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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2022



Objectification or Subjectification: Reading of Illangovadigal’s Sillapathigaram under Feminist Concepts

Dr. S. Sujaritha, Assistant Professor of English, Pondicherry University Community College, Puducherry (UT)



Since time immemorial the power structure has been playing a crucial role in constructing the binary division. One such important binary division that exists globally without much difference is gender inequality. Irrespective of economic or educational developments, almost all the countries exhibit the gender differences. Historically since when the physical difference has changed as gender difference is still a puzzle. Not only the current society or three four centuries before gender difference exited in literature. Even in the literary works produced 15 to 20 centuries before convey the societal and cultural practice of gender discrimination. This paper tries to read an Epic from Tamil Literature to analyse the projection of women characters.  Sillapathigaram is one of the five big epics in Tamil Literature from the Sangam period. This work, though it produces the objectification of women character, still have some revolutionary seed. The hypothesis of the paper is to apply some of the present-day western feminist concepts to read the Tamil epic Sillapathigaram to find out whether the work simply objectifies women character or does it have some revolutionary seed.

Gender roles; binary division; culture; objectification; revolution.



The concept “Survival of the fittest” has become the motto of humans. Even before the emergence of the above-mentioned thought, people had been following it diligently. Hence one could say that since time immemorial, humans have been thriving with the thought of power and supremacy. With the thought of power and dominance, the binary division has paved way for the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. The ‘self’ is attributed with all positive images and the ‘other’ is with the ‘negative images’ in a simple manner it could be explained as whatever the ‘self’ is its opposite is the ‘other’. In general, the ‘self’ determines the role of the other, it is filled with power and it has control over the rest. Gradually the powerful one may be physically or intellectually, through this binary division tactics started to dominate the ‘other’. The ‘self’ has defined and described the role and the nature of the other. The ‘other’ also through the repetition of practices accepted it as a norm. This concept is applicable to all the power relations especially to gender inequality and moreover it explains the transformation of sexual differences as gender difference.

Many scientists and researchers prove that sexual difference is the biological/ natural one whereas gender difference is a societal/ constructed one. There is no clear evidence of time period since when the distinction has started.  Cultural and societal practices change over time nevertheless the role of male and female remains almost the same. One may claim that there are no evidences to the subaltern position of female in the ancient period. Here one could understand that literature is seen as a mirror of the society. Many archaeological excavations have been done by utilising ancient literature as a source of information.

Literature cannot be simply taken as a source for pleasure reading or as an entertainer. It is used by the society to construct ideologies. Contemporarily Horkheimer and Adorno claim that media produces ideological representation of the world to the masses and they term it as “culture industry” (95).  The media has the power to change the impression of the public about anything. Similarly, literature too constructs societal ideology and not only that; it has the potential to convey the societal expectation of gender roles.  Epics and the other literary materials enable one to understand the practices of the society. Manu code states that women folk should be under the responsibility of the male members of the family. Great thinkers too share the same opinion in the position of women. Aristotle states, "as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject" (Quoted in Smith). The list will go on as most of the great thinkers share the views of Aristotle. Irrespective of the different boundaries, the whole universe shared/s the same opinion with regard to the treatment of the women. Each society has taken care in the construction of women and their roles. In the course of time, it has become the norm of the society. The paper uses some of the concepts of western feminists to analyse the magnum opus of the Sangam Literature (Tamil) Sillapathigaram by Illangovadigal focusing on the women characters especially on Kannaki. The hypothesis of the paper is to find the projection of women characters; whether they are revolutionary or submissive.

Sillapathigaram is considered as the first epic in Tamil Literature. It was written by a Buddist monk, llangovadigal, who was the brother of the Chera king Chengutuvan. Historians claim that he lived in the 6th century A.D. Some claim that this epic was written in 2nd century B.C. The time line of this epic is still an ambiguity. Many researchers is of the opinion that the story of Kannaki was a tale in the form of folklore and she might have lived around the 2nd century A.D. and the famous folktale was written in the form of epic by Illangovadigal in the 6th century A.D ( Iyangar: 380). In such case Illangovadigal might not have seen Kannaki as he mentioned in the epic (Pillai-160). Sillapathigaram is a tale of anklet centres around three main characters Kannaki, Kovalan and Maadavi. This work is celebrated for its detailed projection of social and cultural life of Tamil society. The business practices of Tamil society, its richness, religious practices and life style is elaborated in the epic, which make this work as a source of cultural and historical studies.

Sillapathikaram is written in three Kandam (Kandas) named after the three capitals of the three major kingdoms from Tamil Nadu. The story sets in Kaveripumpattanam (Puhar). Kovalan, son of a very prosperous business man Maasathuvan marries Kannaki. They both begin their happy life in Puhar, the capital of Chola Kingdom, which is the home town of them. After some time, Kovalan meets Maadhavi, a courtesan, he falls in love with her and stays with her. Kannagi, being a chaste wife waits patiently for her husband’s return. During the festival for God Indra (Indira vizha), Kovalan sings a song by praising the beauty and the nature of the river Kaveri. Maadhavi misunderstands the song and mistakes kovalan as praising Kannaki for her chastity. In return she sings a song which hurt Kovalan and makes him to understand the love of Kannaki. He leaves Madhavi and joins Kannaki. Much awaited Kannaki joins her husband happily. As he has spent his wealth to lead a lavish life with Maadhavi, now he decides to leave Puhar with Kannaki for Madurai, the capital of Paandiya Kingdom. By reaching Madurai, they decide to start a business by selling Kannaki’s anklet. In the market, when he tries to sell the anklet, the goldsmith falsely accuses Kovalan as a thief who stole the anklet of the Paandiya Queen Koperrundevi. He was taken to the court by the soldiers and by believing the words of the goldsmith, the king orders to execute death sentence to him. Kannaki after knowing the injustice done to Kovalan, reaches the court of the Pandian King and proves her husband as innocent by breaking her anklet. She curses the king, the queen and the people of Madurai. The king by knowing his mistake dies and his wife follows her husband in death too. Angered Kannaki, tears off her breast and through it into the city that causes fire. The entire city burns due to the anger of Kannaki and she leaves Madurai for Vanci, the capital of Chera Kingdom. She waits there for her husband who is taken to heaven by her husband.

Almost the whole world is filled with patriarchal ideologies. Foucault, a famous French critic is of the view that knowledge produced by the society has connection with power relations. Thus power, knowledge and societal practices lead to social inequality; here it denotes gender inequality. Almost all the society reflected gender biased practices. Sillalpathigaram which projects the Sangam period Tamil society is not an exception to it.

I. The whole epic is filled with words, sentences and incidents for the promotion of gender roles. The ideology ‘chastity’ (karpu) plays a dominant role in the epic. One could understand that chastity was /is a gender specific ideology which is applicable only to the female. When the story begins in ‘Pukar Kandam’ (Pukar Book), Kannaki gets married to Kovalan. Kannaki is a 12-year-old girl and Kovalan is around 17 years. At the age of 12, Kannaki is described as a matured girl. In the description about their marriage, Kannaki is addressed as woman of chastity. Kannaki’s chastity is similar to the chastity of the heavenly angel Arundhathi. By recognising her chastity, the female world will praise her. (32). Kannaki is compared with Arundhathi in three places. At the age of 12 kannaki knew the rule of chastity and the duties of a good wife. Thus, one could believe that since childhood girl children were / are brought up with the gender roles and they were/are trained to play their gender role as expected by the society. Judith Butler states that body is seen as an object to carry culture and historical idea and through that body is materialised to project the ideologies (272). In Sillapathikaram, one could come across the word chastity whenever Kannaki is described. The ideology of chastity is promoted through this text by praising it. Phrases used to describe Kannaki like

  1. She is a chaste woman; hence she could kill the Pandiyan (18)
  2. She is a much-acclaimed chaste woman (20)
  3. Even the god will worship the chaste woman (57)
  4. She is a chaste goddess (245)


present the supremacy of Kannaki. Later when the home town of Kannaki, Pukar is mentioned, it is praised for having chaste woman. Pukar is filled with many chaste women and the narration illustrates

  1. A girl who accepts a mud puppet as her husband (when she plays with her friends at the riverbank, they created a mud puppet. Her friends teased her by claiming it as her husband; as she is made to consider it as her husband, she does not want to leave it and stays with it) 
  2. A woman becomes a statue during her husband’s business travels. (In her husband’s absence she does not want other men to look at her.)
  3. In a similar situation, a woman gets monkey face to hide her beauty.
  4. Aadhimanthai, a princess marries Aatanathi. During a festival time when he was exhibiting his talent in dancing he was absorbed in a flood. By believing that her husband will be living, she goes alone in search of him. She searches for him for several years without losing her hope and finally she joins her husband. This presents the courage of a chaste woman.


II. `Butler is of the opinion that gender is not a stable identity but it is stylized through repetition of acts. It is constructed through body language, gesture and movements. Hence these constructions move the conception of gender from the real worlds to the established ‘social temporality’ (271).  It enables one to understand the preaching of the different societal rules to male and female. A woman is expected to be chaste and on the other hand extra marital affair is allowed for male. This set of gender rules followed in Sillapathigaram could be seen in some incidents.

  1. When Kovalan and Maadavi participate in the Indira Vizha (Festival for Lord Indra), Kovalan sings by addressing the river Kaveri. He says that even when Kaveri’s husband (The Choza King) merges with the river Ganga, river Kaveri does not hate its husband as it is the quality of chastity.
  2.  Kovalan is received wholeheartedly by Kannaki when he returns from Maadavi after several years. (He was not blamed even by a single soul for his extra marital relationship with Maadavi). Kannaki washes his feet and prays to him as if he is returning from his duty. (Here the practice of worshiping the husband similar to God indicates the position of men in the society) 
  3. After the death of Kovalan, Kannaki reaches his death spot and cries by holding his body. Kovalan looks at Kannki and utters “Wait” and leaves for Heaven. Even after death, he does not console his wife or feels guilty for leaving her alone in a new city but still wants her to wait and he leaves to heaven. It may expose the character of Kovalan who does not bother wholeheartedly for his wife. The fault may lie with the society as it has taken concern over the characterisation of women than men.

III. Projection of gender roles in Sillapathigaram enables to understand Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement, “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman. No biological, psychical or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilisation as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine” (293). Through the repeated projection of gender roles, the readers of the then society were made to follow the prescribed gender roles strictly. Women were perceived as an object for male, which is clear from some part of the narration in the epic:

  1. Reason for Kovalan’s separation from Kannaki is not due to his attraction towards Maadavi but in the previous birth Kannaki did not do a prayer/fasting which a wife was expected to do (144). As she did not do her wifely duty in the previous birth, she suffers in the next birth.
  2. The goddess Madurabathi tells Kannaki that God worships the woman who worships her husband. (Even the Goddess is of the opinion that the husbands should be worshiped).
  3. The married women characters in the epic beautified themselves for the sake of their husbands. When the husbands leave them on some purpose, they lose their beauty decisively. The same is described with Kannaki and Maadavi. Later Chera King Chengutuvan’s wife too loses her beauty as he leaves for war. When he returns home, her servers asks her to regain her beauty as her husband is about to meet her.
  4. The murder of Kovalan is a pre destined one. In his previous birth he becomes a reason for the death of an innocent man. The deceased man’s wife, Neele cursed Kovalan to have the same fate in his next birth and commits suicide. But Kovalan enjoyed his life with Maadavi, when Kannaki was longing for him, later died instantly due to his fate. Even after his death Kannaki has to get justice for her husband death, while he reaches heaven quickly, she has to wander around places for fourteen days to reach the heaven again to be with Kovalan. This raises a doubt whether Kovalan was cursed or Kannaki.

IV. As mentioned earlier this epic can be considered as a mirror to project the societal practices, family structures and gender roles in the society. Being a male, Illangovadigal fills his book with the patriarchal views of the society from which who could not detach himself. Patriarchal ideology leaves women to accept their subaltern position in the society as natural. Butler states that the aim of gender is to construct psychological inferiority in the mind of women. Unless women come out of this, they have to linger in the prison eventually. This feel of inferiority leaves them with the belief they are under men and they should undergo their routine work silently (281). In the epic all the women characters are constructed with such mind set.

  1. Most of the characters presented around Kannaki are female characters. Except her husband and the King Pandiya, Kannaki was allowed to be with the female characters. After her marriage Kannaki was with her husband for some time and during his absence she was with her friends and servants (women), when Kannaki travels with her husband to Madurai, they are accompanied by Kavunthi Adigal, who is a nun. Later in Madurai Kavunthi Adigal leaves Kannaki and Kovalan under the care of Maadari.  Nowhere in the Epic, she was allowed to be in the companionship of other male except her husband; whereas Kovalan throughout the text travels with women.
  2.  The news of Kannaki and Kovalan’s death reaches the town, all the familiar women characters die and male characters renounce their life to become a saint. The women characters, Kavunthi Adigal, Maaduri, Kannaki’s mother and Kovalan’s mother die and Kannaki’s father and Kovalan’s father become saint: Women characters are projected as weak who die immediately but men characters continue their lives.
  3. Kannaki was shocked to the core after her husband’s death. Now she was left with three options. One is to follow the widowhood, the second is to die by committing suicide and the third one is to get justice for her husband’s brutal murder. Kannaki has chosen the third option. She curses the king Pandiya for his injustice and decides to burn the whole city as it has allowed such injustice to occur. It indicates the ferocious mind set of Kannaki. She plucks her left side of the breast with her right hand. In Tamil literature the holy power of woman is considered to be in their breast. Kalidos, famous scholar states “when the breast happens to be on the left the emphasis lies on the Male principal and on the Female principal when the breast appears on the right” (68). By adapting the quotation, one can understand the reason behind the plucking of the left breast. Illangovadigal through Kannaki might have wanted to project that the Male principal would be ferocious to burn the city and with her right breast (Female Principle) she could join her husband and later would be elevated to the level of goddess; Pattini Theivam – to preach chastity to the women community.

Illangovadigal preaches gender rules through the women characters. From the beginning of the epic one could observe the gender roles vividly. Though he has projected and elevated a woman character to the level of God, finally Kannaki is made to join her husband. After burning the city Madurai, she wanders alone for fourteen days in the new region expecting to join her husband. Here she revolts only against the injustice of the king but not against the injustice of her patriarchal society or her husband. Her acceptance and joining with her husband happily once again indicate the objectification of women in the epic Sillapathigaram which is a representation of the patriarchal society

V. In spite of the preaching of gender roles one could not simply reject Sillapathigaram as a text of gender rules. It also contains some of the revolutionary seeds, which was a daring projection in those periods. Illangovadigal could be seen as a revolutionary writer as he has presented several innovative thoughts in the work. Till the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the twentieth century almost all the works in the world literature is male centric. Whereas Illangovadigal has made a woman to be in a lead role, allowed her to speak in a court in a new town in the 6th century.

  1. Throughout the epic Kannaki was allowed to speak in fourteen places and only four times she speaks with her husband (Ramanathan: 90). Nevertheless, the whole epic centres on the argumentative and fiery speech delivered by Kannaki in the court of King Pandiya.
  2. The society which worships male was made to build a temple for a woman Kannaki.
  3. Projection of a super power woman who could burn a kingdom: Burning the city alone does not make Kannaki as a super woman or Illangovadigal as a revolutionary writer. But how he has made Kannaki to burn the city projects Kannaki still as a revolutionary character. After her husband’s death, she plucks her left breast and throws it as fire in the town. Being a member of a woman community, who is expected to live in chastity, exposes her physical part and throws it in public.



The works of the revolutionary writers indicates their desire to change their societies. When a writer changes a woman, the protagonist of his/her work and highlights non-conformity to the conventions, it leads to a change in the society in which they live. Revolutionary writers want to change their society and for that they select literature as a medium. Here he allowed a woman to talk in a court/ shout at a king by claiming his injustice. Though many claim that he preaches gender role, he could still be seen as a revolutionary writer who could elevate a woman character to such a powerful position.



Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Trans. H.M Parshley. New York: Vintage. 1974.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Edi.

Sue- Ellen Case. London: The John Hopkins University Press. 1991: 270-282.

Foucault, Michel. “Truth and Power” Power/ Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1872-1977, ed. C. Gordon. New York: Pantheon Books. 1980: 109-133.

Iyangar, Srinivasa P.T. History of Tamils. Madras: C. Coomarasawmy [sic] Naidu, 1929.

Kalidos, Raju. (1993) “The twain-face of Ardhanårï”, Acta Orientalia 54: 68-106

Pillai, Vaiyapuri S. Kaviya Kalam. 2nd ed.Madras: Tamil Puttakanilayam. (1962)

Ramanadhan, Rama. “Kannaki oru Kannotam”, 8th conference proceedings. No1.

Sellapan, S. (urai). Sillapathigaram. 2nd ed. Chennei. 2000. 

Smith, Nicholas D. "Plato and Aristotle on the Nature of Women". Journal of the History of Philosophy. 21 (4): 1983: 467–478. doi:10.1353/hph.1983.0090.