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Notes on Ponniyin Selvan

December 3, 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.

11. Sudden Appearance

Kumbakonam was then known as Kudanthai or Kudamooku. Apart from being known for its places of worship, it was also known for its astrologers. South west of Kumbakonam was Palaiyarai, the Chola dynasty’s alternate residence. It is in Kumbakonam now Kundavai and Vaanathi are visiting the astrologer who kept all of the royal clan’s records. After being seated, at the request of the princess, the astrologer takes a careful look at Vaanathi’s horoscope. He appears first shocked, and then surprised after viewing Vaanathi’s horoscope. He keeps examining her face and then looking down at the manuscript on his lap. Kundavai is now running out of patience. She asks the astrologer, “what is wrong?” The astrologer replies, “Sometime ago I had thought that there was a huge obstacle that lay in this maiden’s path, but now all of that has been resolved. I have never seen anything better. In fact this young maiden’s future is beginning to look better than that of the princess herself.” To this Kundavai adds eagerly, “Oh, please tell me more. This is exactly what I have been saying,” while Vaanathi protests that the astrologer is making up stories. The astrologer in turn feigns surprise and hurt, so that Kundavai has to interrupt and tell the astrologer that she had the utmost confidence in his ability to foretell the future. The astrologer calmly says that Vaanathi will one day marry a king who will have many hurdles in his way, but will in the end succeed. Vaanathi will bear a son who will one day be the emperor. For this emperor there were no obstacles in the forecast. Because this son was Vishnu himself. As evidence he tells the princess to take a look at the soles of her friend’s feet. He predicts that the lines there will be drawn in the form of the lotus flower. In addition he said there was a birthmark in the shape of a fig leaf over her abdomen. This was the sign that the lord who slumbered atop a fig leaf will one day make this place his home. Hearing this Vaanathi faints. While Kundavai attends to her, she urges the astrologer to tell her more about the future of the country, but also the immediate future that concerned her father. The astrologer replies that he is not capable of knowing anything about the political course or direction the country can take. He says he can only predict the future as it relates to the welfare of the king. Then he goes on to say that there was much that was not good in the forecast for the king and his family members. At this point Vaanathi wakes up. She inquires about Kundavai’s future. Kundavai laughs and says, that she also wanted to know where her groom would come from, whether on horseback, in a chariot, on foot or through the roof. As she says these words, they hear a commotion outside. Shortly, a young man bursts into the room while a guard is still tugging at his arm. No doubt, it is Vandhiyathevan. He exclaims at the guard, “why didn’t you tell me there were womenfolk inside.” Just before walking out he turns and casts another glance at Kundavai, who in turn starts laughing, remembering what she had said about the man who may betroth her one day.

12. Nandhini

When Azhvarkadiyan got into the boat the Shaiva devotee started protesting. He banned Azhvarkadiyan from saying the eight letter word Vishnu mantra. Azhvarkadiyan in turn protested that he did not want to hear the five letter Siva mantra. Very soon they were in a fist fight. Only seeing a crocodile in the water and the fear of being caught in its jaws kept their brawl from overturning the boat. For about 600 years both Buddhism and Jainism have been popular in Tamil nadu. The benefits were many fold for arts and literature. Later cultural divisions arose among Hinduism giving way to Shaivism and Vaishnavism. For propaganda, both sects made use of the arts, namely sculpture and music. Temples constructed out of wood and red earth were now rebuilt in granite. 980 years ago when this story takes place, there arose differences of opinion among the different sects. In turn the conflict became violent in places giving birth to both militant Shaivas and Vaishnavas. In Kerala, in a place called Kaladi a prophet was born. At a young age he gave up the material world and became a sanyasi. After mastering the language of the north he formed a collective philosophy based on the Upanishad, Bagvath Gita and Brahmasutra. Eight retreats were built around the subcontinent. Fellow sanyasis crisscrossed the land as emblems of his philosophy. In the clash between the Shaivas and Vaishnavas, these sanyasis also sometimes took part. The clashes broke into riots at times. A story is told to illustrate the degree of enmity between the two sides. A vaishnava devotee from Srirangam was once walking along the Thiruvanai temple. A stone hit his head from above. Blood started oozing out. When he looked up he saw a crow perched atop the tower. His hurt and pain were immediately taken away by joy as he exclaimed, “Oh, brave Vaishnava crow from Srirangam! Destroy this Thiruvanai Sivan temple entirely!” After getting off the boat while Vandiyathevan is waiting to fetch a horse, Azhvarkadiyan asks him about the night he spent at Kadampur palace. Vandiyathevan tells him that he was treated well and that people there were worried about the ominous star they see at night. He does not tell the other man about Mathuranthakar or the meeting. He then asks Azhvarkadiyan about his relationship with Pazhuvetaraiyar’s wife. Azhvarkadiyan tells him the story that he was born in a village in Pandiya nadu. One day his father found an infant girl in the garden by the river. They named her Nandhini for Nanthavanam (garden) and raised her in the Vaishnava tradition. After their father died, he and Nandhini traveled the land singing devotional songs. People who heard them believed that one day Nandhini will be the next Aandaazh. Three years ago in the battle between the pandiya and chola countries the pandiya king Veerapandiyan was wounded. Soldiers carried him to the nearby house which happened to be Azhvarkadiyan’s. At that time Azhvarkadiyan was away from home. Nandhini attended to the king and gave him shelter. Soon the cholas found out where the king was hiding. They raided Nandhini’s house and killed Veerapandiyan. When Pazhuvetaraiyar saw Nandhini there, he captured her and took her away. Azhvarkadiyan now asks for Vandiyathevan’s help to rescue Nandhini. Vandiyathevan answers that it would be impossible given Pazhuvetaraiyar’s power. He asks Azhvarkadiyan if he had heard rumors about the succession to the throne, the ominous star that had recently started appearing in the sky, and if there was going to be a war soon. Azhvarkadiyan has nothing specific to tell. He replies that only an astrologer like Kudanthai astrologer can help. This is how Vandiyathevan ended up at Kudantahi astrologer’s house.

13. Waxing Crescent Moon

Once Kundavai and Vaanathi leave, the astrolger brings Vandiyathevan inside. He makes inquiries about the visitor’s background. Satisfied with what he learns, he proceeds to tell the young man that his future was good. When Vandiyathevan asks the astrologer, who Kundavai was, he is evasive. Vandiyathevan asks about Arulmozhi Varmar’s prospects. The astrologer likens the young prince to the star in the north sky, adding that he will be a beacon to young people like Vandiyathevan. He then pays the astrologer and leaves.

14. Crocodile on Shore

From Kudanthai, Vandiyathevan traveled along the path running alongside of arisilaru to reach Thanjavur. He hears the sound of women laughing on the other side of the trees bordering the river. Suddenly the laughter turns into screams and shouts of “crocodile! crocodile!” Vandiyathevan urged the horse to hurry, as he peered through the gaps between the trees. He sees a group of women, among them the same woman he had seen at the astrologer’s and also a gaping crocodile by the water. Without hesitation he draws his spear, takes aim at the crocodile and throws it at the animal. As he draws his sword and hurries closer, he hears the women start laughing. He turns around confused only to see Kundavai tell the others to calm down before telling him that he should not trouble himself.

15. Vaanathi’s Pretense

While Kundavai and Vaanathi are at the astrologer’s their friends talk about Vaanathi. They believe that she is faking her fainting spells in order to draw attention, namely that of Kundavai and Arulmozhi Varmar. In fact they remember that one of the fainting acts took place on the day that Arulmozhi Varmar left. These women have been instructed by Kundavai to place a stuffed crocodile near the water by the boat. Kundavai hopes that this would cure Vaanathi out of her fears and trepidation. Her maids however continue to plot against Vaanathi. They voice their opinion that Arulmozhi had many other kings offering their daughters as brides. But they also believe that Arulmozhi was inclined to marry a tamil woman. As each one of them being a daughter of a chola noble king herself, together they vow that they will each try their chances to beat Vaanathi.

16. Arulmozhi Varmar

980 years ago the south India’s emperor was Rajakesarivarmar Paranthaka Sundara Chola King. In the century before his reign the chola kingdom had expanded and stabilized. Yet during the twelve years of his rule there were recurring threats from the north and south. Before him, it was Sivagnana Kandarathithar, who was more of a religious person than a ruler of territorial expansion. Following him came Arinjayar. He ruled for just one year. Following his death his son Paranthaka Sundaracholar ascended the Thanjavur throne. He was well appointed for the task of a great king. He was a good warrior. In his time there was a great war in Chevur between Chola and Pandiya nadu. To help king Veerapandiyan in Madurai, troops were sent from Lanka by king Mahinthan. At Chevur, Pandiyan was beaten. He escaped and lived in nearby caves. It had been customary for Sinhala kings to help the Pandiyar men. The Chola king wanted to bring an end to this. An army of troops was sent under the command of Kodumbaloor attached Paranthakar deputy Vehlahn, to Lanka. Unfortunately all of the men could not go by sea in one battalion. The means of transportation by ship was not adequate at that time. Instead of waiting for the remainder of the troops, the first group that landed started advancing. They were surrounded by the Sinhala army led by Mahintharajan’s Colonel Sena. Deputy Vehlahn died in a fierce battle. His memorial bears the inscription Lanka Honor Paranthakan Deputy Vehlahn. When Veerapandiyan heard of this news, he came out of hiding. This time he did not survive the battle. Athithakarikalar led the fight. He came to be known as the Commander who decapitated Veerapandiyar. Following this, once again, the Chola king wanted to teach a lesson to the Sinhala king. Athithakarikalar has by now moved to take control of the north. The competition to lead the next army to Lanka was so fierce among the king’s noble warriors, the king had a difficult time making up his mind without offending anyone. To avoid infighting within his people he decided to send his son Arulmozhi, then nineteen years old. From his young days Arulmozhi was known for his stately appearance. What chances he had of becoming king one day with two men already in line for the throne before him was the mind boggling wonder of the time. Once in Lanka the young prince realized that there was not adequate food and supplies for his troops. In order to make arrangements to speed up the delivery of supplies from Thanjavur, he returns home. While he was again ready to leave Kundavai organizes her maids, the young daughters of the king’s noblemen, to have a traditional send off. It was during this line up that Vaanathi upon seeing the prince entering, collapsed for the first time, dropping the oil lamp with which she was to bless the prince. The assembled group is alarmed that this would be a bad omen for a prince going off to war. The flame however keeps burning on the floor in the oil. This twist in the accident is then reevaluated as really a good omen, even better than if the lamp had not fallen at all. Arulmozhi with the others notices that the young woman who had fainted was the daughter of Kodumbaloor nobleman, who had lost his life in the battle in Lanka. He assumes that this recollection is what had made Vaanathi ill. He asks Kundavai to keep an eye on the young maiden, who he thinks deserved this special care as the daughter of the late nobleman.

17. The Horse Leaps

When Kundavai and Vaanathi return to the river bank following their visit to the astrologer, they get in the water with the others and start frolicking around as they always do. The crocodile lay at a distance. One of the women pretends to have spotted it for the first time and starts screaming. The others join her in the charade. Vaanathi appears not to be concerned. She calmly says, “Don’t worry. A crocodile is dangerous only when it is in the water. On the ground it won’t attack you.” Kundavai asks, “So, are you not afraid?” She replies, “No, I would be if it was a lizard, but I am not afraid of a crocodile.” It was at this time that Vandiyathevan’s spear lands on the animal piercing it. When he approaches them, Kundavai tells him, “I am sorry that we didn’t speak to you at the astrologer’s house. Because my friend here had fainted and I was preoccupied with getting her back here safely.” Vandiyathevan finds himself speechless at being addressed in this manner by this beautiful woman. He is also flooded with doubts about the crocodile that is now waiting motionless on the ground. As he searches for words, Kundavai continues to address him. “Now you have again wanted to help us with this crocodile. I see that you are extraordinarily talented. It is difficult to find these days a soldier with such flawless marksmanship.” At this the women start laughing as Vandiyathevan plucks his spear out of the crocodile and sees the cotton and fiber spilling out of the fake animal. His embarrassment is so acute that even the neighing horse appears to be mocking him. He takes his anger and embarrassment out on his horse as he whips the animal to take him away from these women.

18. Idumbankari

After Vandiyathevan left for Kudanthai on his horse, Thirumalaiyappar stood there talking to himself as he gazed in the direction he had taken: “This guy is too smart. He is always a step ahead of me. I cannot figure out who he is working for, where he is going or why he is going there. I don’t know if he took part in that meeting at the Kadampoor palace. It is a good thing that I had talked to the astrologer in Kudantahi about him. Let’s see what the astrologer can find out about this guy.” “Swami, are you speaking to the tree, or are you speaking to yourself?” Thirumalaiyappar turned upon hearing the voice. He saw standing by his side, Kanthan Maruvel’s man Idumabnkari, who had accompanied Vandiyathevan on the boat and had now furnished him with a horse on this side of the river, so he can continue on his journey. “I am not speaking to myself. I was speaking to the spirit that dwells here on the tree.” “Oh, is the sprit Shiva, or Vaishnava?” “That was exctly what I was asking. But then you came and the spirit had now disappeared. What is your name, son?” “Why do you ask, Swami?” “You saved me from drowning in the river. Shouldn’t I keep a good Samaritan as you in my memory?” The man replied reluctantly, “My name is Idumbankari, Swami.” “Oh, Idumbankari. I remember hearing it before.” Idumbankari now acted strangely. He brought his two palms together and started wiggling the two small fingers. “Son, what is this signal? I don’t understand,” said Thirumalaiyappar. Idumbankari’s dark face became even more dark. His brows drew close together. “Me? I wasn’t doing anything,” said he. “You did, you did. Didn’t I see? In bharathanatya dance, there is a sign for the first incarnation of Thirumal. Weren’t you doing the same?” “First incarnation of Thirumal? What is that? I don’t know about it, Swami!” “You don’t know the first incarnation of Vishnu? Fish incarnation.” “You mean fish?” “Yes, son yes!” “Alright, Swami! You eyes are strange eyes! There is a spirit living in this bare tree. Fish is coming out of my bare hands! Perhaps Swami is too fond of eating fish?” “No, no. Don’t speak like that, son. Never mind about that. There was a Shaiva in the boat with us. Did you see in which direction he took off?” “Didn’t I? Of course. He came in the same direction where I went to fetch the horse. He was berating you all the way.” “What was he berating?” “That if the brave Shaiva sees you again he will clip that front knot of hair and shave your entire head …” “I see. He knows that job as well?” “It seems he will erase all Vaishnava insignia from you and apply holy powder instead.” “In that case, I certainly must see him. Do you know where he is from?” He said he is from Pullirukum Vellur, Swami.” I must first of all go and see that brave Shaiva devotee. Son, Where are you going? In case you are also going in the same direction?” “No, no. Why would I come there? I have to cross the river and return to Kadampur. If not won’t my employer pluck my eyes out?” “In that case, you better go now. There, the boat is about to leave.” Idumbankari turns and sees that Azhvarkadiyan was right. The boat was about to start. “Alright, Swami! I must go,” Idumbankari hurried towards the boat.

Half way across the path, Idumbankari turned and looked behind him. By then Azhvarkadiyan had climbed the arasa tree and hidden himself among its thick branches. He was no longer in sight. Idumbankari was at the dock now. One of the boat men asked him if he was going to the other side. He said that he would take the next boat and asked the man to leave. The man replied, “No kidding! The way you were rushing here I had stopped the boat for you.” He then steered the boat on to the water. Azhvarkadiyan sees the boat leaving without Idumbankari. He decides to wait and see what Idumbankari is up to. While hiding in the tree his mind is going over what had happened. “Fish, fish symbol, what does it mean? Ah! isn’t it the Pandiyar flag,” he tells the absent ghost residing in the tree. Very soon, as he expected Idumbankari returns. He sees that there was no sign of Azhvarkadiyan anywhere. He sits at the bottom of the tree. Time passes. Azhvarkadiyan is restless. As he contemplates jumping down from the tree and frightening Idumbankari, he sees another coming at a distance. Idumbankari meets this man and again makes the fish signal with his hands. The other man whose name is Soman Sambavan, responds by making the same sign. He tells Idumbankari that they are going to head west to the enemy’s pallipadai. Once they start walking Azhvarkadiyan climbs down from the tree. He decides to follow them. But he takes a different route. This time he is determined to find out more than he did at Kadampoor palace. Pallipadai meant Kanga king Pritheiveepathi’s burial place. It is a dilapidated hundred years old building. The surrounding area was forest land. Azhvarkadiyan was certain that more people were expected at this meeting. Or else, these two men could have had their talk here by the arasa tree. The two men were walking alongside of Kollidam river. Azhvarkadiyan headed south. At Mannilaru he walked along the shore heading west. There are more questions than answers in his head. “Why call it enemy’s Pallipadai. Whose enemy is Prithiveepathi?” Through the thick of the uninhabited forest, he reached Thirupurampayam at sunset.

19. Ranagala Aranyam

In the ancient Tamil country it was the tradition to have a burial stone at the place of war for those who died fighting. If it included a deity and a temple then it was called Pallipadai. Northwest of Kudanthai, on the north shore of manniaru (sand river), near the village of Thirupurampayam there was a Pallipadai temple. This was built in memory of Kanga king Pritheeveepathi who died there in one of the biggest battles. Those who know world history, are aware that the course of history had been altered by battles like the battle of Waterloo. With regard to Tamil nadu, the battle at Thirupurampayam had such significance. This war took place a hundred years before the time of this story. Karikalvalavan, Perunatkilli, Illanchet Chenni and Thodithot Chempian are Chola kings from 500 to 600 years ago. In the south there were Pandiyar. To the north were Pallavar. The Chola people were squeezed in between. At one point they had to leave their capital Uraiyoor and move to Pazhaiyarai near Kudanthai. Nevertheless, they never gave up their right to Uraiyoor as their capital or their title Kozhi Venthar.

Vijayalaya Cholar was famous for his battle scars. There were more than nine hundred. When he was old his equally valiant son Athithacholan had taken over. When there was a war between Pallavar and Pandiyar, the Chola men got into the habit of joining one or the other side depending on whatever circumstances had to be dealt with. When the Pallava king, Aparajitha Varman and the Pandiya king, Varakuna Varman fought, it was like two elephants clashing with a rooster caught in between, the rooster being the Cholar. Chola king joined one side or the other with a small battalion. In this way the Chola troops got trained in the art of warfare. River Kaveri branches into many rivulets in the south. Between Kollidam and Koveri lies Manniaru. North of Manniaru, near the village of Thirupurampayam, the final confrontation between Pallavar and Pandiyar took place. On the side of Pallavar was Kanga king Prithiveepathi and Athithacholan. Athithan knew that if Pandiyan won this time it would be the end of the Chola dynasty. After three days of war, only a small portion of the Pallava army remained. The three kings consulted with each other and decided that the best course was to retreat to the north. At this time Vijayalaya Cholan, old and bearing nine hundred and six battle scars on his body appeared. He asked for an eplephant and was told that they were all dead. “A horse?” “No, all dead.” In the end he asks for two soldiers. Two hundred soldiers came forward. He chose two of them who carried him on their shoulders. The rest followed two by two. In this way Vijayalaya Cholan confronted the Pandiya army. The other kings too gave up their idea of retreat and joined him. The Pandiyar in the end retreated. Prithiveepathi died in the battle. If a soldier dies, a stone memorial is enacted and becomes a place of worship. For a king, a temple is built around the stone memorial. This is the Pallipadai where a group of people now gathered as Azhvarkadiyan watched from the tree that had spread its branches over the temple. One of them emptied a bag on the ground. A heap of gold Chola coins rolled out. One of them, Ravithasan laughed saying, “we will overtake the Chola kingdom with their own money.” He was asked to speak softly. Everyone urged caution even though this was a remote place. Azhvarkadiyan in order to hear better, shifts his position on the tree. “What’s that noise?”, the people below wondered. Azhvarkadiyan held his breath. Nearby an owl beat its wings in the dead of night and chanted “uum, uum.”

20. Enemy No. 1

The group on the ground thought that the owl was the cause of the noise. The leader tells them to leave the owl alone. He says their plan had two directives. One was to send a group to the north. The other was to go to Lanka. They needed people who can navigate the sea. They also had to know Sinhala in order to be able to speak to Mahintha. Just as the leader observes that Soman Sambavan was not present among them, Idumbankari and Soman Sambavan make their appearance. They tell the others that they were delayed by a group of foxes. The leader shows them the gold coins bearing a tiger on one side and a palmyrah plant on the other side. Idumbankari relates what he heard at the meeting that Pazhuvetaraiyar held at Kadampoor palace. The leader asks him if he suspected that anyone followed them here. He tells about Azhvarkadiyan whom he first met in the boat, and how he mistook him for one of the group and had signaled him with the fish sign. The leader tells them that it was a big mistake and to kill Azhvarkadiyan if anyone ran into him again because Azhvarkadiyan intended to kidnap their leader Nandhini. They ask him on whose behalf Azhvarkadiyan was working for. He thinks that he spies for Chempian Madevi. He warns them against the Kudanthai astrologer also. At this point Azhvarkadiyan could not keep himself from sneezing. Immediately the crowd becomes alert and starts looking around. Azhvarkadiyan grabs hold of the bat that was meditating in its upside down “asana” pose on the trunk above him and throws it on the face of the man who approaches with the torch. The man drops the torch down and darkness surrounds. Azhvarkadiyan takes this opportunity to scramble away unharmed.

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