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Notes on Ponniyin Selvan

December 1, 2014

Ponniyin Selvan was written by the late Kalki Krishnamoorthy. It first appeared serialized in the weekly Kalki.  Beginning in 1950 it appeared as weekly installments for three and a half years. It is now again being serialized in Kalki. These are my notes in keeping up with the plot. Translations of this novel are available online.

1. July Festival

Between Thondanadu and Cholanadu is Thirumunaipadinadu. South of Thirumunaipadi nadu and west of Thillaichittampalam is Veeranarayanapuri lake. Now known as Veeranathu lake it lies southwest about 14 miles long and eastwest about 5 miles wide. Built during the Chola dynasty, it is a feat of engineering benefiting generations. During the months of July and August the lake fills to its maximum capacity. Paranthahar’s son Prince Rajathithar constructed the lake so that the river Vadakaveri does not simply flow into the sea. Through seventy four outlets the lake fed the surrounding fields. We are taking in the scenery and looking back at history along with the young man riding on his horse. On horseback Vallavaraiyan Vandhiyathevan reaches the point where Vadavaru, a branch of Vadakaveri joins the lake. Today is July 18th, a day of festival. Crowds are gathered along the river with food and merriment. The great king Paranthaha Chola, son of Adithacholan and grandson of Vijayalaya Cholan had conquered Pallava, Pandya, Chera lands and Ceylon when this story takes place. Vandhiyathevan sees the arrival of tall ships. The palmyrah flag tells him that the ships belonged to Pazhuvetaraiyar. The brothers Pazhuvetaraiyar came from Pazhuvoor, which lay next to Urayoor on the north shore of Vadakaveri. Having had transactions with the ruling clan over a long time the brothers had their own flag. The elder brother had fought in twenty fours. Over the age of fifty, he no longer was required to be in the battle field. He was now the treasurer, minister of food as well as tax collector for the kingdom. Next to the Chola king he was the most powerful man. Vandhiyathevan has been entrusted with two letters by Prince Athithakarikalar in Kanjinagar, one to his father, the king, and the other to his sister Kundavai, both in Thanjavur. He had been warned by the prince to keep away from the two Pazhuvetaraiyar brothers as well as the Prince’s uncle Mathuranthakar.

2. Azhvarkadiyan Nambi

Vandhiyathevan continues his journey along the shore. On the way his attention falls on a crowd gathered around a commotion. He leave his horse and steps in to take a closer look. There was an argument taking place between a Vaishnava, a Siva worshipper. In the middle was a philosopher taking the position that neither deity was superior, that all gods were equal. When Azhvarkadiyan is about to beat up the philosopher he manages to disappear in the crowd. Vandhiyathevan steps in and makes a mockery of the other two. The crowd joins him in the laughter and starts throwing sand on their heads. This is now interrupted by the procession bearing the palmyrah flag. Following Pazhuvetaraiyar on an elephant, there is a carriage carried by men. As Vandhiyathevan watches, a hand laden with bangles pushes the curtain aside slightly and the face of a young woman peers out. Even though the woman is beautiful there is also something in her demeanor that Vandhiyathevan finds repulsive. As he stares, the woman shrieks and draws the curtain back abruptly. Vandhiyathevan turns his head to see who or what may have caused the woman to scream. He sees Azhvarkadiyan standing behind.

3. Temple in the Sky

A seemingly insignificant incident can sometimes turn out to be the beginning of life altering changes. Vandhiyathevan’s horse was grazing where he had left it. It now caught the attention of some of Pazhuvetaraiyar’s men passing thorough. They began to fool around with the horse. The horse would not let them take control of it. One of them joked that it must belong to Thanjavur Mutharaiyan. Mutharaiyan was a man from history, who a hundred years ago was defeated by the Chola warriors. Another said that perhaps it was a puppet horse brought for the festivities. To test this theory another man twisted the tail of the horse. The animal now charged through the crowd and started to gallop away. Vandhiyathevan planned on staying the night at the palace of Kadampur Samburavaiyar. His son Kanthan Maruvel was a good friend and had invited him to stay there any time he happened to be nearby. The present state and extent of the Chola kingdom was the work of the present king’s grandfather. He had conquered both Madurai and Ceylon. His son used his soldiers during peace time to develop and build the Veeranarayanapuram Lake. Next to was built the towering Temple in the Sky. Azhvarkadiyan begins to sing devotional songs at the temple. As he watches Vandhiyathevan’s attitude softens toward the vaishnava devotee. However when Azhvarkadiyan asks him to take him along to Kadampur Samburavaiyar’s place to stay the night he is reluctant. He also rejects Azhvarkadiyan’s request to take a letter to the woman they had both seen earlier peering from the carriage. He finds his horse and continues his journey.

4. Kadampur Palace

Vandhiyathevan is rescued from the soldiers guarding the gate at Kadampur palace by Chenkannar Sambuvaraiyar’s son Kanthan Maruvel. He is then introduced to Pazhuvetaraiyar who is also staying the night there. His eyes search in vain for the woman he had seen in the carriage.

5. Psychic Tantrum

At night the two friends watch the performance of a psychic along with the other guests staying at the palace. With the beating of the drums and chanting the psychic gets more and more excited. The chanter then begins to ask him questions about the future. The psychic says that there will be plenty of rain, fertility and good times. In return he says the gods want the blood of those born to kings. When the drums stop, the psychic collapses. Vandhiyathevan thinks for a moment that he saw the face of the vaishnava devotee looking over the palace wall. He decides that it was an illusion.

6. Midnight Meeting

Following dinner, Kanthan Maruvel shows him to his bed. At night, Vandhiyathevan wakes up following a bad dream. Again from where he is sleeping he sees the head of Azhvarkadiyan peering over the wall. This time he knows that it was for real. He walks out of his second story room to see a gathering of about twenty people below in the courtyard. There were all the luminaries who had come to pay a visit to Pazhuvetaraiyar. Kanthan Maruvel is also there. He hears them whisper that they should make sure that Vandhiyathevan should not know about their meeting because he works for the Prince who is next in line for the throne of the Chola kingdom.

7. Laughter and Anger

As Vandhiyathevan eavesdrops, Pazhuvetaraiyar addresses the midnight meeting. His concern appears to be about the succession to the throne. Chola king is depicted as old and senile. He makes fun of the fact that the king relies on his aunt and his daughter for advice and direction. The decision to nominate Athithakarikalar as next in line does not appear to sit well with the crowd assembled down. Pazhuvetaraiyar paints the picture that the prince is a spendthrift. His decision to build a palace in gold is ridiculed. In the south the younger prince is sending too much money from the treasury to support his troops in Ceylon. Tradition was that soldiers be supported by revenue generated at the place of war and the balance be sent to the treasury at home rather than the other way around.

8. Who is in the carriage?

“This is all valid and good” said Vananga Mudiyar. “I have questions of my own,” he says. Samburavaiyar objects. But Pazhuvetaraiyar says, “please proceed. I will answer any and all questions.” He is then questioned about his judgement over marrying a woman many years younger than him, when he already had wives. Pazhuvetaraiyar explains that he never said that he was Lord Rama. He does not have a vow for monogamy. He says that he was aware that he was older than fifty five. His behavior would seem questionable. He explains that it was for love that he married. Vananga Mudiyar asks then why Pazhuvetaraiyar takes his young wife Nandhini along on all his trips, why she now remains in the carriage that is parked on the grounds of the meeting and not with the other women of the palace. Pazhuvetaraiyar says that he can explain. But first he says he wants to address the issue of succession. When a few years back the Chola king died, his son Mathranthakar was only a year old. Because of this the king’s brother took over. This new king died after one year of rule. At that time his son, the present king took over. Therefore, when the present king dies, it is only right that the throne goes back to his cousin Mathranthakar, who is now twenty and able to take on the responsibility. Pazhuvetaraiyar explains that Mathranthakar’s mother and the king’s aunt, Sempian Madevi has been reluctant about this. She has been a tremendous influence in raising Mathuranthakar as a religious devotee and not as someone focussed on worldly affairs. Now the crowd wanted to know if Pazhuvetaraiyar had reason to believe that Mathuranthakar had changed his mind, if he was now eager to take the throne. In answer, Pazhuvetaraiyar says dramatically, “You can pose the question to him yourselves” and whisks away the curtain of the carriage to a side. Vandhiyathevan now sees the same light colored hand come out, only that what he assumed to be were bangles, were not bangles but merely a bracelet that usually adorns the arm of a man. He also saw that the light skinned face that he had glimpsed near the lake really belonged to a man – Mathuranthakar.

9. Talk on the way out

Vandhiyathevan sleeps late the following morning after having been up most of the night. Kanthan Maruvel finds him sleeping peacefully when he comes to wake him. Vandhiyathevan wakes up feeling as if his life was suddenly caught in a swift current. He remembers being caught in a whirl in the river once and being frightened for his life as someone who did not know how to swim. Kanthan Maruvel proceeds to accompany him half way on his journey. On the way, Vandhiyathevan says that he wished to be better acquainted with his friend’s sister on his next visit. His friend in turn tells him that it is in Vandhiyathevan’s best interest to forget about his sister. He also adds that he was bound by secrecy and asks Vandhiyathevan to trust him until the time when he can speak more openly. When Vandhiyathevan is about to get into the boat to cross the river, he sees Azhvarkadiyan at a distance hastily running to catch the boat. The boat already has a Siva devotee who did not want to let the Vaishnavan with the trademark knot of hair tied in front over his forhead be in the same boat. Vandhiyathevan speaks on behalf of Azhvarkadiyan and gets him aboard because he is now eager to know what Azhvarkadiyan knew about the secret midnight gathering.

10. Kudanthai Astrologer

A smaller river that joins the river Ponni is Arisilaru. On this, this morning there are boats bearing young beautiful women. Two of the women are extraordinarily beautiful with a commanding presence. Yet the two are different in subtle and telltale ways as the full moon is different from the early morning crescent moon; the dancing peacock and the blackbird that sings; the tumultuous reach of the river kangai and the trailing sobriety of kaveri. One is the daughter of the present Chola king, Kundavai. Her younger brother Arulmozhi Varman is known as Rajarajan in history. Kundavai is known to have raised the the future emperor, Rajarajan’s son Rajendran. Vaanathi is her friend and daughter of the late Kodumbalur noble king. Both women leave the boat and are then driven in a carriage to the astrologer’s house. Kundavai intends to consult the astrologer about Vaanathi’s recent bouts of melancholy and fainting spells.

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