Moral Dilemmas

Morality is an elusive, and arguably, a relative concept. People establish religions, form governments, fight wars, and make peace – all in the quest to get to a common understanding on what is right versus wrong. Morality varies by the individual, by the environment surrounding the person, within a group, and over time.

Morality also seems to be stratified – where we are fine with some contradictions in morality at a lower level as long as there is a broader alignment at the higher level. Perhaps this interesting aspect of living with moral contradictions at different levels while claiming our morality is one that makes us stick together as a society and survive.


சிலப்பதிகாரம் (silappadikaaram – story of the anklet) – one of the great epics of Thamizh literature – provides some interesting insights into the notion of moral contradictions and how what may seem to be the social norm may not necessarily equate to the underlying reality. It was written by இளங்கோ அடிகள் (Ilango Adigal), reportedly a prince in Cheran dynasty around 1st century CE. It is held in high esteem in Thamizh literature not just for its story and length, but also because of the comprehensive nature in which it provides a vivid description of the Thamizh lifestyle of that era and its use of literature (இயல்), music (இசை), and drama (நாடகம்) – the three primary forms of entertainment and expression.

The story contains many aspects that will give current movies a run for their money.

Brief story

The story is about Kovalan – the son of a rich merchant – who was born in the city of Pukaar (now, Poompuhar) in the Chozha kingdom and his travails in life. He marries KaNNagi, the beautiful daughter of another rich merchant and they lead a happy life. Then Kovalan comes across Maadhavi, a courtesan and instantly falls for her. He leaves KaNNagi and spends his time with Maadhavi. During a conversation with Maadhavi one day, he realizes the error of his ways and gets back to KaNNagi, who forgives him. By now, Kovalan has spent all his money and is bankrupt.

Wanting to start their life anew, Kovalan and KaNNagi head for Madurai, in the Pandyan kingdom. KaNNagi gives one of the precious anklets she wears when Kovalan asks, so he can sell it in the market to get some capital for starting a new business. He promptly takes it and sells it to a Goldsmith, who happens to work for the queen. The goldsmith, seeing that the anklet is similar to the one the queen has (which he has in his possession – and wants to steal it), brings Kovalan’s anklet to the king claiming Kovalan had stolen the queen’s anklet. The king, in a fit of rage, orders that Kovalan be executed, which is promptly done. Hearing the news, Kannagi goes to the King and shows him the other anklet and proves that Kovalan is innocent. The King dies on having erred from his duties. The queen dies on seeing this. Kannagi, in her rage of losing her husband, burns down the city, and eventually dies – joining Kovalan in heaven.

Climax Scene

One of the most quoted areas of Silappadikaaram is the court scene where Kannagi gets in front of the King to prove her husband’s innocence. The conversation is etched vividly in our minds (likely because we had to learn it by rote in school!) and has great depth that would rival any climax court scene in a thriller movie.

தேரா மன்னா! செப்புவது உடையேன்;
எள் அறு சிறப்பின் இமையவர் வியப்ப,
புள் உறு புன்கண் தீர்த்தோன்; அன்றியும்,
வாயில் கடை மணி நடு நா நடுங்க,
ஆவின் கடை மணி உகு நீர் நெஞ்சு சுட, தான் தன்
அரும்பெறல் புதல்வனை ஆழியின் மடித்தோன்
பெரும் பெயர்ப் புகார் என் பதியே; அவ் ஊர்,
ஏசாச் சிறப்பின், இசை விளங்கு பெருங்கொடி
மாசாத்து வாணிகன் மகனை ஆகி,
வாழ்தல் வேண்டி, ஊழ்வினை துரப்ப,
சூழ் கழல் மன்னா! நின் நகர்ப் புகுந்து, இங்கு
என் கால் சிலம்பு பகர்தல் வேண்டி, நின்பால்
கொலைக்களப் பட்ட கோவலன் மனைவி;
கண்ணகி என்பது என் பெயரே

theraa mannaa! seppuvadhu udaiyEn
eL aRu siRappin imayavar viyappa puL uRu punkaN theernDhon andRiyum
vaayil kadai maNi nadu naa nadunga, aavin kadai maNi ugu neer nenju suda,
thaan than arumpeRal pudalvanai aazhiyin madithon
perum peyar pukaar en padhiyE;
avvoor Esaa siRappin isai viLangu perunkodi Maasaathu vaaNigan maganai aagi,
vaazhdal vEndi, oozhvinai thurappa, soozh kazhal mannaa! nin nagar pugundu,
ingu en kaal silambu pagardal vEndi, ninpaal kolaikaLappatta Kovalan manaivi
Kannagi enbadu en peyarE

O King, who does not do proper due diligence before providing justice​ – hear me now!
The great king Sibi, who willingly gave his flesh for an eagle to protect a dove, and the great king Manuneedhi Chozhan, who killed his own son to provide justice to a calf, ruled the city of Pukaar – that is my hometown.
In there, born to the well known merchant Maasaathuvaan, the one who came to your city driven by fate for sake of starting a new life but eventually got murdered by you for selling my anklet, that Kovalan’s wife – KaNNagi – is my name.

The translation sadly doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the original structure. In a few short lines, ILango AdigaL gives a marvelous executive summary of the epic in this crucial moment! As we pause to reflect on this situation and the structure of words, a few aspects are worth noting:

  • With a heart full of sorrow and anger, KaNNagi is in no mood to be nice. Remember, she is getting her first audience with the King of the country where she has just migrated to live a life. So, no salutations or anything – just goes directly into the heart and accuses him of having committed injustice and that too due to lack of due diligence on his part – all in two words தேரா மன்னா!
  • Then she further drives home the injustice committed by pointing out that she comes from a place that is known for being righteous and is accustomed to such high standards. So, she is appalled to see the level of injustice in this new place. More subtly, she challenges the king by saying that he cannot live up to the same standards of justice from where she came from!
  • She gives one last punch by saying that she and her husband came to this city by fate (they wouldn’t have willingly come here otherwise!) and then closes by accusing the king of murder!

You would imagine that with a random lady almost at the point of insanity having the guts to come to his court and accuse him of murder, the King would’ve just gotten more angry and would’ve simply asked her head to be chopped off. Here’s were we get a glimpse of the King’s character.

He maintains his composure – cool as he can be – and simply states that he did no wrong by executing a thief. What is the proof that he is not a thief?

Now, we see something interesting – beautiful piece of detective deduction by KaNNagi! Maybe because of her sharp intellect or because she is from a merchant family, (purely our ankletsspeculation here) she realizes that in the Pandya kingdom, which is sea-faring (they have a fish as the state flag), the anklets will be filled with pearls, whereas hers, from the Chozha kingdom are filled with rubies (likely because Chozhas did a lot of trade with Burma and other places, known for rubies) and simply states that her anklets are filled with rubies (anklets are hollow and filled with something to make sound).

The King hears that and confirms that his queen’s anklets are filled with pearls, as expected. The anklet confiscated from Kovalan is then brought to the court and KaNNagi promptly proceeds to throw it in the ground, whereby it splits and the rubies scatter in the ground and a few hitting the king in his face.

Seeing this, the King realizes that Kovalan is innocent and that he indeed did commit injustice.

தாழ்ந்த குடையன், தளர்ந்த செங்கோலன்,
‘பொன் செய் கொல்லன்-தன் சொல் கேட்ட
யனோ அரசன்? யானே கள்வன்;
மன்பதை காக்கும் தென் புலம் காவல்
என் முதல் பிழைத்தது; கெடுக என் ஆயுள்!

thaazhnda kudaiyan, thaLarntha senkOlan,
“pon sei kollan – than sol kEtta yaano arasan? yaanE kaLvan”
manpadhai kaakkum then pulam kaaval en mudhal pizhaithadhu; keduga en aayuL!

With his umbrella slanted and the scepter slipping from his hands, the King lost his bearings and said “I heard the lies of the goldsmith and took them to be the truth without doing my due diligence. Am I fit to be called a King? No, I am now the thief! I have brought disrepute to this righteous Pandya Kingdom – let me die now!”

How often do we see a person of great power and responsibility realize the mistake he has made and admit that mistake publicly instead of blindly defending themselves?! Definitely not in the recent times, for sure!

Moral Dilemmas

What is interesting are the character transformations that happen throughout the story and their related moral dilemmas and contradictory positions they take over time.

KaNNagi (கண்ணகி) is portrayed as chastity personified (கற்புக்கரசி – karpukkarasi – queen of chastity). However she also seems to come across as being completely subservient to Kovalan – forgiving all of his erroneous ways.

Is it right of her to maintain her loyalty to her husband for sake of marriage and societal norms? Is it right of her to forgive him even after he deserted her for another lady?

Later on, she completely transforms herself when her husband dies – like the modern day Roja (in the eponymous Maniratnam film) displaying qualities of Thelma (of Thelma & Louise) and takes on a much different persona. In that process, she goes ahead to destroy the entire city where she was wronged.

Is it right of her to set fire to an entire city (with many families in it), just because she was wronged? Can she act as a vigilante and take justice in her own hands?

Nedunchezhiyan (நெடுஞ்செழியன்), the king in question, is portrayed as having committed injustice to KaNNagi without doing due diligence and comes across as being haughty and entitled. However, we see later that he is actually a good and just king because a) he provided audience to a seeming lunatic to listen to her grievances, b) kept his cool when he was accused of murder, and c) took his life when he finds out that he actually did commit injustice.

Is the King an incompetent, rash person whose death was justified or did he react extremely to the truth? Was it right of the King to take his own life because he committed injustice once or should he have kept his life as he was a good King in general and would’ve likely done justice in many other scenarios?

Maadhavi (மாதவி) is another interesting character in the story. A courtesan by profession, she was the reason for Kovalan leaving his faithful wife. While she seems to come across initially as the villain of the story, we see that she actually is a girl of good character, falling in love and staying faithful to Kovalan once he comes to her and leaving her profession. Once Kovalan leaves her to go back to KaNNagi, she leaves the profession altogether and becomes a Buddhist monk.

Was she right in luring Kovalan away from his marriage? Or was she just doing her job as a courtesan?

Lastly, there is Kovalan (கோவலன்) himself. He seems to be the wuss in this story – the hapless Devdas character who seem to complain that he is a victim of circumstances, not owning up to his ineptitude. Was it right of Kovalan to have left his wife for Maadhavi or can he say he couldn’t help it because he was a man and is inevitably drawn to beautiful women? Was it right of Kovalan to coax his wife to go to Madurai even if it would inconvenience his wife further instead of owning up to his past errors, sucking it up by going to his dad or in-laws for more money to start anew?

People are faced with similar questions in their own lives at various points – when taking a new job, when moving to a new place, when potentially committing adultery, when trying to get out of a traffic ticket, and many more.

We don’t have the answers to these questions but maybe there is some comfort in knowing that such moral dilemmas and contradictions have existed even 2,000 years back and are not that easy to solve!


  1. (Thamizh text and some explanation)
  2. (anklet picture)
  3. (KaNNagi picture)

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