Kannagi or Kaṇṇaki (கண்ணகி) – a legendary Tamil woman, is the central character of the South Indian epic Silapathikaram. Legend states that Kannagi took revenge on the King of Madurai, for a mistaken death penalty imposed on her husband Kovalan, by cursing the city with disaster.
In fact, the Madurai that we know today is not the Madurai of ancient times, for it is said that the entire city was once destroyed in an all-consuming fire. The story behind that fire is told in the 5,270-lined epic poem Silappatikaram ["The Story of the Jewelled Anklets"] written by a Jain monk by the name of Ilango Atikal in the 5th century C.E. According to the author of the poem, it is a story about the importance for kings following dharma, the glory of a chaste woman and the effects of past-life karma.
Kannagi (Kannaki Amman) is eulogized as the epitome of chastity and is still worshipped as its goddess. She is praised for her extreme devotion to her husband in spite of his adulterous behaviour. She is worshiped as Goddess Pathini in Sri Lanka by the Sinhalese Buddhists, Kannaki Amman by the Sri lanka Tamils Hindus’ and as Kodungallur Bhagavathy (Kodungallur Devi / Kodungallur Amma) and Attukal Bhagavathy (Attukal Devi / Attukal Amma) in South Indian state Kerala. It must be noted that Kannagi is also viewed as a brave woman who could demand justice directly from the King and even dared to call him “Unenlightened King”. The point here is that while she was behaving in a non-interfering manner with her domestic problems, she was no meek woman that would brook injustice in the rule of the law...
Although Silappatikaram was written only 1,500 years ago; the story itself is much older. The poet-monk only learned of the story when visiting the countryside near the Periyaru River with his brother, Senkuttuvan, a Chera King. On the banks of the river, villagers told the king and Ilango the story of Kannagi, a woman with a single breast who sat down under a tree and did austerities for 15 days, without food or water, until she died. The villagers worshipped Kannagi as the Goddess of Chastity, and her story so inspired the king that he asked his brother to immortalize it in poetry for the benefit of mankind.
Rather than retell the story, here are lines extracted from the translation by Professor A.L. Basham from the original Tamil. Kovalan, the son of a wealthy merchant in Kaverippattinam, married Kannagi, the lovely daughter of another
Gradually he spent all his wealth on the dancer. At last he was penniless, and returned repentantly to his uncomplaining wife. Their only fortune was a precious pair of anklets, which she gave to him willingly. With these as their capital they decided to go to the great city of Madurai, where Kovalan hoped to recoup his fortunes by trade. On their arrival at Madurai, they found shelter in a cottage, and Kovalan went to the market to sell one of Kannagi’s anklets. But the queen of Nedunjeliyan, the king of the Pandyas, had just been robbed of a similar anklet by a wicked court jeweller.
The jeweller happened to see Kovalan with Kannagi’s anklet, and immediately seized it and informed the king. Guards were sent to apprehend Kovalan, who was then killed on the king’s orders. When the news was brought to Kannagi, she went out into the town, with her eyes ablaze with anger, carrying the remaining anklet in her hand as proof of her husband’s innocence. [The city caught ablaze from the fire in her eyes.]
At last the patron goddess of the city [Meenakshi] interceded with Kannagi, and she agreed to withdraw her curse, and the fire abated. Weak with loss of blood from her self-amputated breast, Kannagi struggled to a hill outside the city4, where after a few days she died, and was reunited with Kovalan in Heaven. Meanwhile the news of her death spread throughout the Tamil Land. She was deified, temples were raised and festivals held in her honour, and she became the patron goddess of wifely loyalty and chastity.
She fell to the ground, sobbing and crying, and clasped her Lord’s feet with her bangled hands; and he left behind his human form and went, surrounded by the gods.
And she stood on her feet, her large eyes full of tears, and, wiping her eyes, she went to the gate of the palace.
Tell the King that a woman with an anklet, an anklet from a pair of tinkling anklets, a woman who has lost her husband, is waiting at the gate.”
And the gatekeeper went to the King and said:
Kannagi was then admitted to the King’s presence.
Then Kannagi showed her anklet to the king.
On comparing it very carefully with the remaining anklet of the pair belonging to the Queen, he realised that Kovalan had been innocent. When he saw it the parasol fell from his head and the sceptre trembled in his hand.
And with these words she left the palace, and cried out through the city,
With her own hand she tore the left breast from her body. Thrice she surveyed the city of Madurai, calling her curse in bitter agony. Then she flung her fair breast on the scented street. ..
And the burning mouth of the Sire-god opened as the gods who guarded the city closed their doors. The high priest, the Astrologer and the judges, the treasurer and the learned councilors, the palace servants and the maids, stood silent and still as painted pictures. The elephant-riders and horsemen, the charioteers and the foot-soldiers with their terrible words, all fled from the fire which raged at the gate of the royal palace. ..
And the street of the sellers of grain, the street of the chariots, with its bright-colored garlands, and the four quarters of the four classes were filled with confusion and flamed like a forest on fire. ..
In the street of the singing girls where so often the tabor had sounded with the sweet gentle flute and the tremulous harp, the dancers, whose halls were destroyed, cried out: