ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Situating Women in Tamil Mahabharatas

Questioning Frames, Breaking Moulds

Epics and oral narratives have long been a part of the cultural ethos of the Indian subcontinent. Given the long years of their existence and expression in oral, performance and written traditions, several characters which might be part of one narrative may not be part of another. A critical examination of Tamil Mahabharatas reveals the existence of several women characters, whose stories can be read simultaneously as resisting as well as conforming to the dominant patriarchal order. This reveals the ambiguous attitudes towards non-conforming women, and how even the dissemination of their narratives are seen as a threat to the dominant patriarchal social order.


This article is a posthumous publication. The additional inputs provided by Chittoor P Krishnan ( and Kumkum Roy ( have helped shape this article in its current form.

This exploration of Tamil Mahabharatas is an attempt to contextualise the processes of transmission and transmutation of narrative fragments from the great epic that might have had their birth in the non-Sanskritic, and perhaps, to some extent, matrilocal, early Tamil society. Warrior queens like Alli Arasani bring to mind the presence of the all-women army in the Sangam period known as mudin magalir1 (valorous women). The myths of warrior queens like Alli, Pavazhakkodi and the Siva devotee Minnoliyal and their marriage to Arjuna, a leading protagonist of the Mahabharata, break the mega narrative of a great epic, bringing to centre stage figures who are wholly absent in the mainstream version. Through ballads like Ponnaruvi Masakkai, Karna Moksham and Karnamaharajan Chandai, this critical study draws attention to the narrative of Karnas wife Ponnaruvi, whose hatred of her so-called low-caste husband and unwanted pregnancy, brings into sharp focus the issues of gender, caste and class. These fragmented narratives can be said to constitute significant regional variants of a grand epic narrative, irrespective of whether they truly constitute counter narratives or eventually get appropriated by the patriarchal mainstream.

A good example is the regional retelling of the Mahabharata, such as the celebrated Tamil text Panchali Shapatam by S Subramanya Bharatiyar, which narrates the role of Draupadi. It is noteworthy that the deification of Draupadi by Tamil communities has evolved over the course of a few centuries into the Draupadi cult, exemplified by the proliferation of temples and shrines dedicated to Draupadi Amman. Similarly, Gandhari is also worshipped as a goddess by many Tamil castes. It has been opined that it is the Draupadi cult which is responsible for the rapid spread of the Mahabharata, especially in the narrative mode and the performative mode (Srinivasan 2009: 8).

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


To gain instant access to this article (download).

INR 59

(Readers in India)

$ 6

(Readers outside India)

Published On : 15th Feb, 2024

Support Us

Your Support will ensure EPW’s financial viability and sustainability.

The EPW produces independent and public-spirited scholarship and analyses of contemporary affairs every week. EPW is one of the few publications that keep alive the spirit of intellectual inquiry in the Indian media.

Often described as a publication with a “social conscience,” EPW has never shied away from taking strong editorial positions. Our publication is free from political pressure, or commercial interests. Our editorial independence is our pride.

We rely on your support to continue the endeavour of highlighting the challenges faced by the disadvantaged, writings from the margins, and scholarship on the most pertinent issues that concern contemporary Indian society.

Every contribution is valuable for our future.