being brown

Kannagi and the final retribution

A city goes up in flames. Kannagi has had her retribution. Or has she?

The story of Kannagi is one of those stories I grew up with. Like the epic stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the other ‘smaller’ stories from the various puranas, Kannagi’s was a story that made my mother’s repertoire; one she used, to ease food into our mouths during meal time. It was an intriguing and terrible story, complete with a spineless man, a severely just monarch and a wronged woman, her wrath and her grief.
Let us begin with the monarch. This king of the Pandyan dynasty was known for his infallible sense of justice. There is a beautiful story that illustrates this point ( such little detours are what make the oral tradition so rich). The generous king had placed a huge bell at the gates of the palace and any citizen, who felt he had been wronged, could seek justice by ringing that bell. One day, the king’s son, the young prince, was riding his chariot when a little calf came under his mighty wheels and died instantly. The mother cow, in her grief and anger, went up to the palace and rang the bell. The king, as promised, came out to hear her grievance and deliver justice. She began with, “Oh king, you pride yourself about your sense of justice. Tell me how is this justice?” the king replied, patiently, for he knew that those who are wronged will take time to come to the point, “ What happened, oh mother cow? What makes you so angry? Pray, tell me all and I promise, justice shall prevail.” The cow replied (half smirking), “I’ll tell you my story and let us see if you can keep your part of the bargain.” She then narrated the story of her calf’s death to the king. The king was silent. I am guessing he was grief stricken, grief that such a horrible thing should have happened in his kingdom, grief that his own blood had been responsible for this and grief that he now had to think of fitting punishment. But, in a swift decisive move, he knew that only killing his son would provide justice. Thus it was, that this severely just man killed his own son so that justice can reign supreme in his land.

Now, Kannagi was a subject in this kingdom. She and her husband, kovalan, lived in a far away city. Kovalan ( the spineless man) was enchanted with another woman, Madhavi, and had been preoccupied with her for sometime. So much so, that he spent all his wealth on her and soon found himself in dire financial straits. Of course, at that point, he remembers his great, noble and beautiful wife Kannagi, once again. He returns to her and she accepts him without question. Kannagi, now, has to find a solution to the financial mess that Kovalan got into ( because that’s what women do). She gives him her silver anklets that are filled with rubies, to sell and make investments and to recreate the wealth he had lost. Kovalan, armed with Kannagi’s anklets, goes to the city of Madurai, also the capital of the Pandyan king. At that time, the queen had lost her anklet. So everybody was on the lookout for the thief who had stolen that anklet. Obviously, Kovalan’s (who was unaware of current affairs in Madurai)arriving with Kannagi’s anklet aroused suspicion. Both anklets were silver. But the queens anklets were filled with pearls and not rubies. This difference, however, was not visible from the outside. So to the naked eye, it seemed like Kannagi’s anklet was the queen’s anklet. Also Kovalan’s impoverished aspect made his ownership of the anklet even more suspicious. He was promptly caught and was found guilty and sentenced to death. Kannagi heard of this and she was furious. She wanted justice. The justice bell outside the palace rang again, this time resounding throughout the kingdom. The King came out to ask what ailed his subject. Kannagi, with heaving breasts and fiery eyes, accused him of gross injustice. And when the tale was told to the King, he told her that they had caught her husband red handed and that, sorry to say, she was defending a thief. She asked the king to bring the queens anklet ( the one that the queen had not lost) and the anklet retrieved from Kovalan. And she said, “if you break my anklet, you will find it filled with rubies and everyone knows the queens anklet is filled with pearls. So we will all know the truth soon enough. Give orders to break them and let us see what justice you have given.” The king ordered as ordered. And sure enough, kannagi’s anklet had rubies in them and the queen’s anklet had pearls. Once more, the great and just Pandyan king is grief stricken. And the only justice he can think of, in this case, is the taking of his own life. He orders that. But kannagi’s anger does not subside. She emerges from the palace, seething with anger and curses Madurai to burn. Madurai burns, every house, every shop, every building, every living thing in sight. She curses that only women and children will be spared. This is her retribution.

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Kannagi not only burns the city, she destroys herself so she doesnt have to live the life she didnot choose

The image of a woman, a little woman with heavily kaajaled eyes, her eyes flashing in repressed anger as she storms through a city, back straight, shoulders stiff with a focus, so intense that as she walks the things around her catch fire, is, at the very least, a captivating image. Legend has it that the anger of a virtuous and chaste woman is something that even the gods can’t do anything about. In fact, Kannagi is most celebrated for her virtuosity and chastity.

But is it really her anger and chastity that is doing the burning? Is it just the anger of losing her husband unjustly that’s fuelling this fire? I see one other emotion here. Kannagi is regretting. Regretting a life lost on a man who was false to her; who chose to come back to her when in financial difficulty; who, when sent to make money, gets himself killed. She regrets having to live in a society that gives her little other options; a society that is more willing to worship her chastity than to acknowledge her suffering; a society that believes that justice has been rendered with the execution of the king; a society that thinks that the only source of her sorrow is the death of her husband. Regret, grief and suppressed sorrow can be just as potent as rage.

And her final curse shows there can be no retribution. She cursed all the women to the same fate that befell her. Every child pays for the sins of his father. Every generation pays for the wrongs done in the previous generation. There is no end to the cycle. Retribution is elusive.

P.S. The story is narrated as I remember it from what my mother used to say. Obviously, there may be other versions. I am not tied to any one version and would be glad to hear other versions.

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4 responses

  1. shachi

    hey, although this story isn’t a traditional one for me, i remember reading this in a translated storybook sometime early in my childhood. I always felt bad for the king. He had good intentions and was constantly getting punished for something someone else did (at least thats how it felt to me as i think a 10-ish year old). I always thought Kovalan should have died, it seemed just(he seemed such a jackass). Also that book had a story of Madhavi and her later life, how someone fell in love with her, and something awful happened to him and how she became a monk (female monk) as her heart was broken. Always thought that was unfair too! Do you know that story?

    May 5, 2010 at 11:15 pm

  2. sumanyav

    hey this story is in the sillapadhikaram, a great classsical tamil text. And i have heard of the madhavi story as well, but dont know it. much of my story education was left to the whims and fancies of my mother. will ask her if she knows the madhavi story. yeah Kovalan was an extreme jackass…and i think i would have been able to burn the whole city and myself if i had been faithful to him…..just kinda puts everything in perspective man!

    May 6, 2010 at 7:27 am

  3. Radhika

    Shachi, I felt the same way when I was narrated the story. I did think he had noble intentions…but poor guy never managed a kingdom that was fair in giving justice.
    Nicely written su! 🙂

    May 6, 2010 at 11:34 am

  4. akshaya

    i love the way you have narrated it ! i think the story of her life shows all emotions to complete a life cycle….. initially she is happily mrried, then is heart broken and hurt, eventually she learns to foret and forgive and finally she is grief struck and filled with anger and dies….. it potrays how easily emotions control humans and we become slaves !

    October 30, 2011 at 1:48 pm

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