Maṇimēkhalai in its Historical Setting

1. The Poem

[1] Maṇimēkhalai as a poem is included among the five great kāvyas of Tamil literature, the other four being Cintāmaṇi, Śilappadhikāram, Vaḷaiyāpti and Kuṇḍalakēśi. As a peruṁkāppiyam (Sans.: Mahākāvya) it must satisfy certain requirements. It must treat of the life story of a hero or a heroine fully and this involves the necessity of beginning with the parentage and birth of the hero or the heroine, and tracing his or her life through all the stages to the threshold of the life hereafter. It must, therefore, subserve the four puruṣārthas or ends of existence, Aram, Poruḷ, Inbam, Vīḍu, or Dharma, Artha, Kāma, Mōkṣa. Therefore it is to be a self-contained work, a heroic poem dealing with the life of the hero in its entirety.

The first question that would arise, therefore, is whether the poem Maṇimēkhalai answers to this description of a peruṁkāppiyam. The answer to this question, on the face of it, is that it does not, although it may be possible perhaps also to say that it actually does. It may be said to answer to the description of a peruṁkāppiyam inasmuch as the story begins practically with the beginning of the life of Maṇimēkhalai, not without hints and allusions to her birth and early life. It takes her through all the incidents of her worldly life till she attains to the ripeness of entering the Buddhist cloister as a nun. This last step puts an end, in orthodox Buddhist belief as also to a great extent in the Hindu, to her earthly life. [2] Interpreted in this manner, it can be regarded that the work is a complete picture of the life of the heroine, and therefore answers to the description of a great kāvya.

It may, however, be objected that very many of the incidents of her early life are passed over with brief hints and allusions, that her parentage cannot be said in any manner to be treated in this work, and as such it falls short of the requirements of a kāvya. This objection finds some justification in the work being known not as Maṇimēkhalai uniformly. It is described as Maṇimēkhalaituravu in the prologue to the poem. Besides this, the work is said to be referred to in the commentary of Nīlakēśi, as Maṇimēkhalaituravu also. If so the subject may be described as ‘the renunciation of Maṇimēkhalai’, and therefore the subject of the poem would be only that part of Maṇimēkhalai’s life which refers to her renunciation of worldly life.

The learned Editor of the work states that he called it Maṇimēkhalai for the reason that the name has been found to be used generally in that form. It therefore cannot be said that the position that by itself it is not a mahākāvya has not some tenable argument to support it in itself. This position finds further support in the Śilappadhikāram, which, in its concluding portion, states that the story of Maṇimēkhalai completes the subject matter of the poem Śilappadhikāram. This position is taken up by the commentator of the latter Aḍiyārkkunallār. He lays it down that a kāppiyam must subserve the four main ends of life, and propounds the question that the Śilappadhikāram stops with the first three and does not appear to treat separately of the fourth. He gives a number of references in the course of the work to the renunciation of Maṇimēkhalai and concludes that having learnt that Maṇimēkhalai had renounced life, the author of the Śilappadhikāram, [3] Iḷangō-Aḍigaḷ, set this at the end of his own work, and wished to treat the complete work as a mahākāvya treating of the four objects of life.

When he communicated his resolution to Śāttaṉār, his friend, Śāttaṉār told him in reply that he had already composed a work on Maṇimēkhalai making her renunciation the subject, and illustrative of the two main objects of life, Dharma and Mōkṣa. Iḷangō wished that the two should find vogue in the world as one kāvya. Notwithstanding this, these are regarded as two because two authors composed them.

This position of the commentator finds support in the prologue to the Maṇimēkhalai which in lines 95 and 96 states that the author Śāttaṉār read the thirty poems composing Maṇimēkhalai, and Iḷangō-Aḍigaḷ listened to the work with great kindness. The prologue to the Śilappadhikāram likewise says in lines 10 and 11 that when the hunters came and reported what they saw to Iḷangō, Śāttaṉār took up the tale, and described the whole of the story, as it took place, having heard it in certain, at any rate, of its divisions from the Goddess Madhurāpati, when he was lying asleep in the hall of Veḷḷiyambalam on that night when the Goddess appeared to Kaṇṇakī and told her why things happened as they did.

Further down in the prologue to this Śilappadhikāram, as the jewel Śilambu was what brought about the tragedy, to illustrate, that to those that erred in administration, righteousness will prove the cause of death, that to women of chastity, the praise of the discerning good people is the reward, and that the consequences of one’s action will inevitably take effect on him ‘might well be written by us’. Śāttaṉār said in reply that, as the work related to incidents in which the three kings of the Tamil land were parties, Iḷangō himself might [4] compose the work. Iḷangō agreed and recited the work, which, in his turn, Śāttaṉār heard with appreciation. These details and the contemporaneity of the authors are so far in evidence in the prologues and the epilogues only.

We shall return to this question later. All that is to our purpose at present is that the two works are here regarded as constituting one great kāvya, though they are the work of two separate authors; they were treated as two works though constituting a single maliakāvya.

The scope of the work and its character alike show great affinity to the Śilappadhikāram. Though the two form a heroic poem, there is something of the dramatic element running through them, and the narrative is incomplete unless the two could be taken together. Maṇimēkhalai itself begins actually with Maṇimēkhalai having already attained to the charms of maidenhood and being the object of affection to the Cōḻa prince, the heir-apparent of the reigning Cōḻa monarch. The subject matter of the whole poem therefore is the efforts of the prince to gain possession of her, the resistance that she offered in withstanding this temptation and her consistent effort through all suffering to hold on to her own resolution, the attaining by her to the ripeness of mind required for accepting the teachings of the Buddha and her renunciation; these are the incidents that receive treatment in the poem.

The poem opens with the great celebration of the festival to Indra. Maṇimēkhalai’s mother Mādhavī had already renounced life, and sends the daughter to fetch flowers for service; the prince follows her to the garden; Maṇimēkhalai is spirited away to the Island of Maṇipallavam where she learnt her past life from a miraculous Buddha-seat. She returned therefrom again to Kāvēripaṭṭiṇam; [5] the prince still continues to prosecute his love notwithstanding advice against it. He falls by the sword of a celestial being, the form of whose wife Maṇimēkhalai had assumed. Maṇimēkhalai is thrown into prison, from which she gets released. She passes successfully through all the schemes of the queen to bring about her death. She learns the teachings of the various systems, and ultimately the orthodox teaching of the Buddha from Aṟavaṇa Aḍigaḷ at Kāñcī.

Such being the subject matter of the poem, it is clear that it could not be regarded altogether as a mere narrative poem of a historical character dealing with the life of the individual heroine concerned, with anything like a biographical aim. It is a poem first and foremost, and treats of the subject, whatever be its character, in the manner of an epic poem and no more. The subject is one intimately connected with religion and that introduces its own element of the unhistorical in it, such as the occurrence of miracles of various kinds. It would therefore, on the face of it, be very difficult to treat the work as at all of a historical character. Historical characters however are introduced, and, notwithstanding the somewhat miraculous character of several of the incidents and characters brought upon the stage, there is still the possibility of a background of history to it.

The subject-matter of the works is of a varied character. The actual subject itself is the life of a young wealthy merchant of Kāvēripaṭṭiṇam. He was born of a great caravan (mahāsārthavāha) merchant, and, as yet a young man, was married to the daughter of another merchant of similar dignity. The husband and the wife, Kōvalaṉ and Kaṇṇakī, set up separately with the active assistance of the parents of both to lead the life [6] of householders in the city. Kōvalaṉ fell in love with a dancing woman by name Mādhavī, a ravishingly charming beauty. He was so infatuated with her as even to neglect his comely and chaste wife, and spent away not only all his property but even the jewels of his wife.

At the conclusion of the great Indra festival at Puhār (Kāvēripaṭṭiṇam), he went out along with Mādhavī to spend the day in enjoyment on the seashore. In the course of his stay there, he discovered, at least he thought he had discovered, that Mādhavī was not perhaps quite as sincerely attached to him as he thought she was. Somewhat estranged in feeling, he went home, and found his wife more than usually solicitous to please him as she observed that he was somewhat troubled in mind. In a moment of contrition, he explained his position to his wife and regretted that he had not the means to set up as merchant again and recover his lost wealth as he intended to do in a distant place like Madura. Nothing daunted by her previous sacrifices in this direction, she offered the only valuable jewel yet left with her, that is, the anklet, for him to make use of for that purpose.

They left the city unknown the next morning, early enough not to be discovered, and set forward on their journey to Madura. Having entered the city, Kōvalaṉ left his wife in charge of a shepherdess outside the fort and went into the bazaar of the city to sell the jewel. The queen having lost a similar jewel some time before, the goldsmith who was responsible for the theft and to whom by chance Kōvalaṉ offered this for sale, reported that he had discovered the thief with the jewel in possession.

The infatuated Pāṇḍyan king ordered the recovery of the jewel from the culprit after decapitating the thief as a punishment. The virtuous wife got so indignant at this perpetration [7] of injustice that she brought about the destruction of the city by fire and passed across the frontier into the Cēra country before putting an end to herself. There the husband was shown to her and the two together were taken to the world of gods. Hearing of all this, and, on the advice of his councillors, the Cēra ruler of the country set up an image of the chaste wife in a temple which he consecrated to the goddess of Chastity.

Having heard of this calamity, Mādhavī who was wholehearted and sincere in her affection for Kōvalaṉ renounced life in contrition for her own contribution to the tragedy, and became a Buddhist noviciate. She had a child by Kōvalaṉ, a girl of great beauty. She had just reached the age of maidenhood and was so extra-ordinarily charming that the Cōḻa prince of Puhār, the heir-apparent, set his heart upon her.

The work Maṇimēkhalai takes up the tale from here and deals with the life-history of Maṇimēkhalai to the stage of her early renunciation. It will thus be seen that the story of the Śilappadhikāram really leads up to the story of Maṇimēkhalai, and is from the point of view of epic propriety hardly complete in itself. Similarly the story of Maṇimēkhalai would be incomplete without the introduction that is contained in the story of Śilappadhikāram for strict epic requirements.

It will be seen from the above resume that the story is laid in the three capitals of Tamil India, Puhār, Madura and Vañji, and the hero and the heroine are taken in the course of the story to all the three capitals. Maṇimēkhalai is taken in addition to Kāñcī in the course of progress of her life towards renunciation. There is, therefore, much scope for the author, if he cared for it, to throw in a volume of detail, geographical, historical and social in the course of his treatment of [8] the story. The main purpose of the author, however, so far as Maṇimēkhalai is concerned, and, to some considerable extent the Śilappadhikāram as well, is the exaltation of Buddhism as a religion; Maṇimēkhalai is professedly so, and the Śilappadhikāram assumes a more general attitude and contributes to this end only indirectly. The conscious purpose being the exaltation of religion and the characters put on the stage being only the means therefor, the poet has still the latitude for treating the subject in such a manner as to admit of a variety of detail otherwise than of a religious or poetical character.

If, therefore, it is possible to collect together details of a character that could throw light upon the condition of the country, what could these details lead up to? The author in dealing with a particular subject can deal with it so as to give us an idea of the subject and its setting at the time that the incidents of the story are believed to have taken place; or it may be that he takes up the story and deals with it so as to draw a picture – indirect though it be, of times contemporary with himself; or to trace an entirely imaginary picture which has no reality of existence whatsoever. What he actually does really depends upon his own sweet will and pleasure to some extent. At the same time, a careful study may give us some notion of what exactly the author was about in his treatment of the subject. In order to decide what kind of treatment it is that the author gives, it would be just as well if we could know something of the author and the character of his work.

The author of Maṇimēkhalai is stated to be Śāttaṉār, ‘the grain merchant of Madura’. He was a native of Madura and was a grain merchant by profession. He is stated to have been on friendly terms with the Cēra [9] ruler Śenguṭṭuvaṉ, Śilappadhikāram, Xxv. 64-66 and on closer terms of appreciative intimacy with his younger brother, Iḷangō as he is known, who had renounced life, and was a resident of one of the vihāras at the east gate of Vañji, his brother’s capital.

The story is that the two princes, the reigning Cēra Śenguṭṭuvaṉ and his younger brother, were both seated in the assembled court of their father. A physiognomist who was there, looking at the younger of the two, predicted that he had in his face marks of ‘a ruler of men’. The prince got angry that that prediction should have been made, and to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding he took a vow of renouncing life, and did so forthwith, so that there may be no misunderstanding of his position, and that no damage may be done to the legitimate claims of his elder brother. Ibid., XXX. 170-183, and XXX, Introd.: prose passage and references within.

That was the ascetic prince who wrote the Śilappadhikāram in the circumstances already detailed above. His friend, and the friend of his elder brother, the ruling monarch, Śāttaṉār, was the author of the other poem. The two works are so connected that one may believe the facts embodied in the prologues to the two poems that they were contemporaries, and the works were written with a design that they should together constitute one complete epic poem. To confirm this, the author of the Śilappadhikāram brings in references to this Śāttaṉār in the body of his work, thus putting it beyond doubt that Śāttaṉār, the author of Maṇimēkhalai was contemporary with himself and his elder brother. The position therefore is actually as it is stated in the prologue to the Śilappadhikāram that the authors were contemporaries and the story is to treat of the contemporary rulers of the three kingdoms of the south. This enables us to [10] give the real character to the works themselves. We shall have to revert to this subject later.

The name of Iḷangō, the author of the Śilappadhikāram does not figure elsewhere and in other connections. But we have reference to Śāttaṉār. The latter’s name figures among the traditional forty-nine of the Third Tamil Śangam. A verse contribution of his is included in the so-called Tiruvaḷḷuvamālai said to have been composed in praise of the Rural of Tiruvaḷḷuvar. Śāttaṉār actually quotes the Kuraḷ and even textually incorporates one Kuraḷ, in his work. This fact would certainly prove that he knew the Kuraḷ and admired it. But that need not make him a contemporary of the author of the Kuraḷ from that fact alone. There is only one poem ascribed to Śāttaṉār included in the Śangam works so-called. That is the only other poem that we know of as the work of Śāttaṉār if that Śāttaṉār was the author of Maṇimēkhalai.

Śāttaṉār is remembered in Tamil literary tradition as an uncompromising critic, among the members of the Śangam. In criticising others’ works, he used, it appears, to strike his head with his iron style whenever he found faults of composition in the works presented to the Śangam for approval. As a result of repeated blows his head came to be habitually suppurated, and hence the nickname given to him ‘Śāttaṉār of the suppurated head’. His position among Tamil poets therefore is that of an eminent critic whose criticism was of unquestionable value and commanded the respectful acceptance of his contemporaries.

His work, the only one of importance, Maṇimēkhalai is, as has been said above, a Buddhist work. As such one would naturally expect it was generally Buddhists alone that would regard it as of importance. From literary tradition that has come down to us, it cannot be [11] said that it was exclusively so. Tamil works bearing on literary criticism sometimes quote from the work. Tradition has preserved two verses of commendation from such different people as Ambikāpati, son of the great poet Kamban, and Śivaprakāśasvāmi, Saiva Maṭādhipati. This is an indication that the work is really a work of merit and the approval of the discerning Tamil public that it is so is in evidence in its inclusion among the five great kāvyas of Tamil. Is it then a Śangam work?

Śangam works strictly so-called, are works presented to the Śangam and approved by them. Later the expression came to mean no more than that the works so described were of a sufficiently classical character that, had they the chance, they would have met with the approval of the Śangam. There is nothing in the work itself, nor is there any tradition that this work of Śāttaṉār was presented to the Śangam at all. The non-existence of a tradition like that may not necessarily mean that it was not so presented, but on the evidence accessible to us, we are not in a position to state that it was so presented and received the approval of the Śangam. None the less, it would be correct to describe it as a Śangam work for the reason that it was a work that was produced in the age when the Śangam output was perhaps the highest, and that it is undoubtedly so in point of quality and eminence such as it is.

On the face of it therefore, and from the circumstances of its composition, we have to regard it as a Śangam work, at least in the secondary sense of the term. This position can be supported by an examination of its literary character in comparison with other works actually described as Śangam works. It is possible to collect together linguistic and grammatical details from which to prove for it an age different from that of the [12] Śilappadhikāram as had been attempted more than once recently. With a great poet such minutiae will perhaps lead to illusory inferences. The general literary cast, similarity of ideas and thoughts on connected subjects and such other elements that go to makeup the general literary character would perhaps be more certain evidence of contemporaneity, and such could be adduced in favour of the position that the Maṇimēkhalai is a work of the Śangam age.

Its literary affinity to the Śilappadhikāram could be placed beyond doubt as one could easily find numbers of passages where the same ideas are expressed in almost identical terms. The similarity is so great that, unless we can postulate that the one copied from the other deliberately no other explanation is possible than that the two works were produced in the same literary atmosphere. One has only to read through the excellent edition of our eminent Pandit Mahāmahopādhyaya V. Swāminātha Aiyar to see how closely the works are to each other in point of literary character. Linguistic details notwithstanding, Maṇimēkhalai may be taken to be of the same age as the Śilappadhikāram, and that the two belong undoubtedly to the age of the Śangam whatever that be.