Who by Fire

Models of Ideal Femininity in Pre-Modern Tamil Literature


  • Ofer Peres The Hebrew University of Jerusalem




Tamil literature, Rāmāyaṇa, Purūravas, gender, femininity


The Pururava-caritai (‘The Adventures of Pururavas’) is an unstudied sixteenth-century Tamil adaptation of the famous Vedic legend of Pururavas, which introduces an extensive addition to the original story. One episode within this supplement narrates a trial by fire gone through by the protagonist’s wife, which draws heavily on a similar episode from the Ramayana epic, both in Valmiki’s classical Sanskrit version and in Kampan’s twelfth-century Tamil retelling. This article sheds new light on the ways in which classical literary gender roles and gender models were reimagined in premodern south India. I argue that the re-articulation of the epic fire-ordeal in the Pururava-caritai is a critical reflection on the feminine model that the Ramayana heroine, Sita, represents. I show that, through a synthesis of classical and folk motifs, the author has created an implicit intertextual dialogue that concludes with a complex matrix of values of ‘proper’ femininity and ‘true’ divinity.

Author Biography

Ofer Peres, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Ofer Peres is a Sanskrit lecturer and a postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests include early-modern Tamil and Sanskrit literature, Vedic ritual and literature, and South Asian cultural history in general.


Aiyar, Varaganeri Venkatesa Subramanya. 1965. Kamba Ramayana: A Study. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Blackburn, Stuart H. 1978. ‘The Folk Hero and Class Interests in Tamil Heroic Ballads.’ Asian Folklore Studies 37 (1): 131–49. https://doi.org/10.2307/1177587

Cilappatikaram of Ilankovatikal. 1964. Cilappatikaram: puliyurk kecikan telivuraiyutan. Cennai: Pari Nilaiyam.

Hart, George Luzerne. 1975. The Poems of Ancient Tamil: Their Milieu and Their Sanskrit Counterparts. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Irakavaiyankar, U. Ve. Mu. 1907–8. ‘Nularaycci.’ Centamil 6: 81–89.

Kane, Pandurang Vaman. 1941. History of Dharmasastra, vol. 2. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

Kinsley, David. 1988. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Narayana Rao, Velcheru and David D. Shulman. 2009. Introduction to How Urvashi Was Won, by Kalidasa: xv–xliv. Clay Sanskrit Library. New York: New York University Press and the JJC Foundation.

Narayana Rao, Velcheru, David D. Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. 1998. Symbols of Substance: Court and State in Nayaka Period Tamilnadu. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Peres, Ofer. 2018. ‘The Tamil Life of Pururavas: A Vernacular Adaptation of a Sanskrit Myth.’ Journal of the American Oriental Society 138 (2): 291–312. https://doi.org/10.7817/jameroriesoci.138.2.0291

Pururavacaritai [‘The Adventures of Pururavas’] of Ayyamperumalcivantakavirayar. 1922–25. Centami? 20–23.

Ramaswamy, Vijaya. 2010. ‘Chaste Widows, Cunning Wives, and Amazonian Warriors: Imaging of Women in Tamil Oral Traditions.’ Asian Ethnology 69 (1): 129–57.

Ramayana of Valmiki, critical edn. 1960–75. G. H. Bhatt and U. P. Shah (gen. eds). 7 vols. Baroda: Oriental Institute.

Sastri, K. A. Nilakanta. 1972. The Pandyan Kingdom: From the Earliest Times to the Sixteenth Century. Madras: Swathi.

Shulman, David D. 1976. ‘The Murderous Bride: Tamil Versions of the Myth of Devi and the Buffalo-Demon.’ History of Religions 16 (2): 120–46. https://doi.org/10.1086/462761

—— 1979. ‘Sita and Satakantharavana in a Tamil Folk Narrative.’ Journal of Indian Folkloristics 2 (3–4): 1–26.

—— 1980. Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

—— 1986. ‘Battle as Metaphor in Tamil Folk and Classical Traditions.’ In Stuart H. Blackburn and A. K. Ramanujan (eds), Another Harmony: New Essays on the Folklore of India: 105–30. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

—— 1997. ‘Fire and Flood: The Testing of Sita in Kampan’s Iramavataram.’ In Paula Richman (ed.), Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia: 89–113. Delhi: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1525/9780520911758-007

—— 2012. More Than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

—— 2016. Tamil: A Biography. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press.

Svoboda, Robert E. 1997. The Greatness of Saturn: A Therapeutic Myth. Tulsa, OK: Sadhana Publications.

Thompson, Stith. 1955–58. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature; a Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.



How to Cite

Peres, O. (2021). Who by Fire: Models of Ideal Femininity in Pre-Modern Tamil Literature. Religions of South Asia, 13(3), 348–367 . https://doi.org/10.1558/rosa.19014