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From 'Amazonian' Warrior to Submissive Wife

The story of Alli figures in the Tamil version of the Mahabharatha. She is described as a type of "Amazonian" beauty, a vehement hater of men, who ruled over the Pandyan kingdom. However, in the zigzag movement, the Alli legend takes on through space and time, the heroine Alli as well as the Alli myth get tamed and subsumed into the patriarchal register. The Alli story is analysed against the background of early Tamil society. The metamorphosis of Alli into the submissive wife of Arjuna is looked at in tandem with the process of brahmanisation and sanskritisation in the Tamil region.

From ‘Amazonian’ Warrior to Submissive Wife The Taming of Alli

The story of Alli figures in the Tamil version of the Mahabharatha. She is described as a type of “Amazonian” beauty, a vehement hater of men, who ruled over the Pandyan kingdom. However, in the zigzag movement, the Alli legend takes on through space and time, the heroine Alli as well as the Alli myth get tamed and subsumed into the patriarchal register. The Alli story is analysed against the background of early Tamil society. The metamorphosis of Alli into the submissive wife of Arjuna is looked at in tandem with the process of brahmanisation and sanskritisation in the Tamil region.


yths and legends are not frozen in time but constitute a potent force which interfaces with past and present cultural memories. This article looks at the changing perceptions of women in Tamil society and the imagining of Tamil women within the patriarchal register, focusing on the transformational qualities of myths. I shall seek to contextualise some leading Tamil myths, which are women-centred in terms of their historical and geographical specificity. A critical study of such a leading Tamil myth – the legend of Alli, demonstrates the gradual process by which an indigenous narrative is tamed to fit the patriarchal mould. The myth in the process of its transmissions and transmutations does not follow a linear course but tends to zigzag between the imagining of women within the indigenous Tamil tradition which predates brahmanical culture and their absorption into the brahmanic-patriarchal stereotyping of women. Alli, a popular ballad among Tamils for over thousand five hundred years, goes through a metamorphosis in the course of four related narratives: Alli Arasani Malai, Pavalakkodi and Eni Etram, while Purandaran Kalavu constitutes an epilogue to this trilogy.

Of all these ballads, multiple texts exist including stage and cinema versions dating back to the early 20th century. This article proposes to trace the zigzag movement of the Alli myth primarily through this quartet. This text attempts to use every available version – the oral (popularly sung) ballad, versions published at various points of time in history, authored by poets who have provided their own twist to the Alli tale and dramatised versions of Alli both on stage and on screen. The available multiple texts however, represent by and large, the voice of patriarchy. Although the nature and content of the Alli myths suggest a nonpatriarchal origin there are no extant versions which have not been diluted by “patriarchal taming”. Therefore the recovery of the non-patriarchal Alli has to be done by fragmenting the meganarrative of the “Mahabharata Alli” and examining the sub-text of these versions.

Tamil Women and a Mahabharata Myth

This study of Alli, a myth from the Mahabharata, is an attempt to contextualise the process of transmission and transmutation of a great epic mythology which may have had its birth in the non-sanskritic early Tamil society. The myth of Alli and her marriage to Arjuna, a leading protagonist of the Mahabharata hence constitutes a significant regional variant of a grand narrative. Wendy O’Flaherty’s statement could well be the starting point of such a study. I quote:

The Mahabharata grows out of the oral traditions; it flickers back and forth between Sanskrit manuscripts and village storytellers, each adding new lists to the old story, constantly reinterpreting it.”1

The Mahabharata epic is located primarily in northern India, with the main action centres – Indraprastha, Hastinapura and Kurukshetra – situated geographically in the modern regions of Delhi and Haryana. Yet this great epic crossed the Vindhyas fairly early and reached the Tamil country during the early Christian era corresponding to the Sangam period of the Tamils (roughly 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD). The Sangam poet, Perunthevanar, who wrote the text called Bharatam, refers to the great battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. According to the Chinnamanur copper plate inscription belonging to the 10th century AD, the Pandya king Rajasimha II issued official orders for the translation of the Mahabharata into Tamil.

Draupadi emerged as a major folk deity in the Tamil country with the temples to the Draupadi Amman being located in Chingleput, South Arcot, North Arcot and Salem districts.2 In many of these temples, her worship is very similar to that of Mariamman, and fire-walking is an important ritual of the Draupadi cult. Similarly, Gandhari Amman is worshipped by the pallar and pariayar communities, classified as depressed classes in the Tirunelveli district [K Lakshminarayanan in K S Singh 1993:238]. The Tamils not only brought centre stage the avenging woman Draupadi, but also interspersed the story of Alli, the Amazonian queen into the Mahabharata resulting in the transmutation of what appears to be a local myth. It is significant that Alli Rani (Queen Alli) herself does not move into the greater Mahabharata tradition but instead it is the great epic which moves southwards sucking into it many indigenous myths like the story of Alli. Thus the presence of Alli in the Mahabharata narrative is confined to south India and she finds no place in the sanskritic north Indian versions of the epic.

The Alli myth in its various shifts and movements clearly points to a coming together of two traditions.Alli Arasani Malai combines indigenous Tamil traditions, which can be broadly categorised as Dravidian, and the sanskritic, brahminical tradition, which makes its presence in south India towards the latter part of the Sangam age (‘Kadai Sangam’). This cultural encounter was a long drawn process, and its beginnings can be seen in the Silappadikaram which talks of the ‘Veriyattam’, an indigenous tradition of spirit possession side by side with the sacred fires of the brahmins and the philosophical practices of the buddhists and jains. The sanskritic penetration gained further ground in the Tamil country with the brahmadeya land grants (land given to brahmins) under the pallavas. The riverine tracts called the ‘Marudam’ region was the first to develop a certain degree of economic stratification based on land ownership. Economic stratification was closely followed by social stratification. Caste hierarchies were not indigenous to early Tamil societies which consisted of ‘kudi’, a generic term meaning inhabitants. These kudi were economically stratified in terms of occupational differences but there were no caste hierarchies as such.3 The Sangam poet Avvaiyar, who was a low born ‘virali’ (minstrel), of the panar caste talks of her dining with the king at his table. Such instances of social egalitarianism in ancient Tamil society can be multiplied. The status of women in this period was in keeping with a social fabric where gender and caste inequalities were yet to surface in a sharp manner, the inroad of brahmanical culture occurs towards the late-Sangam (second-third century AD onwards) phase. Early Tamil women seem to have been both visible and audible and the celebrated poetic anthologies of the Sangam age contain sizeable contributions by women.

Situating Alli in Tamil Society

The character of Alli is reminiscent of the “mudimangalir” or the valorous women who are featured time and again in the Sangam anthologies likePattupattu, Purananuru, andAhananuru. The Mullaipattu describes women carrying shining spears.4 T N Subramaniam, the historian of the Sangam age, points out that women bodyguards of the king called his ‘urimai surtram’ are referred to as being “beautiful, courageous and alert”, all the adjectives which were used to describe Alli Rani.5

Alli was probably a local cult figure and the product of a society, which was non-patriarchal. H W Tambiah in his presentation on “Pre-Aryan Customary laws”6 refers to many early Tamil practices such as romantic unions, marriages following upon elopement, etc. He authenticates his statement on pre-brahmanical customs by quoting the Tolkappiyam, which opines “After untruth and rapacity appeared, the brahmanical cusom of karanam (formal marriage) came to be observed”.7 P V Kane in his History of Dharmashastras suggests that matriliny and the use of metronomes was not confined to Malabar in ancient times but prevailed in some other parts of south India as well.8 I would like to quote here the statement of the eminent Tamil scholar Thani Nayagam9 on the megalithic culture of Tamil Nadu;

The only fact which is clear is that most, if not all of the Tamil speaking groups were originally matrilineal and even, in some cases, matrilocal [Thani Nayagam 1970:6]

The fusion of indigenous Tamil elements with the newly emerging brahmanical forces in the south is demonstrated in the Alli myth in terms of the locale and its characters. For instance, the gypsy called “kuratti” in Tamil who is an indispensable feature of the ‘Kurunji Tinai’ or the hilly tract according to the eco-type created by the ancient text Tolkappiyam, is present in the Alli stories.10 In Alli Arasani Malai Krishna appears as a gypsy singing of the fertility of the Tamil country and recommends a charm to Arjuna to win the heart of the reluctant Alli.

The transformation of this quasi-tribal society into a caste or jati based society was largely the influence of brahmins leading to sanskritisation. Patriarchy, which lies at the root of man’s power and woman’s subordination, was a logical concomitant of brahminisation and sanskritisation. Brahminical notions of purity and pollution created untouchability and the distancing of those castes that performed menial services. At the same time, the notion of pollution also marginalised women both ritually and socially. The act of giving birth as well as her monthly cycles rendered a woman impure. Ascriptive and prescriptive roles were assigned to women by male canonical writers enabling man’s control over women, in both sexual and social terms. The myth of Alli and its fusion into the Mahabharata epic has to be viewed in terms of this transformational phase of Tamil society viewed through the prism of cultural memories spread over time and space.

The legend of Alli has as its locale the Pandyamandalam region with Madurai as the focal point. The location of this myth in Madurai becomes extremely significant since the historical course of Madurai foregrounds the kind of power politics which has generated the Alli myth. The association of women with political power in the Pandyan kingdom (in striking contrast to other regions where male control over the state is unquestioned) can be seen in other origin legends which seem to bear no direct connection with Alli. Interestingly, the well known historian Neelakanta Shastri states in his History of South India that according to oral tradition the Pandyan kingdom was founded by a woman. The Buddhist text Mahavamsa refers to a Pandyan queen who became the wife of Vijaya of Sri Lanka. Neelakanta Shastri in his book The Pandyan Kingdom suggests a possible connection with the story of Alli’s marriage to Arjuna who is also known by the name of ‘Vijaya’.11

Even more seminal to the contextualisation of Alli in terms of gender and political power is the religious mythology which revolves around Meenakshi, the divine ruler of Madurai and her marriage to Siva called Sundaresvarar. Madurai is among the oldest cities to figure in the hagiographies and literary texts of Tamil Nadu. It constitutes the dramatic setting of Ilango Adigal’s Silappadikaram (a late-Sangam text, dated any where between the 3rd and 5th century AD) in which Kannagi avenges the royal miscarriage of justice leading to her husband’s execution. The city of Madurai is described at length as the commercial and cultural heart of the country. Madurai gets referred to extensively in Kautilya’s Arthashastra and in the Greek sources such as The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea and Ptolemy’s Geography. Given the glory and prosperity attached to the hoary kingdom of Madurai, the importance of gaining control over Madurai becomes selfevident. Madurai’s historic past foregrounds the Meenakshi legend.

Kulasekhara Pandya was responsible for constructing the city of Madurai on the sacred site of a Siva linga making possible the matrimonial alliance cementing the sacred power symbolised in Siva and the secular power of the imperial Pandyas. Malayathuvasa Pandya who came in the lineage of Kulasekhara, was childless. He tried to remedy the situation by the performance of “parivelvi”, i e, horse sacrifices. The king’s efforts failed to give him an heir but bestowed on him powers, which challenged the supremacy of Indra, the king of the gods. Seeing his own position being challenged, Indra assured the king of a progeny if he performed the sacrifice known as “putrakameshti yaga”. The result of this sacrifice was a three-year-old daughter with the freakish feature of three breasts. The peculiar appearance of this girl born to rule over a kingdom greatly depressed Malayathuvasa Pandya who prayed to Siva. The Tiruvilayadal Puranam which is the Sthala Purana (an account of the sacred geography) of Madurai records the response of Siva in the following canto:

O King! Treat your daughter as though she were a son: Perform for her all the rites as specified in the Vedas. Give her the name “Tadatakal” and crown her . And when this woman, whose form is golden, meets her Lord, One of her breasts will disappear.12

The Sthala Purana reflects the uneasy tension that existed between the brahmanical and the non-brahmanical Tamil traditions. While the choice of the ruling sex seems to harp back to the indigenous traditions of the Pandiamandalam, the putrakameshti yaga which enabled her birth is entirely brahmanical. Patriarchal values once again get reflected in the peculiar myth about the third breast of Meenakshi which rendered her unfeminine but thereby more suitable for governance. In the canto called “tirumana patalam” or “the marriage episode”, Meenakshi encounters Somasundaresvarar and gets married to him.13 This alliance between Siva and Shakti represented in the form of Meenakshi made the Pandyan kingdom politically invincible since cosmic power combined with secular power, ensuring the cementing of the sacred and the secular which has been the cornerstone of every instance of state formation in south India. The alliance however was slanted heavily in favour of Meenakshi and this is borne out by a popular saying in Tamil Nadu which is used to describe the nature of gender dominance within a marriage. Relatives and wedding guests mischievously ask whether Meenakshi will rule in the household or Nataraja (the sacred site of Chidambaram is dominated by the presence of the male god Nataraja, i e, Siva) who established his superiority over his female consort! It is in the light of the Sthala Purana about Madurai Meenakshi that the entire legend of Alli is to be viewed.

‘Alli Kadai’ (Story of Alli)

The story of Alli is an extremely popular one, in the Tamil region, and is either narrated, sung as a ballad or performed on stage14 . Several versions of the Alli Arasani Malai exist, ranging from the composition of Pughazhendi Pulavar and Villiputurar in the Villupattu15 to the ones in the present century. The 16th century poet also named Pughazhendi authored not only Alli Arasani Malai but also Pavazhakkodi Malai, Pulandaran Kalava Malai and Eni Etram, all of which are ballads related to the myth of Alli Arasani. An important version of the Alli myth, important in terms of its literary merit, was written as ‘Alli Kadai’ (the ballad of Alli) in the 18th century by Kappinipadi Pillai of Vellalur. While Alli of Pughazhendi Pulavar is an uncompromising man-hater till her transformation, the Alli of Kappinipadi Pillai is a softer version who runs to the aid of Arjuna when he swoons upon seeing her in the forests of Madurai.16 Chennai B Ratna Nayakar and Sons, brought out a dramatic version of Alli called Alli Natakam which began to be staged in the early part of the twentieth century but went into print later (Tirumagal Press, Madras 1967).

Alli was the only child of a Pandyan king who is not located in chronological time or identified by name. It is said that Alli’s was an immaculate conception since she was found on an “alli” flower at the conclusion of the performance of the putrakameshti yaga and was not conceived naturally.17 The recurrence of the notion of immaculate conception in the myths of both Alli and Perarasiyar18 (the myth of Perarasiyar or Purushan Devi constitutes a similar ballad from the Trivandrum region) could be a significant pointer to describe characters who either deviated from or transcended role models. In a situation where both women rejected notions of female dependency on the male along with concomitant ideas of marriage and female sexuality, immaculate conception would tie in with their social non-conformism.

The girl child Alli was sent to the ‘gurukul’ like any young man and became proficient in riding and the martial arts. The parallel with goddess Meenakshi is striking who is also said to have been proficient in both the martial arts and in hunting. In fact even today the dainty goddess at Madurai wears an apparel (resembling men’s trousers) which society would term “manly” but one that would befit the ruler of a powerful state.

Alli began her political career by defeating Neenmugan, the usurper to the Pandyan throne, in battle, and was crowned the ruler of the Pandyan kingdom. Neenmugan himself is credited with a curious birth and is said to be the son born to a water fowl (who had been a prostitute in a previous birth) transformed into a pregnant woman by the blessings of Siva and Parvati. He was planted in the household of the childless Pandyan king who adopted him. The king suffered from a curse that he would have no sons. After a period of penance in the forest the royal couple found the baby (later Alli) lying on a water lily (called Alli flower in Tamil). They named their daughter as Alli.

When the couple tried to return to Madurai they found that Neenmugan had usurped the throne acting on his mother’s advice and they were exiled. When the Pandyan king sought refuge with his father-in-law who ruled over a tiny principality, the vengeful Neenmugan declared war on the state, demanding tribute. The text of ‘Alli Kadai’ (verse:45, canto I) says that Alli defied the tyrant and successfully led the army against him. Madurai itself acquired fame and glory because the valorous Alli destroyed the tyrant Neenmugan. Alli was subsequently crowned ruler of Madurai. The female heir Alli is clearly being preferred to the male heir Neenmugan who is imaged as villainous and greedy for power.

The story of Alli thus commences with her vanquishing in battle an incompetent male heir to the throne and wresting power from him. The subsequent course of the legend is also within the paradigm of gender contestations over acquisition of power and the conquest of power, although the ballad eventually takes a very different trajectory.

The whole land is described as having been in terror of the Pandyan queen Alli. The Pavazhakkodi Malai says:

If you take the name of Alli

Even the bird will not sip water

If you take the name of Alli

The goblins (‘Ganas’) will dance (in fear).

If you take the name of Alli

The decapitated head will chatter!

(Pavalakkodi Malai of Pugazhendi Pulavar: 1975: p.4)

In the dramatised version of Alli – Alli Natakam – she is shown as a militant hero with a long sword dangling by her side (Opening scene: ‘The stage entrance of Alli’). An interesting aspect of the stage right up to the third decade of the 20th century was that all female roles were performed by men since women were not allowed to act (similar to pre-Restoration theatre in England). Male actors who habitually performed female roles had the prefix ‘streepart’ (literally women’s role) attached to their name. More often they were known by the female role they excelled in such as “Valli” (the gypsy who became the divine consort of Lord Murugan) Vaithiyanatha Iyer’, “Nallatangal”19 T S Kannusami and “Alli” Paramesvara Iyer and “Alli” Ananthanarayana Iyer. In the context of the imagining of Alli this fact takes on significance because it is so much easier for a man to portray masculine qualities such as those attributed to Alli, the “female king”.20 The patriarchal twist to the imagining of Alli Rani (“rani” literally means queen) lies in the fact that the more ferocious her depiction, the more powerful is the message derived from her taming.

When Alli was ruling in Madurai, the much-married Pandava prince Arjuna, set out with Krishna, his friend, cousin and spiritual guide on a long pilgrimage. Starting from Mathura and Kashi, the two pilgrims reached Madurai wearing the garb of ascetics. Here an innkeeper, according to one version, and a merchant according to another version, acquainted them with the valour and beauty of Alli. The man describes Alli’s victory over Neenmugan and her authoritarian rule in Madurai under which any slight lapse would cause heads to roll (Alli Natakam, p 12). Arjuna’s sarcastic response at this point suggests the imagining of Alli as a “castrated male”, a term used by feminist psychoanalysts like Julia Kristeva to describe social attitudes towards a non-conforming woman. He tells the narrator that Alli was actually a man in female attire devoid of all femininity. At this, the narrator treats him to a detailed description of Alli’s stunning beauty and her many charms. He further arouses the spirit of challenge in Arjuna by saying that Alli is a man hater:

If a man dares propose marriage

She will cut him with her sword

(Alli Natakam, p 14)

Arjuna is told that since she cannot tolerate the presence of any man, all her governmental functionaries, both high and low ranging from military commanders and ministers to carpenters and other petty craftsmen were women (‘Alli Arasani Kathai’ published in 1987, p 31). Even today among Tamilians, an allfemale household is sarcastically referred to as “Alli Rajyam”, literally the administration run by Alli. In some versions, however, it is stated that Alli as a practical ruler did meet with foreign ambassadors or men in her kingdom in an official capacity, but disliked any man coming in front of her without her permission. Such an offence was punishable by death.

In response, to the man’s extolling of Alli’s beauty, Arjuna expresses his ardent desire to possess her:

When will I behold her

Embrace, and kiss her

The famed Parthiban languishes

When will we indulge in love play

How will I take her to bed

When will we become one?

(Alli Natakam, p 14)

Throughout this dialogue Arjuna’s language is one of conquest and subjugation, not the language of love or caring.

The rest of the Alli ballad deals with the taming and domestication of Alli into a virtuous and obedient wife to Arjuna. Arjuna enters the Pandyan kingdom in the guise of an ascetic, presumably to hide his well known penchant for beautiful women. Even today a popular saying in the Tamil country is “Arjuna sanyasi” meaning a sanctimonious humbug! Arjuna tries to seduce Alli in various ways. He must however be seen to preserve patriarchal norms and marriage was and is considered a most important social norm. Thus, the poets who retold and reworked the Alli myth, emphasised the fact that Arjuna’s seduction of Alli was followed by marriage.

Arjuna cheats the man hating Alli by penetrating her bedroom in the form of a beautiful snake given to her by Krishna in disguise.21 Alli in her innocence plays with the snake which eventually hypnotises her. The imagining of Arjuna as the seductive and aggressive male snake indicates the use of very powerful sexual metaphor. In the version written by Pugazhendi Pulavar it is said that Arjuna indulged in love play as Siva did with Parvati, as Murugan did withValli.

He rolled on her in the bed spread with saffron

Like a mustard seed on polished mirror

Like a bee fastening itself to a jasmine flower…

(Alli Arasani Malai, p 106)

A graphic description in the ‘Alli Kadai’ says that the love play of Arjuna drained Alli of all her resistance making her feel drugged with passion.22 Thus, Arjuna seduces Alli without her knowledge or consent. The process of taming Alli by a patriarchal hero is thus set into motion with the sexual conquest of Alli resulting in the loss of virginity which was believed to be the source of her power.

Alli is raped by Arjuna without her awareness. She wakes up in the morning to find her clothes in disarray and the hateful “taali” (the symbol of a woman’s eternal bondage to a man) hanging around her neck. She tells her minister (also a woman):

Why is my waistcloth in total disarray?

How can it be so, how can it?

Why does my body bear scratches, why does it?

Why is my hair all undone?

Why is my vermilion mark all smudged? Why?

Why are my flowers so crushed? Why?

(Alli Natakam, p 71)

Alli realises that Arjuna’s rape has also conferred the burden of motherhood upon her. The consequent submission of Alli takes different forms in the different versions. In the stage version the play ends when Alli gracefully bows to her husband and the other Pandava brothers who have by now reached Madurai and the gods shower their blessings on their union. However the submission is not so tame in the Alli Arasani Malai in which Alli is said to have fought a war with the Pandavas before capitulating.

A series of events act as forerunners to the seduction of Alli by Arjuna. In a farcical scene, Arjuna becomes a transvestite taking on the name of Chengamalam and Alli is fooled into believing she has a female companion. Once Alli goes hunting to the forest with her friends when Arjuna ensures that she is caught alone with him. Expressing his sympathy with deep cunning, Arjuna massages Ali’s tired body. His disguise is so effective that the queen despite the curious emotions which are aroused by his touch does not discover his real sex. This is of course not the first instance of transvestism for Arjuna. In the ‘virata parva’ of Mahabharata when all the Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi adopt disguises, Arjuna chooses to adopt that of a female eunuch, Brahannala, who becomes the dance instructor in the harem. In the Alli ballad, Arjuna while pressing Alli’s feet, gently takes away her ring without her knowledge. A popular Tamil saying is that “One can even count the stars in the sky but not the wives of Arjuna”. In the Alli Natakam, Arjuna in the guise of Chengamalam boasts of his charms and says:

He is the only fitting husband

For women born and to be born!

(Alli Natakam, p 23)

It is only when he begins to narrate the story of the Pandava princes and the many virtues of Arjuna that Alli suddenly discovers that she had spent long and intimate hours in the company of a man. Arjuna manages to escape from a furious and humiliated Alli at this juncture.

The different versions of the Alli story deal more or less similarly with the theme of outraged modesty and royal fury which characterises Alli’s reaction to Arjuna’s amorous advances. It is said that Arjuna wore the garb of a rejected lover and resorted to the practice of “madal erudal” to proclaim his love in public (Alli Arasani Malai, pp 78-79). This was an ancient Tamil practice referred to in Sangam literature (circa 300 BC to 300 AD) where the lover rides a donkey and laments aloud his beloved’s cruelty. Often the madal ended in tragedy as the spurned suitor would commit suicide.23 Alli is shown to be vicious in her wrath. She orders Arjuna to be poisoned by snakes, dragged through burning sands and crushed by an elephant. When he survives all these ordeals she decides to offer him as a human sacrifice to her patron goddess. Alli Natakam has a graphic description of Arjuna being led to the sacrificial block and the goddess refusing the sacrifice in indignation saying that how could Alli who hated men, expect that her patron deity would accept a male offering! (pp 42-46); Pugazhendi Pulavar however does not refer to the human sacrifice incident.

Transformation to a ‘Chaste’ Wife

Irrespective of the trajectories they may take, the Alli ballads have as their common thrust, the gradual taming of Alli to fit the patriarchal role model of a woman. The transformation of Alli from a valorous ruler to a tame housewife constitutes the climax of all the various extant versions of the Alli myth. Pugazhendi Pulavar, the 16th century author of Alli Arasani Malai holds up the submission of Alli to Arjuna as a moral lesson which all right thinking women should draw – that a woman’s ultimate destiny is fulfilled only as a wife and a mother. With the changeover from being a “castrated male” to a “chaste wife” Alli’s transformation is complete. The extent to which patriarchy and brahminisation has seeped into Tamil society is demonstrated by the fact that “Alli” is a term used in common parlance for a eunuch! The fact that cultural memories which live on in the collective consciousness of the community continue to shape social attitudes can still be perceived in conservative Tamil homes. “Alli” is used as a term in middle class homes for young girls behaving like tom boys. On a personal note, I remember being told in my childhood “not to act like Alli”. The moral is obvious. A bold and courageous girl, however beautiful, cannot be regarded as feminine or even as female.

The story of Alli after her marriage to Arjuna is continued in three related ballads – Pavazhakkodi Malai, Eni Etram and Pulandaran Kalavu Malai.

Pavazhakkodi was another female ruler, who became the victim of Arjuna’s desire. The ballad begins with Alli’s son Pulandaran crying for a toy chariot made of coral. Neither queen Alli nor her son Pulandaran have been visited by Arjuna since the birth of the boy five years ago. Alli is father and mother to him and she is agitated by the boy’s lament that he would die if he was not given a coral chariot. There was no coral to be found in Madurai which is a land of pearls.24 The ballad says that the queen was helpless in the matter of fulfilling his wish.

The all women team of ministers advise Alli that coral could be obtained only from the dense coral forests located at a distance of 800 yojanas (one yojana would be roughly nine miles and therefore the distance was approximately 15,840 kilometres) from Madurai. They tell Alli that she must humble her pride and request her husband Arjuna since he was the only person capable of achieving this task. A furious Alli tells them:

A loveless betrayer, a ‘parama chandalan’,

A ‘brashta’ who cheats women

Betraying truth, dealing in lies,

On seeing that chandala, I shall behead him25

(Pavalakkodi Natakam, p 15)

Love for her son makes Alli suppress her resentment and she writes a false letter to Yudhishtira at Indraprastha seeking Arjuna’s presence in Madurai because Pulandaran was on his death bed. Arjuna is enjoying the company of Subhadra, Krishna’s sister and one of his many wives, when the news reaches him.

Arjuna enters Madurai with trepidation, fearful of Alli’s righteous fury. The shamefaced Arjuna is abused by Alli and threatened with dire consequences if he does not get Pulandaran a coral cart within eight days.

Pavalakkodi, like Alli is not conceived naturally but found on a coral creeper by the childless royal couple of Cheramboor country. Pugazhendi Pulavar says that she was dressed and brought up as a boy and most people did not know that their future ruler was a woman. Spurning marriage, Pavalakkodi had been governing her kingdom for 16 years.

Arjuna set out in search of coral and came upon the princess Pavazhakkodi, literally the coral creeper, in the Cheramboor country. As usual Krishna joins him to aid and abet him in sexual conquests. Arjuna who had seduced Alli as a snake now entered the bedroom of Pavalakkodi as a swan and makes a conquest of her. Pavalakkodi is humiliated and angry at the loss of her virginity. She taunts him by asking him “whom else he has seduced in like manner”. Arjuna’s brazen response is to list the names of those women whom he had initially raped and then married:

Hear then, my beauty, if you think

yourself the only one so seduced

Many are the women I have violated

Draupadi born from fire

Minnoli born from the clouds

Naga princess Ulupi conceived by a snake

Subhadra sister of Krishna and

the able ruler Alli

All I have raped and more!26

(Pavazhakkodi Malai, p 51)

When Arjuna fails to return to Madurai even after 16 days Alli declares war in order to hunt out Arjuna and kill him. She tells the court, “Let the world know that Alli Nayaki hated her husband and let other women draw inspiration from me and gain fame” (Pavazhakkodi Natakam, p 32). Arjuna feigns death in order to escape the wrath of Alli and the play ends when Alli gives away all her “parisam” lands to Krishna (who is in the guise of a physician) for bringing back Arjuna to life. Her son Pulandaran who pleads for his father largely influences the taming of Alli in this second play.

Another wife of Arjuna called Minnoliyal (who is again credited with an unnatural birth having emerged from the clouds) refused to live with Arjuna because of her dislike him. However, Draupadi invited all the wives of Arjuna for a feast at which Alli and Draupadi persuaded Minnoliyal to break her vow and fulfil her conjugal obligations towards Arjuna. It is clear that Alli had not only submitted to patriarchal norms but had become co-opted to the extent of enforcing these norms on other women.

The Alli myth is again central to the ballad of Eni Etram which also dovetails into the Mahabharata epic. In this story Duryodhana, the Kaurava prince and the arch enemy of the Pandavas, falls in love with the princess Subhadra. Subhadra is Krishna’s sister and one of the chief wives of Arjuna. Subhadra is staying in Madurai with Alli and Krishna appeals to Alli Rani to save his sister from the evil prince. Duryodhana ignoring all sane advice including that of his queen Perundiruval, comes to Madurai with many presents and expresses his passion for Subhadra. Alli is furious that Duryodhana should dare to covet a woman who is also Arjuna’s prized possession. When Duryodhana comes to Madurai, Alli and her woman advisors fool him into believing that they would abet him in winning Subhadra. The prince is asked to come back in three days and consummate his love for Subhadra.

Eni Etram is the story of how Alli avenges the humiliations heaped on the Pandavas by Duryodhana and his audacious and immoral advances towards Subhadra, wife of Arjuna. She summons the best craft persons in her kingdom.27 They are asked to fashion a ladder consisting of ten steps. The lifelike images of the various queens of Arjuna, including Alli, Pavalakkodi and Draupadi, were to be set up on each step with the image of Subhadra being placed right on top. Nails are ingeniously hid in the ladder in order to nail Duryodhana on it. Alli proclaims that her elaborate trap is intended to avenge the humiliations suffered by the Pandavas and Duryodhana’s audacity in disrobing Draupadi and coveting Subhadra:

That false arrogance of Duryodhana

I shall humble

The chandala who wishes evil (for Pandavas)

The dog who plots seduction

Dare he come before me?

With wicked designs mama (uncle Shakuni)

Made the eldest lose all in dice game

He caused disrobing of Draupadi, exiled Pandavas

He comes here driven by his own nemesis

My blood boils.

I shall nail him to the ladder (‘Eni Etram’)

I shall cut him into two.

(Eni Etra Natakam, p 35)

Alli’s meticulous plan is successfully carried out. The lovestruck Duryodhana is nailed on the ladder and is mocked at and humiliated by Alli. She parades him through the streets of Madurai. He is finally spared his life at the intervention of Krishna. As with the other Alli ballads, this one also ends when the Pandava princes come to Madurai and Alli, the Pandyan queen is united with the Mahabharata hero. This ballad shows the degree of Alli’s complicity in aiding and abetting Arjuna in his romantic exploits and in preserving his self-image as a virile lover. Alli is willing to go to any extent either to procure a new wife for Arjuna or to protect his exclusive right over his existing wives.


The political and gender implications of the Alli legend becomes even more significant when one looks at the story of Chitrangada which has amazing parallels with the Alli legend. At some point the Chitrangada story enters the mainstream of the Mahabharata epic which carries a “patriarchally acceptable” version of the legend. The legend seems to be located in Manalur, probably the north-east, in the tribal belt of Manipur or Tripura (even today inhabited by naga and kuki tribes), which, like the ancient Tamils, again has a societal structure which may have been partially matriarchal or matrilocal. Chitrangada like Alli seems to have governed over a kingdom called Manalur which had an all-female administration. The queen is described as a ‘veerangana’, a great warrior.

It is said that Arjuna inadvertently entered the bedroom when his elder brother was enjoying the company of Draupadi, their common wife (the practice of polyandry continues to be a living custom among the Himachali tribals of Kinnaur). Arjuna is sent off into exile as a punishment for his untimely intrusion. It is at this time that he encounters and marries the Naga ‘kanya’ (serpent princess) Ulupi and then enters the kingdom of Manalur where he is challenged to a battle by the queen Chitrangada. Arjuna faces Chitrangada in battle not knowing that he is fighting with a woman and is defeated by her.

However the legend goes on to say that the queen fell in love with Arjuna. Arjuna is totally repulsed by the ‘kuroopa’ (ugly) figure and face of the valiant warrior. In order to win his love, Chitrangada prays to both Siva and Kamadeva (the God of Love) seeking their blessings to making her beautiful and attractive so that Arjuna will be drawn to her. Through prayers the kuroopa Chitrangada becomes ‘suroopa’ (‘the beautiful’) Chitrangada. Arjuna falls in love with the now beautiful Chitrangada but fails to come to terms with her “masculine” qualities of daring and courage. As with Alli, Chitrangada too is projected as an androgynous female who carries within her seeds of highly objectionable qualities such as lack of timidity (a very “feminine” attribute) and enormous ability for governance. The love story of Chitrangada culminates in marriage to Arjuna. He gives her a male child whom they name Babruvahana and then abandons her. The legend itself ends when Arjuna returns to the same land after many years only to be challenged in battle and killed by his own son. Chitrangada with the help of another wife of Arjuna’s, Ulupi, brings back her husband to life. When the legend of Chitrangada enters mainstream Mahabharata, she is firmly entrenched in the patriarchal mode by having her serve Kunti and Panchali and live amicably ever after with the many wives of Arjuna.28 This is exactly what happens to Alli Rani after she goes through the process of patriarchal taming. Interestingly, a south Indian scholar has expressed the view that Alli and Chitrangada are one and the same.29

A politically significant aspect of Arjuna’s conquest, subjugation and subsequent co-option of the reluctant women in the various ballads woven around him, is that these women were either heirs to the throne or rulers of some kingdom or the other. Hence every instance of Arujuna’s sexual triumph is also constituted a political victory and the assimilation of one more independent kingdom (governed by a woman) into the Pandava empire.

Pulandaran, the son of Alli is cast on the same lines as Babruvahana, the son of Chitrangada. Pulandaran Kalavu Malai is the sequel to the Alli trilogy and deals with the marriage of Pulandaran. The marriage was between related cousins in which Pulandaran, the son of Alli, marries Duryodhana’s sister’s daughter. The son of Alli and Arjuna is unacceptable to the Kauravas and the resultant tensions and their resolution forms the theme of this ballad. The story of Pulandaran already finds mention in the Eni Etram when Sahadeva reports to his brother Alli’s anger that Pulandaran’s wife Kalandhari (Duryodhana’s sister Durjata’s daughter) is seven months pregnant but forcibly kept prisoner by Duryodhana. Alli is not allowed to perform ‘seemantham’ for her daughter-in-law which is an essential ritual for child birth. On the contrary, Kalandhari is accused of immoral conduct and condemned to death. Unlike the other Alli ballads which are largely located in Madurai and nearabouts, in Pulandaran Kalavu Malai Alli invades Hastinapur and rescues Kalandhari from a gruesome death. The ballad makes it clear that despite patriarchal taming, the image of Alli as a fearsome warrior and powerful ruler does not change.

Recovery of Women’s Voices

To conclude, the recovery of women’s voices from myths and histories which are largely patriarchal in their scope and content can be attempted in two ways. One method is to bring the marginalised, what we today call “subaltern” figures, centre stage. This is basically a salvage operation since women in patriarchal texts and myths have been imagined in terms of stereotypes shaped by brahminical canons. Thus Indian feminists both men and women, have re-opened these texts to focus on Draupadi, Gandhari and Madhavi. Such studies highlight victim consciousness without however getting out of the essentially patriarchal framework of women as victim and man as victimiser or alternatively the patriarchal bi-polarities of woman either as goddess or demoness.

The second method is to look at a myth which is essentially outside the patriarchal framework. What I have attempted in this presentation is to take up the story of Alli, a cult figure of ancient Tamil society which was initially matrilocal and therefore at variance with the brahminical-patriarchal discourse. Alli was a product of the Tamil social structure in which woman moved freely between the private and the public domain. Tamil women played an equally important role with the men in the economic sphere specially in agriculture and dairy farming. Socially women moved freely among men and had the freedom to choose the man they wanted to marry. It was in this historical context that Alli evolved. Eventually as Tamil society came under brahminical-sanskritic influence, the historical transition gets reflected in the patriarchal taming of the Alli legend.

Despite the taming of Alli, the myth essentially falls outside the patriarchal story framework. Despite becoming wife to Arjuna and mother to Pulandaran, Alli does not shed her image of an extremely powerful militant ruler; the image of “Alli, the Female King” is a part of Tamil cultural memory. The transformational aspect of the myth from ‘Alli Rani’ to ‘Purandiran Kalavu Malai’ lies in the fact that the militancy of Alli whose unbridled power earlier lay in her virginity is metamorphosed towards the end into the fierce protective instinct of the tigress towards her cub. What is transformed therefore is not Alli’s essential nature of militancy but the manner in which her power is channelled.

This persisting image of Alli as a “castrated male” can be seen in terms of the audience impact of the Alli legend. In the 19th and 20th centuries Alli has been the favourite theme of many dramatic groups since the portrayal of the character of Alli was considered the greatest challenge to the theatre company as well as its “male” thespian. Cinema brought with it the female thespian enacting the role of Alli. With the coming of the cinema, as many cinematic versions of ‘Alli’ appeared as there were of chaste heroines like Kannagi. The 1917 cinematic version of ‘Pavalakkodi’ had a European actress enacting Alli’s role because no Indian woman would come forward to do the role of the masculine Alli!30 The 1934 Pavalakkodi managed to find S T Subbalakshmi willing to do the lead role because ‘Pavalakodi’ was more feminine than Alli. Subsequently, the Tamil film Alli Rani’ with S Varalakshmi in the lead role, the film Pavalakkodi with T R Rajakumari and the more diluted version Rani Chengamalam acted by Savitri Ganesan shows that Alli had a fascination for the Tamil audience. Yet this fascination for the daring and deviant female apparently did not extend to her acceptance in orthodox homes.

Neelambikai Ammaiyar, the celebrated daughter of Marai Malai Adigal and the founder of the Anti-British, anti-colonial and Anti-Congress movement – Tani Tamizh Iyakkam – writes in her essay “Muppenmanigal Varalaru” (the Life of Three Women’):

Women should not be permitted to read texts like,Alli Arasanikkovai, Pavalakkodi Malai, Eni Etram, etc, which may lead them into bad ways (emphasis mine). They do not only read such texts day and night but also read books (Brahmanical Sanskrit texts) like Kaivalya Navaneetam which are false doctrines.31

Neelambikai Ammaiyar’s statement indicates on the one hand the patriarchal responses to the Alli myth which was regarded as corrupting and subversive. At the same time her fears about the subversive influence of these texts on the women who read them “night and day” shows that the notion of women’s freedom and the urge to carve out one’s own spaces independent of the ubiquitous patriarchal male, did exercise the imagination of girls/ women who showed a penchant for the Alli ballads.

This article has highlighted the transformational process in the context of the historical mutations of the Alli myth. The endeavour has been to use alternative sources like folk ballads which truly reflect cultural memories, to suggest a dialogic representation of women in historical Tamil society. Patriarchical taming of a non-patriarchal folk tradition results in tensions which cause mutations in the Alli ballad through time and possibly through space. The article concludes on the note that despite the taming of Alli and the patriarchal appropriation of the Alli myth, it has continued to excite the popular imagination of women as an alternate role model.




[All translations of verses from the Alli story in this paper are by the author. This is a revised and expanded version of my article “Taming of Alli” published in the Atlantis: A Women’s Studies Journal, Volume 27.1, Fall 2002.]

1 Cited in T S Rukmani, ‘Folk Traditions Related to the Mahabharata in South India’ in K S Singh (ed), The Mahabharat in the Tribal and Folk Traditions of India, The Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, l993, p l95.

2 The most detailed study on the Draupadi cult is by Alf Hiltebeital, The Cult of Draupadi: Mythologies from Gingee to Kurukshetra, Chicago University Press, Chicago, l988.

3 The changing status of women in Tamil society with the growth of brahmanisation and a transforming economic order is discussed in my article: ‘The Kudi in Early Tamilaham and the Tamil Women from Tribe to Caste’ in Dev Nathan (ed), From Tribe to Caste, The Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, pp 223 to 245, l997.

4 A brief reference to Mudinmagalir is to be found in my article, ‘Aspects of Women and Work in Early South India’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol XXVI, No I, January-March, l989, p 97.

5 T N Subramaniam, Sangam Polity, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1966, p 289. 6 Proceedings of the First International Conference of Tamil Studies,

Kualalampur Malesia, l966, pp 352-46l. 7 Cited in H W Thambiah, ‘Pre-Aryan Customary Laws’, op cit, p 356. 8 Second edition, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poone, l973,

Vol III, pp 647, 657-659. 9 X S Thani Nayagam, Tamil Culture and Civilisation, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, l970, p 6. 10 Kurrala Kuravanji is itself a very important musical genre of story telling found in the Tamil country. 11 K A Neelakanta Shastri, The Pandyan Kingdom,, p l4 and fn 4. Shastri cites Geiger’s translation of the Mahavamsa, pp. 59 and 6l.

12 Tiruvilaiyadal Puranam: l.4.25 cited in William P Harman, ‘How the City Became Sacred: Madurai in the Story of Siva’s Sacred Games’, Journal of Tamil Studies, June 31, l987, International Institute of Tamil Studies, pp l-l7.

13 According to the legend once Meenakshi accepts the conventional institution of marriage, her third breast drops away of its own accord!

14 The story of Alli is not the only myth which is about an Amazonian queen. An equally interesting parallel myth, probably a variant on the Alli myth is the folk ballad from the Kanyakumari district which narrates the exploits of a queen called Perarasiyar and her daughter Purushan Devi literally, ‘The Male Woman Goddess’.

15 Villupattu is an extremely interesting form of folk narrative. A performing artist with a supporting cast, uses a huge ‘villu’ referring to the archaic bow which be plucks with a small instrument to produce a rhythmic sound. He narrates in a sing-song fashion before his rural audience, familiar ballads which form a part of collective folk memory enabling wholehearted audience participation. The story of Alli continues to be very popular with the Tamils.

16 E Sundaramoorthy (ed), Alli Kadai, Madras University, Chennai, l989. The verse (on p 25) goes: “Seeing Alli that most handsome of men, Vijayan of the famed bow fell prostrate like a coconut tree cut at its roots... Mayan (Krishna) gathered him into his arms while Alli ran up in haste and said ‘blow the breath of dry ginger upon his face’.”

17 In the legend of Alli her birth is through immaculate conception while in the myth of Perarasiyar and Purushan Devi, she is conceived through the pollen carried by southerly winds from Sri Lanka. Although the concept of “immaculate conception” is being used here loosely to describe divine birth, the more strict usage would be in the case of Perarasiyar and Purushan Devi since Christian theology uses the term in the sense of excluding male agency in the process of conception.

18 The myth of Perarasiyar is provided in fn 11. However this myth is confined to the areas which come under the erstwhile Travancore state. It therefore does not lend itself to the kind of study that is possible with the widespread legend of Alli.

19 Nallatangal is another woman-centred ballad from Tamil Nadu which narrates the tragic suicide of an impoverished young widow. Her ballad is still remembered in Tamil Nadu by women wearing green (why green?) to commemorate the death of Nallatangal.

20 A woman ruler within the patriarchal set-up has necessarily to be portrayed as a “Female King”. See for instance Cynthia Talbot’s article, ‘Rudramma Devi, the Female King: Gender and Political Authority in Medieval India’ in David Shulman (ed), Syllables of Sky, OUP, 1995.

21 In the dramatised version Alli Natakam the metamorphosis of Arjuna into a snake is changed for the obvious reason that a seductive snake cannot be depicted on the stage. Instead he enters her bedroom as a hapless brahmin widow and eventually seduces her (Alli Natakam: penultimate scene,pp 66-67).

22 Alli Kadai: verses: l035 to l940.

23 Madal Erudal which was a signifier of romantic love and rejection in the Sangam period became a metaphor for bridal mysticism and spirituality in medieval south India. The social ramifications of this interesting practice among the Tamils is discussed in my book:Walking Naked:Women, Society, Spirituality in South India, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, l997, pp 56, 128-29.

24 Pearl fishing at Tutukorin (Tutukudi) in Madurai is frequently referred to in Sangam anthologies and in the Silappadikaram.

25 The term ‘chandala’ refers to the untouchable castes like professional castes involved with death rituals. Parama chandala means the most accursed of the untouchable castes. The term ‘brashta’ refers to one who has deviated from the norms and duties of his caste, hence ‘dharma brashta’. The term is being used here by Alli as the worst form of pejorative for Arjuna.

26 The word used in the text repeatedly is ‘karpazhitha’ which translates most aptly as “rape” – Pavazhakkodi Malai of Pugazhendi Pulavar (R G Pati Company, Chennai, 1975:51ff).

27 In Alli Kadai it is clearly stated that these artisans were women. One can presume that this situation continues in Eni Etram. However in the dramatised version these are men for the obvious reason that it saved the producers the difficult task of arranging for “stree part” actors.

28 See Puranic Dictionary, Vettam Mani (ed), Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi, 1964.

29 See M Raghava Iyengar, fourth essay on ‘Arjunanum Pandiyamarabum’ in Aaraichi Togudi (in Tamil), Tamil University, Tanjavur, 1984, pp 70-78.

30 Arandai Narayanan, Tamizh Cinimavin Kadai (in Tamil), New Century Book House, Chennai, 1981, p 13.

31 The essay “Muppenmanigal Varalaru” is contained in Neelambikai Ammaiyar’s collection of essays called Tani Tamizh Katturaigal published in l940 (in Tamil) by the Saiva Siddhanta Kazhagam, Madras. See pp 26-27 for the above comment by her. An analysis of this quotation is to be found in my article ‘Tamil Separatism and Cultural Negotiations: Gender, Politics and Literature in Tamil Nadu’ in Social Scientist, Nos 5 and 6, Vol 26, May-June, 1998, pp 61-83.

Tamil Works Cited

Alli Natakam (in Tamil) published by B Rattina Naickar and Sons, Chennai, l967.

Alli Arasani Malai (in Tamil) of Pugazhendi Pulavar, R G Pati Company, Chennai, 1972.

Alli Arasani Kadai (in Tamil) edited by the Manimekalai Press, Editors Committee headed by L N Tamizhvanan, Manimekalai Press, Chennai, l987.

Alli Kadai (in Tamil) ed, E Sundaramurthy, Madras University, Chennai, l989.

Pavlakodi Natakam, (in Tamil), B Rattina Naickar and Sons, Chennai, 1963.

Pavalakodi Malai, (in Tamil), R G Pati and Company, Chennai, 1975.

Duryodhanan Tunbapatta Eni Etra Natakam, (in Tamil), B Rattina Naickar and Sons, Chennai, 1971.

Tamizh Villu Padalgal, T C Gomati Nayagam, (in Tamil), International Institute of Tamil Studies, Adayar, l979.

Tamizhil Kadaippadal, A N Nallaperumal, (in Tamil), International Institute of Tamil Studies, Madras, l987.

Muppenmanigal Varalaru, Neelambikai Ammaiyar, (in Tamil), Saiva Siddhanta Kazhagam, Tirunelveli, nd but written around l940.

Pattupattu (moolamum Nachchinarkiniyar Uraiyum) (in Tamil), Tamil University, Tanjavur, 1961.

Pennarasiyar Kadai (The Valorous Virgins) in both Tamil and English, ed K Jayakumar and D M Moominaganathan; tr by S Mark Joseph, Institute of Asian Studies, Chimmanacherry, Madras, l996.


Ramaswamy, Vijaya (l994): ‘Women and the Domestic in Tamil Folk Songs’, Man in India, (in English)74 (l), pp 21-37.

– (2002): ‘The Taming of Alli’, Atlantis: A Women’s Studies Journal, Volume 27.1, Fall, 71-80.

K S Singh (ed) (1993): The Mahabharata in the Tribal and Folk Traditions of India, (in English), The Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

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