Kannaki is a powerful mythological character who burnt the city of Madurai in revenge for wrongfully killing her husband. Her love for her husband Kovalan was so true that her anger burnt the city of Madurai. Kannaki and Kovalan are the main characters of the Tamil epic Silappathikaram by Ilango Adigal. This was written around 100 to 300 CE. The story goes like this:
Kovalan, a rich merchant falls in love with Madhavi despite being already married to Kannaki. Madhavi was a beautiful dancer and Kovalan falls head over heels in love with her. He spends all his hard earned money from the business on Madhavi. Finally, he realises his mistake and goes back to Kannaki. She forgives her husband as she loves him wholeheartedly. They come to Madurai hoping to trade and win back the fortunes he lost.
Kovalan tries to trade Kannaki’s precious anklet called Silambu. The anklet contained precious stones inside. The traders get suspicious of Kovalan as only their queen can afford such an anklet. They inform the King about this anklet. The Pandya king who ruled Madurai during this time, Neduncheliyan 1, mistakes the Silambu for his wife’s lost anklet. He orders to arrest Kovalan and accuses him of stealing the queen’s anklet. Kovalan is completely oblivious to the entire matter. Though he pleads innocence, the King beheads him for the crime without a trial.
When Kannaki comes to know about this, she gets furious over the King and reaches his court to prove her beloved husband’s innocence. When she reaches the court, she breaks open the other anklet she still holds. The King is shocked to find that the broken anklet contains precious stones. But the queen’s anklet contained pearls. He realises his mistake and apologises to Kannaki for his unjustifiable act. Kannaki does not forgive the King.
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The King commits suicide not able to accept his own mistake in his order to kill Kovalan without checking the facts. Kannaki’s anger still does not subside as her loss is irreparable. She curses that Madurai city will be burnt and it happens. There were huge losses but finally Goddess Meenakshi consoles and calms down Kannaki. She attains salvation and sets on a journey to Kodungalloor via Kanyakumari, Travancore and Thekkadi.
Kannaki becomes Goddess
Kannaki’s temples are located along the path she took to reach Kodungalloor. The very famous Kannaki Amman temples are Aattukal Bhagavathy Temple, Mangaladevi Temple and Kodungalloor Bhagavathy Temple.
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Kannaki is worshipped as Mari Amman or the rain goddess in some parts of Tamil Nadu. There are few temples in Tamil Nadu that worships Kannaki. She’s also worshipped as the goddess of chastity by the Sinhala people. There are other stories around Kannaki that prevail in Sri Lanka.
Kannaki’s story is that of her unconditional love for her husband. She accepts her husband despite his flaws when Kovalan comes back to her repenting his affair. He anger knows no bounds when she realises that the King ordered to kill her innocent husband without even giving him a chance to prove himself innocent. She cannot be consoled or calmed by anyone, not even by the King’s death. She’s finally calmed down only after the damage is done on Madurai.
Such a strong personification of a woman character in a predominantly patriarchal society in itself is appreciable. Kannaki remains a symbol of strength and chastity for women across Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka. Her character is believed to be a true one rather than Ilango’s imaginary creation. Her feelings are strong whether it is love or hatred. Madurai burned for Kannaki’s love towards Kovalan and her hatred towards Neduncheliyan. Her statue is a reminder of a woman’s power!
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