One of the three surviving epics written at the end of the third ancient Tamil literary epoch, the Sangam period, Shilappadikaram was written by Ilango Adigal , the brother of King Cheran Chenguttuvan. The rich cultural information provided in this work contributes to its priceless nature. Shilappadikaram is a window to understanding both modern and ancient Indian thinking. There are numerous references to legends from the Mahabharata
, the Ramayana
, and the Puranas
The book recounts the history of the Chera, Chola and Pandian kingdoms. Shilappadikaram is based on the lives of the early Tamils of the Pandian kingdom in the first century A D. Written in the form of a romantic trilogy interspersed with erotic verses, the work touches upon moral values, marriage, religion, art, music, dance, caste, myth, politics, military tactics, and a host of other things.
The central characters are Kannaki and Kovilan and the epic tells their beautiful and tragic story. Kannaki willingly takes back her husband who had earlier deserted her for a dancer Madhavi and become ruined in the course of time. The story narrates the couple coming to Madurai in search of their fortune. Kannaki gives her precious 'silambu' (anklets) to Kovilan in order to acquire some money. Kovilan is mistaken for the one who has robbed the queen of her anklets and is put to death. An irate Kannaki rushes into the king’s court and breaks the remaining anklet upon the floor to reveal that her anklets were of pearls, not gems, thus proving her husband innocent. She then burns up the entire city of Madurai in the flames of her anger. Through Kannaki, this story portrays ‘pativratas’ in a powerful light. Kannaki is regarded as an incarnation of the goddess Parvati.
The invaluable moral lessons Shilappadikaram teaches are that Divine Law intervenes in the form of death when a king grows negligent of his duty, a faithful wife ought to be universally respected, Fate works in totally mysterious ways and all actions are rewarded according to their nature.