Ilango Adigal was a Jain monk, a Chera prince, and a poet. He is credited as the author of Silappatikaram, one of the Five Great Epics of Tamil literature.
In a patikam (prologue) to the epic poem, he introduces himself as the brother of a famous Chera King Ceṅkuṭṭuvan (Senguttuvan). Elizabeth Rosen states that this Chera king ruled over his kingdom in the late 2nd or early 3rd century CE.
But this is doubtful because a Sangam poem in Patiṟṟuppattu – the fifth ten – provides a biography of Ceṅkuṭṭuvan, his family and rule, but never mentions that he had a brother who became an ascetic or wrote one of the most cherished epics.
This has led scholars to conclude that the legendary author Ilango Adikal myth was likely inserted later into the epic. In a 1968 note, Kamil Zvelebil suggested that “this [Adigal claim] may be a bit of poetic fantasy, practiced perhaps by a later member of the Chera Dynasty [5th or 6th century] recalling earlier events [2nd or 3rd century]”.
Iḷaṅkõ Aṭikaḷ (lit. “the venerable ascetic prince”), also spelled Ilango Adigal or Ivangovadigal is traditionally believed to be the author of Silappatikaram.
No direct verifiable information is available about him. He is supposed to have been a prince who became a Jain monk based on a patikam (prologue) composed and added into the epic many centuries later.
Ilango is considered the younger son of Chera king Nedum Cheralatan and Sonai/Nalchonai of the Chola dynasty. His elder brother is believed to be the reputed warrior-king Senguttuvan.
The young Ilango chose to abandon the royal life because a priest had told the royal court that the younger prince will succeed his father, and Ilango wanted to prove him wrong.
But these traditional beliefs are doubtful because the Sangam era text Patiṟṟuppattu provides a biography of king Nedum Cheralatan and king Senguttuvan, and in neither is Ilango Adigal ever mentioned.
The author was a Jaina scholar, as in several parts of the epic, the key characters of the epic meet a Jaina monk or nun. The last canto of the epic lines 155-178, mentions “I also went in”, whose “I” scholars have assumed to be the author Adigal. The epic also mentions, among other details, the “Gajabahu synchronism”.
These verses state Adikal visited the Animal sacrifice by king Senguttuvan in the presence of Gajabahu, someone believed to have been the king of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) between 171 and 193 CE. This has led to the proposal that Adikal lived in the same period. These lines also mention that he became a sannyasi in a monastery outside Vanci – the capital of the 2nd-century Chera kingdom (now parts of Kerala). This declaration has been interpreted as quitting and becoming a Jain monk.
According to Kamil Zvelebil, all this must have been a false statement added by Ilango Adikal to remain a part of the collective memory in the epic he wrote. Adikal was a Jain who lived a few centuries later, states Zvelebil, and his epic “cannot have been composed before the 5th- or 6th-century”.
Gananath Obeyesekere – a scholar of Buddhism, Sri Lankan religious history, and anthropology, consider the epic’s claims of Gajabahu and the relationship between Ilango Adigal and Senguttuvan to be ahistorical, and that these lines are likely “a late interpolation” into the Tamil epic.
The author was likely not a prince, nor had anything to do with the Chera dynasty, says R Parthasarathy, and these lines may have been added to the epic to give the text a high pedigree status, gain royal support, and to “institutionalize the worship of goddess Pattini and her temples” in the Tamil regions as is described in the epic.
According to another Tamil legend, an astrologer predicted that he would become the ruler of the land. To stop this, and let his elder brother be the king, the prince became a Jain monk taking the name of Ilango Adigal.
The Silappatikaram epic attributed to Ilango Adigal inspired another Tamil poetic epic called Manimekalai. This poetic epic acts as a sequel to Silappatikaram. It revolves around the daughter of Kovalan (the protagonist of Silappatikaram) and Madhavi (who had an affair with Kovalan in Silappatikaram), named Manimekalai. Although Manimekalai’s mother was Madhavi, she worshipped goddess Pattini (Kannaki, Kovalan’s wife).
>>> Read about Ottakoothar