A while ago, I was having a conversation with someone about The Cilappatikaram, a piece of Tamil literature from around the 5th or 6th century AD. When our conversation turned to the climax of the epic, with the protagonist Kannaki wrenching off her breast and using it to burn the city of Madurai in retaliation to injustice by the king, the person I was speaking with immediately remarked at how that was the act of an angry, bitter woman.
But was it?
The Cilappatikaram is the story of Kannaki and her husband Kovalan, a happily married couple from wealthy families. Unfortunately, their marriage crumbles when Kovalan leaves Kannaki for a courtesan named Matavi, on whom he squanders all of his (and Kannaki’s) wealth. However, he eventually regrets his actions and comes back to Kannaki who, in complete compliance with societal expectations, welcomes him with open arms.
Kannaki does not reprimand Kovalan for his actions, except for one time when she reveals her pain at how he broke her heart. On hearing this, Kovalan is determined to earn back their money and together, he and Kannaki embark on a journey to Madurai, where Kovalan intends to sell Kannaki’s valuable anklet and thereby restore their wealth.
But Kovalan’s karma catches up with him. In Madurai, Kovalan ventures into the city, leaving Kannaki behind, to find a goldsmith who can tell him the true worth of Kannaki’s anklet. He finds a goldsmith, who promptly tells him to wait, and rushes to the king’s guards. This goldsmith had stolen the queen’s anklet, and on seeing that Kannaki’s anklet looked similar to the queen’s, he told the king that Kovalan had stolen the queen’s anklet. The king’s guards capture and kill Kovalan.
Kannaki is overwhelmed with grief when she hears this news, and confronts the king. Upon finding that he ordered the death of an innocent man, the king dies of grief, and the queen follows him soon after. Still outraged at the injustice committed against her husband, Kannaki severs one of her breasts and throws it at Madurai – it sets the city on fire, and Kannaki watches it burn.
This act against Madurai was pre-ordained by the Gods, so for her virtuous nature, and bold actions against injustice, Kannaki ascends to become a goddess herself, who is worshipped thereafter.
The introduction to the Penguin edition of The Cilappatikaram studies Kannaki’s character as that of an epic hero – the only female epic hero in the literature of the ancient world. Unlike the female characters in Greek epics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, Kannaki takes control of her actions, making decisions that have large-scale consequences (instead of staying in a castle, proving her virtue again and again while waiting for her husband to return from his adventures). The author, Ilanko Atikal, repeatedly emphasises Kannaki’s virtue, establishing that her choices come from a pure, righteous heart. She abides by all of the patriarchal rules of her time, and her extreme actions were to avenge the murder of her husband.
Notice that male heroes in epics both Indian and otherwise are often driven by different factors, such as the welfare of their kingdom, and aren’t simply bound to their wives. Perhaps Atikal felt the need to repeatedly establish Kannaki’s abidance to societal rules because there were bound to be people who would immediately dismiss her as hysterical and bitter if he did not. Alas, despite his efforts, this powerful heroine still faces the same judgement.
For Atikal to write such a tale during his time was an incredibly powerful act of subversion. Taking conventional storytelling tradition head-on, he challenged literary and social standards by bringing a woman to the forefront as an active rather than a passive agent of fate, all while maintaining strict conformity to the patriarchal gender roles of his time.
However, while Atikal’s work depicted a female hero in a way never done before, it came at a price. The act of Kannaki removing her breast – a clear symbol of her sex – as part of her heroic retribution seems to remind readers that only when our protagonist made herself less of a woman was she able to be truly powerful.
Atikal, Ilanko. The Cilappatikaram. Gurgaon: Penguin Random House India Pvt. Ltd. 2004. Print.