads became vague as we approached the metropolis, and I would have gone astray without his leadership. Upon delivering me to my destination, this young man would take nothing more than bus fare home and my thanks in return (I had also treated him to a couple of inexpensive meals). 

I developed a routine when it came to walking through small villages. Some people would stare at me with stern expressions. Others would smile. Generally, I tried to signify a respectful "hello" to everyone and just keep walking. 

As I was walking through one village, a man asked me where I was going. I explained my project, and a great sensation followed: They had read about me in a local Tamil newspaper. Men of the village insisted that I must be shaved there. While I was in the barber shop, a hundred young boys scampered around outside, trying to get a good look. Some slipped into the shop. My barber, a big man, alternated between careful strokes on my face with his razor, and menacing, even brutal displays towards the boys, signaling for them to get away. In Tamil Nadu, it is common for big truculent guys, complete with their wide mustaches and red painted fingernails--which is not in the least considered effeminate--to slap around little guys who are overstepping their bounds. This activity often becomes a game for boys, like puppies nipping at adult dogs' heels and getting whacked in return. 

These anecdotes should illustrate that there is a lot energy for curiosity and horseplay among people in rural Tamil Nadu. They are not the listless, starving, pathetic creatures some of us in the U.S. associate with the area because of what we have been shown on television by Christian fund-raising groups. I saw no starvation in the rural areas. I can't say I saw starvation in cities either, although I certainly saw poverty. 

As pleasant as human contact usually was, I also enjoyed walking alone. I saw people tending rice paddies and people herding goats and cattle, just as described in the text. I also saw people chopping at stones in quarries, an activity not mentioned in the text but one that certainly must have existed then. Building with stone in second century AD Tamil Nadu was already ancient art. Stone is plentiful and human labor, then as now, is cheap. I did not see one wooden fence-post in Tamil Nadu--I saw thousands of fence-posts made of stone. Women work alongside men in these stone quarries, just as they take part in construction work. In these work places, women seem to do most of the carrying of heavy objects, all on their heads. 

I came to another small mountain which was crowned with a temple. This mountain had no earth on it--it was a giant boulder. This time there was no town and no attendants. I climbed to the top. The temple was locked up. I walked around it. To my surprise and delight, there in the rock was a large (100 yards in diameter) pool of crystal clear water rippling in the breeze. The water was cool, and I, of course, was hot. I promptly stripped down to my underwear and lay in the refreshing, cool, clean (visually, at least) water. I wondered how the water had gotten there. This was not the rainy season. It hadn't rained in weeks! And why it was so clean? I didn't stay long, not wanting to be discovered, for I feared that this water was ritually associated with the temple, and that I might be perceived as a polluting agent. 

Roadside, of course, I saw countless small temples and shrines. A shrine might consist of nothing more than a rock, blackened by pourings of ghee, with a garland of flowers draped on top of it. To signify Shiva, a metal trident would be stuck in the ground before such a rock. 

The text states that by this stage of the journey, Kannagi's feet were terribly torn and blistered, although certainly she had been wearing sandals. I, myself, was wearing shoes (lightweight, leather-upper, rubber-soled) and soft, fuzzy socks--both of which I had brought with me from the U.S. My feet were doing well, except for a large blister under each big toe. After walking in the sun for a few hours, my feet would get swollen with sweat. On such occasions, I would go barefoot until my feet had dried out. 

One day, as I was traveling over an unusual area of rolling hills, through cool weather, I came to a tea stand and had some tea. There were four or five men sitting around. I noticed one of the men was keeping his right leg rigid. I looked down and saw that he had a segment of plantain leaf (the same type that food is served on) around his right foot; the leaf was kept in place by a white cloth tied in a haphazard fashion. I inquired. The man old me he had been scalded--I'm not sure by what boiling liquid. He undid the white cloth and took off the leaf. It was not a pleasant sight: the whole outside of his right foot, from just above the sole to above the ankle, was oozing, multi-colored raw flesh. 

I had an idea. I asked for a fresh piece of plantain leaf, which was secured immediately. I applied some anti-bacteria ointment I had to the leaf's smooth, shiny side and we placed it on the wound. I then produced one of my large, soft socks. I stretched it out--although the man's small feet were already much smaller than my socks--and I slipped the sock over the man's leaf-wrapped foot. 

I left my extra tube of ointment and the other sock of the pair with this fellow, and tried to impress upon him the need for him to clean the wound and change the bandage periodically, but God knows what happened. I suppose doctors are either not available or too expensive to be consulted in such cases. The men were very impressed that "Made in the U.S.A." was printed on the ointment tube--there seems to be a suspicion among some Indians that Indian-made medicines are useless. As for the socks, if nothing else, I knew they would keep his feet warm at night, and that that would be good. 

This incident shows that socks can be useful, even if one doesn't wear shoes. The great majority of Tamilians, today as in Kannagi's time, wear sandals or go barefoot. Going barefoot has a practical benefit: better traction. In addition, if one's home has a dirt floor, there is no need to keep one's feet clean. Of course, in rural areas, Tamil children often go barefoot happily--just as they don't seem to mind running around virtually naked. 

Shoes and socks are worn only by the upper classes, mostly those in business and government. There are many ways to gauge a person's status in India and one of them is what he/her has on his/her feet: shoes (highest): sandals (middle); barefoot (lowest). There was only one type of sock widely available--they were very elastic and tight (especially on my large feet). Fortunately, I had brought my own socks. 

I passed a work crew about to burn bricks. The foreman kindly explained the process to me. They seemed to be about to burn enough bricks to build a house. 

I passed a rock quarry in the distance, off the road. I wanted to ask the people there where the next town was. I guess I was just curious, ready to take any detour. I set off toward the quarry, across a rice paddy, on a raised earthen walkway. I was looking straight ahead. Suddenly, I heard at my feet a scurrying and a plop. Adrenalin of fear rushed through me. I looked down only in time to see a ripple in the water. Some creature, perhaps a poisonous snake, had chosen to run rather than strike. My relief at being spared was countered by my disappointment in not seeing what kind of creature it had been. 

Eventually I returned to the road and continued on over this modest mountain range. I came upon an extremely busy town that had a different atmosphere than any other I had visited thus far. This town felt like a frontier mining town out of the U.S.'s Old West. The "main street" that ran through the middle of town seemed to contain all of its shops and homes. A mountain loomed on one side of that street. At the provisions shops men dipped cans into big burlap sacks and rationed out goods. People, though very pleasant, seemed to be in a rush to get their business done and get out of town. I wouldn't have been surprised to see men wearing cowboy boots and hats dashing around on horses. (Actually, Tamil films--and the posters advertising them--often do have a 'cowboy' flavor. But they'll often mix up that genre with another, so that, for example, the 'cowboy' wears a black leather jacket of the type usually associated with motorcycle gang members.) 

I walked part of that night, then slept. In the morning I saw that I would soon be back on the plains, and soon I was. I walked most of day and arrived in Kodumballur after sundown, at approximately 9pm. I did not want to sleep at the side of the road (too many people around), and I sensed this town was too small to have a lodge, so I decided to seek assistance from the head person of the town--each town and village in Tamil Nadu has an administrative chief appointed by the central government. As I approached the town, I saw a hundreds people watching TV at the side of the road at the community set. I inquired where the head man of the village was. I was ignored. I raised my voice and kicked some dirt. Eventually I was assigned an escort and I was led to the head person. This episode represented quite a contrast to the way Kovalan and Kannagi had been treated when they had passed by there--the couple had been welcomed by fierce Eiynar tribals. But those tribals had not had television to be distracted by. 

As it turned out, Kodambullur-proper was another kilometer down the road. The head man kindly let me sleep in his "office," which was partly outdoors, protected by wooden bars. I slept there two nights. 

In the vicinity, I found descendants of Eiynar tribe, whose cattle-robbing, drinking and human-sacrificing activities are described in the text without a bit of condescension. According to Prince Ilango Adigal's text, a group of these folks had welcomed Kannagi. Today their descendants are classified as a "backward caste." I was brought to a roadside settlement so small that the only public building was a tea stand. I was informed that the mature woman who ran it was the unofficial head person of the area. I gave her a silk cloth and bought tea for all present to symbolically express my gratitude for her ancestors' behavior toward Kannagi. The woman insisted I eat some "itle"--patties of steamed ground rice, served with "sambar," a bland, watery vegetable stew (this combination is the classic Tamil breakfast meal.) 

On the second night of my stay, a VCR was brought from a neighboring town, and there was a showing of the video cassette I was carrying, Kannagi (1941). Over a hundred people watched carefully, even though the film is in black and white, my tape was of poor quality (I had to constantly adjust the "tracking"), it is devoid of fight scenes, and, unlike most modern Indian films, its scenes are relatively long, producing the effect, at times, of a stage-play. Afterwards, some of the adults told me that they hadn't seen the film since they had been children: none of the children had seen it all. 

The great majority of the audience remained absorbed in Kannagi's struggle to keep her man. When the film came to an end and people dispersed to go home, I sensed that the story had induced a mood of confirmation and calmness: the dangers of breaking up family life had once again been demonstrated--for it had been Kovalan's dallyings with Madhavi that had set the whole tragedy in motion. The danger of family break-up is a real issue for many women rural Tamil Nadu, as it is for woman and families around the world. On earth, God had once again triumphed, bringing justice down upon the villains. In heaven, Kannagi was reunited for all time with her husband. People could go home to sleep without worry. 


Madurai has a beautiful simplicity: the center of the city is square. At Madurai's center is a square temple-complex, approximately 300 yards on each side. The temple is dedicated to Minakshi, the goddess of Madurai, and her "husband," Shiva. The complex is surrounded by a high stone wall. Inside, under open air, there is a spacious area for walking, sitting, and talking, and a large square tank, which usually contains water. In addition, there are massive temple buildings. On each of the complex's four sides sides a gate opens out towards town. The city radiates away from this center in all four directions for at least five streets. On the tourist (west) side are the bus and train stations: on the opposite (east) side is the Vaigai river. Beyond, on all sides, are "suburbs." 

No one knows for sure, but it seems as if the central square could once have been the Pandian king's fortress and palace, and that after Kannagi's act it was never rebuilt, but was kept for religious purposes, as a monument to the transience of temporal power. 

Just as described in Prince Ilango Adigal's text, in the Madurai of today there are outdoor bazaars for the sale of different wares: vendors of iron utensils are lined up along one street; the flower market runs along another; fruit and vegetable markets are at a number of locations, etc. 

I generally found the people of Madurai to be very warm. Elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, I had experienced bank officials who seemed to take particular pleasure in saying, "That's not possible." In Madurai my financial transactions went smoothly--in this I was unlike Kovalan, who came to Madurai hoping for business success but found himself in trouble as a result of trying to sell his wife's anklet. 

I must admit that more than once I felt like an angry Kannagi when I couldn't get directions for where I wanted to go in Madurai. Kannagi had asked the people of Madurai for support after her husband had been killed--many had ignored her, some had thought her to be insane. That was one reason why she had not been satisfied with only the king's death, but had demanded the burning of the city also. 

This is how the innocent act of asking for directions can become a complicated social ordeal: In Tamil Nadu, a young man such as myself is not expected to address females, especially females of child-bearing age. Their most common response was to giggle, or cower, and discreetly withdraw. 

Men are therefore much easier to ask. Pedal- and motor-rickshaw drivers are a good choice because they will probably know the answer and they are accustomed to deciphering the imperfect Tamil of out-of-towners like myself. (Actually, even in small Tamil cities many rickshaw drivers speak English quite well.) The problem is that if one is walking and there is no profit in it for a driver to respond, many times he will not make the effort to do so. 

Most infuriating, however, was that I found many Tamil non-English speakers would take one look at my white skin and automatically give up hope of verbal communication--even though I was speaking (passable) Tamil. They had simply decided they couldn't communicate with me, thus they were not going to try. These experiences convinced me that the belief that communications is possible and the desire to communicate are the most important prerequisites for communication between people. 

On the whole, I found scholars very willing to assist me in my investigation of the Epic of The Anklet. However, I did encounter what was to me a new view of the scholar's function in society. One friendly professor told me: "The role of the scholar is to make the classics appear beautiful for the people." He added a warning: "Don't express anything negative about Kannagi, because she is sacred to the Tamil people. You can sling mud as you like on the other characters." 

This prefixing of results to fit a "correct" end is a habit that may be holding many Tamilians down intellectually. It discourages rational thinking. Many Tamil university students complained about this syndrome to me, saying it was one reason why many professionals who can leave Tamil Nadu, do so. 

The need to bow down to and show respect for authority is common in the workplace, as well as in academia. Bosses sometimes seem to consider a demonstration of their dominance to be a method of gaining respect from the subordinates. For example, one day I was in a government office in order to extend my visa. The man who was handling my case suddenly was called away, and for the next hour I watched through a doorway as he and six other men stood in the presence of their boss. The boss sat behind his desk the whole time, questioning and berating his staff. I expressed wonder to another office worker present that seven men had to stand for so long while their boss sat. He said to me proudly, "This shows how much respect we have for our officials." In my estimation they had respect for the boss's power to fire them, not for the boss. Yet, only the positive side of the situation could be stated to me. 

Attitude and behavior toward authority is an issue addressed in the Epic of The Anklet. Many elements of the written text were developed in older age of oral composition. Chief among these ancient elements is the formulaic praise of heroic kings. In those days, Tamil oral poets and storytellers were patronized by kings; they performed at court functions; their most important job was to glorify their kings. In the Epic of The Anklet, however, the central character criticizes the central king most severely. The king's crime and punishment is presented as the centerpiece of the story. Clearly, this text was written in a later age of reform and introspection. Criticism of one's king is here no longer taboo. 

To be sure, oral poets also had formulae for deriding enemy kings. Prince Ilango Adigal was technically a citizen of the Chera land (now Kerala), but he is considered by Tamilians, and especially by Madurai-ites, to be one of their own. After all, he wrote in Sen-Tamil, and Madurai is today considered the home of chaste Tamil language. In Kerala, Prince Ilango Adigal and his work have largely been forgotten. There is no sense at all among Tamilians that this author was of an external land intent on belittling the Pandian kingdom. Prince Ilango Adigal is equally complimentary of the king of the west coast (his homeland) and the king of the east coast: he is a citizen of all three southern kingdoms equally. 

The legend surrounding Prince Ilango Adigal, found in an addendum to the original text, confirms his independent position in relationship to royal authority: Prince Ilango Adigal was the oldest son of the king of Chera land. As a boy, he listened in court one day as an astrologer predicted that he would rule as king for many years. Ilango's younger brother, Shenguttuvan, frowned at the news, for he fiercely desired to be king. Ilango noticed this and decided that in order to avoid trouble between himself and his brother, he would abdicate and become a monk. 

This legend makes it clear that Prince Ilango Adigal is, in a sense, independent of the will of kings. He can afford to criticize whomever he pleases. He has no material needs. As a Jain monk, he is not even attached to his body. He is the antithesis of a king. His text is largely a warning to those in power not to abuse power.

The king/monk polarity is central to the world view of the author of the Epic of The Anklet, as well as of Tamil culture today. A king is dominant over all other men, he has unlimited wealth, power, and women: a monk is modest, spiritual, unattached to physical possessions and pleasures. Each real-life Tamil man contains both kingly and monkish elements. 

In Tamil Nadu, I heard both positive and negative feelings expressed about each opposing element. I don't know how many times Tamil men regaled me with stories of how "great" local kings of the past had conquered so many neighboring territories and had had so many wives--up to the hundreds! 

It is, however, usually for their monkish qualities that men are praised. Unable to accept the fact that his hero had been an adulterer, one young man insisted to me that Kovalan had never actually had sex with Madhavi. This young man informed me that Kovalan had just enjoyed her dancing and given her gifts. He said there was no proof of the sexual liaison--forgetting that Kovalan and Madhavi had a daughter named Manimekalai. Even the Pandian king had monkish qualities: a number of times I heard the Pandian king complimented because he had given up his life as soon as he had realized his error in having had Kovalan killed. 

By the time I arrived in Madurai, the campaign for Chief Minister was in full swing. The walls were covered with each candidate's symbols. In the neighboring southern state of Andhra Pradesh (on Tamil Nadu's northeastern border), a similar election for Chief Minister was taking place. In Andhra Pradesh the incumbent chief minister, Rama Rao (another former film star) was running for reelection. Like all candidates opposing Rajiv Gandhi's Congress-I party candidates, Rama Rao complained incessantly over his lack of exposure on television. Finally, Rama Rao decided to get his message across in a medium he had control over: he directed and starred in a commercial feature-length mythological film--in the middle of the campaign, while still in office! The character he played was a famous holy man/saint of old who resists various temptations sent by demons--including a tantalizing seductress! He does various world-saving deeds, assisted by god and goddesses. 

Rama Rao invited politicians in alliance with him from all over the South to visit the set. Bare-chested, in elaborate "ascetic" holy man costume, Mr.Rao greeted each visitor in turn. The resultant photographs were displayed on the front pages of newspapers throughout south India. (Unfortunately, the movie was not a commercial hit, and Mr. Rao was not reelected.) 

By identifying himself with a famous holy man character, Mr. Rao was placing his persona in the glorious past and giving himself an aura of destiny; he was attempting to present himself as one who had earned the approval of God and who in the future would be assisted by God. Possessing this aura of destiny is very important in Indian politics. The Congress-I candidate opposing Mr. Rao had accused him of being corrupt and wasteful--the standard criticisms that Indians make of their politicians. By playing the abstinate and glorious holy man, Rama Rao resoundingly denied the charge. There are two types of abuse associated with the king element: lasciviousness and the inability to dispense justice. These two faults combine in the case of the Pandian king. He dallies with dancing girl. As a result, his wife, whose anklet has recently been stolen, is angry with him. It is to mollify her that the king incorrectly orders the innocent Kovalan put to death. 

The following simultaneity can be noted: In the cases of both couples (Kovalan/King, Kannagi/Queen), when the husband goes astray, the chaste wife loses her anklet. Once it is gone, the husband attempts to return to his wife's favor and makes bumbling efforts to replace the anklet. The damage is done, however. Soon disaster befalls husband and, shortly thereafter, wife. Both Kovalan and the Pandian king are, in a sense, thieves--by being unfaithful to their spouses they have stolen their spouse's hearts. 

There is is Tamil culture a female version of the king/monk polarity. It is the chaste-wife/courtesan polarity (chaste in this context means that she pays no attention to any man other than her husband). This is, of course, a variant of the virgin/whore polarity found in so many cultures around the world. The most famous manifestations of the chaste-wife and courtesan elements in Tamil Nadu are respectively Kannagi and Madhavi. Actually, Kannagi and Madhavi are more than abstractions--each is a composite of the opposing qualities (as are all individuals): Madhavi is a courtesan, but she falls in love with one man, Kovalan, and eventually cuts off her hair and becomes a monk. Kannagi is chaste throughout, but her explosive, uncontrollable, passionate behavior in tearing her flesh and burning Madurai is certainly antithetical to her demeanor as a quiet, submissive housewife earlier in the story. 

As there are mixed feelings about each of the opposite male qualities among Tamil people, there are positive feelings about the "bad" female, and negative feelings about the "positive" female. When the young male tour-guides in Madurai discovered I was studying the Epic of The Anklet, in my presence they would identify passing young women as either "Kannagi" or "Madhavi," signifying whether or not in their opinion that young woman was "loose." Identifying a young woman as "Madhavi" invariably led to a good deal of merriment. Having to admit a young woman was a "Kannagi" put a damper on the game. A Western (white) young women unescorted by a man was invariably identified as "Madhavi." Only if she were particularly stern or unhappy-looking would she be a "Kannagi." 

One night a rather brutish and drunken Tamil man announced to me, "We are very proud of the chasteness of our women." "Yes," I thought to myself, "but you may also be somewhat frustrated by it." 

Young men in India generally marry at a late age. Some have become acquainted with prostitutes by then. Ideally, only when he has secured a good job and is solidly fixed in his family's and society's bosom can young men marry. His bride has been selected by his parents. It is said that often a young man is closer to his mother than to his wife, especially if mother and son live together. It is obvious that some men will go to prostitutes in order to escape this environment, which is so prescribed and controlled by his parents' and society's rules. 

Extra-marital activity is somewhat condoned for men--especially if the man is wealthy. Kovalan's year-long public affair with Madhavi was overlooked by society and immediately forgiven by his wife. As one Indian scholar explained to me, "It is almost taken for granted that men will pollute themselves. Men will become exposed to all sorts of evil influences and they will partake in them. But women, at all cost, must remain pure." This is very true of the central couple in the story: Kovalan is a wavering mortal, but his wife is the ideal of steadfastness. It is all but unimaginable that an Indian wife, long ago or today, could have an open affair and return to an understanding and forgiving home. 

It should not be surprising that there are young Tamil women today who don't accept Kannagi as their ideal. A female student at the University of Madras told me, "Kannagi was dumb--she couldn't hold onto her man." Madhavi was independent, a business woman and a highly educated artist. She could offer intellectual companionship to Kovalan in a way that the sheltered, totally dependent Kannagi could not. Even today, there are many more university-educated, English-speaking young Tamil men capable of carrying on a public conversation than there are young Tamil women. A number of young Tamil men expressed to me regret that they could not share intellectual interests with young Tamil women. 

With apologies to the scholar who advised me to only write positive things about Kannagi, I must report that one Madras-based student informed me that, "Kannagi didn't like sex." Following this line of thought, it is only in the burning of Madurai that she could release her pent-up libido. (There certainly is a tradition in India, and elsewhere, of people abstaining from sex in order to increase their spiritual energy.) There is no doubt that Kannagi lacks fertility--she lives with Kovalan for a year without getting pregnant. Kannagi's great act is one of destruction. Madhavi, on the other hand, is very fertile--she gets pregnant from Kovalan in a less than year and has his daughter. 

I found the issue of Kannagi's famous chastity a haunting one. According to many Tamilians today, the most important moral of the story is that chastity is the highest virtue for women. I began to think: Is it possible that this virtue has been extolled primarily to benefit the social order? Only if a woman is chaste can a man know that he is the father of his woman's child. Only if a man knows he is father of his wife's child can he pass down his possessions to his children. The ability to pass down possessions from one generation to the next is one of the conditions necessary for patriarchy and the overthrowing of the (perhaps legendary) matriarchal system that preceded it. It is possible, then, that the emphasis on the greatness of Kannagi's chastity in the Epic of The Anklet is a reinforcement of one of the pillars of patriarchy--the accumulation of private property? 

The core story of the Epic of The Anklet may be much older than Prince Ilango Adigal's version. In its original form it may have been a folk tale about a shamaness who came out of the wilderness to strike down one of new patriarchally-ruled cities. (The tearing of one's flesh to produce blood and "fire" are classic shamanic techniques.) In this case, the emphasized point of the story would be the protest by a spiritual leader of the recently banished matriarchy. The story's central element would be a wished-for retaliation against, education of, and purification of, the "unclean" patriarchy. The figure of the furious, destructive, burning goddess--whatever its roots--is very much alive in south India today: many local goddesses are implored to "cool down" and refrain from causing disease or draught. 

The following is a legend I heard in Madurai (it is not in Prince Ilango Adigal's text): After the burning of Madurai, the next Pandian king put 1000 goldsmiths to death in order to further propitiate the goddess (Kannagi/Kali). Thereafter, each year a single goldsmith was put to death, until one year a goldsmith who was also a poet sang so movingly to the goddess that she commanded the bloody practice to be ended. Here we observe the cooling down of the goddess, a gradual lessening of her fury over time--resulting in part from the respectful behavior of man. 

There is a great deal of keeping women and men apart in Tamil Nadu today--on buses, in classrooms, in most public spaces, women must be on the left side, men on the right. The general reason for this seems to one of protection: there is a fear that if free mixture were allowed, 1) men would be lecherous and women would be violated, and 2) women would be seductive and men would be led astray. There is some sense to this, but it also very clear that the spheres of government, business, medicine, education, etc., are controlled overwhelmingly by men, and thus the ideal of "separate but equal" is not achieved. 

In Tamil Nadu, however, I had the impression that women are treated with a great deal of genuine respect. No local incidences of bride-burnings (in which a bride is killed because she doesn't bring as much dowry as the groom and his family want) or sati (in which a woman commits suicide by placing herself on her deceased husband's funeral pyre), were reported in Tamil Nadu's newspapers while I was there (as far as I know). In addition, women have the honor of being permitted to do a great deal of public manual labor (on construction sites, stone quarries, etc.) In general, I feel that to a large degree women seem "at home" in public space in Tamil Nadu. Women would not hesitate to scold men who took one of their seats, or misbehaved in some other way, on buses. Many times in the countryside I saw groups of women walking together talking, or sitting under a tree in a semi-formal conference. 

One night in Madurai about 2am I chanced upon 50 women dancing in a circle in the street in front of a temple to a goddess. An elderly woman, singing, stood in the center of the circle, facing the temple and its idols. The women held hands and moved clockwise, while a young girl waving a branch with leaves danced counter-clockwise inside their circle. (The dance was similar to one Prince Ilango Adigal described in the Epic of The Anklet:that dance was performed by cowherdesses on the outskirts of Madurai in order to welcome and entertain Kannagi.) I thought, "I am seeing a sight that would make many a U.S. feminist weep with joy." The men of the community, like myself, watched from the darkness at the periphery of the scene. 

Perhaps the most powerful memory I have of my year in India is the market in Madurai. I stayed in a lodge just on the Madurai side of river Vaigai. Two-hundred yards upriver was the "new" bridge (built by the British) for motorized vehicles, but in front of my lodge passed those who had just crossed, or were about to cross the old bridge. This wider lower bridge--solely for humans and animal-drawn vehicles--could very well be in the same place as the one that Kannagi and Kovalan crossed on their way into Madurai. 

Twenty-four hours a day, teams of giant white bullocks delivered cartfuls of mangoes, oranges, peanuts, sugar cane, hay, and various other produce to the market that existed a block further into Madurai. At that market, which was primarily for wholesale shoppers, it was mostly women who sat all day long, talking loudly, gesturing easily. At night many would sleep right there, surrounded by their mountains of fruits or vegetables. Some of these women looked fierce. I saw faces that I associate with new Guinea, Borneo, Africa. Some of these women had the build of water buffaloes. I cannot imagine anyone trifling with them. 

I have read that south India is one of the places where ancient mother-goddess civilization still survives. On this trip I made no definite findings regarding this hypothesis, except what I sensed in the demeanor of some of these women, and in the air of that market place in general. 

On election day, Jan. 21, 1989, I took a bus from Madras to Madurai, a trip that takes ten hours (I had gone up to Madras to extend my visa). I took a "video bus": private companies charge a little more than the government and provide buses with plush seats and a TV-set built into a cabinet behind and above the driver. The movie that day was one in which MGR had starred with Jayalalitha (MGR's political protege, who was running for Chief Minister). This movie was being shown in honor of election day--not so much to promote any one candidate, perhaps, but simply to celebrate that Tamils would once again be in charge of their own destiny (a temporary governor had been assigned by the central government upon MGR's death). 

In any case, the most memorable scene in the movie for me was one in which MGR appears on a college campus and has a singing/dancing/shoving match with Jayalalitha, who is supported by a dozen coeds. I couldn't follow the lyrics, but the meaning was clear: first MGR backed her up all across campus, pointing his finger at her, shaking her with both his hands, scolding her for her willful behavior; then she, backed to a wall, suddenly stole the momentum and--supported spiritedly by her girlfriends--pushed, sang, and harangued him back to his starting point and beyond. Needless to say, by the end of the movie this couple is wed. 

The scene's forthright criticism and competition between the sexes was striking (and fun). I thought of all the pleasure Kovalan and Madhavi the courtesan had had in singing and dancing for each other. It is accepted, at least in movies, for young females to be outgoing in public--up until the time she becomes a wife. Once she is a (chaste) wife she must not "act" up, must not make a public display of herself, must not make herself attractive to all. That's why so many Tamil movies end with a wedding (often a shot of the wedding bed): now she is to be alone with her one love, and thus she is transformed into a "Kannagi." 

This is actually similar to what occurs to Madhavi in the Epic of The Anklet: she falls in love with Kovalan and gives up her professions (courtesan and singer/dancer). Kovalan becomes unavailable to her. She pines. Eventually she gives up her female sexuality altogether, cutting of her hair and becoming a monk. 

Upon reaching Madurai, I learned that Dr. Karunanidhi had won the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister ship by a landslide. Jayalalitha had come in a strong second and would have a good deal of power in the state legislature. [Note for the second edition: A year later, the DMK would be unseated by the central government on the grounds that it was assisting the Tamil Tigers in their guerrilla war in Sri Lanka; Jayalalitha would win the ensuing election; but four years later she would be charged with corruption and driven from office; she would be replaced by none other than Dr. Karunanidhi. There is much changing of fortune in Indian politics!] 

A week later, the following information was printed by India's national newspapers: the leaders of the Opposition coalition that hoped to overthrow Rajiv Gandhi in the next national election for Prime Minister were considering asking Dr. Karunanidhi if the DMK symbol, the sun rising between two mountains, could be used to represent it. Dr.Karunanidhi immediately said such a thing was not possible, for that symbol could only represent Tamilians. Although it would not come to be in this election, the scenario of the northern power being overthrown, and of the south announcing its victory with a symbol, was an echo from the past: According to Prince Ilango Adigal's text, when King Karikala of Poompuhar conquered north India and reached the Himalayas, he had inscribed at their feet the symbols of the three southern kingdoms--the fish, the bow, and tiger. [Note for the second edition: In 1996, for the first time in modern history, a man from a southern state--Deve Gowda of Karnataka--was selected as Prime Minister of India.] 

Southwest of Madurai

I was informed by a Madurai police official that five kilometers southwest of Madurai there is a shrine dedicated to Kovalan. I set out to find it. People in the neighborhood directed me to what looked like a cemetery. A large banyan tree stood on one side of the cemetery. At the far end of the field stood a dilapidated hut. Inside the hut was a stone that, I was told, represented Kovalan. Alongside it were stones that represented Kannagi and Madhavi. There was an oil lamp burning, which indicted that at least one person worshipped there regularly. 

After a short while, my local guides directed me to the banyan tree. (A banyan tree is characterized by arm-like roots that wrap around the trunk as they grow downward to the ground; this can give the tree an eerie look.) One of my young guides pointed up to the tree and said, "Kovalan." I took this to mean that he felt Kovalan's spirit resided in the tree. 

Small, weathered cloth bags hung from some of the tree's spreading branches. This is a custom I had noticed all over Tamil Nadu. I had asked many people what was in these bags and what was their significance. One answer I received was that the bags contain the afterbirth of calves: one purpose is to ensure local women's fertility. I hypothesize that the basic concept includes the idea that the tree serves as a connector between earth and sky, profane existence and the sacred, the human and the Divine. 

Tamilians are very conscious of, and sentimental about, their trees. Along every road in Tamil Nadu every single tree has a little plaque on it, on which a number is painted. Along heavily traveled routes, trees are painted with three foot-high rings--black, white and black--in order to make the trees more visible to night drivers. 

During the time I was in Tamil Nadu a storm blew over a giant centuries-old banyan tree on the grounds of the Theosophical Society in Madras. Great expense and effort was taken to replant the tree and support it with cables. Special care was taken to avoid damaging the tree's bark in the process. 

This tree's adventure was on the front pages of every newspaper in Tamil Nadu. There are only a handful of Theosophists in Tamil Nadu, but they are looked upon with respect because of their philosophical and historical contributions. This is one wonderful aspect of Tamil culture: in terms of caste and class it may be stratified and unfair, but all religious, philosophical, and political systems are accepted as being complementary and non-exclusionary--just as in Prince Ilango Adigal's day. 

Tamil culture, rooted in nature- and ancestor-worship, is still permeated by a goddess-worship sensibility. From this perspective, all things are seen as springing from the Great Womb of the cosmos. The "isms" that have come after this foundation--Brahminism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, British culture, Capitalism, Marxism-have simply accumulated, they have been incorporated and transformed. 

The competing "isms" are not judged by Tamilians so much in terms of which one is right, but in terms of which one brings the most benefit to its followers. When people change religions in Tamil Nadu, it is almost always for the sake of hoped-for improved economic and social opportunities. Thus, in Tamil Nadu, in a sense, what you are is not nearly as important as how "great" you are. 

When a "great" person dies in Tamil Nadu, he/she is enshrined. In time, that person may come to be considered an avatar of one of the divinities of the classic Hindu pantheon. Kannagi, for example, is worshipped as an avatar of Kali, goddess of Death, in some places; in other places she is associated with Shakti, the goddess of Energy, and considered to be the consort of Shiva (see Pollachi chapter). 

While in Madurai, I witnessed a stage in the process of the enshrinement of MGR: the one-year death-anniversary. MGR had been Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu when he died; before that he had been an extremely popular movie star. Long before he died he had risen to the status of folk hero. In virtually every home I entered in Tamil Nadu there were photos of MGR up on the wall right next to paintings of gods and goddesses--and by the yellowed and frayed look of many of these photos, I would guess they had been there for a long time. On the anniversary night, shrines in MGR's honor popped up on virtually every one of Madurai's streets. By "shrines" I mean everything from large flat surfaces propped up by stones to makeshift wooden huts with three walls and a roof. By the hundreds, photographs and paintings of MGR as politician and as cinema super-hero--typically, whether as god or man, he played a friend of the downtrodden--were pasted all over the shrine's surfaces. Innumerable candles were burned in front of these images. Most shrines were situated near the snack shops and inexpensive restaurants that stay open late into the night. Needless to say, it was not orthodox temple priests who set up and manned these shrines--it was the young men who live and work on the streets. There seemed to be a good-natured competition among these shrine-makers over whose creation was the most elaborate. 

While I had been observing Kovalan's tree outside Madurai, a local school had let its students out. Some of the school boys--very proficient in English and eager to speak with a Westerner--stopped and chatted with me. One fourteen-year-old confirmed that the hut was indeed the official shrine for Kovalan, but the boy said that he didn't believe Kovalan's ashes were actually there. I asked the young man where else he thought the ashes might be kept. He said he didn't know, but he was sure they were not there. I asked him if he thought the characters and events of the Epic of The Anklet had existed at all. "Yes, certainly," he said. Finally, he admitted that really didn't know what was here, because the events in question had taken place before he had come to school in this neighborhood. 

It must be remembered that this young man was speaking in English, and that he is a member of the modernized, "educated" class. He is one of those Tamils who are half in the logical world, and half in the world of automatically accepting the truths of tradition. This boy solved the conflict by saying, 'Yes, it happened long ago and far away, but not where I live and go to school.' 


Approximately 120 kilometers west of Madurai, one comes to a mountain range that runs vertically from near the southern tip of India to over a thousand kilometers northward. It is called the Western Ghats (a.k.a. the Nilgiri Mountains). Once one enters these mountains, one immediately experiences luxuriant vegetation, wildlife (especially monkeys), and cooler weather. The mountain range blocks and drains the moisture that flows to the Indian continent from the Arabian Sea. The border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala is along this mountain range. 

Prince Ilango Adigal's text states that Kannagi ascended to heaven near Vanci. There is much debate today as to where ancient Vanci was located. In Tamil Nadu, the most popular tradition holds that Kannagi ascended near Thekkadi, 155 km west of Madurai, a few kilometers into Kerala. Reportedly, in the forest near Thekkadi there is an ancient temple which is said to be the one King Shenguttuvan built in Kannagi's honor. 

Kerala has developed the ares adjacent to Thekkadi as a wildlife reserve and tourist attraction. There is a huge man-made lake, caused by building a dam and flooding a valley. Tours are offered of the deep, dense forest that grows on all sides. 

The temple dedicated to Kannagi is located in the "core" area of the wildlife preserve. It is located 14 kilometers into the forest. This information was supplied to me by local taxi (that is, four-wheel jeep) drivers who offered to take me there and back for the exorbitant fee of $15--if permission could be granted from the forest warden. 

The forest warden apologetically informed me that the temple could not be visited. "Why?' I asked. "Administrative reasons" he replied. "What administrative reasons?," I pressed. "I don't know," he said good-naturedly. The interview was over. 

One Tamilian man living in Thekkadi told me that the temple was deserted, and that Kerala's officials have never promoted the temple as an attraction for visitors. There is no mention of the historic temple in the 'museum' at the Thekkadi wildlife center. The temporary (?) closing of the site aside, by allowing taxi/jeep drivers to charge a ridiculously high amount for the trip, and at the same time forbidding alternate means of travel (one could not walk or use one's own vehicle), Kerala's government has made the temple all but inaccessible, except to the wealthy. 

Kannagi's temple has become a pawn in the competition between the two neighboring states. Kerala's officials seem to have no interest in the Epic of The Anklet, perhaps perceiving the story as a glorification of Tamil Nadu (despite the facts that the author lived in ancient Kerala, Kannagi chose ancient Kerala as a haven, and there she was enshrined by a Keralan king). Kerala's education system does not teach the story. Few of its citizens are aware of the story's existence. 

The government of Tamil Nadu has of late attempted to stir debate as to whether Kannagi did indeed ascent at this spot or not. Tamil Nadu would like to build a temple to Kannagi on its side of the border, which would establish the spot as a tourist and cultural destination--as it has done with Poompuhar. People go to mountain retreats primarily for vacations. There is much competition among the "hill stations." A hill station that could offer cultural enrichment for a family's children might well be chosen by that family over other hill stations. 


There is strong archeological evidence that the ancient city of Vanci, capital of the Chera dynasty, lies in the outskirts of modern day Kodungallur. Kodungallur lies on the west coast of Kerala, on the far side of the Western Ghats. There is a tradition in Kodungallur that Kannagi ascended here: she has certainly been enshrined here. 

The text clearly places Kannagi in the mountains at the time of her ascension. Thus, placing Kannagi's shrine in Kodungallur would seen to be inappropriate. There is another factor, however, which has caused Kannagi's shrine to be placed in Kodungallur. 

Kodungallur is an ancient center of Kali worship (Kali is the goddess of Death). In a striking example of how Hinduism enshrines mortals (and story characters), in this area Kannagi came to be perceived and worshipped as an avatar of Kali, who had been worshipped for millennia before Kannagi's appearance around the second century AD. (The worship of Kali/Kannagi has occurred to an even greater extent in Sri Lanka, where She is worshipped much more actively today than in south India.) 

In response to my queries about Kannagi, a local pundit led me to an open-air shrine on a main street near the central Kali temple. The 'shrine' consisted of an empty space surrounded by a waist-high iron spike fence with some dried flower-garlands on it. My guide casually explained that the idol of Kannagi--supposedly 1700 years old, brought here from the Himalayas--had stood in that space until ten years ago, when it had been stolen. 

Inside the Kali temple there is an idol portraying Kali with one breast: because it has only one breast it is identified with Kannagi. Unfortunately, once again I could not visit the site in question. In Kerala, non-Hindus are not allowed to enter Hindu temples. (In Tamil Nadu, anyone can enter Hindu temples, although there are certain inner-shrines reserves for Hindus. Tamil Nadu's Hindus are generally proud to welcome outsiders into their temples--and rightly so, for the religious practices, sculptures, and architecture one sees inside are awe-inspiring.) I had hoped that the temple authorities at the Kali temple in Kodungallur would waive the rule in this case because of my scholarly and sympathetic interest in Kannagi--but it was not to be. The Hindu establishment in Kerala, in the midst of a state that has a large Christian population and [at that time] an elected Communist government, has retreated to a policy of isolationism. The absurdity of the situation struck me: Kannagi was led through the wilderness by a Jain monk, she was immortalized in writing by another monk--Jain or Buddhist--he does not even bother to say. Neither of those individuals would be allowed to visit Kannagi's idol either. The exclusionary rule goes against Kannagi's spirit, as the text presents it anyway. It seems to me unfair that a particular group of people can keep to itself historical, aesthetic and spiritual objects which belong to all humanity. 

The Kali temple of Kodungallur is famous for a yearly festival. During the rest of the year, its Kali is considered chaste. But during a certain festival, her lewdness is celebrated. People formerly classified as "untouchables" converge to sing graphically and grotesquely sexual songs to the goddess--which she is said to enjoy immensely. The celebrants drink. They rip their own flesh. They are allowed to "impurify" the temple with their presence. Afterwards, the temple is ritually "cleansed" and all is calm until the next year. The pattern of alternation makes it possible for a single female figure to contain polar opposite qualities; this female is both chaste and vulgar, socially proper and socially unacceptable, clean and unclean. 

Wilderness West of Pollachi

In the Western Ghats there are peoples who are classified as tribals. There are dozens of distinct tribes on the Tamil Nadu side of the border, and dozens more on the Kerala side. Each tribe is composed of individuals at innumerable settlements in the forest and jungle These tribal groups speak various combinations of Tamil, Malayalam, and pre-Dravidian languages, for some of these groups are considered to having arrived (from Africa?) before the Dravidians. 

In the course of my investigation, I learned that there is a tribe living in the Western Ghats known as Muthuvans, who claim that their ancestors had left Madurai with Kannagi. If their ancestors had been citizens of Madurai at one time, and had chosen to revert of living in the wilderness, I theorized that the Muthuvans would not be significantly different physically than other Tamilians. This proved to be case (with the Muthuvans I met.) 

There are a number of Muthuvan settlements in the forest west of Pollachi, which is a town north of Thekkadi, on the Tamil Nadu side of the border. A doctoral student from the University of Madras kindly took me along with him on one of his visits to a Muthuvan settlement. 

In Pollachi we boarded a bus, which took us a small town, Valparai. There we boarded another bus, which took us to a tea plantation. From there we walked into the forest. After perhaps five miles, the trees cleared; I saw beautiful valley beneath us. Through the mist I could make out a gushing river at the bottom. We made our way down the steep mountainside. 

Halfway down the mountainside we came to a settlement. We stayed there for two nights; we also visited a settlement further down the mountainside, by the river. The head man of the settlement on the mountainside, a thin elderly man, agreed to narrate to me the story of Kannagi and his people. (The Muthuvans and their claimed relationship with Kannagi are not mentioned in Prince Ilango Adigal's text.) The crux of the headman's narration follows: 

After Kannagi brought fire down on Madurai, and Madurai was burning, Kannagi started to wander away. Some of Madurai's good citizens saw Kannagi and followed her. They took with them the royal musical instruments--drums and flutes--as well as the dead king's sword, ear studs, and bracelet. They played the instruments as they walked away toward the west. Soon the distraught Kannagi became tired, so these people carried Kannagi on their backs--thus earning their name, Muthuvans, which means, "those who carry." 

The Muthuvans and Kannagi entered the Western Ghats. Deep in the forest, Kannagi instructed them to stop. There she founded their society. She said to them, "Live in the jungle with unity. Treat each other as brothers and sisters. Together, use the resources of jungle to live." She instructed them as to how to organize their first settlement and how to build their first building. How to weave leaves to make roofs. She showed the women how to tie their saris in such a way as to carry their young just as they had carried her. Then Kannagi went inside the first structure and disappeared. 

Every morning since then, when Muthuvans wake in the morning, they can her the music--the flutes and drums--that was played as they left the burning Madurai. (The actual instruments, and the king's sword, ear stud, and bracelet, had been lost some time back, the head man informed us.) 

In leading the Muthuvans away from the Pandian king's Madurai, and by instructing them to live in cooperation, Kannagi was directing them to adopt a mode of behavior opposite to that of the Pandian king, she was encouraging them to act more like monks than kings. 

There was one aspect of the Muthuvan society I visited that might be considered unfair. The Indian philosophy that women must remain "pure," while men may be exposed to the outside world, is practiced here to the extreme. While the men of the settlement are free to go to Pollachi on Sundays to buy supplies and see movies, females never leave the forest. The Tamil anthropology student who had spent months with this group told me that he still had not been able to speak a word with any of the women in the settlement. 

In the vicinity of both Muthuvan settlements there are sacred piles of stones, trees and anthills. Each settlement also has a main shrine. The shrine I saw contained typical city-made small gold-colored bas-relief idols of classical Hindu gods and goddesses. There is no visual representation of Kannagi, their patroness and founder. As a primarily human character from a local legend, Kannagi is obviously not considered in the same class as the classical gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. 

Kannagi is, however, associated with Badrakali, one form of Kali, by the Muthuvans. She has also been elevated to royalty. It will be recalled that in Prince Ilango Adigal's version, Kannagi's ancestors are neither royal nor divine: she is simply the daughter of a wealthy fish merchant in Poompuhar. The version of Kannagi's origins, as told by the head man of the Muthuvan settlement, is as follows. 

In Madurai, an oil merchant and his wife, having no business, prayed to Badrakali. They vowed to Badrikali that they would light an oil lamp in her temple if business improved. 

One day the couple got a good sale. They went to Badrakali's temple and lit a lamp--but this act had been forbidden by the Pandian king who, angry at the goddess because he had not had any children, had the merchant and wife beheaded in Badrakali's temple. Badrakali appeared before the king and said, "I'll be born to you and I'll destroy your kingdom!" Then she disappeared. 

Shortly after that, the king's wife found she was pregnant. When she gave birth it was to a girl wearing an ankle bracelet. The court astrologer confirmed that this child would destroy Madurai. The King ordered the infant thrown in the river. The infant was placed in a straw basket and placed on a river. She was discovered downstream by two fishermen. One fisherman raised her: the other fisherman was the father of Kovalan. In time the two children wed. 

This complex of motifs--a child is a born to a king, the king's astrologer declares that the child will one day destroy the king, the king tries unsuccessfully to destroy the child, and finally the king is defeated by the child--is an extremely familiar one to Westerners: the stories of Moses and Oedipus immediately come mind. It is possible that this version was inspired by outside sources (missionaries, British educators...), but it is just as possible that it came into being independently. The important question is, 'What does this addition do for the story?' 

One answer is that it gives a stronger, clearer reason for how Kannagi could come to destroy a king--she is a princess. Perhaps, to low status individuals such as tribals, the idea of a merchant caste individual destroying a king was not as attractive as and exciting as the picture of a princess brought up by low-caste fishermen who than regains her royal stature. They could then identify closely with the girl when she is in her lost, fisher folk stage. The supernatural factor (Badrakali) and the royal birth certainly takes the story further away from the realistic, humanistic emphasis given by Prince Ilango Adigal. The transformation of mundane story elements into fairy tale and myth distances the story from everyday life--this a standard folk process.

The Muthuvan version of the king is very unlike Prince Ilango Adigal's heroic but flawed human. As portrayed by the Muthuvans, the king is simply wicked: we wait for justice to bring him down. This version has much more dramatic necessity driving it along. This version also stresses the futility of avoiding the fate one has created for oneself. (Prince Ilango Adigal does point out that all the characters in his story have done things in past lives to cause their present predicaments, but he does so parenthetically and briefly, in the middle of the text.) 

The "royal birth" version of Kannagi's early life is not unique to the Muthuvans: it was the standard one used by the folk theatre groups that used to perform the Epic of The Anklet throughout Tamil Nadu. It was also adopted in 1941 movie. Habi Bullah, a producer of the film for Jupiter Pictures, told me that at the time he had been criticized by scholars for making departures from Prince Ilango Adigal's text., but that he had made some changes "because that was what was expected by the people." 

The 1941 movie and most folk-theatre groups did not portray Kannagi as an incarnation of Badrakali--instead, they portrayed her as an incarnation of Shakti, goddess of Energy, and consort of Shiva. (Shiva is also paired with Minakshi, goddess of Madurai; and many local goddesses.) 

In the beginning of the 1941 film, Shakti and Shiva are at home in heaven. They have a quarrel. Shakti "beams down" into the stomach of a female human. By the time she appears as the adult Kannagi (played by the same actress who played Shakti), Shakti/Kannagi has forgotten her true divine nature. (This forgetfulness is also true of the Kannagi who is an incarnation of Badrakali.) 

Only at the end of the movie, when Kannagi is wandering in the forest and Shiva appears, does Shakti/Kannagi remember who she really is. Shiva calls out to Kannagi, "Shakti!" Kannagi does not respond. He repeats. Slowly she remembers and comes to "herself." She is suddenly no longer her Kannagi self, but her divine self. She goes off to heaven with Shiva. (Prince Ilango Adigal has her going up to heaven in a chariot with Kovalan). 

This spectacle of divine figures becoming humans on earth, forgetting their divinity, and then regaining consciousness of their divinity, demonstrates a basic principle of Hinduism. The material universe is nothing but divine play. The great Oneness periodically divides itself up, only to reunite its scattered aspects when it is time to end the play. 

The associating of Kannagi with goddesses--be it Badrakali or Shakti--of the orthodox Hindu tradition serves a dual purpose. It legitimizes, empowers, and defines Kannagi, incorporating her into a lofty pantheon; Kannagi is no longer seen as a human to whom gods can decide whether or not to listen--now she herself is all-powerful. Simultaneously, the acceptance of Kannagi as an avatar of classical goddesses injects dynamism into the distant orthodox figures, regenerating them. A goddess actively fighting for human justice in Tamil Nadu, impassioned and indignant over the death of one Tamil man--this is a comforting thought for a Tamilian, one that will make a Tamilian's loyalty to, and involvement with, the entire pantheon of orthodox divinities more intense. 

The head man of the settlement had told us in normal speech about Kannagi and his people. I asked him if he knew of any songs about Kannagi. He informed us apologetically that in his settlement, which was near civilization, everyone had forgotten the songs about Kannagi. He assured us, however, that songs to and about Kannagi were still sung by Muthuvans deeper in the wilderness. I could not confirm this at the time, for it was the rainy season (June)--the rivers were full--and further penetration into the forest and jungle was impossible. 


In conclusion, I must say that the Epic of the Anklet does not fill most Tamilians' everyday thoughts. Kannagi is in a sense a figure out of literature and history, and these areas are not as immediate as movies, politics, and religion. 

At the same time, I do not think there was one Tamilian I spoke to during the entire year who was unaware of the story. Most people expressed reverence for the story and amusement at my interest in it. 

There were modern Tamilian citizens who had no patience for the Epic of the Anklet: I was told by a computer-school owner in Madurai, "These things are old hat. We don't care about them. Why do you bother with it? Thinking about that won't improve social or economic conditions." Involved with the nuts and bolts of building and implementing new technologies, he had lost sight of the importance of psychological and cultural investigation. 

An elderly man who helped me with translations approved of the human drama of the Epic of the Anklet, but resented the supernatural elements. "It was the Aryans who brought all that fairy tale stuff to confuse and subject us," he groused There is, in fact, a strong tradition of atheism, or rationalism, in Tamil Nadu. Many Tamils also blame the stratified caste system on the Aryan influence. In neighboring Kerala (Prince Ilango Adigal's homeland) there is an elected Communist government. For many south Indians--especially amount the educated elite--Hinduism is their culture, not their religion. 

Upper class people in cities were generally excited about and flattered by my research. To them my work represented a recognition of Tamil culture and ethics, of which they are very proud. 

Sadly, the great majority of visitors to Tamil Nadu--be they from other states of India or from foreign countries--never hear of the Epic of the Anklet. The story is told in a few moments as part of ninety-minute sound and light presentation for tourists in Madurai. Otherwise, Tamilians have kept the story a secret. 

Tamilians depict their folk heroes--be they divine figures, politicians, or cinema "super-heroes"--grandly and gaudily. They cover the walls of their homes and the walls of their streets with these pictures. It is odd how few visual representations one sees of Kannagi, Kovalan, and Madhavi. There is a statue of Kannagi on Marina road in Madras, the state capital. There are the exhibits and a statue at Poompuhar. On the outskirts of Madurai, in a rundown shack, there are three uncarved stones: one represents Kovalan, one represents Kannagi and one represents Madhavi. In all of Tamil Nadu, to the best of my knowledge, no other public visual representations of the story exist. 

Villupattu, a popular folk epic-chanting genre, still thrives in parts of southern Tamil Nadu--and in modernized form, throughout Tamil Nadu. But although I found an elderly male member of a professional storytelling troupe who was able to chant portions of the story for me, public performances of the Epic of the Anklet seem to be uncommon. While classical dance (Bharat Natyam) and music (Carnatic music) flourish in Tamil Nadu, much folk theatre is diminishing, its place largely usurped by cinema. The new method of showing movies is, of course, television. Nightly, in small towns and rural areas, whole communities are entertained outdoors by televisions. 

The Epic of the Anklet is introduced to Tamilians in their schools. Every Tamil child is taught as a matter of self-respect to revere ancient Tamil civilization for its moral tone, language, and literature, which are all described as "chaste." Further, every child learns that the Epic of the Anklet is the primary literary relic from that age. The text, because only a few scholars can decipher it, is like a heavenly constellation that may be out of the reach of virtually everyone, and yet may be looked up to by all. 

Thus, nationalism and the urge for economic and moral renewal are reasons the story appeals to the popular consciousness. Another reason, I believe, is that the story demonstrates that one person alone can fight unjust authority. In addition, the story is told in terms of familiar oppositions--in men, the king versus the monk, in women, the chaste-wife versus the courtesan. These oppositions are deeply familiar to Tamilians today because they are traditional; these oppositions have been a part of the Tamil psyche for thousands of years. 

For these reasons--and others, no doubt--the story of Kannagi, Kovalan and Madhavi is, and will continue to be, the central epic of the Tamil people. 

Overall, I found it very helpful to study a culture through a story--I would recommend this methodology. Whenever I mentioned the story, I immediately felt a bond with the person to whom I was talking. We had a common experience and we could talk about it. Most of all, by mentioning the story, I showed I was interested in, and respectful of, their culture, and this was always appreciated. 

Appendix : Media Reports

A) Anandha Vikatan Magazine, Oct. 9, '88. Page 2. (Original in Tamil.)



All the Classical Stories, like Mahabaratham, Bible, Panchathanthiram, Aesop's Fables, etc., were originally oral. When the story-writers began their writing, some oral storytelling vanished. In order to protect the customary habit of telling stories without destroying the said habits, some writers in Tanjore gained success in their attempts to establish one new Classical Story organization--Thanjavur District Storytellers Club. 

The young man Mr. Eric Miller coming from America who came here one month ago in research of the Women's God-Spirit and its foretelling, told that there are also storytelling organizations in America such as, NAPPS (National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling--what a mouthful!). The said organization takes a vital role in promoting storytelling. A woman named Laura Simms is a leader of it. The storytelling organization celebrates an annual festival. The storytellers assemble in one naturally beautiful place every year, discuss matters with each other, and create the new stories. 

Mr. Eric Miller congratulated the storytellers' organization for executing its works, and he agreed to tell one story in the meeting! 

On August 30th the Besant Hall of Tanjore is full of people. In spite of his old age, Manikodi's writer, Mr. M. V. Venkataram came there to tell one story. He described one husband's inability to free himself from his wife's clutches. It was touching that he came here to tell a story after 13 years of long silence of story-writing.

Mr. Eric Miller was eager to hear how his story sounded in Tamil. After each section, one storyteller translated and spoke his words in Tamil. Before beginning his storytelling, Mr. Eric Miller bowed, touching the ground with his hands. The brief content of the story is as follows: 

There is one Island where only women are living, but they won't laugh. One day, men of one gang of soldiers in one ship coming towards the shore drown into the sea--all the men are struggling in danger, unable to swim. The head of the women, standing on the shore, laughed. The said men told the women that they had come to protect the said women and to accompany with them. The head of the women wished to go with the men simply for the reason that they made her laugh. One women in her God's-Spirit told that those who wished may go, but that they should always remember that all women are sisters to each other. Then the full moon changed to red, and swelled, and burst, and there is red-blood rainfall. The women having the blood on their knees, washed the said blood stain in the ocean the next day's morning. The women stand on the Island and shed tears farewell for the women who go away from the Island. 

Mr. Eric Miller showed each portion of the story by acting aptly. Mr. Eric Miller told that he wishes to undertake the research of the hereditary storytelling habit of the Indian families. 

- Tanjore Gopali. 

B) The Hindu (South India edition), Oct. 28, '88. Page 17. (Original in English.)


A new organization, Thanjavur District Storytellers Club, has been formed to revive the art of storytelling. The club, comprised of writers, poets and artists, has decided to undertake an extensive tour of the villages in the State and to record the stories narrated by the villagers. Mr. Eric Miller of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (U.S.A.) said that the art of storytelling was becoming popular in the U.S. where, due to the highly individualistic nature of family and social set-up, communication gap between the members of same family had been widening and where the television sets were standing in the way of such communication. 

There were over 300 professional storytellers in the U.S. who were being sought after by public organizations, especially those in touch with young children. Most of the children loved to hear stories from the Bible, of fantasies, of adventure. 

Prof. S. Ramanujam, Head of the Department of Drama, Tamil University, tracing the history of the art of storytelling in India said grandmothers of the past were experts in the art. While narrating stories from the epics, they inculcated the qualities of courage, obedience to elders, and higher moral values in the children. 

Mr. M. V. Venkataraman, a reputed novelist in Tamil, said in novel or story-writing there was no direct contact between the author and the reader but in storytelling a close link was established between the storyteller and the audience. 

Mr. Gopalakrishnan, promoter of Club, said the Club would organize a storytelling session every month. 

C) All India Radio, Nov. 4, '88. Tamil broadcast: 6:30am. (Original in Tamil.)

At a press conference in Thanjavur, Mr. Eric Miller, Research Scholar from New York University, declared that Tamil literature is foremost in the world in championing human rights and justice. Mr. Miller also said that Winnie Mandela of South Africa is like the ancient Tamil heroine, Kannagi, in that Mrs. Mandela is protesting the imprisonment of her husband, Nelson Mandela, just as Kannagi protested over the treatment the government meted out to her husband, Kovalan. 

Mr. Miller is currently walking from Poompuhar to Madurai in the footsteps of Kannagi in order to collect more data. 

D) The Hindu (South India edition), Nov. 7, '88. Page 3. (Original in English.)


Mr. Eric Edwin Miller, a research scholar of New York University in Anthropology and Folklore, has commenced a 650 km walk from Kaveripoompattinam in Thanjavur coast to the Kannagi temple in the Tamil Nadu - Kerala border. 

Mr. Miller, who has been learning Tamil culture and especially Tamil folklore for the past 10 years under Tamil scholars in the U.S., said that his main object in walking on the same route stated to have been taken by Kannagi and Kovalan, heroine and hero of the epic, Silappathikaram,was to pick up any information connected with Kannagi from the people of the region who would have retained it in their poems, songs, stories, folk arts, etc. 

The 31-year-old scholar said that Americans were generally of the opinion that all Indian stories were figments of imagination, but that Silappathikaramwas the story of an ordinary woman faced with the trials and tribulations that any woman could face, of her action and dignified response when neglected by her husband, and of how she proved that her husband was innocent. 

Mr. Miller hoped to complete his walk in two months. 

E) Dina Karan (Trichy edition), Nov. 24, '88. Page 5. (Original in Tamil.)


In order to research the Silappathikaram, the American Research Scholar Mr. Eric Miller has visited Tamil Nadu. He arrived at Pudukkottai from Poompuhar via Tanjore by walk journey where he was welcomed by the town prominent persons and then he told the press newspersons as follows: 

"I go by walk from Pudukottai to the nearby Kodumballur. Kovalan with Kannagi, going to to sell the anklet, went to Kodumballur where the people of Maravar caste, Akamudaiyar Caste, and Kallar Caste offered them place and food. One women coming from Maravar Caste named Salini in her God's spirit foretold Kovalan and Kannagi not to go to Madurai where there is danger." For that Mr Miller will tell gratitude for the hereditary people of the said Salini's caste. 

Mr. Eric Miller is 31 years of age and he is a Research Scholar of New York University, America. 

F) The Hindu (South India edition), Dec. 8, '88. Page 3. (Original in English.)



Mr. Eric Miller from New York, who is on a 650-km trek from the Kaveripoompattinam coast of Thanjavur to the Kannagi temple of the Tamil Nadu-Kerala boundary is now in Madurai. He is expected to stay here for about six weeks. 

Mr. Miller said he had taken a pledge to make all the Prime Ministers and Presidents of the world know about the Tamil classic Silappathikaramsince "the story teaches respect for human rights." He would organize a symposium on Silappathikaramin front of the Meenakshi temple here. A discourse on the classic will be delivered with traditional storytelling techniques. 

What led Mr. Eric Miller to undertake the long trek? He said he would walk in the footsteps of Kannagi so that he could have a peaceful chance to meditate abut the story. Asked how he felt footing the journey so far, Mr. Miller said Prince Ilango Adigal had written that Kannagi and Kovalan came to Madurai through Kodamballur and that en route they were received with enthusiasm and hospitality by the Maravar tribals. Today, these people were a caste. At Kodamballur he met descendants of Maravars and took food with them. 

Talking about his field of scholarship, Mr. Miller explained that he was a scholar on storytelling, worldwide--its history and technology. Storytelling was known as oral narrative. It was a type of folklore, which was a category within anthropology. 

What made him choose Silappathikaramand also Tamil Nadu? Mr. Miller said he liked the story because it began as an all-too-human love story in Poompuhar. It developed into a story of social violence and justice in Madurai. And finally, it became a story about divinity, god, and the entire universe in Kerala. Thus the story illustrated a connection between these different spheres of human experience. 

Also, he had come to Tamil Nadu to study the traditional storytelling techniques as the oral tradition in Tamil Nadu was alive, vital, and rich. It was making a successful transition into the electronic age. In addition, its influences could be seen on the modern media--cinema, radio, television and newspapers. 

Mr. Miller said that after visiting the Kannagi temple he would visit Kerala and finish the project sometime next October. 

G) Malai Murusu, Jan. 11, '89. Page 5. (Original in Tamil.)



One conference is to be held concerning Pattini (Kannagi) at the Victoria Edward Hall on Monday, January 16. 

Starting at 10am, a procession will start from the West Tower of the Minakshi Temple and go to the Victoria Edward Hall. Then starts the program. 

Mr. Eric Miller, an American Research Scholar, will inaugurate the function. Dr. P. Ahmed Kabir will preside.