Manimekalai - மணிமேகலை

தமிழ்த் தேசியம்

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Last updated
01/01/09

Manimekalai of Cittalaic Cattanar at Project Madurai -  pdf - unicode

"The publication of the twin epics, SilappathikAram and MaNimEkalai  marked the commencement of the epic era  in Thamizh literature.... Manimekalai the other half of the twin epics represents the continuation of the sad saga of MAdhavi and her daughter, MaNimEkalai. Following the traumatic death of KOvalan and KaNNaki, MAdhavi withdrew herself from her artistic career and public life. KaNNaki's chastity and fidelity had a very powerful impact on her moral outlook of life and its meaning. Her adoration of KaNNaki was so high that she always introduced MaNimEkalai as KaNNaki's daughter. She repented the type of life she led upto that time and wanted to erase the memories of her unchaste family traditions from MaNi mEkalai's mind. Her disenchantment towards life, in general, increased to such an extent that she joined the Buddhist monastry. She brought up MaNimEkalai in an environment free of transient worldly pleasures.

The prince fell in love with MaNimEkalai who was unable to reciprocate his love because of her mother's influence. Ultimately MaNimEkalai went to the island of MaNipallavam, got ordained as a Buddhist monk and received the gift of a mystic box  capable of an eternal supply of food. Her ambition in life turned out to be the alleviation of the hunger of the poor and the needy. Her ascetic life and service to humanity elevated her to the status of an idol so that people worshipped her as MaNimEkalai, the God , after her death. In the following lines she defined virtue as the human trait by which food, clothing and shelter are made available to all:

அறமெனப் படுவது யாதெனக்கேட்பின்
மறவாது இதுகேள் மன்னுயிர்க்கு எல்லாம்
உண்டியும் உடையும் உறையளும் அல்லது
கண்ட தில்லை.

The author of MaNimEkalai (4835 lines), SAtthanAr finds the story much to his own liking and religious views. Unlike iLangO atikaL who remained unbiased in his narration of the life of KOvalan and KaNNaki, SAtthanAr did not hesitate to use MaNimEkalai's story of renunciation to propagate Buddhist philosophy."  Professor C.R. Krishnamurti on Manimekalai in  Thamizh Literature Through the Ages

Manimekalai - C.J.Gunasegaram

Manimekalai - Dancer with Magic Bowl - Narrative in Tamil Epic (Second Century AD)  - Arputhrani Sengupta (Associate Professor, Dept. of History of Art, National Museum Institute, New Delhi, India)  "..When Manimekalai took decisions on her life, cognition and positive force set her on the path of knowledge. Born to be a courtesan, her decision to take the vow of chastity and charity is a daring innovation, which utilized creative power in the service of spiritual and social goals. By writing the epic Merchant Prince Shattan reproduced the narrative in a form that could be retained and retrieved. The Tamil epic Manimekalai has endured for nearly two millennia because of the innovation of Brahmi script derived from Aramaic, which enabled the reproduction of knowledge through writing for the benefit of society. The written reproduction provides the possibility of a broader reception and, more importantly, also of history, society and religion, and the opportunity for critical observation, since only a fixed text makes any kind of criticism possible..."

*Alan Danielou (translator) - Manimekhalai (The Dancer With the Magic Bowl)  July 1989 - "The Manimekhalai, one of the masterpieces of Tamil literature, gives us in the form of didactic novel full of freshness and poetry, a delightful insight into the ways of life, the pleasures, beliefs and philosophical concepts of a refined civilisation... Tamil is the main pre-Aryan language still surviving today.... The Manimekhalai calls into question many of our received ideas concerning ancient India as well as our interpretation of the sources of its present day religion and philosophy. In its clear accounts of the philosophical concepts of the time, the Manimekhalai presents the various currents of pre Aryan thought.... which gradually influenced the Vedic Aryan world... The society in which the action of the Manimekhalai takes has little to do with the Aryanised civilisation of the north which we know from Sanskrit texts...The Greek geographer, Ptolemy in the second century mentions the main ports of southern India and, in particular, Kaaveris Emporium, the Kaveripum-pattinam (or Puhar) of the Manimekhalai .."

 

TAMIL LANGUAGE  & LITERATURE

Manimekalai of Cittalaic Cattanar
மணிமேகலை - சீத்தலைச்சாத்தனார்

"The Manimekhalai, one of the masterpieces of Tamil literature, gives us in the form of didactic novel full of freshness and poetry, a delightful insight into the ways of life, the pleasures, beliefs and philosophical concepts of a refined civilisation... In its clear accounts of the philosophical concepts of the time, the Manimekhalai presents the various currents of pre Aryan thought.... which gradually influenced the Vedic Aryan world... The society in which the action of the Manimekhalai takes has little to do with the Aryanised civilisation of the north which we know from Sanskrit texts..." Alan Danielou (translator) - Manimekhalai (The Dancer With the Magic Bowl)

M.D.Raghavan
Tamil Culture in Ceylon, a General Introduction, circa 1952

One of the finest jewels of Tamil poetry", the epic poem Manimekalai by Poet Sathanar, 2nd century A.D., is unique for the deep spirituality and mysticism it unfolds against the historical and geographical background of South India and of adjacent Jaffna.

The death of her father, Kovalan, under tragic circumstances, weighs upon the mind of young Manimekala and she resolves on a life of renunciation. At every turn she is obstructed. Running through her life story are a set of counteracting forces — on the one hand is her passion to enter holy orders of a Buddhist bhikkuni and on the other, the infatuation of Udaya Kumaran, the Chola prince, to win her favours.

The first scene is laid in the garden of the capital city, Puhar, with Manimekala and her companion, Sutamati, gathering flowers. With all the daring of his princely rank, Udaya Kumaran gives vent to his deep love. Faced by a situation from which there is no escape, spiritual aid comes to her in the person of the Goddess Manimekalai, her guardian deity. The Goddess charms her to sleep, and while in a state of trance, spirits her away to the Island of Manipallavam,1 down South. Leaving her there, the Goddess gets back to Puhar, the Chola capital. Appearing before Prince Udaya Ku maran, she tells him of the unrighteousness of his conduct, unbecoming of a prince. The Goddess now appears to Sutamati in a dream and tells her of her flight to the Island of Manipallavam with Manimekala, and how the Goddess has set her on the road to spirituality.

Bewildered at her loneliness in strange surroundings Manimekala roams about the place until she comes upon the site hallowed by the visit of the Buddha. This was the site where according to legends, the Buddha landed and settled a growing strife between two warring Naga. Princes for a gem-set throne left to them by an ancestress. The episode of the Buddha's visit to the Island of Nagadipa, where he preached a sermon of reconciliation between the two Naga princes, is sung in Buddhist legends of Ceylon, chronicled in Sinhalese Mahavamsa. Circumambulating the holy seat, and prostrating herself before it, memories of her past life miraculously dawns on her.

One of her righteous deeds in her past life, is here recounted. Lakshmi, as she was in her previous birth, comes upon a Buddhist Charana by name Sadhu Sakkaram flying across the air. As he landed, Lakshmi and her husband, Rahula, prostrated before the sage, and Lakshmi offered the sage food. The merit that she thus acquired gained for her the reward of acquiring nirvana, in her next birth, destined to live the life of a Bhikkuni. Rahula, her husband, was reborn as Prince Udaya Kumara. This accounts for his amorous advances to her.

 To release her from this attachment and to help her to fulfil the Karma, was the mission of Goddess Manimekalai who spirited her away to the Island of Manipallavam. In her past birth she was one of the three daughters of King Ravivarman and his Queen Amudapati, of Yasodharanagari. The other two daughters were Tarai and Virai, married to King Durjaya. On a certain day returning from a visit to the hills by the side of the Ganges, the royal party came upon Aravana Adigal, the great Buddhist saint.

The latter persuaded the king and his daughters, to worship the footprints of the Buddha in Padapankaja Malai of the Giridharakuta hills. The story of the footprints finds mention in these words : " The Buddha stood on the top of the hill and taught his Dharma to all living beings, and as he preached in love, his footprints became imprinted on the hill, which thus got the name Padapankaja Malai (the Hill of the Lotus feet)." The king and his queens were advised to go and worship the sacred footprints. As a result of the merit thus acquired, the two daughters Virai and Tarai, were reborn as Sutamati and Madhavi.

To resume our story. Initiated in Buddha Dharma, the goddess prevails on Manimekala to complete her spiritual education by learning the teachings of other religious persuasions. Towards this end, she instructs her in a mantra the chanting of which would enable her to fly through the air, disguised as a hermit. With these pronouncements, the goddess again leaves her.

Walking about the place, Manimekala meets the goddess Tivatilaki who recounts her own experiences. " On the high peak of Samanta Kuta, in the adjoining Island of Ratnadipa, there are the footprints of the Buddha. After offering worship to the footprints, I came to this Island long ago. Since then, I have remained here keeping guard over this seat under the orders of Indra. My name is Tiva-tilaki, the Light of the Island. Those who follow the Dharma of the Buddha strictly and offering worship to this Buddha seat will gain knowledge of their previous birth."

" In front of this seat there is a little pond full of cool water overgrown with lotuses. From that pond will appear a never failing alms bowl, by name Amrita Surabhi (Endless Nectar). The bowl once belonged to Aputra and appears every year on the full moon day in the month of Rishabha, in the fourteenth asterism, the day on which the Buddha himself was born. That day and hour are near. That bowl will presently come into your hand. Food put into it by a pure one will be inexhaustible. You will learn all about it from Aravana Adigal, who lives in your own city."

Circumambulating the pond, the bowl emerges from the water and reaches her hands. Delighted at this, Manimekala chants praises of the Buddha. The last line of the chant alludes to the Buddha's services to the Nagas : " Hail holy feet of Him who rid the Nagas of their woes."

How the bowl found its way to Nagadipa is another story 2 Manimekala now flies back to Kaveripattinam. Meeting her mother and Sutamati, she recounts her experiences. All three go to the Sage Aravana Adigal. The sage narrates to her the story of the miraculous bowl. As the story ends, Manimekala dons the robes of a Bhikkuni and with the begging bowl in her hand, makes her way through the streets of the city.

The news reaches Prince Udaya Kumaran of Manimekala's presence in her own Madurai and her attentions to the poor and forlorn. The prince goes to find her. Seeing her as a Bhikkuni, he asks her why she has taken to this austere life. She makes appropriate reply. Unable to resist the prince's advances, she disguises herself as Kayasandigai, so as to escape his attentions. Meanwhile, Kanjanan, the husband of the real Kayasandigai, mistakes Manimekala in her disguise, as his wife. Manimekala does not respond to Kanjanan's words. This infuriates Kanjanan, who suspects Udaya Kumaran to be his wife's lover, and kills him.

Manimekala now continues in her wanderings and finally reaches Conjeeveram. Here she waits upon Aravana Adigal, who instructs her in Buddha Dharma. Manimekala from now settles herself to the dedicated life of a Buddhist Bhikkuni.


1 Of the character and functions of this Goddess, Paranavitana enlightens us : " This Goddess appears in a number of Sinhalese and Pali works. Her chief job appears to be the guardianship of the sea." Quoting Rajavaliya' we are told, " Viharamahadevi, the mother of Duttugemunu, who was offered by her father as a sacrifice to the sea Goddess, was brought ashore by this very Goddess at Magama in Ruhuna where she found her future husband." (Paranavitana : Ceylon Literary Register, 1931).

That Manipallavam is an Island, is obvious from the reference in the Manimekalai to " the sea girt land of Manipallavam," the Island where " stood the seat of the Buddha " — the seat for which " there appeared in contest two Naga kings from the Southern Regions each claiming the seat for himself." This specific allusion to the gem-set seat and the Buddha appearing and making peace between the warring princes, make it abundantly clear that the Island meant is Nagadipa, or the Jaffna Peninsula itself, for at this time the name seems to have been extended to refer to the whole Peninsula as the Mahavamsa has it. Another pointer is the name Pallavam, Tamil for the sprout of a tree, the projecting top of the Peninsula thrusting itself into the sea, having all the look of the sprout of a tree. There is also the view that this idea may be at the back of the names of the later Pallavas bearing the suffix "ankura" meaning in Sanskrit, a sprout, in their surnames. (Rasanayagam, C.: Ancient Jaffna, p. 81).

2 Salli, the faithless wife of a Brahmin Appachikan, deserted her husband. She gave birth to a child whom she left by the wayside. Attracted by the cries of the child, it was looked after by a cow. In time, the child was adopted by a kind Brahmin. The child thus got the name Auputhiran — the cow's son. The boy, as he grew up, denounced animal sacrifices. Matters came to a head one night when he rescued a cow consecrated for sacrifice the next morning. He was discarded by his adopted parents. Auputhiran fled to Madurai and took refuge in a pilgrims' rest home. Touched by his charitable disposition to feed the poor, Saraswati bestowed on him the miraculous rice bowl, with which he fed man and beast. In time, Indra moved by his charities, appeared before Auputhiran and volunteered to grant him whatever boon he desired. " What greater boon can you give me than the pleasure of feeding the hungry " he replied. This curt reply displeased Indra. The land soon grew so fertile with seasonal rains, that the people had no more need for Auputhiran's rice bowl. Seeing his mission in this land at an end, he decided to leave the country and took ship.

The ship weighed anchor at the uninhabited island of Manipallavam and sailed away without him. Thus stranded on the island, Auputhiran starved himself to death. Before he died, he deposited the bowl in a pond nearby with the prayer that it should appear once a year and come into the hands of the virtuous. His prayer was fulfilled in time on a particular Vesak day when Manimekala got possession of it.

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