Created by Jijith Nadumuri at 16 Oct 2011 15:29 and updated at 25 Apr 2013 10:39

Silappatikaram is an epic similar to Mahabharata, Ramayana, Iliad and Odyssey. It is authored in the ancient Tamil language spoken during 500 BCE to 500 CE period in southern India. Its name means the 'Anklet Story' or the chapter on the history of an Anklet. 'Silappu' (Silampu) in Tamil means 'Anklet'. 'Atikaram' in Tamil means 'chapter, narrative or passage focusing on a particlar topic of interest'. Like Mahabharata which forms a window of information or a time portal to the lives of people in ancient India, especially in the Indo-Gangatic plain during Kurukshetra War period (dated to around 3100 BCE), Silappatikaram forms a window to southern India during 500 BCE to 500 CE period. It describes the Tamil country (Tamizhakam) divided into three major kingdoms, viz. Chola, Pandya and Chera (alternatively Cheral or Kerala) with their capital cities respectively Pukaar, Maturai and Vanchi. Unlike the Kuru-Panchala kingdoms of Indo Gangatic plain, described vividly in Mahabharata, the Chola, Pandya and Chera kingdoms had a maritime culture and engaged in sea trade with distant lands. These distant lands included Ionia in Greece and Rome. The Greeks and Romans were described as Yavanas and small pockets of Yavana territory existed in the Tamil country, such as in the city of Pukaar, the capital of the Chola kingdom. Indirect references reveals cultural influences in the Tamil country through trade relations via land or sea with Arabia, Israel, Egypt, Dwaraka (Gujarat of India), Lanka (Srilanka), Vanga (Bangal of India and Bangladesh), South East Asia and China.

Comparison with other epics

In Mahabharata the focus is on the lives of Kshatriyas (warriors) and Brahmanas (scholars). In Silappatikaram the focus is on the lives of Vaisyas (traders and merchants). The most important person described in the epic is a Vaishya women named Kannaki who became a goddess after suffering a very painful life including the death of her husband Kovalan. She is comparable to Sita of Ramayana and Panchali of Mahabharata. Sita's abduction by Ravana and the fulfillment of her subsequent revenge caused his destruction at the city of Lanka. Panchali's humiliation by the Kauravas caused their destruction at Kurukshetra. Kannaki's revenge for the unrighteous execution of her husband by Pandya king Netunchezhiyan caused his destruction at the city of Maturai.

Kannaki and the Pancha Kanyas

The name Kannaki is the Tamil form of the Sanskrit word 'Kanyaka' which means a 'virgin' or a 'woman who is worthy of worship'. The five such women mentioned in Ramayana and Mahabharata are called the Pancha-Kanyas (the five women worthy of worship as goddesses). They are Mandodari, Tara, Sita, Savitri and Panchali. Kannaki is sixth such woman who is worshiped as a goddess. She is worshiped as goddess Pattini (skt. Patni, meaning 'wife' or 'a wife who is to be worshiped'). Many temples are dedicated to Pattini or Kannaki in her goddess form through out Kerala, Srilanka and Tamilnadu. Some of the famous temples include the temple of Bhagavati at Kodungalloor and Attukal Amma temple, both in Kerala.

Kovalan and connection with Krishna

The name Kovalan is the Tamil form of the Sanskrit word 'Gopala'. This word is often used to describe Krishna in Mahabharata and Bhagavata Purana. This name applies to the Vaisyas whose occupation is rearing cattle (go:- cattle, paala:- rearing). The Yadava clan, in which Krishna was born, though a Kshatriya clan, was transformed into a Vaisya clan of cattle rearing people, during the life time of Krishna. Kovalan as described in Silappatikaram has not all but some characteristics of Krishna. Kovalan was very handsome. He always attracted the attention of women. Besides this, Kovalan belonged to the Vaishya clan and was a young merchant. Krishna too was born to to the Yadava chief Vasudeva who was not a king but a wealthy Yadava merchant. Krishna's foster father Nanda too was a wealthy Vaishya chief who reared cows and sold cow-products as merchandise. The parents of Kovalan and Kannaki were wealthy merchants in the city of Pukaar, belonging to the Vaisya Varna.

Matavi and the Apsara - Fisher woman connection

Besides Kannaki, a dancer woman named Matavi, belonging to the Apsara (fisherwomen) tribe is mentioned in Silappatikaram in great detail. Kannaki's husband, Kovalan lived with Matavi for some years and begat a daughter named Manimegalai. Kannaki lived single during this period, silently suffering the separation from her husband.

Matavi is described as belonging to the tribe of Apsaras, whose lineage is traced to the divine dancer Urvasi, the famous Apsara described in Mahabharata and Ramayana. Matavi is also described as a fisher-woman turned dancer, thus equating the Apsaras, literally women seen in the vicinity of water bodies (Aapa) and lakes (Saras) to fisher-women. This comparison is not just figurative, as many other fisher-women in Mahabharata like the wife of king Uparichara Vasu (viz. Adrika) and the wife of Kuru king Santanu (viz. Satyavati) are described as Apsaras. One of the main occupation of these Apsaras was fishing or catching fish from the lakes and other water bodies while their husbands viz. the Gandharvas went for hunting. They were also very beautiful and were foremost dancers. The Sages Agastya and Vasistha were born to Apsara Urvasi. Vasistha married Arundhati and begat Sakthi who married Adrisyanti. As per many references Arundhati and Adrisyanti were Apsaras. Sakti begat Parasara who married Satyavati who again was an Apsara / fisher-woman and begat Vyasa who authored Mahabharata. Vyasa later married Apsara Gritachi and begat Suka as his son. Thus the Vasistha sages usually married women belonging to the Apsara tribe.

Matavi is the Tamil form of the Sanskrit name 'Madhavi'. This name too is related to the Madhava branch of the Yadava tribe, in which Krishna was born. A woman named Madhavi is described in Mahabharata as the daughter of king Yayati who begat children from four different and famous kings.

Madhavi is also an epithet of Krishna's sister Subhadra, the wife of Pandava Arjuna, since she too like Krishna, belonged to the Madhava tribe.

Authorship of the Epic

The authorship of the epic is attributed to a poet named Ilanko Atikal. He is believed to be one of the brothers of Chera / Kerala king Chenkuttavan. He later became a Jaina monk. His kinship with Chenkuttavan and his status as a Jaina monk are however not firmly verifiable. Silappatikaram is comprised of three books (Kaandam) arranged into 30 chapters. It contains 5270 lines.


The first book is called Puhaar (Pukaar) Kaandam. It contains 10 chapters. The second book is called Maturai Kaandam and contains 13 chapters. This is the largest book. The third and final book is called Vanchi Kaandam and contains 7 chapters. This is the smallest book.

Content and Summary


An introductory chapter that is placed before Pukaar Kaandam inform us about how the epic came to be authored by Ilanko Atikal. When the poet was in the company of his brother, king Chenkuttavan (of the Chera / Kerala kingdom) and his friend Sattanar (author of the second Tamil epic Manimegalai), a group of singers from the mountains sang the song of Kannaki who became a goddess and went up into the sky in a chariot along with Indra and united with her dead husband Kovalan. Amazed by the narration, Ilanko Atikal decided to write a long epic poem named Silappatikaram to immortalize her history.

Pukaar Kaandam

The first book contains description of events happening in the life of Kannaki, Kovalan and Matavi in the city of Pukaar, the capital of Chola kingdom. Here the marriage of Kannaki and Kovalan, their life in the new house, the first performance of the dancer Matavi in front of the Chola king, Kovalan's life with Matavi making Kannaki to suffer a single woman's life, Kovalan's break up with Matavi and his reunion with Kannaki, - all these are mentioned. Finally Kovalan and Kannaki leaves Pukaar and set for Maturai to start a fresh life as Kovalan has lost all his wealth upon Matavi. They were guided in their journey by a Jania nun Kavunit. First they traverse the Chola county side and enter a thick forest separating Chola kingdom from Pandya kingdom.

Maturai Kaandam

After traversing the forest, Kannaki and Kovalan reach Pandya kingdom and stay close to the city of Maturai. One day Kovalan goes to see the city of Maturai along with the anklet (Silappu / Silampu) given by Kannaki to sell and get some money for starting their new business. Kovalan saw the beauty of Maturai city full of multi-storied towers and finally met a goldsmith. He showed the anklet to the goldsmith for selling it. The goldsmith saw that the anklet resembled the lost anklet of Pandya queen which in fact he himself had stolen. He took the anklet from Kovalan, telling that this can be sold to the queen for a better price. The goldsmith went to Pandya king and told he got the queen's lost anklet along with its thief. The king without thinking asked to execute Kovalan and recover the anklet. King's soldiers executed Kovalan. King gave the anklet to the queen to make her happy. Hearing this news Kannaki broke down and when she regained senses, went to the court of Pandya king. She showed the other anklet which was a pair of the anklet that was given to Kovalan. This time the king looked at the anklet closely and found it is not the anklet of his queen and realized his mistake. Shocked by realizing that he has done a serious offence in delivering justice, the king died due to a heart attack.

Knowing about all of this the queen too ended her life. Kannaki's anger did not subside. She wrenched one of her breasts and threw it towards the city of Maturai which then started burning to ashes. To extinguish the anger of Kannaki and to save the city of Maturai, the guardian goddess of Maturai promised her that she would meet her husband in fourteen days. She asked her to go to Chera kingdom and reach a temple there in the top of a hill where she will meet her dead husband.

Vanchi Kaandam

Kannaki agreed to the counsel of the guardian goddess of Maturai and went to the spot in Chera kingdom. There she lived without food for fourteen days. In the end, Indra came from the sky in a chariot along with Kovalan, her dead husband. The Devas proclaimed that Kannaki will henceforward be known on earth as a goddess. Uniting with Kovalan she went to heaven in the chariot of Indra. Kannaki then became famous as goddess Pattini.

Hearing the narration of the history of Kannaki, Chera-Kerala king Chenkuttavan was deeply moved and decided to make a temple for her. For this he conducted a military expedition to north. After subjugating many kings he reached Himalaya and took a stone block from there. This he carried with the help of northern kings and reached his kingdom. He performed necessary Vedic rites on the stone and consecrated it. Then he carved an idol of Kannaki in it and installed it in a temple. There Kankkai was worshiped as Pattini.

Other information

Culture, Beliefs and Life

Besides the main narrative, Silappatikaram provides wealth of information on the life of people in the ancient Tamil country. It describes the various dance forms, musical instruments and music prevailed in those period in the pretext of describing the skills of Matavi. It contains information about city life, village life, forest life, seashore life and mountain life of people. It gives us an idea of early Jainism that was emerging in southern India. It describes the beliefs and cultures of the people which was a blend of Vedic culture and southern Indian cultures. It describes the festivals like Indra festival and Krishna festivals conducted and deities worshiped in the Tamil country such as Indra, Shanmukha, Chattan, Krishna, Balarama, Siva, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Bharati, Parvati and Pattini.

Love and Relationships

Silappatikaram describes vividly the mental and emotional aspects of the married life of couples, life of single women separated from their husbands, life of men with courtesans, life of royalty, life of Jain monks, nuns and missionaries, life of Brahmanas and priests and life of the commoners. It ponders all aspects of love and relationships between men and women and various stages of their relationships such as infatuation, early love, being in love and being in separation.

Livelihoods, Trade and Commerce

It describes about various industries and occupations that flourished in this ancient period, such as fishing, farming, cattle rearing, dancing, singing, courtesan-ship, entertainment services, military service, royal counseling service, ruling of kingdom, temple management, missionary and counseling service of the Jains, trade and commerce of the traders including foreign trade. It contains wealth of information about the presence of Greeks and Romans in southern India conducting foreign trade. It contains information on the type of goods exchanged between the natives and the foreigners.

Geography of Tamizhakam

Silappatikaram describes clearly the geography of the Tamil country with its cities, villages, rivers, seashores, forests, wastelands, hils and mountains. River Kaveri was the largest river with the city of Pukaar in its mouth. River Vaigai had the city of Maturai on its bank and River Anporunai, a tributary of Kaveri had the city of Vanchi on its banks. Kaveri river is praised in several verses of Silappatikaram.

The City of Pukaar

The first book, named Pukaar Kaandam of Silappatikaram is about the events happening in the city of Pukaar, the capital of the Chola kingdom.

The word 'Pukaar' in Tamil means 'Mouth of a River. The city Pukaar is situated in the mouth of the river Kaveri. It is also known by the name Kaveri-puum-Pattanam, the beautiful city of Kaveri. The city as described in Silappatikaram was divided into two halves separated by a waste land. This gap between the two halves of the city too was bustling with commercial activities.

Chola connection with Sivis, Ikshwakus and Indra

Pukaar was ruled by many Chola kings as per Silappatikaram. Some of these kings had their ancestry traced to the Sivi tribe in Sindhu (Indus) river basin (now Sibi in Pakistan). Some references in Chapter 7 make Pukaar kings connected to the Solar dynasty of kings. It is not clear if the connection of these kings with the Sun god (Pakal Veyyon, Surya or Aditya) makes them related to the famous Ikshwaku dynasty which is a Solar dynasty. Rama of Ramayana belonged to the southern branch of the Ikshwakus. Sivi kings too seems to be a sibling branch or a child branch of Ikshwaku lineage.

Another striking observation is the reverence that the Chola kings of Pukaar had paid to Indra the prominent deity and role model king described in the Rig Veda. In Mahabharata, one of the Sivi king is mentioned as an Indra, where it describe about the many kings who earned the title of Indra. Thus both the Sivis and their southern cousins viz. the Cholas were foremost Indra worshipers and had some kinship with the Deva tribe who were settled in Tibet and further north during the period of the Pandavas and Krishna.

Chola connections with Dwaraka and the Yadavas

Cultural remnants of trade relations with ancient Dwaraka and Yadavas through land and Sea is predominant in Chola kingdom and especially in the port city, cum capital city Pukaar. There were many temples dedicated to Krishna and Balarama. Krishna is described as blue or black skinned. Balarama is described as white skinned and elder. Krishna is called the tall one (an allusion to the Vamana incarnation of Vishnu where Vamana grew tall). By the time of Silappatikaram, the connection with Krishna and Vishnu was already established and hence Krishna is considered as Vishnu and Vishnu as Krishna so that the epithets of Vishnu and all of his incarnations apply to Krishna.

Chola connections with Greece and Rome

The Greeks and Romans had trade relations with city of Pukaar during this period. They were called the Yavanas. A small establishment or colony of the Yavana traders along with their military for the protection of trade goods, is mentioned as surviving in the port city under the patronage of the Chola king. No tress-passers were permitted into their colony. They were engaged in trade with the Chola kingdom.

Kings of Pukaar

Some of the prominent kings mentioned as ruling from Pukar includes Muchukuntan, Tirumavalavan, Cembiyan, Karikalan and Maaran. Cembiyan was the ruler during the life time of Kannaki, Kovalan and Matavi (Chapter 7). Tirumavalavan is mentioned as conducting a successful military campaign defeating many northern kingdoms like Vajra (Vraja?), Magadha and Avanti (Chapter 5). King Maaran was an emperor of the Tamil country (Tamizhakam) with his territories extending from Venkata Hills of Tiruppati in the north to Kanyakumari in the south, including modern day Tamilnadu and parts of Kerala (Chapter 8). King Muchukuntan was renouned as the Vetrivel Mannan (the king of victorious spear) as per Chapter 5 of Silappatikaram. King Karikalan is mentioned in Chapter 6.

The City of Maturai

The second book, Maturai Kaandam describes the events happened in Maturai, the capital city of the Pandyas. This city is described as most beautiful to behold and contained many tall buildings and mult-storied towers. Its streets were full of merchants including goldsmiths and contained all kinds of entertainments.

The connection of the Pandyas with Yadavas and their cities like Dwaraka (in Gujarat) and Mathura (in Uttarpradesh) is even stronger. The name Maturai is a copy of the name of the Yadava capital city Mathura, which served as the capital of the Surasena kingdom (also known as Vraja or Vajra) of the Yadavas. The hostilities and subsequent friendship of a Pandya king named Sarangadhwaja (also known as Malayadhwaja) with Krishna and the Yadavas is well attested in Mahabharata. It is this friendship of the Pandya king with Krishna that later resulted in the alliance of the Tamil kingdoms viz. Pandya, Kerala (Cheral or Chera) and Chola with the Pandavas. In Kurukshetra war they sided with the Pandavas under the command of the Pandya king.

Netunchezhiyan is mentioned as the king of Maturai during the life time of Kannaki, Kovalan and Matavi. Thus he was contemporaneous with Cembiyan ruling at Pukaar.

The City of Vanchi

The third and final book of Silappatikaram, Vanchi Kaandam describes the events happened in Vanchi, the capital city of the Cheras or Keralas. This city is mentioned as bustling with activities of all kinds.

The name Vanchi is actually the name of a flowering plant. Its flowers are used to make garlands which the soldiers wear in their necks while advancing in battle to acquire enemy territory. Vanchi also means the box used in temples to store valuable offerings made by devotees. It could also mean 'constant war' or 'a territory which is under constant attack or existing in the midst of frequent conquests'. Vanchi, the capital of the Cheras, too was a politically volatile territory which stayed with the Cheras for most part of its history but went into the hands of the Pandyas or Cholas more than once. The word 'Vanchi' also survives in the vocabulary of Malayalam language derived from ancient Tamil, much like modern Tamil. In Malayalam it means 'wooden boat'. Probably the name was applied to the royal boats used by Vanchi kings for their sea trade and sea travels.

Unlike in the location of Maturai (modern day Madurai) and Pukaar (the spot where river Kaveri joins the sea), there is no certainty in the location of Chera capital Vanchi. It probably shifted its location many times due to frequent attacks. For some period of history Vanchi was identical with Karur in Tamilnadu, to the east of Coimbatore. For some period of history it was identical with Kodungallor and Tiru-vanchi-kulam in Kerala, close to Cochin, where it also served as a port city.

Cenkuttavan is mentioned as the king of Maturai during the life time of Kannaki, Kovalan and Matavi. Thus he was contemporaneous with Cembiyan ruling at Pukaar.

Further Reading

Internal Sources

  1. Article on Mahabharata
  2. Article on Ramayana & Sita
  3. Panchali in Mahabharata
  4. Chola in Mahabharata
  5. Pandya in Mahabharata
  6. Chera in Mahabharata
  7. Gopalas in Mahabharata
  8. Madhavi in Mahabharata
  9. Apsara Fisherwomen Connection
  10. Yavanas in Mahabharata
  11. Pandya king Sarangadhwaja in Mahabharata
  12. Pandya king Malayadhwaja in Mahabharata

Vocabulary Alphabetical

  1. Silappatikaram Vocabulary Alpha1
  2. Silappatikaram Vocabulary Alpha2
  3. Silappatikaram Vocabulary Alpha3
  4. Silappatikaram Vocabulary Alpha4
  5. Silappatikaram Vocabulary Alpha5

Vocabulary in Tamil - Alphabetical

  1. silappatikaram-vocabulary-tamil-alpha1
  2. silappatikaram-vocabulary-tamil-alpha2
  3. silappatikaram-vocabulary-tamil-alpha3
  4. silappatikaram-vocabulary-tamil-alpha4
  5. silappatikaram-vocabulary-tamil-alpha5
  6. silappatikaram-vocabulary-tamil-alpha6
  7. silappatikaram-vocabulary-tamil-alpha7

Vocabulary Frequency wise

  1. Silappatikaram Vocabulary Freq1
  2. Silappatikaram Vocabulary Freq2
  3. Silappatikaram Vocabulary Freq3
  4. Silappatikaram Vocabulary Freq4
  5. Silappatikaram Vocabulary Freq5

Silappatikaram English Translation

  1. Silappatikaram English Translation

Silappatikaram in Malayalam

  1. Silappatikaram Malayalam Transliteration

External Sources

  1. Cilappathikaaram - Puhaar Kaantam - Transliteration of Tamil Originals in English - GRETIL - Project Madurai
  2. Cilappathikaaram - Madurai Kaantam - Transliteration of Tamil Originals in English - GRETIL - Project Madurai
  3. Cilappathikaaram - Vaanchi Kaantam - Transliteration of Tamil Originals in English - GRETIL - Project Madurai
  1. Silappatikaram Summarized in Pictures and Sculptures
  2. Summary of Silappathikaram
  3. Incomplete English Translation of Silappathikaram
  4. Some articles on Silappathikaram- karkanirka
  5. About "The Epic of The Anklet" of Alain Danielou - an article on an English translation of Silappathikaram
  1. Cilappatikaram: The Tale Of An Anklet by R. Parthasarathy - Flipkart Book Rs 263
  2. Shilappadikaram: (The Ankle Bracelet) - by Alain DaniƩlou - Amazon Book $14.95
  3. The Tale of an Anklet: An Epic of South India: The Cilappatikaram of Ilanko Atikal -by Rajagopal Parathasarathy - Amazon Book $33.00

Interesting Links

  1. Pumpuhar could be as ancient as Dwaraka-Kusasthali Ice Age (Rta Yuga) City
  2. The Poompuhur U Shaped Anomaly

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