S.J.Gunasegaram on Manimekalai
Manimekalai is the heroine of
the Buddhist Classic in Tamil entitled �Manimekalai� �
the only epic of the type in the whole range of Buddhist
literature. It is the composition of a Tamil Buddhist merchant
known as Sattanar. The consensus of opinion among Tamil
scholars is that the work belongs to the second century, the
period following the Sangam classics.
The author was a friend of
Ilanko (the young Prince), a younger brother of Senguttuvan, the
king associated with the dedication of the temple to Pattini, or
Kannakai (Kannaki) � the chaste. Ilanko was the illustrious
author of Silappathikaram (The Epic of the Anklet), and
these two Tamil classics have often been referred to as �Twin
C. R. Reddy in his foreward to
�Dravidian India�, by T. R. Sesha Iyengar, calls
Manimekalai a �supreme pearl of Dravidian poesy�.1
�The investigation and enquiry into Tamil literary tradition�
says Krishnaswamy Iyangar, �leads to the conclusion that it is a
work of classic excellence in Tamil literature and may be
regarded as a Sangam work in that sense�.2
The same scholar refers to it
as a �Tamil Treatise on Buddhist Logic�. Prof. S. Vaiyapuri
Pillai refers to it as �this great classic�.3 M. D.
Raghavan (�Times of Ceylon�, 1.5.58), writing on the
contribution of Tamils to religious system of the Island
(Ceylon) says, �It will always remain a sense of pride to us
that the greatest if not the only classical epic of Theravada
Buddhism exists in the Tamil language. The poetry of
Manimekalai (2nd century A.D.) remains one of the
finest jewels of Tamil poetry.�
In contrast Sinhalese writers
of recent times, either because their knowledge of Tamil
literature is scanty or because they have failed to note the
opinions of scholars who rank it high among the Tamil classics,
refer to it merely as a �poem�. Dr. Malasekera alludes to the
conflict between the Naga kings found in the �Tamil poem
Manimekalai�, mentioned in the Mahavamsa (6th
While the Mahavamsa
places the scene of the battle at Nagadipa,5 the
earlier chronicle, �The Dipavamsa� (4th C.),
says, that the battle was fought in Tambapanni,6
i.e., the North of Ceylon. The Manimekalai gives the name of
the scene as Manipallavam, identified by Rajanayagam Mudaliar as
Dr. Paranavitane refers to
Manimekalai as �a Tamil poem, a work attributed to the second
century of the Christian era�, and adds that the goddess
Manimekalai after whom the heroine of the work is named seems to
have been a patron saint of the sea faring people of the Tamil
land who professed the Buddhist faith. The same writer refers
to a non-canonical Pali work which �contains a very old legend
of South Indian origin. The work states that one of the six
stupas had been built by Tamil merchants.�8
Dr. Paranavitane quotes
Rajavalia (which he calls �a Sinhalese historical work of
the 17th century) where we are told that she would be
the mother of Duttugemunu (�Vihara-Devi� now �Vihara
Maha-Devi�), who had been offered by her father as a sacrifice
to appease the sea-gods. She is said to have been brought by
the goddess Manimekalai across the sea to Magama, where she
found her future husband. What Dr. Paranavitane describes as �a
Singhalese historical work�, Prof. Vaiyapuri Pillai says, �is
not of any historical value and cannot be relied upon�.9
Dr. Mendis in his Early History of Ceylon has expressed a
Two facts, however, emerge from
these references. The tradition accepted in Ceylon that the
goddess Manimekalai was the patron saint of early Tamil
merchants, point to a very early period in the history of Ceylon
during which Tamil Buddhist influence had reached the Island.
The Dipavamsa (4th
C.) and the Mahavamsa (6th C.), the Pali
Buddhist Chronicles of Ceylon, refer to the conflict between two
Naga Princes of North Ceylon for the ownership of the Island.
The quarrel is said to have been settled by Buddha himself. The
two references, though there are differences in detail, are
found in the Manimekalai. It is unlikely that the Tamil
author of Manimekalai could have had access to the Pali
Chronicles of Ceylon composed and preserved in some remote
Vihara in the Island. Unless and until an earlier common source
for the story could be cited, the Manimekalai should be
assigned to a date earlier than that of the Mahavamsa and the
The consensus of opinion among
students of Tamil literature has been that the classic
Manimekalai belongs to the 2nd century A.D.,
though not a Sangam work. Prof. Vaiyapuri Pillai, a fellow
worker with K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, (a distinguished historian
and South Indian Sanskritist who has striven to establish the
priority and supremacy of Sanskrit literary influences in the
South), has challenged the date attributed to Manimekalai
and post dates it. He adduces a number of arguments to show
that the Manimekalai and the connected classic
Silappathikaram are assignable to the 8th
century, but accepts that the former was an earlier composition.11
As already indicated below,
Prof. Vaiyapuri Pillai rejects the tradition recorded in the
Sinhalese Chronicle Rajavalia. Although unreliable and
comparatively recent, the Rajavali records a persistent
tradition in Ceylon regarding the introduction of Pattini
(Kannaki) worship to Ceylon by Gajabahu I, in the 2nd
century A.D. There is clear mention in the Silappathikaram
that Gajabahu was present at the dedication of the temple to
Pattini by Cheran Senguttuvan.12 That Cheran
Senguttuvan was an eminent king of the Sangam age is well known.
Prof. Vaiyapuri Pillai holds
that the most important statement from a historical standpoint
that Gajabahu of Ceylon was present at Senguttuvan�s court
stands singularly uncorroborated. He admits however that
Manimekalai corroborates the statement in the
Silappathikaram that it was at Senguttuvan�s capital, the
consecration of Kannaki�s temple took place; but doubts that
Gajabahu was present at the ceremony because the Manimekalai
does not mention Gajabahu.
Neither Manimekalai nor
Silappathikaram is a historical work. The poet chooses
incidents that are relevent to his thesis. That the author of
the Manimekalai has failed to corroborate its �twin epic�
about the presence of Gajabahu I of Ceylon at Senguttuvan�s
Court does not prove Prof. Vaiyapuri Pillai�s case, although
such corroboration would have been helpful. But it has been
pointed out that both the works agree that the consecration was
at the capital of Cheran Senguttuvan who is known to have ruled
in the 2nd century A.D.
Again that Paranar, one of the
illustrious poets of the Tamil Sangam age, has failed to mention
in his poem on Senguttuvan anything about the installation of
Kannaki as deity or about Ilanko being Senguttuvan�s brother or
about Gajabahu � should not be taken as a serious argument to
support the Professor�s case. Not all the works of Paranar and
of the Sangam age have come down to us. It depends, moreover,
what religious views Paranar held for him to consider the
dedication of the temple of Kannaki as an important event.
Ilanko (which merely means the young Prince) himself might have
been too young to have merited notice by Paranar. It is
admitted that both Manimekalai and Ilanko�s works are
post Sangam classics.
The Professor�s most
unconvincing of all arguments from silence is his emphasis on
the fact that the Mahavamsa hasfailed to state anything about Gajabahu�s
attendance at the consecration ceremony, at the Chola capital or
of the introduction of Pattini (Kannaki) worship to Ceylon.
Of the Mahavamsa it has
been pointed out that �not what is said but what is unsaid is
its besetting difficulty�. One does not expect a monkish
chroniclar bent on the �edification of the pious� Buddhists to
refer to an illustrious king of Anuradhapura introducing a Hindu
Cult. It is well known that Gajabahu I, if not a Hindu, was
without doubt a king with Hindu leanings. This probably
accounts for the scant attention paid to the reign of this king
in the pious Buddhist romance.
The fact appears to be that
Prof. Vaiyapuri Pillai finds support in the statement made by
Prof. Jacobi to the effect the logic of Manimekalai is
more or less a copy of Nyayapravesa of Dignaga attributed
to the 4th century A.D.
Prof. Vaiyapuri Pillai in a
note to his appendix in the History of Tamil language and
literature, p. 189, says:
�It is well known that the
author of the Manimekalai is indebted for this section to
Dignaga�s Nyayapravesa�.. Professor Jacobi renders it
very probable that Dignaga, perhaps even Dharmakirti, was known
to this classic in Tamil.�
Prof. Vaiyapuri Pillai seems to
have ignored the fact that long ago Dr. S. Krishnaswamy Iyangar,
a recognised authority on the Manimekalai, had
convincingly rebutted Prof. Jacobi�s assumption that the
Buddhist logic of Manimekalai is derived from that of
Dignaga�s Nyayapravesa. He has stated in clear terms
that, �We have good reason for regarding Manimekalai as a
work anterior to Dignaga�.13
Discussing the �clear cut,
succinct statement, found in the Manimekalai of the main
Buddhist theory of the �The four truths�, �The twelve
Nidanas�, and the means of getting to the correct knowledge,
which ultimately would put an end to �Being��. Dr. S.
Krishnaswamy Iyangar says, �There is nothing that may be
regarded as referring to any form of Mahayana Buddhism,
particularly the Sunyavada as formulated by Nagarjuna. One way
of interpreting this silence would be that Nagarjuna�s teaching
as such of the Sunyavada had not yet travelled to the Tamil
country to be mentioned in connection with the orthodox teaching
of Buddhism or to be condemned as orthodox.�14
Again Iyangar points out that
in Chapter XXX of Manimekalai, �the soul referred seems
clearly to be to the individual soul and not to the universal
soul�. He adds, �These points support the view to that which we
were led in our study of the previous book, and thus make the
work clear one of a date anterior to Dignaga and not posterior.�15
Dr. S. Krishnaswamy Iyangar
clinches his argument by reference to the Chola rule at Kanchi.
�Kanchi is referred to as under the rule of the Cholas yet, and
the person actually mentioned as holding rule at the time was
the younger brother of the Chola ruler for the time being.
Against this Viceroyalty an invasion was undertaken by the
united armies of the Cheras and the Pandyans which left the
Chera capital Vanji impelled by earth hunger and nothing else,
and attacked the Viceroyalty. The united armies were defeated
by the princely viceroy of the Cholas who presented to the elder
brother, the monarch, as spoils of war, the umbrellas that he
captured on the field of battle. This specific historical
incident which is described with all the precision of a
historical statement in the work must decide the question along
with the other historical matter, to which we have already
adverted. No princely viceroy of the Chola was possible in
Kanchi after A.D. 300, from which period we have a continuous
succession of Pallava rulers holding sway in the region. Once
the Pallavas had established their position in Kanchi, their
neighbours in the west and the north had become others than the
From comparatively early times, certainly during the 5th
century, the immediate neighbours to the west were the Gangas,
and little farther to the west by north were the Kadambas, over
both of whom the Pallavas claimed suzerainty readily recognized
by the other parties. This position is not reflected in the
Manimekalai or Silappathikaram. Whereas that which
we find actually and definitely stated is very much more a
reflection of what is derivable from purely Sangam literature so
called. This general position together with the specific datum
of the contemporaneity of the authors to Senguttuvan Chera must
have the decisive force. Other grounds leading to a similar
conclusion will be found in our other works, �The Augustan
Age of Tamil Literature� (Ancient India, chapter
xiv), �The Beginnings of South Indian History�, and
�The Contributions of South India to Indian Culture�.
The age of the Sangam must be anterior to that of the Pallavas
and the age of the Manimekalai and Silappathikaram,
if not actually referable as the works of the Sangam as such,
certainly is referable to the period in the course of the
activity of the Sangam.�16
The Manimekalai is an
exposition of Hinayana Buddhism. Hinayana as distinct from
Mahayana, is a Southern school � an earlier school � of Buddhism
The Ceylon tradition that Buddhaghosa, in
the 5th century, had to come over to the Island from
the Tamil country in South India to write the commentaries on
the earlier Pali texts on Hinayana into pure Magadhi is an
indication that in the 5th century itself Mahayana
had become dominant in South India. This tendency finds further
support in the introduction of a form of Mahayanist teaching
into Ceylon (the doctrine referred to as the Vaituliyan heresy)
in the previous century, by the Chola monk Sanghamitta, the
friend of Mahasena, king of Anuradhapura.17
Moreover the reference in
Manimekalai to the popularity of Buddhism in Javakam
indicates that Manimekalai had been written long before
Mahayanism became the dominant form of Buddhism under the
Sailendra Empire, in islands such as Java and Sumatra.
Sir R. Winstedt attests to the
fact that the Buddhist story of Manimekalai left by the
Tamil merchants� Sumatran folklore had been retold in the Malay
Peninsula and written down in modern times.18
Again it has been shown that
the earlier Sangam works as well as Manimekalai and
Silappathikaram make no references to the Pallavas who ruled
at Kanchi from 325 A.D.19 But all the references in
the Manimekalai are to the earlier Chola kings such as
Nalankilli and Ilankilli. Prof. Vaiyapuri Pillai apparently
ignores these evidences.
For a full discussion of the
question of the date of Manimekalai, reference to Prof.
Vaiyapuri Pillai�s �History of Tamil literature�, p. 142,
may be made. His arguments to give it a comparatively late date
had been met by Dr. S. Krishnaswamy Iyangar in his introduction
to his �Manimekalai in its Historical Setting�, published
by the South India Saiva Siddhanta Publishing Society, Madras.
The influence of Manimekalai
and Silappathikaram on Sinhalese Literature:
Reference may be made to Dr.
Godakumbura�s �Sinhalese Literature�, pages 279-288, to
form some idea of the Tamil literary and religious sources which
had inspired Sinhalese literature after the dethronement of Pali
as the vehicle of expression of foreign Buddhist monks.
Dr. Godakumbura remarks that
�after the 16th century, when few could read the
Dharma in its original Pali or even comprehend the
compendiums written in Sinhalese�, Vanijasuriya wrote the
Devadath Kathaya in Sinhalese verse.
Commenting on the very great
popularity of the story of Pattini in Sinhalese villages, Dr.
�Literature, dealing with
Pattini and the origin of the worship, is very large, and most
of it has come from Tamil sources. The Silappathikaram
and Manimekalai are the two main classics dealing with
the story of Kannaki and Kovalan�..
�It is quite possible that some
popular poems existed in Tamil and these and not the classics
were the sources of the numerous ballads about the Goddess.�
Dr. Godakumbura also tells us
that Vyanthamala by Tisimahla, �gives a brief description
of the Chola king in the classical style and that the author�s
description of the dancing of Madavi (the mother of
Manimekalai), �is one of the finest in the whole field of
(Pattini-Kannaki � the heroine
of Silappathikaram was the wife of Kovalan and Madavi was
Kovalan�s lover. Manimekalai, the heroine of �Manimekalai�,
was the daughter of Madavi by Kovalan).
Dr. Godakumbura then gives a
fairly comprehensive list of Sinhalese writings based on the
story of Silappathikaram and of deities popular among the
Tamils � deities such as the God of Kataragama (Murugan),
Ganesha, the brother of Murugan, and Vishnu � all attributed to
stories from Tamil sources.
India�, by Sesha Iyengar, Luzac & Co., London.
2. �Manimekalai in
its Historical Setting�, by Dr. S. Krishnaswamy
Iyangar, Preface p. VII.
3. �History of
Tamil Language and Literature�, by S. Vaiyapuri
Pillai, p. 155.
Pakkasini�, Commentary on the Mahavamsa,
by Dr. G. P. Malalasekera, Vol. 1. Int. p. LXXVI.
Ch. 1, V. 47.
Ch. ii, V. 3.
7. �Ancient Jaffna�,
8. C. L. R., Vol. 1, No. 1, Jan; 1931.
9. Vaiyapuri Pillai, ibid, n. p. 144.
10. The Early
History of Ceylon�, Dr. G. C. Mendis, 1954
Edition, p. 25.
11. Vaiyapuri Pillai, ibid. pp. 139-155.
I, Int. p. V.
13. Krishnaswamy Iyangar, ibid. Int. p. XXVIII.
14. Ibid. Int. pp. XXVIII-XXIX.
15. Ibid. Int. pp. XXVIII-XXIX.
16. Ibid. Int. pp. XXVIII-XXIX.
17. MHV. Ch. XXXVII, vv. 2-5.
18. Malaya � A
Cultural History�, by Sir Richard Winstedt, p.
19. Buddhism and
Tamil��, ibid. p. 200.