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Silappadikaram ( ; ), is one of the five epics of ancient Tamil Literature. The poet prince Ilango Adigal, a Jaina monk, is credited with this work. He is reputed to be the brother of Senguttuvan from Chera. As a literary work, it is held in high regard by the Tamils. The nature of the book is narrative and has a moralistic undertone. It contains three chapters and a total of 5270 lines of poetry. The epic revolves around Kannagi, who having lost her husband to a miscarriage of justice at the court of the Pandya king, wreaks her revenge on his kingdom.

Silappatikaram has been dated to belong to the 1st century CE, although the author might have built upon a pre-existing folklore to spin this tale. The story involves the three Tamil kingdoms of the ancient era, the Chola, the Pandya and the Chera. Silappatikaram has many references to historical events and personalities, although it has not been accepted as a reliable source of history by many historians because of the inclusion of many exaggerated events and achievements to the ancient Tamil kings.

Regarded as one of the great achievements of Tamil genius, the Silappatikaram is a poetic rendition with details of Tamil culture; its varied religions; its town plans and city types; the mingling of Greek, Arab, and Tamil peoples; and the arts of dance and music.

Ilango Adigal (poet-prince)
Ilango Adigal (poet-prince)

Historical Importance

It is the first Indian epic written about the life of an ordinary Hindu Chola country man, written by a Jain Chera country Prince who turned to Ascetic, and in a simple understandable literature. It was written during the times,when only complex literature were prevalent for epics and were written only in praise of Religions and Kings, by ordinary poets.

The story evolves in terms of Three, at least of the following

  • Three Kingdoms -Chola, Pandiya, Chera
  • Three Religions - Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism
  • Three Heroines - Kannagi, Madhavi, Manimekalai
  • Three Ways of life - Married (karpiyal) (Kannagi), Unmarried (kalaviyal) (Madhavi), Ascetic (thurau) (Manimekalai)
  • Three Episodes - Puhar, Madurai, Vanchi
  • Three Walks and Types of Land - Seashore (Poompugar), Fertile (Madurai), Mountain (Vanchi)

Structure of Silappatikaram

Silappatikaram contains three chapters:
  • Puharkkandam (புகார்க் காண்டம் – Puharmarker chapter), which deals with the events in the Chola city of Puhar, where Kannagi and Kovalan start their married life and Kovalan leaves his wife for the courtesan Madavi. This contains 10 sub divisions
  • Maduraikkandam (மதுரைக் காண்டம் – Maduraimarker chapter) , is situated in Madurai in the Pandya kingdom where Kovalan loses his life, incorrectly blamed for the theft of the queen's anklet. This contains 7 sub divisions
  • Vanchikkandam (வஞ்சிக் காண்டம் – Vanchi chapter), is situated in the Chera country where Kannagi ascends to the heavens. This contains 13 sub divisions

Each of these chapters are made of several sub chapters called kaathais. Kaathais are narrative sections of the chapters.

Historical and social setting

At the end of the Sangam epoch (second – third centuries CE), the Tamil country was in political confusion. The older order of the three Tamil dynasties were replaced by the invasion of the Kalabhras. These new invaded kings and others encouraged the religions of Buddhism and Jainism. Ilango Adigal, probably lived in this period and was one of the vast number of Jain and Buddhist authors in Tamil poetry. These authors perhaps influenced by their monastic faiths, wrote books based on moralistic values and illustrating the futility of the materialistic (secular) pleasures. These poets freely borrowed from Sanskrit literature, which had numerous books of didactic nature, as well as narrative plays by Bhāsa and Kalidasa. These authors went beyond the nature of Sangam poems, which contain descriptions of human emotions and feelings in an abstract fashion, and employed fictional characters in a well conceived narrative incorporating personal and social ramifications. Tamil epics were thus invented by these poets.

The author of Silappatikaram was Ilango Adigal (lit. Prince- Ascetic). He is reputed to be the brother of Chera king Senguttuvan, however there is no evidence in the Sangam poetries that the famous king had a brother. There are also claims that Ilango Adigal was a contemporary of Sattanar, the author of Manimekalai. The prologues of each of these books tell us that each were read out to the author of the other [Silappatikaram, pathigam 90]. From comparative studies between Silappatikaram and certain Sanskrit Buddhist and Jain works such as Nyayaprakasa, the date of Silappatikaram has been determined to be around the fifth and the sixth centuries CE.

The story of Silappatikaram is set during the first few centuries of CE and narrates the events in the three Tamil kingdoms: Chera , Chola, and Pandya. It also mentions the Sinhala king Gajabahu and the Chera Senguttuvan. It confirms that the northern kingdoms of Chedi, Uttarakosala, and Vajra were known to the Tamil people of the time. The epic also vividly describes the Tamil society of the period, its cities, the people's religious and folk traditions and their gods.


In the pathigam, the prologue to the book, Ilango Adigal gives the reader the gist of the book with the précis of the story. He also lays the objectives of the book:

:அரசியல் பிழைத்தோருக்கு அறங்கூற்றாவதும், (Truth will punish the irresponsible erring king)
:உரைசால் பத்தினியை உயர்ந்தோர் ஏத்தலும், (A women with great morals will be praised by intellects)
:ஊழ்வினை உறுத்து வந்தூட்டும் என்பதூம், (one has to pay for his acts)(past and present acts of one, will certainly yield its results on him)
:நாட்டுதும் யாம் ஓர் பாட்டுடைச் செய்யுள்

Main characters

Folk art and music in Silappatikaram

Literary value

The Silappatikaram, apart from being the first known epic poem in Tamil, is also important for its literary innovations. It introduces the intermingling of poetry with prose, a form not seen in previous Tamil works. It features an unusual praise of the Sun, the Moon, the river Kaveri and the city of Poompuharmarker at its beginning, the contemporary tradition being to praise a deity. It is also considered to be a predecessor of the Nigandu lexicographic tradition.

Popular culture

There have been multiple movies based on the story of Silappathikaram and the most famous is the portrayal of Kannagi by Actress Kannamba in the 1942 movie 'Kannagi'. P.U.Chinnappa played the lead as Kovalan. The movie faithfully follows the story of Silappathikaram and was a hit when it was released.And the 'magnum opus' poompugaar, penned by 'Kalaignar' M. Karunanidhi, and the part of 'Kaavunthiyadigal' played by K.P. Sundarambal

There are multiple dance dramas as well by some of the great exponents of Bharatanatyam in Tamil as most of the verses of Silappathikaram can be set to music.

Further reading


  1. Silappatikaram literally means 'the chapter on the anklet'
  2. Ilango Adigal's epic is dated to belong to 1st century
  3. Encyclopedia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  4. K. A. Nilakanta Sastry, A history of South India, pp 397
  5. Manimekalai, a Buddhist poem, tells the story of Manimekalai, the daughter of Kovalan and Madavi.
  6. See K. A. Nilakanta Sastry, A history of South India, pp 398
  7. See Codrington, H. W. A short History of Ceylon, London (1926) (


  • Minatchisuntharan, T. P. History of Tamil Literature. Annamalai University Publications in linguistics, 3. Annamalai University,1965)
  • Krishnamurti , C. R., Thamizh Literature Through the Ages, Vancouver, B. C. Canada (
  • Nilakanta Sastri, K. A. (1955). A History of South India, OUP, New Delhi (Reprinted 2002).
  • Codrington, H. W. A short History of Ceylon, London (1926) (
  • R. Parthasarathi, The Chilappathikaram of Ilanko Atikal, Columbia University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-231-07848-X.

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