Silappadigaram, Or The Killer Anklet


    The story of Silappadigaram, or The Killer Anklet has been attracting me for several years for two reasons.

    (1) It was written some 1400 years ago by a Prince turned Jain Saint, Illangovadigal in the Sangam age Tamil poetry, which reflected the culture and the life style of the people of that time in the Southern parts of India.

    (2) The story was filmed in black and white more than 50 years ago. It touched my heart to see the sufferings of Kannagi, a chaste woman faithful to her husband Kovalan, despite his extra relationship with a dancing girl, Madhavi, which broke down later on due to a misunderstanding between the two. He joined back his wife to restart his life by selling one of her anklets, but he was killed by the king on a false charge of theft of a queen’s anklet brought on him by a cunning goldsmith, who actually stole it. Kannagi proved that the king was wrong by breaking her second anklet. The king died for the miscarriage of justice, followed by the queen, who also died on the spot. One anklet was the root cause for several deaths and so, the story revolves round this killer anklet.

    I found it difficult to bring out the entire story in the English poetry form line by line, as most of the words used by the Tamil poet belonged to the Sangam age, some 1400 years back. Each sentence written by him is too long to be contained in one stanza. So I had to break it into different stanzas without losing the essence of those lines.

    This is actually an adoption of the story to the extent it can be retold in simple English poetry. The Readers are, therefore, advised to go through the original Silappadigaram written by Illangovadigal in Tamil or its translation in prose, if they want to enjoy the real beauty of the story in its original form.

    Readers are requested to give their constructive suggestions, if any to my email address: rrr@divinechannel.in. They will also please bear with me for any errors in my rendering the story in the simple poetry form, which has not been an easy task for me to bring out.

Rajaram Ramachandran
Dated: 24-04-2006


Silappadigaram, Or The Killer Anklet



The President of India,

Shri A.P.J. Abdul Kalam,

Rashtrapati, Bhavan,

New Delhi.

   Thank you for your letter and sending me your book “Silappadigaram,The Killer Anklet” adoption in English. I have studied the book and I liked particularly the verses-14 (Page-275).

“She’s like a daughter of Pandian
Now settled with him in the Heaven.
‘Pandian shall die, if justice is broken,”
She made this rule, let us sing about her.”

My best wishes to you.

   Sandra Fowler was born in West Columbia, WV, on February 4, 1937, and has been writing poetry for almost fifty years. Associate Editor, Ocarina from about 1978 to 1989. Had a poem nominated for The Pushcart prize, 1998. Wazir Agha dedicated his Selected Poems to her in 1998. Interviewed by Skylark Purdue University Calumet in 2000. Honorary Doctorate, World Academy Of Arts And Culture, 2002. Wall Of Tolerance Honoree, 2002. Biography listed in Who's Who of American Women, Marquis, and The Dictionary Of International Biography, England. Chosen by The International Translation and Research Centre and The Journal Of World Poets Quarterly (Multilingual), and published in China, as one of The International Best Poets Of 2005.

Sandra Fowler writes:

   Rajaram Ramachandran is one of India’s treasures. His fine epic poetry has built friendship bridges between the countries of the world without regard to race, culture, or creed.

   His elegant verses can be understood by schoolchildren, and yet have enough depth and meaning to appeal to politicians and scholars as well. This is a tribute to a singular talent.

   The warmth and wit of this poet has reached out with compassionate understanding to promote peace and harmony between the peoples of the East and the West. He deserves recognition and praise for this.

   At seventy-five years of age, Rajaram Ramachandran has lost none of his creative powers. “Silappadigaram, The Killer Anklet” is a work of art. It contains beautiful word paintings, lyrical verses and speaks the universal language of music when it is read aloud.

   It is a great gift to be able to bring a legend of two thousand years ago to life again. Yet the poet has met the Himalayan challenge with courage and dedication. Because of his skill, we are moved by the tragedy of Kannagi, the incarnation of a chaste woman, as if we had just met her yesterday. Indeed Rajaram Ramachandran’s vivid portrait of this saga from The Golden Age of Tamil literature makes us realize, to our surprise, that human nature changes very little from age to age.

   I salute the artisan of this story for his great achievement. It is a world-class effort, and I recommend it without hesitation to both readers in the East and the West. I believe, like Kannagi, it has the power to be remembered for a long, long time.

Sandra Fowler, Litt.D.
22rd June 2006.

Silappadigaram, The Killer Anklet

   Rajaram Ramachandran excels in translating epic literature into something that is clear and understandable to the average reader. Simplicity is an art not easily achieved, but the writer of “The Killer Anklet” is the rare exception. His fine-tuned lyrical style hammered out through long hours of dedicated work show him to be a wordsmith of some note.

   The original story of the killer anklet was written some two thousand years ago by a royal prince turned Jain Saint in the Golden Age of Tamil Literature. The poet has condensed this complex work into simple English verses that compels the interest of scholar and laymen alike.

   In the preface the artist tells us that this story was filmed in black and white some fifty years ago and that it touched his heart to see the sufferings of Kannagi, a chaste woman, who loved her husband, Kovalan, in spite of his affair with Madhavi, a beautiful dancer of some renown. Thus, these three are the protagonists of this rich, exotic tale, which revolves around Kannagi’s anklet.

   One can almost hear the fatal clinking of her anklet as the poet moves her musically through his passionate stanzas to the inevitable fate of Kannagi and Kovalan in Madurai Town.

   This noble woman has seen her happy marriage laid in ruins because of her husband’s infatuation with the seductive dancer, Madhavi. However, her love remains steadfast, even though Kovalan, once a rich merchant, returns to her virtually penniless. Instead of chiding him, she selflessly offers him one of her precious anklets to sell so that they can begin a new life together.

One can almost see Kannagi’s tears falling, like pearls, as she whispers:

“The deeds not to be done
By any respectable man,
These you’ve already done,
But with you I will remain.” (159),

and Kovalan’s acknowledgement of her worth, which is above jewels:

“The elders’ well wishes, your modesty,
Your self determination and chastity,
With these things only you came,
In my distress to console me.”

“My love, give me one anklet
That adorns your soft foot
I shall go to the city market,
And for a price sell it.”

“He then tightly embraced her.
Shedding tears, he felt sorry for her.
Pity, she was left alone there,
As no servant to serve her.” (160).

   However, as fate would have it, Kovalan chose a goldsmith who had previously stolen an anklet identical to Kannagi’s anklet from the wife of King Pandian, the ruler of Madurai Town. He seized upon the opportunity to exonerate himself by accusing the hapless Kovalan of the theft. We can hear the malice in the voice of this wicked soul as he

accuses an innocent man before King Pandian:

“With no tools to make a hole
Thro’ the strong palace wall,
And with no magic wand,
The thief used a magic sound.”

This sound brought sleep
To the gate watchman deep,
He stole the Queen’s anklet
He’s now sitting in my hut.” (163),

and so the king orders the death of Kovalan:

“A soldier threw his sword
Kovalan spoke no word,
Nevertheless, he fell down dead,
In a pool of blood.” (166).

The poet then asks the unanswerable questions as to why this sorrowful end has occurred:

Who was to be blamed?
This end had the fate timed?
Or, the King was named”
Or, the goldsmith framed?

Who’ll give answer?
No answer lies here.
When justice is delayed
Then justice is denied. (167).

When Kannagi sees her husband we hear her heart’s lament in these eloquent verses:

On the floor she saw him lying.
The evening sun started setting.
The Madurai City raised its noise,
When it heard her sad voice.

That morning only a flower,
She had it from her lover,
But she saw him speechless,
In a pool of blood motionless. (180).

Her cry, in intense, passionate poetry, echoes through the town:

“Is there a woman here?
Like me who is born to suffer?
Who can bear this loss like me?
Is there any one like me?

“Is there a God in this town?
Where the justice has fallen?
The king’s rule is broken.
Is there a God in this town?” (181),

therefore, she decides to confront King Pandian for his sins:

Tears flowed from her eyes
She remembered her dreams
She wiped out her tears
And reached Pandian’s palace (182).

Before the King and Queen she stands and declares in a bold voice:

“I married the son of Masathuvan,
The son’s name is Kovalan
Kannagi is my name
To sell my anklet he came.”

“He was killed by your guard
I came here for justice, my lord.
The truth you don’t know
The other anklet I want to show.” (186),

and as she bends down to remove her anklet she declares:

“My Lord this anklet of mine,
Inside it contains rubies fine”
My lady, this anklet of mine,
Inside it contains pearls fine.”

To prove her side she broke
A ruby stone shot at one stroke
Right on the King’s face as fire,
And then it fell on the floor (186-187).

It is then that the king’s terrible mistake is revealed and his conscience becomes his executioner. We hear his impassioned cry in these powerful verses:

“On the goldmith’s complaint,
On my part with no restraint,
I acted in haste, so I’m the thief
Unfit to be this country’s chief” (187).

So saying, he falls down dead. Her heart, as broken as Kannagi’s anklet, the Queen touches her beloved husband’s foot and joins him in death. The poet sums up what has happened in these sad words:

Those who did acts of injustice,
At the end, they’ll never meet justice.
The king’s judgment error
Took away three lives forever (187-188).

Kannagi’s heartrending cries from two thousand years ago still have the power to move us, for grief knows no barriers of time, distance, or culture:

“If I’m also a chaste woman,
Let me also die with my man,
Not before I destroy this town,
And reap vengeance of mine.” (191).

Thus, she invokes the gods to send down fire from Heaven on Madurai. Then she circles the city three times and with her own hands cuts off her left breast. The gods hear her and the city burns, nor is the fire selective in spite of Kannagi’s desperate prayer:

“:Cows, sages, Brahamins,
Chaste women, old persons,
Children, let them be free.
And let not evils go free”

The fire turned serious,
And it became furious
It burnt the Pandian’s city,
Showing no mercy or pity.” (192).

   It is impossible to say how many people died that day because of something so delicate and so beautiful as Kannagi’s musical anklet. Everything was prewritten. Not even the prayer of a chaste woman could change it.

Kannagi leaves the ruined city by the western gate. On Neduvel Hill she sits down under a Vengai tree and cries for her husband. It is the fourteenth day after his death. The poet speaks of her in these elegiac verses:

“In praise of her lover she prayed.
Lords of the Heaven also praised
On her fresh flowers they showered,
This way Kannagi was honored.

Up the sky, a heavenly chariot took her
When Kovalan also joined her
“Kannagi” stayed in the mind of those
Who were to their husbands too close. (209).

   Moreover, what was the fate of the beautiful dancing girl, Madhavi, of whom Kovalan said,

“Her enchanting appearance,
Her shining moonlike face
Besides her dazzling necklace,
They all blinded my eyes.” (81)?

   The poet tells us that when Madhavi heard of the death of Kovalan and his old parent, she rejected the world never to dance again.

R. Rajaram expresses the moral of the story of the killer anklet, which was the root cause of the loss of so many lives, in words of priceless eastern wisdom:

“One can’t avoid birth,
Or after birth, the death,
So, search for the truth
While staying on this earth.”

“Lead a life of austerity,
In this world of prosperity,
Try to attain a state of eternity
This is my advice to posterity.” (292,293).

   Does this tragedy have any basis in reality? The answer is lost in the mists of history and legend. But the poet tells us that there are several temples in South India dedicated to the worship of Kannagi, that woman turned goddess who became, in the minds of many, an incarnation of the chaste woman.

Sandra Fowler,

   Eric Miller emiller@sas.upenn.edu is a Ph.D. candidate in Folklore, University of Pennsylvania, USA. His dissertation is on Tamil children's songs and games, and language learning. To conduct research on the Silappathikaram, he walked in the footsteps of Kannagi — from Poompuhar, to Madurai, to the western mountains. Quotes are from R. Parthasarathy's translation from the original sen-Tamil: The Cilappatikaram: The Tale of an Anklet, by Ilanko Atikal, Columbia University Press, 1993.

Eric Miller Writes (email dated 30-6-2006)

Dear Rajaram Ramachandran……..Yes, I did receive your word file on Silappadigaram together with Sandra Fowler’s letter. You are doing wonderful work.
It seems there might be a conference next year in relation to Kannagi. I will keep you posted regarding what I learn about this. Many thanks again.

Buy Now


    After writing the story of Silappadigaram, or the Killer Anklet, I thought this story will not have a good finish, unless I write the story of Manimegalai, in continuation of the earlier story for the reason Manimegalai, the daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi, was compelled by her mother to renounce the worldly life in her prime youthful days.


A Bouquet Of Oriental Poems

 It was in the year 1965, my poetry career started. I was travelling in a rainy season of that year, as a lone passenger, in I Class compartment (Old type) from New Delhi to Vijayawada. The moving panorama outside in the ghat section and plains attracted my attention. I wrote the first poem, “A Song of the World” in that running train, which got published in the Souvenir released by the South Indian Cultural Association, Vijayawada


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