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The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature

1. The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature are large narrative Tamil epics according to later Tamil literary tradition, namely Cilappatikāram, Manimekalai, Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi, Valayapathi and Kuṇṭalakēci.The first mention of the “Aimperumkappiyam” (lit. Five large epics) occurs in Mayilainathar’s commentary of Nannūl. However, Mayilainathar does not mention the names of the five epics. The names of the epics are first mentioned in the late 18th century – early 19th century work Thiruthanikaiula. Earlier works like the 17th century poem Tamil vidu thoothu mention the great epics as Panchkavyams.Among these, the last two, namely Valayapathi and Kuṇṭalakēci are not extant.





2.These five epics were written over a period of 1st century CE to 10th century CE and act as the historical evidence of social, religious, cultural and academic life of people during the era they ere created. Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi introduced long verses called virutha pa in Tamil literature.,while Cilappatikāram used akaval meter (monologue), a style adopted from Sangam literature.
3.The epic trio of Cilappatikāram, Manimēkalai and Cīvaka Cintāmani gives a full account of Tamil concept of womanhood by powerfully and poignantly delineating the character of a chaste wife Kannagi, a brave and dutiful daughter Manimekalai and an affectionate mother in Vijayai, mother of Jivakan in the three epics respectively
4. Plot of epics in brief :Cilappatikāram (“The Tale of an Anklet”) depicts the life of Kannagi, a chaste woman who lead a peaceful life with Kovalan in Puhar (Poompuhar), the then-capital of the Chola dynasty. Her life later went astray by the association of Kovalan with an unchaste woman Madhavi. The duo started resurrecting their life in Madurai, the capital of Pandyas. Kovalan went on to sell the anklet of Kannagi to start a business, but was held guilty and beheaded of stealing it from the queen. Kannagi went on to prove the innocence of her husband and believed to have burnt the entire city of Madurai by her chastity.
Manimekalai is a 5th-century Buddhist epic created by Sithalai Sathanar during the 5th century. It is believed to be a followup of Cilappatikāram with the primary character, Maṇimēkalai being the daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi. It contains thirty cantos describing the circumstances in which Maṇimēkalai renounced the world and took the vows of Theravada sect of Buddhism, which is followed in Burma and Sri Lanka.Apart from the story of Maṇimēkalai and her Buddhist inclination, the epic deals with a great deal with Buddha’s life, work and philosophy.
Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi, an epic of the 10th century CE was written by Thiruthakka Thevar, a Jain monk. It narrates the romantic exploits of Jeevaka and throws light on arts of music and dance of the era. It is reputed to have been the model for Kamba Ramayanam.The epic is based on Sanskrit original and contains the exposition of Jain doctrines and beliefs. It is a mudi-porul-thodar-nilai-seyyul, a treatise of the fourfold object of life and aim of literary work of virtue, wealth, pleasure and bliss.It is in 13 books or illambagams and contains 3147 stanzas. It is noted for its chaste diction and sublime poetry rich in religious sentiments and replete with information of arts and customs of social life. There are many commentaries on the book, the best on the work is believed to be by Naccinarkiniyar.
Kuṇṭalakēci is now lost, but quotations from it and found from references used by authors who had access to the classic.The poem demonstrated the advantage of Buddhism over Shrauta and Jainism. The Jain in reply wrote Nilakesi which has opposing views to the ideologies in Kuṇṭalakēci. Kuṇṭalakēci was a Jain nun who moved around India, expounding Jainism and challenged anyone who had alternate views. Sāriputta, a disciple of Gautama Buddha, took up the challenge one day and defeated Kuṇṭalakēci in debates. She renounced Jainism and became a Buddhist.The author is believed to be Nagaguttanar.The record of culture and Buddhist views during the era were lost with the book.
Vaḷaiyāpati is another lost work, although it is unclear whether it is a Buddhist or Jain.Some scholars believe it is a Buddhist work and base their claims on the quotations of Vaḷaiyāpati found in other literary works. The author of Vaḷaiyāpati quotes from Tirukkuṟaḷ and it is possible that he took inspiration from it.
6. Cilappatikāram and Maṇimēkalai are accepted to be composed after the Sangam period (300 BCE to 200 CE). Maṇimēkalai has been accepted as a sequel of Cilappatikāram and both these works are placed before the 5th century CE. It is generally accepted that these works might have been composed between 200 BCE to 500 CE. There is a controversy to the age of the author of Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi, Tirutakkatevar. There is one version that he lived before Kamban (9th century CE) as the viruttam metre, language and imagery was commonly used by Kamban. The other view is later than Kamban.
7.Apart from the story and literature, these texts are a vast treasure of information of music and dance, both classical and folk,administration and grandeur of Tamil kings.
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