Once upon a time there lived a childless banker and his wife. The banker’s wife decided to go on a pilgrimage seeking a boon from Lord Shiva for a child. Much against the wishes of her husband she left for the forest and arrived at Madura Tinivelly to find two other childless women, Rani Coplingee and a nautch girl, waiting there with the same objective. The three decided to set out together.

They found themselves in the middle of the forest, across a river of raging fire. The sight scared all, but the banker’s wife. She asked the two to wait for her as she waded through, unscathed. Twelve years of wandering later, Shiva was moved by her plight. He came to her and pleased by her dedication, gave her a mango. Eat it and a child will be yours he said.

The young wife told Shiva that two of her companions were also childless and were waiting for her. So, the Lord said, share the mango. On rejoining the two the banker’s wife reported all that had happened and the three ate the mango. The banker’s wife ate the pulp and the stone, the Rani had the juice and the nautch girl, the skin.

Soon a son was born to the banker’s wife, he was named Koila. The Rani had a daughter, called Chandra Bai. And the nautch girl too had a daughter called Moulee. Chandra (the royal child) was born with two golden anklets filled with precious stones and a Brahmin warned the king that she would bring destruction to his kingdom.

Chandra had to be got rid of; she was put in a golden casket and sent down the river. A fisherman who had no children of his own found the floating casket and took her home. Chandra grew up and when the time came for her marriage, the groom her parents found was Koila. The banker and his wife had long died and Chandra and Koila made their life as a couple.

The third of the children born from the mango, Moulee too had grown into a young woman with a melodious voice. She found herself, in the course of her travels, in the land of Chandra and Koila. Now Koila happened to hear her sing and fell in love with the voice.

Koila went in search of the voice and found Moulee dancing in front of a band of young men, each urging her to marry one of them. Determined he came in search of her, where she was dancing. Here the people were urging her to seek a husband from one of them. Moulee stood with a garland and told her suitors that she would wed the one the garland chose. She flung the garland and it swung around the neck of Koila, who on being told that Moulee would like to marry him and he was the lucky man, hesitated and said that he was already married.

At that moment, the story goes, Koila was given a powerful intoxicated drink that made him forget his wife. And he made a home with Moulee. Some months later, Moulee’s mother insisted that he start paying for his upkeep. Koila went to Chandra and requested her to part with one of the anklets. A furious Chandra refused and the two decided to leave their country and travel to Madura Tinivelly.

On the way, they went by Lord Krishna who was playing cards with his three wives. He saw the two and announced that Koila was going to be killed and Chandra would burn the whole country. One of the wives disguised herself as a fortune teller and tried to dissuade the two from going further, but Koila ignored her.

The two reached the kingdom that had sent their daughter down the river where Chandra’s mother Rani Coplinghee lived. The Rani had given two of her anklets for cleaning to the royal jeweller. In the backyard of the jeweller, two eagles had built a nest where the babies would be constantly screaming and disturbing the jeweller and his family. Unable to bear the constant screaming, the jeweller’s son pulled down the nest and killed the babies. Furious and distraught the eagles swooped down and flew away with one of the anklets.

The jeweller was worried and took one of the anklets to the queen telling her that the other piece would be brought in soon. It was at this stage that Koila walked in with Chandra’s anklet. The jeweller saw this as the only way to save him and so reported Koila to the king, who immediately ordered to kill the offender, after confiscating the anklet.

When the anklet reached the Rani, she immediately recognised it and asked the King to pursue the matter. But the king declined. The Rani kept the anklet in her cupboard, and soon Koila was hacked to death. When Chandra heard what had happened, she rushed to the king’s court, screaming. At the sound of her voice, her anklet rolled out of the royal treasury on to her feet. The king was shocked. And a devastated and distraught Chandra tore her hair in anger. As her hair hit the ground, they turned into fire and burned down the palace and the kingdom sparing none except the outcastes who had given shelter to Chandra. The fire killed Moulee and her mother too.

A wailing Chandra rushed to where Koila’s body had been kept. And as he sat there weeping, a needle and thread descended from the heavens and she took them and sewed up the body, all the time praying to Shiva. Soon, miraculously, Koila was brought back to life and the two lived happily ever after.

What is interesting in this folktale is that this tale is considered to have been the precursor the famous Tamil epic Cilappatikaram. The story supposedly was told to Mary Frere, daughter of Sir Bartle Frere (1815-84), the Governor of Bombay Presidency (1862-67), by her nanny, Anna Liberata de Souza, in the winter of 1865-66. Anna had heard the story from her grandmother, a Lingayat from Calicut, Malabar province, then a part of Madras Presidency. This version was first published in London by a John Murray in 1868, 24 years before the publication of Ilango Adigals Cilappatikarm in 1892. It thus has the distinction of being the first published version of the Kannaki story. 

Story collected by: Utkarsh Patel

Source: The Cilappatikaram, R. Parthasarathy

Location: Tamil Nadu

Image details: Statue of Kannaki at the Marina Beach, Chennai