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|Topics in Tamil literature|
|The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature|
|Tevaram||Nalayira Divya Prabandham|
|Tamil history from Sangam literature||Ancient Tamil music|
Manimekalai or Maṇimekalai (Tamil: மணிமேகலை), written by the Tamil Buddhist poet Seethalai Saathanar is one of the five Great Epics according to later Tamil literary tradition, the others being Silappatikaram, Civaka Cintamani, Valayapathi and Kundalakesi. Manimekalai is a poem in 30 cantos. Its story is a sequel to Silapathikaram or Sīlappadhikāram and tells the story of the conversion to Buddhism of the daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi.
As a continuation of Silappatikaram (Tamil: சிலப்பதிகாரம்), this epic describes how Manimekalai, the beautiful daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi, follower of Jainism, converts to Buddhism. According to the poem, Maṇimekalai studies the six systems of philosophy of Hinduism and other prevalent religions of the time and compares them to the teachings of the Buddha. She is most impressed with Buddhism. Later, upon hearing doctrinal expositions from the Buddhist teacher Bhikshu Aravaṇa Aḍigal, she becomes a dedicated Buddhist nun.
The epic gives much information on the history of Tamil Nadu, Buddhism and its place during that period, contemporary arts and culture, and the customs of the times. The exposition of the Buddhist doctrine in the poem deals elegantly with the Four Noble Truths (ārya-satyāni), Dependent Origination (pratītyasamutpāda), mind (citta) and Buddhist practices like virtue (Śīla) and non-violence (ahimsa).
The poem is set in both the harbour town of Kāveripattinam, the modern town of Puhar in Tamil Nadu, and in Nainatheevu of NākaNadu, a small sandy island of the Jaffna Peninsula in modern Sri Lanka. The story runs as follows: The dancer-courtesan Manimekalai is pursued by the amorous Cholan prince Udyakumāran, but rather wants to dedicate herself to a religious celibate life. The sea goddess Manimegala Theivam or Maṇimekhalai Devī puts her to sleep and takes to the island Maṇipallavam (Nainatheevu). After waking up and wandering about the island Maṇimekalai comes across the Dharma-seat, the seat on which Buddha had taught and appeased two warring Naga princes, and placed there by the God Indra. Those who worship it miraculously know their previous life. Manimekalai automatically worshiped it and recollects what has happened in her previous life. She then meets the guardian goddess of the Dharma seat, Deeva-Teelakai (Dvīpa Tilakā) who explains her the significance of the Dharma seat and lets her acquire the magic never-failing begging bowl (cornucopia) called Amṛta Surabhi (”cow of abundance”), which will always provide food to alleviate hunger. The goddess also predicts that Bhikshu Aravaṇa Aḍigal in her native town will teach her more. Manimekalai then used the mantra which the sea goddess had given her and returns to Kāveripattinam, where she meets the Bhikshu Aravaṇa Aḍigal, who expounds her the Buddha's Teaching and advices her about the nature of life. She then becomes a Buddhist nun or Bhikshuni and practices to rid herself from the bondage of birth and death and attain Nirvana.
The poem relates that the town Kāveripattinam or Puhār was swallowed up by the sea (i.e. destroyed by a tsunami or flood) due to the Cholan King not holding the annual Indra festival and thereby causing the wrath of the sea goddess Manimekalai. This account is supported by archeological finds of submerged ruins off the coast of modern Poompuhar. Ancient ruins of a 4th-5th century Buddhist monastery, a Buddha statue, and a Buddhapada (footprint of the Buddha) were also found in another section of the ancient city, now at Pallavanesvaram. The town of Kāveripattinam is believed to have disappeared in between the 3d and the 6th century CE.
The work contains no direct references to Mahayana as propagated by Nagarjuna, etc., and appears to be a work of an early early Buddhist, Sravakayana school such as the Sthavira or Sautrantika school. According to Aiyangar, the emphasis on "the path of the Pitakas of the Great One" (i.e. Tipitaka) and the exposition of Dependent Origination, etc., in Chapter 30, could suggest that it is work of the Sautrantika school. A.K. Warder instead suggests that the poem may be affiliated with Theravada school.
In the conclusion of the poem, Aravaṇa Aḍigal encourages full liberation from the three roots of evil—greed, hatred (rāga, dosa, moha). The final sentence of the poem states that Maṇimekhalai strove to rid herself of the bondage of birth. This emphasis on liberation from the defilements (kilesa), ending the cycle of birth, old age and death (samsara), and becoming an arahant, also suggests that the author of the poem was affiliated to an early Sravakayana Buddhist school. Aiyangar (p. 80) suggests that the Buddhist logic as expounded by Aravaṇa Aḍigal in Chapter 29 of the Maṇimekhalai antedates the logic of Dignāga and his school.
The aim of the author, Sīthalai Sāttanār (or Cīttalai Cāttanār) was to compare Buddhism favourably with the other prevailing religions in South India in order to propagate Buddhism. He criticizes Jainism, the chief opponent and competitor of Buddhism at the time. While exposing the weaknesses of the other contemporary Indian religions, he praises the Buddha's Teaching, the Dhamma, as the most perfect religion.
Although there is some controversy about the exact date of this work, it probably was composed in the 6th century CE.
The Manimekhalai is the only extant Tamil Buddhist literary work of what once was an extensive literature. The reason for its survival is probably its status as the sequel to the Silapathikaram or Sīlappadhikāram. Tamil Nadu produced many Buddhist teachers who made valuable contributions to Tamil, Pali and Sanskrit literature. Reference to their works is found in Tamil literature and other historical records. Lost Tamil Buddhist works are the poem Kuṇḍalakesī by Nāgaguttanār, the grammar Vīrasoliyam, the Abhidhamma work Siddhāntattokai, the panegyric Tiruppadigam, and the biography Bimbisāra Kadai.
The first translation of Manimekalai by R. B. K. Aiyangar, was published in Maṇimekhalai in its Historical Setting. Extracts of this were republished in Hisselle Dhammaratana's Buddhism in South India  A more recent translation of the poem was done by Alain Daniélou with the collaboration of T.V. Gopala Iyer  There is also a Japanese translation by Shuzo Matsunaga, published in 1991.
U. V. Swaminatha Iyer (1855-1942 CE) resurrected the first three epics of Tamil literature from appalling neglect and wanton destruction of centuries. He reprinted these literature present in the palm leaf form to paper books. Ramaswami Mudaliar, a Tamil scholar first gave him the palm leaves of Civaka Cintamani to study. Being the first time, Swaminatha Iyer had to face lot of difficulties in terms of interpriting, finding the missing leaves, textual errors and unfamiliar terms. He set for tiring journeys to remote villages in search of the missing manuscripts. After years of toil, he published Civaka Cintamani in book form in 1887 CE followed by Silapadikaram in 1892 CE and Manimekalai in 1898 CE. Along with the text, he added lot of commentary and explanatory notes of terms, textual variations and approaches explaining the context.
To some critics, Manimegalai is more interesting than Silappadikaram, but in terms of literary evaluation, it seems inferior. The story of Manimegalai with all its superficial elements seems to be of lesser interest to the author himself whose aim was pointed toward spreading Buddhism. In the former, ethics and religious are artistic, while in the latter reverse is the case. Manimegalai also criticizes Jainism while preaching the ideals of Buddhism and human interests is diluted in supernatural features. The narration in akaval meter moves on in Manimegalai without the relief of any lyric, which are the main features of Silappadikaram. Manimegalai in puritan terms is not an epic poem, but a grave disquisition on philosophy. There are effusions in the form of a song or a dance, which does not go well with western audience as they are assessed to be inspired on the spur of the moment. According to Calcutta review, the three epics on a whole have no plot and no characterization for a epic genre. The plot of Civaka Cintamani is monotonous and deficient in variety in strength and character and does not stand the quality of an epic.