History & Culture

In search of Kannagi's footprints

RELIVING A LEGEND: People trekking up the hills to reach Kannagi Temple in Cumbum Gudalur

RELIVING A LEGEND: People trekking up the hills to reach Kannagi Temple in Cumbum Gudalur   | Photo Credit: George Varghese Kodiyatt

Trailing dirt tracks in the jungles of the western ghats, history buff and Tamil scholar Pavel Bharathi traces the legend of Kannagi

The verdant mountains of Cumbum in the far west of Theni district cradles a vital part of Tamil history. Amidst the lofty peaks, somewhere along the border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala is an age-old temple, its humble tower a rubble of stones. The structure built by Chera kings has stood the test of time and so has the legend associated with the place. The tale of Kannagi, the most illustrious Tamil woman from the Sangam Era is something popular among the tribal people here and even the jungle air is scented with the musty story. Even today, a multitude of people, predominantly women, trek up a winding muddy pathway through the forest to offer prayers on the Chitra Pournami day every summer.

“This is where Kannagi is said to have reunited with her slain husband Kovalan. After burning the city of Madurai to ashes, the wrathful woman had found peace in the jungle, befriending tribals,” narrates Pavel Bharathi, a Tamil scholar and researcher who has undertaken a detailed study on the epic of Silapathikaram. Reading out from the literary work, he says, “The epic states that Kannagi entered the fort of Madurai through the east gate and exited from the west, from where she travelled on foot for 14 days to reach the hill top. There are certain terms like 'Neduvelkundram' and 'Vengai kaanal' referring to the jungle, giving us clues about the place.”

In search of Kannagi's footprints

Belonging to Gudalur, a town near Cumbum, Bharathi was naturally interested in the history of the region. “As a kid, I have heard the story from the villagers. It was as if everyone from young and old to the rich and poor were familiar with the tale. It was part of their livelihood to often discuss, narrate and even enact the story during festivals and gatherings,” he says. “They even call the hill as 'Kanngi kottam' or 'Mangaladevi kottam'. I felt a need to do a study and find out if this is the real place where Kannagi spent her last days, as there were other scholars postulating various theories in their treatise to Silapathikaram.”

Among the early researchers were C. Govindarajanar and Tamiladhan who traced the legend right from Poompuhar in the 1960s. However, they couldn't find out the route Kannagi took from Madurai to reach the Cumbum valley. “The story is unique in a way that it traverses through all the three Tamil kingdoms of Chola, Pandya and Chera. Silapathikaram clearly states that she went along the southern bank of Vaigai to reach her final destination,” says Bharathi. “Researchers have identified a number of Sangam-age towns along the Vaigai. Pulimankombai is a village on the banks of Vaigai where a 2500-year-old inscription was found by archaeologists. It mentions the existence of a toll gate at the place where traders had to cross the river, indicating that there was a bustling trade route from Madurai to Cumbum.”

“An inscription dating 1650 A.D, belonging to the Chera king of Poonjar was found near Gudalur recently. It testifies that the temple atop the hill is that of 'Mangaladevi'. Silapathikaram mentions Kannagi by the name Mangala in certain episodes,” says Bharathi, who has also deciphered a set of nine inscriptions found inside the temple. “Seven of the inscriptions belong to Later Pandyas and two are from the time of Cholas. They mention the word 'Kavithi penn', a title given to women of Vaishya (traders) community. According to the epic, Kannagi hails from a Vaishya family. By correlating various literary evidences and archaeological findings, I have concluded in my study that it was the same hill in Cumbum Gudalur that find mention in Silapathikaram.”

In search of Kannagi's footprints

Bharathi says that Kannagi's story is the most intriguing epic in Tamil and it's important for people to know and understand the ethos of the story. “It's a woman-centric tale with a strong undertone of feminism. I plan to organise a Kannagi trail and form a community of interested historians, students and academicians to experience, laud and preserve the legacy of Kannagi.”

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 8:41:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/trailing-dirt-tracks-in-the-jungles-of-the-western-ghats-history-buff-and-tamil-scholar-pavel-bharathi-traces-the-legend-of-kannagi/article18681532.ece

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