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Kannagi statue at Marina Beach, Chennai

The Tamil Culture began in India during the Sangam age, when the three kingdoms of the South, Pandya, Chera, and Cholas ruled the Southern peninsula. Together they contributed immensely to the heritage, literature, and the religion of South India. Among the many literary texts of the age, Sillapadikaram is an important epic that deeply impacted the city of Madurai, and established a cult among the Tamils which thrives even today.

A temple dedicated to Kannagi Amman Image source: wikimedia commonswikimedia commons

Sillapadikaram tells the story of a woman named Kannagi who was a devoted wife to her husband, Kovalan, who lost his wealth to a female courtesan Madhavi. Kannagi and Kovalan left the city and tried to make a living with what was left of their wealth. Kannagi offered to sell one of her anklets, which contained diamonds inside, to make ends meet. Coincidentally, the queen of Madurai also had the same kind of anklets, but they were filled with pearls. When Kovalan reached the city, he happened to go to the goldsmith who had made the queen's anklets, and he was executed on the assumption that he had stolen her anklets. Kannagi hears about this and comes to Madurai enraged. She curses the king and the city for their injustice. The entire city burned and Kannagi became known as a symbol of chastity and loyalty to her husband.

A museum containing artifacts of Kannagi in Poompuhar Image source: wikimedia commonswikimedia commons

From this epic, the cult of Kannagi, or the Kanaki Amman cult was born in the south. Since the burning of the city led to immense rain, Kannagi also became known as the celestial goddess of rain, and is worshipped as Mari Amman (Goddess of Rain) in Tamil Nadu. The Sinhalese of Sri Lanka worship Kannagi as Pattini Deviyo, or the chaste wife. The Sinhalese are a Buddhist cult who see Pattini Deviyo as a form of the Bodhisattva. They follow a different epic source to fund their beliefs. In Kerala, some versions of the Kannagi goddess are worshipped.

In the Southern most tip of India, the Kannagi temples were converted into shrines for Mary according to the Catholic tradition when missionaries came to India. The Kannagi cult directly translated into devotion for Mary. Velankanni in Tamil Nadu, is a famous coastal township that serves as a pilgrim spot for many South Indian Catholics. A statue depicting Kannagi holding out an anklet and demanding justice for her husband stands at Marina Beach in Chennai.

Keywords: Sillapadikaram, Kannagi, Sri Lanka, Tamil epic, India, Peninsula, Madurai


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