The date of burning of Madurai by Kannagi – I
by Jayasree Saranathan on 29 Oct 2023 6 Comments

Silappadhikaram describes certain important historical events that offer a watershed year to demarcate pre-history of Bharat from the Common Era. The text was written by the younger brother of the Chera King Senkuttuvan during whose period the events of Silappadhikaram occurred. A crucial information about the Chera king being a contemporary of a Satakar?i offers a valuable cross reference to the historicity of the events. The identity of this Satakar?i king was elusive to many researchers, but there are not one but two evidence-s in Silappadhikaram to zero in on his identity. Added to that is an important Panchanga clue about the day Kannagi burnt Madurai. These two can help to fix the date of Silappadhikaram and the allied issues such as the chronology of Chola kings who had their base at Kanchi!


The Pallava-s wrested Kanchi from the Cholas only after the Silappadhikaram period, reducing the Cholas to feudatories who, however, managed to rise from the time of Vijayalaya in the 9th century. The early presence of the Chola-s in Kanchi was studied by me when I ventured to find out the date of Adi Shankara – the much-disputed date with some people positioning his time in the CE – based on the input that he was a contemporary of a Chola King! My quest led me to an unshakable date of Adi Shankara to a time before the Common Era. That quest needed the watershed date of Silappadhikaram to deduce the presence of Cholas in Kanchi by the turn of the CE and before that. Therefore, this essay takes precedence over my essay on Adi Shankara’s date.


Date of burning of Madurai by Kannagi


As we moved to deduce the date of Silappadhikaram by checking the Panchanga details at the time of Kannagi burning Madurai, certain issues cropped up. As per Silappadhikaram, Kannagi burnt Madurai in the afternoon / evening (before nightfall) on a Friday when Krittika and Krishna Ashtami were running in the Aadi (Kataka) month. These four features, namely weekday, star, tithi and solar month occur quite often; we need an additional checkpoint to fix the date.


An important checkpoint pertains to Manimekalai who was born to Madhavi, the other woman in the life of Kannagi. Manimekalai must have been quite young when Kannagi burnt Madurai. The sequence of events shows that soon after Kovalan deserted Madhavi and returned to Kannagi, the couple started their journey to Madurai (from Pumpukar) to sell the anklet of Kannagi. After taking morning food, Kovalan went to the city where the cunning goldsmith who already kept the queen’s anklet with himself complained to the king that the queen’s missing anklet was with Kovalan, whom he projected as a thief. At that moment, the king was rushing to meet his queen to pacify her anger with her husband for showing special interest in the performance of dancers in the court.


The king thought that the recovery of her lost anklet would help in pacifying her and therefore ordered his guards to kill the ‘thief’. Thus, the innocent Kovalan was killed in the afternoon of that day. The news of his death reached Kannagi staying in a nearby location. She rushed to the spot where her husband had fallen. His atman left after seeing her. The shocked Kannagi took her remaining anklet and went straight to the king’s court to seek justice. The king appeared calm as he said that he delivered judgement that was suitable in such circumstances, at which Kannagi asked what the beads inside the anklet were. Famous for pearl harvesting, the Pandyan queen had pearls stuffed inside her anklet. Kannagi’s had rubies inside. She asked the king to get the anklet taken from Kovalan, the so-called thief, and smashed it; rubies jerked out hitting the king on his face.


The shocked king fell dead on coming to know about his blunder. His queen also collapsed and died on the spot. Not satisfied with the fate that befell the royal couple, Kannagi was determined that her Pativratatva must be made known to the world. Miffed with extreme anguish and anger, she cut off her breast and hurled it at the palace with a curse that it would burn the city of Madurai.


This happened in the afternoon of the day and before nightfall because the text says that the people of the city, affected by the spread of fire, could not do the evening worship of the Gods. At that time the Guardian deity of Madurai appeared before her and pacified her. The deity said that the city already had a curse that it would be burnt on a Friday in the month of Aadi when the moon was in Krittika star on a Krishna Ashtami. (Si: 23 – lines 133-135)


The date features the day Madurai was burnt by Kannagi are thus available in Silappadhikaram. How to identify this date? The combination of that tithi and star on a Friday in the month of Aadi, can occur 4 or 5 times in a century. How to deduce the exact date depends on certain inputs found in Silappadhikaram and its twin epic, Manimekalai.


From Silappadhikaram it is known that the Kannagi episode was conveyed to the Chera Senkuttuvan soon after she was seen to have ascended heaven from the hill of ‘Neduve? kundram’ (Si: 23- line 190). On hearing about her life, the king decided to go to the Himalayas to procure stone for making her image. If we get the date of his travel, we can deduce the date of the burning of Madurai closer to that. To arrive at that date, let us proceed to state the events that happened after Kannagi burnt Madurai. Where did she go after that act?


The place where Kannagi attained her exit from the world


As per the direction of the deity of Madurai, that she would join her husband after fourteen days, Kannagi started her journey to the western direction. At first, she went to the Durga temple in Madurai and broke her shell bangles. Then she started walking on the banks of river Vaigai. She crossed uneven terrain on her way and reached ‘Neduve? Kundram’. According to Arumpadha Urai-Asiriyar, this was Thiruchengode, a place in Tamilnadu, but the commentator Adiyaarkku Nallar opines that it was Thiruchenkundram, a place in Kerala – which was in the Chera country at that time. Since the identity of this place is debated, let us analyse the verses to find out the location.


The description talks about the tall deity ‘who tore apart the ocean and broke the mountain to defeat the asuras’. The commentator refers to a similar expression in ‘Aychchiyar Kuravai’ earlier in the text of Ayar women singing in praise of Vishnu churning the ocean using similar words.


The expression Neduve? referring to a tall structure is repeated at other places in Silappadhikaram for Vishnu. The name Nediyon Kundram referring to Vishnu at Tirumala hills (Si: 8- line 1) is almost like Neduve? Kundram. After finishing the dance of ‘Aychchiyar Kuravai’ the Ayar woman, Madhari went to the river Vaigai at the feet of ‘Nedumal’ to take bath (Si: 18- line 4). Here the temple of Kudalazhagar in Madurai is indicated.


The description of Neduve? Kundram fits with the temple of Thiruchenkundroor in Chengannur in Kerala. The Sthala Puranam of this temple talks about Vishnu taking the form of Mohini to kill the asura, Padmasura. The verse in Silappadhikaram also talks about the deity who killed asuras. This temple is on the banks of a river called Chittraru which means ‘small river’. The deity is in standing posture in tune with the description of ‘Nedu’ in the name for tall.


This temple was likely known as Neduve? Kundram in olden times. This place mentioned in Silappadhikaram is mistaken for a temple of Muruga because the verse makes a mention of spear, ‘neduvel’, the weapon associated with Lord Muruga. But the verse can be read as Vishnu destroying the asura with the spear. The need for associating the place with Vishnu arises from other descriptions too which do not match with Thiruchengode in Namakkal district of Tamilnadu but with Chengannur of the Chera country.


Further descriptions in Silappadhikaram says that the region was hilly with many waterfalls – a description that does not suit Thiruchengode. The inhabitants of the hilly region were aghast on seeing a haggard woman without a breast. When they enquired, she told them about her story in brief and went and sat under a Vengai tree. Vengai is a tree native to the border regions of Kerala and Karnataka. It is not found in Thiruchengode or regions in Tamilnadu. Botanically known as Pterocarpus marsupium, this tree called as Malabar Kino, Indian Kino, Vijayasar or Vengai in Tamil grows in the western ghats. It finds mention in two verses of Ainkurunooru as a native variety of hilly tracts of western ghats (in Kurinji Nadu).


Vengai tree


Kannagi waited under this tree till the 15th day after the death of her husband. On the evening of the 15th day, an aerial car arrived with her husband and picked her up and vanished. The hill tribes were astonished to watch this and conversed among themselves that she must have been an extraordinary woman – a deity perhaps, and called up their clan to perform their traditional dance called ‘Kundra Kuravai’ in praise of her.


This has happened after the 15th day of Kovalan’s death and on seeing Kannagi vanish in the ethereal car. The tribes bathed in the fresh water of the waterfalls and started dancing in praise of Muruga, the deity of Kurinji, the hill regions. The arrival of fresh water indicates the onset of monsoon as the month must have been Aava?i (Simha masa). The surrounding hills with waterfalls are not to be found in Thiruchengode of Tamilnadu. This must have been in the western ghats of the Chera land. The most likely place is Chengannur where there is a temple of Thiruchenkundroor with Vishnu in standing posture. This is Thiruchenkundram mentioned by the olden commentator, Adiyaarkku Nallar.


Even as the tribes were celebrating the rare sight by means of Kundra Kuravai, the Chera King, Senkuttuvan, arrived at that place from his capital city of Vanji for a picnic with his wife. Vanji is today’s Kodungallur. The distance is roughly 130 km between Vanji and Thiruchenkundram.


The king camped on the banks of a river called ‘Per Aaru’ that crossed a huge hill range that resembled the garland on the chest of Nediyon, that is, Vishnu (Si:25 – line 21). ‘Per Aaru’ (Big River) contrasts with Chittraru (Small River) where Neduve? Kundram is situated. Initially I was tempted to relate the Per Aaru with Periyar, but it was too far from Periyar river.


I locate the camp of the King closer to Neduve? Kundram because the text says he was able to hear the Kundra Kuravai performance of the hilly tribes. Silappadhikaram also shows that the arrival of the king to that place was almost two weeks after the death of Kovalan or immediately after the exit of Kannagi from the worldly plane.


On coming to know of the arrival of the king, the hilly tribes visited him with a variety of goods available only in the ghats which included the rare and currently endangered variety of ‘Varaiyadu’ or Varudai (Si: 25- line 51) that thrive only in hilly regions. They were never found in Thiruchengode region – a fact to remember if we assume that Neduve? Kundram was in Thiruchengode. Today they are found confined to the sanctuary at Munnar in Iravikulam. In those days they must have been freely roaming through the ghat sections. This information also shows that Neduve? Kundram was in the western ghats and not in the Tamilnadu region.


The tribes narrated to the king the odd event of Kannagi ascending towards the sky in an aerial car. The king was surprised but was briefed by his teacher who accompanied him for the picnic. He was Seeththalai Saatthanar who later penned Manimekalai, the follow-up epic of Silappadhikaram. He narrated the life history of Kannagi and how Kannagi avenged the death of her husband Kovalan for the wrong judgement given by the Pandyan King Nedum Chezhiyan.


Overwhelmed by the life history of Kannagi, the Chera King and his queen decided to construct a temple for Kannagi. They thought that it was more appropriate to make the statue of Kannagi from stone procured from the Himalayas and get it bathed in the river Ganga. The king lost no time in executing his plan. It must be noted that this decision was taken almost immediately after Kannagi left this world. In other words, his Himalayan expedition started soon after the date of the burning of Madurai.


The date of the burning coming immediately prior to the expedition of the Chera king, our next task is to decipher the date of the King’s march to the North. There is no explicit reference to the date, but Silappadhikaram offers valuable information of an important king who helped Senkuttuvan in his expedition to the Himalayas. By knowing his date, we can determine the date of the Chera king’s voyage to the North. That king was a Satakar?i, a Satavahana king mentioned as Nuttruvar kannar in Silappadhikaram. So, our next search is to identify this Satakar?i whose full name is not given in Silappadhikaram.


(To be concluded …)



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