The Myth of Kannaki: The Concept of Chastity and Power

 by Mala Kadar


Silapathikaram, the national epic, is hailed as the masterpiece of Indian literature - a showcase of the virtues of a Tamil society during the Sangam period. The woeful tale of Kannaki, the eternally suffering chaste wife who bore her husband’s unchasteful behavior, has emerged as the golden example of the powers that accrue to chaste Tamil women. Urged on by a patriarchal, hegemonic principle, the concept of chastity (Karpu) for Tamil women evolved as a form of learned self-denial of sexuality, tolerance, submissiveness and bashfulness that combined to form a benevolent power (sakthi).

The Tamil lexicon explains ‘karpu’ as ‘conjugal fidelity,’ states Dr Sivathamby, after a man’s union with his wife of his choice has been ratified. Tolkapiyar in turn defines karpu as the act of giving away the bride to the bridegroom. According to Dr Selvi Tiruchendran the word ‘karpu’ has its origins in the word ‘kal’ which means to learn. However, by the Sangam age, karpu exclusively referred to marital fidelity.

Dr. Tiruchendran says, Naccininarkiniyar, the famous commentator of Sangam literature, made an unconventional leap in bridging the gap between ‘Karpu; and ‘kal’. He declares that the woman must be instructed that there is no greater God than her husband, he or her lover must educate her on how to behave with Brahmins (creeping of the Brahmanical hegemony into Tamil thought), elders, honorable people and ascetics. He continues, she will be schooled through religious rites that the husband will protect her and she will in turn wait on and serve him. Placing the foot of the bride on the ‘Ammi’ during wedding rites and the fitting of the toe ring is a reminder to the bride of what befell poor Ahalya, who was turned into a stone by the Sage Gautama when her chastity was called into question, tying the ‘thali’ and pointing out the star ‘Aruntati” are reinforcements of the principle to the bride. Dr Selvi Tiruchendran concludes that custom of widow seclusion and sati, the burning of the wives on the funeral pyre of their husbands, are directly connected to the concept of chastity. The terms that refer to rites being performed by lonely husbands mourning the death of their deceased wife are now quietly abandoned.

The meaning of chastity for a Tamil woman now included restraining of all impulses and the qualities of patience, soft words and avoidance of harshness in speech. No longer is karpu purely confined to physical purity, now includes but mental purity as well. The woman must be guarded against entertaining any fancy for another man. Thiruvallurvar headed the list of poets who compose extensively on chastity. Now the poets, bards and devotional songs all follow this theme of extreme demands of chastity. The author of Tolkapiyam announces that highest order of chastity requires that, upon hearing the demise of her husband, the wife should die instantaneously, followed closely by self immolation and widow penance as last resort. (note, the Pandya king’s wife dies when she hears of her husband’s death in Silapathikaram).

In the translation of the Silapthikaram by Professor A.L.Basham, a grief striken Kannagi, clasped her innocent Kovalan’s feet as he left his human form escorted by Gods. But for Kannagi the path is much more tenuous. She cries ‘Are there good men here? Are there good men who cherish their children and guard them with care? This connotes that children are to be cherished not wives. She will now seek justice for a man who had made her penniless by selling off all her jewels for his mistress and from whom she faced callous connubial neglect. Susan Wadley in her analysis of a Tamil woman’s dilemma states that it is this ‘karpu’ chastity which is now gathering storm to propel Kannaki to avenge the death of her unchaste husband. But what is this sakthi which has its origins in Karpu? Alas, it is but years of suppression and repression of sexual energy with the mental anguish of bearing the humiliation of Kovalan’s blatant infidelity with no recourse for justice in a world where the patriarchy sets an ideology of morals that has different codes for women. Susan Wadley writes, there is abundance evidence to support the argument that there is a double standard about sexuality, in which infidelity is always the woman’s fault. Tiruchendran explains, chastity for women is clearly defined and explained, however the institution of extramarital relationships for men is approved.

In her frenzy, Kannaki, we read, resorts to self mutilating behavior. She tore the left breast from her body and flung it on the scented streets of Madurai and thus caused flames to rise. Dignified death still eluded poor Kannaki. She died a few days later, weak with loss of blood outside the city walls and then ‘reunited with unchaste Kovalan in Heaven to continue the agony of living with a philanderer’! Please note she went unescorted by Gods, unlike Kovalan. However, she has been deified in temples and has earned praise as a paragon of wifely loyalty, chastity, venerated and worshipped as ‘Pathini’ till the Brahmanic hegemony pushed the worship of Kannaki into what is termed "the little tradition." The idea of Kannaki as a vociferous, eloquent woman who argued for justice, who put forth evidence, was not to be entertained. However, Sita - that paragon of virtue who is submissive, docile and fragile -is encouraged, writes Selvi Tiruchendran. By the post-Sangam period, karpu had been elevated to Godliness and Rama’s wife Sita became the ideal to worship.

The Brahmanic influence of ascetic widowhood competed with rituals and rites that perpetuated widowhood as a social institution has imbibed by the Tamil culture that once had widow remarriage as an accepted norm. Widows are assumed to be fecund in spite of years of being schooled on the theory of ‘karpu’, but without a man to control her karpu, her innate power has become dangerous. Hence a rigorous process of making the woman as unattractive as possible is enforced even today. Traditionally her head is shaved and jewels removed. According to Kenneth David, Jaffna Tamils are quite blunt on the point that a widow is a candidate for prostitution and these practices enforce renunciation. He also concludes control of her wealth is also paramount and the reason she is prevented from remarriage. So these chaste, noble women become ‘amangalis’ – inauspicious.

Selvi Tiruchendran, in her brilliant analysis of the predicament of widowed, single Tamil women in the eastern province, writes of levels of repression. These women look underfed, malnourished and display apathy in their personal and physical self. They are subjected to intense scrutiny and any interest in their personal appearance is misconstrued as they're being ‘available.’ Without the husband, thought of sex is sinful and sex with another man who can become the husband is also sinful. The sinfulness of sex has become part of the women’s psyche and sex for the sake of pleasure is alien to them. They are subject to a life-negating principle that promotes renouncing personal satisfaction, enjoyment or care. These young Tamil widows devoid of ‘poovum pottum’ are considered bad omens and terms such as ‘amankali’ (inauspiciousness), otungu (self-imposed seclusion before others tell you), purusanai tintane (you ate your husband), arutali (broke the tali) must be endured. Tamil women are told “because of your ill luck your husband died, because of your character he disappeared, committed suicide, and deserted you.” The widows are reduced to being addressed as an inanimate object, ‘en munnalai poi nitkutu?’ why is this thing standing in front.

Tiruchendran writes that the palpable frustrations, sorrow, sadness and desire to live in peace and acceptance by these widows are profound. The widows repeatedly refer to themselves as ‘palpatta’(wretched).

So we conclude that Tamil Hindu women were progressively stripped of their powers and identity. Elaborate rituals, codes of conduct, duties were enacted to encompass this concept karpu, chastity. This comprehensive code of restraint and chastity means dedicated service and devotion to one man in both mental and physical states and auspiciousness engulfs the woman because she is following this strict code of conduct and is chaste. When the husband dies, disappears or abandons her all symbols of auspiciousness are removed and she becomes inauspicious, no longer a sumangali but an amangali to be shunned.

This is what the patriarchal ideology have entrenched in the Tamil Hindu thought. Though as Hindu Tamils we take pride in our lineage, caution must be exercised when upholding adverse statements from Manu Dharma Shastra, songs, poems or even symbols which deny the dignity of women or continue to perpetuate a general pattern of passivity, subservience and oppression rendering them incapable of taking care of themselves and seeking happiness.

This passivity and subservience can also be interpreted as a last resort open to women as defiance against such an oppressive culture which renders the world inaccessible to their own true feelings.

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Posted October 13, 2003