Ancient Tamilakam, in the far South of Bharatavarsha, was home to a number of prolific writers, poets and singers, who composed a corpus of texts that have come to be classified under Tamil Sangam literature. This corpus is known to encompass a whole range of topics, capturing human emotions with sublime brilliance. The Tamil region was divided among three kingdoms- Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas, and it was under their patronage that such conditions could be maintained. The Cheras, based out of Vanci, ruled largely over central Kerala and western Tamil Nadu, and one of the greatest rulers of this lineage was SENGUTTAVAN.
Senguttavan was one of the chief characters in the legendary Tamil epic, Silapaddikaram (lay of the anklet). Composed by Ilango Adigal, who tradition maintains was the younger brother of Senguttavan, this text was composed sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries CE. It deals with both the major forms of Tamil poetry- love (akam) and war (puram), and is perhaps the first truly ‘national’ work of Tamil literature, as the story incorporates capitals of all three kingdoms: Urayur, Madurai and Vanci. This text informs us about Senguttavan being a contemporary to the ruler Gajabahu, and this reference has been used subsequently by historians to date Tamil epics as well as the regnal years of ancient Tamil kings.[ref]
While I don’t intend going into great detail, the story revolves around a chaste wife Kannagi and her husband Kovalan, who is murdered for allegedly stealing the Pandyan queen’s anklet. Kannagi in her quest for justice exposes the king’s erroneous sense of judgement in front of the court, and the latter surrenders his life to atone for his sin. Kannagi unleashes her fury on the city of Madurai. Meanwhile, Senguttavan embarks on a campaign to brings down stones from the Himalayas on the shoulders of ‘conquered Aryans’, that were used for constructing the Bhagwati shrine, that can still be visited in Kodungallur. Senguttavan is credited with establishing the ‘Pattini’ cult, that treats Kannagi as the ideal wife and still has followers in parts of South India and Sri Lanka.[ref]
Senguttavan is also hailed for his virtues in a song by Paranar, one of the most prominent Tamil poets of the Sangam age. It lauds him for his martial prowess as well as dominance over the seas. Such an obscure king must receive our attention because his story can help us acknowledge the role of Sangam literature in shaping the social world of ancient Tamilakam, an integral part of Bharat’s cultural fabric. Jai Hind.