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Ponniyin Selvan Part I (46 – 47)

January 3, 2015

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 translations / notes in keeping up with the plot. Translations of this novel are available online.

46. People Complain

From his visit with the Chola Nadu elder stateswoman, Azhvarkadiyan proceeded to the junior stateswoman’s palace. What he saw on his way on the streets of Pazhaiyarai gave him hope. How joyful these citizens were celebrating the birthday of Kannan? There was no doubt that Vaishnavism was going to take root, spread and become a mainstay in Chola Nadu. There were many reasons for the popularity of Shaivism here. For hundreds of years the Chola kings have been building Shaiva temples all over the country. Through these temples the songs of the three Shaiva poets have been perpetually gaining ground. The divine praises and songs, the festivals drawing cars have become a part of temple lore. Even then, Thirumal has been no less popular. Kannan, the ninth incarnation of Vishnu Moorthi has stolen the hearts of people. His deeds in Kokulam, Brinthavanam and Madurai are forever encrypted in their minds. Amammah! How many choruses, how many street dramas, how many different costumes! – Yes; this is much more than what we have seen before. Spectators’ number and excitement have increased. New groups of performers were arriving from villages surrounding Pazhaiyarai.

One of the acts had performers dressed as Vasudevar, Thevaki, Krishnan, Palaramar and Hamsan. Because there was more singing, dancing and talking in their performance, Azhvarkadiyan stood there watching them. There was an argument taking place between Krishnan and Hamsan. A little boy was dressed as Krishnan. He listed the follies of Hamsan in his baby tongue, challenging Hamsan, “Come, fight with me!” In response, Hamsan thundered: “Aday! Krishna! Your magic tricks won’t succeed with me. I am now going to kill you. I am also going to kill your brother Palaraman. I am going to kill your father. And I am going to kill that brave Vaishnava who is standing there with sandalwood all over his body.” The crowd looked at Azhvarkadiyan and started to laugh. Even the actors Krishnan and Palaraman looked at him. Many in the crowd surrounded him teasing, “Heh, heh! Heh, heh!”

Thirumalai Nambi was furious. He considered using his staff on the crowd. Especially, he wanted to whack Hamsan’s head. But there was no use hitting Hamsan’s head. Because his head was a wooden mask painted with grotesque teeth and mustache. All in all it was not a good idea to use his stick on such a big crowd. He slipped away from there. Hamsan’s voice, even though he was shouting with all his might, seemed familiar to Azhvarkadiyan. He wondered when he had heard it before, while he walked away.

There was a sudden change in the people’s celebratory mood. As he walked he could see them less and less excited. What is this? Why this change suddenly? Why are the crowds dispersing so quickly? The sound of the drums, singing and dancing have come to a halt. …! Instead people are whispering to each other in small groups on the side of the street. Then they are hurrying away. Why are the doors slamming thadal! thadal! …??

Here is the reason. The same announcement about the spy, that made Madam Kundavai shiver, was the reason. The announcement had spoiled the people’s merriment who had gathered to enjoy the festival. They were staring at people walking alone. They were looking at strangers with suspicion. Some even looked at Azhvarkadiyan with suspicion as they hurried away.

Thirumalai guessed the reason. Not only that. He guessed what they were speaking as they gathered in small groups on sidewalks. The few words that he heard confirmed his suspicion.

They were speaking of the tyrannical rule under the Pazhuvertaraiyar brothers. It was expected of the people of Pazhaiyarai and its surrounding villages to be angry at the Pazhuvertaraiyars. Didn’t they take the emperor of whom the learned poets had sung, ‘incomparable in this world, that Pazhaiyarai Sundara Cholan!’, from Pazhaiyarai to Thanjai? Hasn’t Pazhaiyarai’s status declined ever since? Today on the day of Krishnan’s birthday, how much more exuberant it would be, if only the emperor were here in this city? Won’t the performers following their performances in the streets, assemble finally in the grounds of the palace? Won’t the emperor award prizes to the winners, lute players, songstresses and poets? Won’t the crowds be so big as if the entire Chola Nadu had gathered there? Won’t the shops have profited a hundred times more in sales? When Venugopal Swami parade left the sky temple there would have been so much more excitement with singing and dancing, fencing and sword fighting.

All this was in the past because of the Pazhuvertaraiyar brothers. In addition the people of Pazhaiyarai harbored another big grievance in their hearts. The apple of their eye, Prince Arulmozhi Varmar had traveled across oceans to take part in the war against Lanka. Ten thousand soldiers belonging to the four military settlements of Pazhaiyarai have gone with him under his command. They are engaged in a war to prove the proud and heroic culture of Tamil Nadu in a country full of mountains and forests. Didn’t Kodumbaloor Illango lose his life there after fighting at the forefront and bravely taking a spear aimed at his chest? Didn’t the remaining Chola soldiers fight till the end and give up their lives? Prince Arulmozhi Varmar has gone there in order to plant the flag of victory so that the souls of all the dead warriors can rest in peace. Are these Pazhuvertaraiyar brothers refusing to send food, clothing, money and arms to our soldiers who are fighting under his command? What injustice? Is this possible? Haven’t they filled the granary with paddy at Thanjavoor fortress? Why have so much? What is the need for the wealth accumulated in the treasury over hundreds of years? What is the use of wealth and grain that cannot be used by our soldiers now? What are these Pazhuvertaraiyar brothers going to do with all of this? Are they going to take it with them to the netherworld when they die?

Thirumalai Nambi had known about the people’s discontent for some time now. Also, it is natural for the Chola people to be angry over this matter. Aren’t the wives, children and relatives of those ten thousand soldiers who are in Lanka battlefield, still living in this city?

Therefore, the people of Pazhaiyarai did not like the public announcement authorized by the Pazhuvertaraiyar brothers about the spy who had committed a crime. It provided them a reason to criticize the brothers. Spy! From which country is a spy going to materialize here? The tiger flag is flying from Kumari Munai to Vada Pennai! Who is the foreign king who is powerful enough to send a spy here? If there is anyone that they don’t like, these Pazhuvertaraiyar brothers will charge him with espionage and finish him off! Or they will put him behind bars in that underground prison! … In any case why do we need this trouble? They have the power in their hands! Justice, injustice, they will do whatever they want to! With this charge of espionarge, are they preempting the need for a public hearing?

Azhvarkadiyan, partly through word and partly through guesswork, surmised what the Pazhaiyarai people were muttering to themselves, whispering to each other, in soft voices. He reached Kundavai Devi’s palace wondering where this discontent that was fermenting in the hearts of the people would end.

The junior stateswoman always liked discussing world affairs with Azhvarkadiyan. He would bring news to her after combing the country and its cities. The princess was eager to know about it. She also liked hearing the Azhvar songs that he had discovered. Therefore, she would eagerly welcome Thirumalai Nambi, whenever he came. She would cordially inquire after his welfare.

But today, Azhvarkadiyan noticed a difference in the princesses’ demeanor. Her face indicated that she was preoccupied with something else; her speech was not in her usual manner, a bit hurried, a bit uncertain. “Thirumalai! What is special? What brings you here?” asked Kundavai.

“Nothing special, Madam! As usual, I thought that you wanted to hear about what’s going on in the world. Pardon me! I will take my leave.”

“No,no! Wait a while! I was the one who told you to come …”

“Madam! I forgot to tell! A while ago I was in the presence of the elder Madam. She has something important to tell you. She wanted to see your highness …”

“Alright; I was thinking of going there. Where and where did you go this time? Tell me!”

“I traveled from the southern tip to the northern most holy mountain.”

“What are people saying in these places?”

“They speak of the Chola dynasty’s glory. They believe that very soon the Chola empire would have spread to the banks of the river Ganges and Himothkiri in the north. …”

“What else?”

“They also speak in admiration of the Pazhuvertaraiyar brothers’ brave achievements. The reason that the Chola empire has been so successful is because of the Pazhuvertaraiyar brothers …”

“Enough; what else are they saying?”

“They speak of your two brothers with affection. Especially I cannot say enough about their love and support for Prince Arulmozhivarmar.”

“That is not surprising! Any other talk?”

“They wonder why the emperor’s daughter remains unmarried. Many people even asked me …”

“What did you reply?”

“I told them that a prince good enough for our young princess had not been born yet …”

“Very nice! He is yet to be born! By the time he is big enough for marriage I will be an old woman! Let my affairs be, Thirumalai! Is there any other talk?”

“Of course there is. Many people are surprised about the sudden marriage of Mathuranthaka Thevar who was aspiring to be a Shaiva scholar and priest. …”

“Your dearest sister … You said she was going to be a priestess like Aandahal … How is she now?”

“What has she got to complain, Madam? She is the ruling queen in the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar’s palace. …”

“Only in Pazhuvertaraiyar’s palace? I heard that she is the queen of the Chola empire …!”

“Some people are saying that too, Madam! But leave her alone. Why speak about her on this holy day? Your remark about Aandahl reminded me of something. I went to Sri Villiputhoor. I learnt some of Pattarpiran Vishnusithar’s songs. Listen to this, Madam! A song about Kannan’s birthday:-

colorful palaces this fortress city surrounds

a head full of hair this Kannan was born

sprinkling oil and then saffron

his courtyard a river mixed

running and falling happily

they seeked him ‘where is He’

a village of shepherds turned into

singing dancing beat of drums

Today our Pazhaiyarai town also looks as festive as Aayar Pahdi.”

“Festive, yes! But they were beating the drums over something just now. What is that, Thirumalai?”

Azhvarkadiyan was waiting for this question. He said, “Some spy it seems! Apparently he had escaped! There is an award for anyone who turns him in! What do I know about all this, Madam?”

“Do you know anything? Is there any suspicion about who it might be?”

“I have a suspicion. But it is dangerous to talk about it. Some people were even staring at me on the street. What if someone were to drag me and dump me in the dungeon …?”

“To catch you they must have horns on their heads! If you like you can tell me what you think! I have no intention of turning you in .”

“Krishna! Krishna! Nothing like that. I saw a young man in Veeranarayanapuram. He told me he was on his way to Thanjavur. He didn’t tell me the reason. He asked me many questions …”

Kundavai excitedly asked, “What did he look like?”

“He appeared to be of noble birth. Handsome; highly motivated and strong willed.”

“What did he ask you?”

“He asked about the emperor’s health, about who is in line for the throne, about the prince who had gone to Lanka. And later, I heard that he had asked the same questions from Kudanthai astrologer …”

“Aha! He was at Kudanthai astrologer’s?”

“I remember now. When you were at the astrologer’s he had abruptly made an entrance. Fortunately, he did not recognize you, it seems …!”

“I was correct in my thinking.”

“What did you think?”

“I thought that young man was in imminent danger.”

“You thought correctly. I suspect that he is the spy. Pazhuvertaraiyar brothers are offering the reward for his capture.”

“Thirumalai! Will you do me a favor?”

“Command me, Madam!”

“If you ever see that young man …”

“Shall I turn him in and get the reward?”

“No, no! You bring him to me! I have something important for him.”

Azhvarkadiyan stared at Princess Kundavai’s face for a while as if he was taken by surprise. Then he said, “That will not be necessary, Madam! I don’t have to look for him. He will find you himself!”

47. Eesana Sivapattar

After visiting the Princess, Azhvarkadiyan went to his elder brother Eesana Sivapattar’s house. His house was very close to Vadamettali Sivan temple, about 4 miles from the palace. The path from the palace to the temple presented a good view of Pazhaiyarai town, its size and attractions.

Azhvarkadiyan observed that the birthday celebrations for Krishnan have come to an end. Along the residential neighborhoods he saw women congregating to speak angrily. All of these women had sent their husbands or sons to the war in Lanka with Vanchi flower garlands. There was not a single house there that had not lost a soldier in the wars that Chola empire had waged in all four directions. Thirumalai Appan saw these women now whispering in their state of disgruntlement. He worried as to what damage all of this was going to cause: “What doom does all of this anger foretell?”

It was dark when he reached the temple at Vadamettali. This was the temple sung by Appar Peruman. In his time the Jains built artificial hills around this temple with caves situated in the hills. In these caves the Jainists practiced meditation in their state of nirvana. To remind us of this even today there is a place called Muzhiyoor near Pazhaiyarai. When Appar Peruman visited Pazhaiyarai, upon hearing of its fame for meditation, the Jainist caves were hiding the Sivan temple entirely. It pained Appar to see the spiritual implication. He complained to the Pallava representative who was tending to the affairs of Chola Nadu at that time. This noble king removed a portion of the artificial caves by breaking it down. Inside then, one could see a small Sivan temple. Appar sang in happiness.

The temple was later further developed by Chola kings. But still the temple remained surrounded by mountain caves which served as a wall. To enter the temple there was only one gateway. There were no other entrances. Through the gateway tower one can enter the courtyard of the temple and reach Eesana Pattar’s house easily. Or else, one had to go around all the way.

To reach his brother’s place using this shortcut Thirumalai entered the tower. Inside he could see some priests in the sanctuary. They resembled the performers dressed as Krishnan and Palaramar. “Aha! How did they end up here? ” Before he could carry this thought further, Eesana Pattar hurried out of the temple. He dragged Azhvarkadiyan out who had just entered through the tower by his hand.

“Brother! What is this?” asked Azhvarkadiyan.

“I’ll tell you, Thirumalai! Hereafter, let our relationship be outside of the temple. You are a traitor. You are a religious opportunist who commits Shaiva blasphemy; don’t step into this Siva temple! Understand? I have been very patient. I could not stand what you said in front of the great queen today. If you like you come home and fill your stomach and leave! But do not step inside the temple! If you do I will become like Sahndeswara Nayanar!” saying this Eesana Pattar grabbed Thirumalai by his neck and pushed him out, slamming and bolting the door from inside without pausing to hear Thirumalai as he began, “Brother! Brother!”

‘Oho! is that the matter?’ Azhvarkadiyan muttered. He stood there for a while. Then he circled the temple including the Jainist mountain caves two or three times. He went leftward as rightward circles would constitute worship. He saw that the entrance to all the Jainist mountain caves in the circular hills were shuttered. Then he went to Eesana Pattar’s house. Pattar’s wife was very fond of Thirumalai’s humor. He used more humor than usual in his talk as he ate heartily the Sivan temple food. Then he slept on the front veranda. He recalled a scene from the previous day that he had witnessed on the banks of Kudamuruti river.

Hearing the sound of horses speeding from the opposite direction, he had hid behind the dense bamboo cover. It seemed as if the horse in front was out of control. It was soaking wet. It was difficult to say if it was sweat or if the horse had crossed the river swimming. A small child was seated on top. He was tied to the horse. There was fear as well as a certain resolve on the child’s face. Behind were four or five more horses with soldiers bearing spears riding them. They were very close to the horse in front. It seemed that they were about to catch up with this horse. One of them raised his spear and took aim at the horse in front. A second soldier stopped him. At that time the horse had to pass under the bamboo thicket. One of the bamboo branches got entangled in the child’s hair. While the child was dangling in this precarious position, the horse pulling forward and the bamboo backward, the horse men caught up with him. They became angry with surprise and shock at the sight of the child tied to the horse. They asked him something. He replied stammering. Azhvarkadiyan could not hear the details. He heard the question “Who is he?” “Who is he?” repeated several times. He heard the child answering through sobs, “He went with the flood,” and then, “He fell into the river.” The soldiers proceeded with the horse and the boy.

At that time Thirumalai didn’t understand what the incident meant. Now it started to make sense. Meanwhile, he also remembered the street performers, especially the voice and mannerism of the performer who was dressed as Hamsan, wearing a wooden mask to hide his face. He began to understand whose voice it was.

After finishing the midnight worship, Eesana Pattar came home. He saw Azhvarkadiyan sleeping on the front veranda. “Thirumalai! Thirumalai!” he shouted angrily. Thirumali pretended to be fast asleep. Pattar slammed the door and went inside. Thirumalai could vaguely hear him speaking to his wife in what appeared to be an angry tone. He knew that the fight was about him.

In the morning, Eesana Pattar asked Thirumalai, “When are you leaving again on your journey?”

“I’ll leave after you cool down, Annah!” he replied.

Don’t call me ‘Annah‘ hereafter. From today onward I am not your elder brother; you are not my younger brother. You are an enemy of Siva; sinner; lowlife …”

Pattar’s wife spoke on behalf of Thirumalai, “Why do you curse him so? What has he said new that he hasn’t already said? Your Siva devotion is what has gone up!”

“You don’t know anything. Do you know what and what he said in the presence of the great queen yesterday? He asked why Paramasivan who loiters in the cremation grounds painted in ashes needs a temple. It felt like molten lead being poured down my ears. Apparently the queen didn’t sleep all night!”

“He won’t speak like that hereafter. I will advice him and correct him. If you speak nicely he will listen!”

“Speak nicely! Speak harshly! Let him go to Rameshwaram at once. Let him worship the Sivalingam that Ramar worshiped to free himself of sin. That will be his penance. Until he does that I will not accept him,” he said.

Thirumalai’s lips were trembling. He was itching to return the insult with interest. But he maintained his composure for the sake of his mission. Pattar’s wife again interfered, “So what? If you tell him to go to Rameshwaram, he will go. We also can go with him. After all this time we are still childless. Who knows what sins we committed in our previous birth? Thirumalai! Shall we all go to Rameshwaram?”

Sivapattar went in after glaring at them angrily. After a short while he returned and spoke to Thirumalai calmly, “Thambi! ‘Anger and revenge are barbaric’, our elders have said. I gave in to anger. I hope you are not hurt.”

“Not at all!” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“In that case, wait here! I will be back once I finish the early morning pooja. I need your advice on some important matters. Will you be here? You won’t go anywhere?” he asked.

“I won’t go anywhere, Annah! I have no intention of leaving you!” he answered.

Pattar left. Azhvarkadiyan repeatedly said to himself, “Is that so?” Then without even telling his sister-in-law, he left. He circled Vadamettali temple surrounded by the man-made hills two or three times. If he heard any noise he hid himself.

His expectations were not wasted. One of the mountain cave entrances opened slowly. First, Eesana Pattar stepped out after checking in all three directions carefully. Behind him followed another man. Aha! Who is he? Can’t see his face. The figure looks like the guy dressed as Hamsan! Who can it be? I am not going to give this up. Oho! Was this why all the anger and argument? Secrets and cover-up! Leaving the cave the two men walked in front. Azhvarkadiyan followed discreetly.

After walking for a short time they reached the canal. It was the canal that spread like the ocean washing its waves behind the Chola palaces. But this side of the canal was quite a distance west of the palace. At the edge of the water stood several trees with dense foliage. Azhvarkadiyan stood behind one of them placing his head between two branches. There was a boat rocking in the waves. It looked like one of the palace boats. Next to it a boatman stood on the shore. When he saw Pattar and his companion he pulled the boat close to the shore. Both men climbed in. Once the boat was moving, Pattar’s companion turned and looked at the shore. His face was clearly visible. Azhvarkadiyan was not surprised. He had guessed correctly. It was the young man whom he had met both at Veeranarayanapuram and in the boat at Kollidam! There was no doubt he was the one dressed as Hamsan. Where are they going in this boat? Got to find that out too! He had to see if his guess was correct about the boat’s destination as well.

On the street where the Chola palaces towered toward the sky, the last one stood locked up. It belonged to Sundara Cholar’s chief minister Anirutha Pirumarayar. Chief minister Aniruther had gone to Madurai in order to reorganize the administration of Pandiya Nadu. His family was in Thanjavur. Therefore his Pazhaiyarai palace was locked up.

Azhvarkadiyan came to this palace. When the palace guards saw him they stepped forward respectfully. He ordered them to open the gate. They opened the gate. Following his orders they re-locked the gate from the outside. Passing the first three sections of the palace, Azhvarkadiyan reached the garden. A vine covered path led the way through the dense thicket of shrubs and trees. Through this path Thirumalai soon reached the garden of Kundavai Devi’s palace. From a hiding place in a pergola, he looked around. His efforts had not been in vain.

There took place a scene worthy of description by a great poet as Kalithasan. The boat reached the canal edge. Eesana Pattar and Vandhiyathevan climbed out of the boat. They came up the steps arising from the water’s edge. At a short distance from the steps, on a marble platform Princess Kundavai was seated. Once the men reached the top of the steps, Princess Kundavai Devi stood up. Only then Vandhiyathevan took a good look at this woman’s beautiful face. He stood there looking.

Between the two of them a flowering vine stretched its budding hand. On it landed a beautiful butterfly with its colorful variegated wings. Kundavai bent her face slightly to look at the butterfly. Vandhiyathevan stared at the flower that was Kundavai’s face without ever closing his eyelids.

In the canal, waves rose noisily only to wash up quietly. Birds paused in their singing. This world and the worlds beyond stopped in their twirling.

Many eons went by.

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