Epic anger in Manimekalai
Sattanar’s story from circa the second or third century CE is an action-packed tale with many sub-plots, a curious cast of characters and a methodical comparison of the major Indian doctrines.
I don’t support abusing the gods. But if Leena M is trying to say that the Devi as the Jagatjanani is also the Mother of her LGBTQ children, I support that point emotionally. The anger against sexual minorities is inhuman, whereas Nature welcomes all to life without discrimination. Meanwhile, without wishing to seem frivolous, may I tell you what annoys me? Why can’t our Delhi TV anchors say ‘Manimekalai’ properly? To obtain equipoise, I would like to share some thoughts I had on Sattanar’s Tamil epic Manimekalai after reading the translation some years ago.
Sattanar’s story from circa the second or third century CE is an action-packed tale with many sub-plots, a curious cast of characters and a methodical comparison of the major Indian doctrines. It also has excellent details on the customs, manners and ceremonies of ‘Tamizhagam’, the old Tamil country that narrowed south to the sea from the northern boundary of the Tirupati hills.
The Buddhist Sattanar was a friend of Ilango Adigal, the Jain prince who authored the Silappadikaram, the ‘prequel’ to Manimekalai. Their patron was Ilango’s brother, the Hindu king Cheran Senguttuvan, who ruled the west coast of Tamizhagam.
It sobers the modern reader that anger is the prime catalyst of action in Manimekalai. Indeed, across Indian epics, including the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the karmic repercussion of anger is often the explanation for why bad things happen. The epics understand that life is beset by variables. So their view of anger is clearly a cultural attempt to impose order on chaos, at least on the chaos unleashed by an individual’s unregulated behaviour. Anger is thus recognised as the most powerful agent of chaos in the moral and social universe of epics. It is presented as a devastating force, both in the present life and in new cycles of rebirth, on and on, until karmic dues are made nil by consistently correct behaviour.
In Silappadikaram, it is the merchant-hero Kovalan’s angry response to his dancer-paramour Madhavi’s songs on the Chola seashore that sends him back to his wife Kannagi, in the first section, Puhar.
It is Kannagi’s anger at the unjust killing of her repentant husband that sets ablaze the great capital of the Pandyas in the second section, Madurai.
It is the anger of the Chera king Senguttuvan about the alleged anti-Tamil sneers of some northern kings that drives him up with his army to the very Himalayas, defeating the kings encountered en route, in the third section, Vanji.
Consequently, anger is the plot-driver of Manimekalai, too. The epic is about what befell some of the characters of the Silappadikaram after the harrowing events in it, peppered with more cross-plots than can be detailed here.
In Manimekalai, Madhavi, the bewitching dancer of Silappadikaram is discovered leading a monastic life as a disciple of the Buddhist monk Aravana Adigal. Madhavi’s daughter by Kovalan, Manimekalai, meaning ‘jewelled girdle’, has decided that despite her training, she will not follow her mother’s profession but will also pursue the monastic life.
Into the vexed question of Manimekalai’s radical choice walks another complication—the handsome young Chola crown prince Udayakumaran, who is besotted with Manimekalai. He is furious when she eludes him through the timely advent of none other than the goddess Manimekalai, guardian of the sea.
Thanks to the goddess, who whisks her abroad, mortal Manimekalai can now fly through the air, shape-shift at will, be free of hunger and has disturbing information about her past-life karma. She returns to Puhar and catches up with her mother and her mentor, the Buddhist monk Aravana Adigal. Advice is given and received gladly.
Further misadventures with the Chola prince and his mother follow, including doing time in jail. Manimekalai then goes to Kannagi’s temple at Vanji to make peace with her.
After her communion with Kannagi, Manimekalai disguises herself as a boy and attentively hears scholars expound on every known point of view about the nature of life and being.
Manimekalai, with all the flying around, the foreign locations, the special effects, the high royals influenced, the goddesses, genies, ghouls and gadgets, is essentially propaganda for Buddhism, a creed that was relatively new to Tamizhagam at the time of the epic.
But Aravana Adigal stands tall as the heroine’s lode star that draws her away from the violent and destructive emotions that ravage all classes.
A powerfully-worded passage at the conclusion of the thirtieth and last canto of the epic goes: “It is by love towards all beings, by pity towards those who suffer, by a feeling of joy at the success and happiness of others, that one acquires inner peace and rids oneself of anger.”
Via her intense journey, Manimekalai attains this endgame of liberation, while the Indian view of anger as a threat to collective order is nailed firmly to this epic mast.