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Ponniyin Selvan Part II (28)

May 31, 2015

From Part II of the novel Ponniyin Selvan written by Kalki Krishnamoorthi.

28. ROYAL THOROUGHFARE

Would an elephant in heat stop in its tracks frightened by the stick in Azhvarkadiyan’s hand and his loud rebuke? Boldly raising its trunk, destroying the shrubs and vines on its path, it proceeded. There was no doubt that in the next second Azvarkadiyan’s luck would be over! The two soldiers who were meant to protect shouted ‘Hai Hai’ while rooted to their spot. Vandhiyathevan considered picking up again the spear that had slipped from his hand to the ground and giving it one last try. At the same time Azhvarkadiyan threw the stick in his hand at the rutting elephant.

Azhvarkadiyan disappeared the following second. His turban flew in the air and landed on a branch. Before one could think of what had become of Azhvarkadiyan another more important event took place. The elephant that reached the place where he disappeared bent its forelegs suddenly as if to kneel and tilted forward. A piercingly frightening cry was heard that echoed throughout the forest. The next second the entire mountain like form of that rutting elephant had disappeared. Dust arising from the rocks that were displaced as the elephant rolled down that deep valley drifted upwards. It took a while for Vandhiyathevan to understand what had happened.

Because of the valley that was behind and the speed at which he threw the spear Azhvarkadiyan had tumbled backwards and fallen. The elephant in heat that pursued him also placed its two front legs into the abyss. Afterwards, even if it tried it could not back down. The mountainous weight of its large body itself became its foe and buried it into that pit! The same kind of death had visited at the same time both the rutting elephant, and Azhvarkadiyan who was like a rutting elephant himself!

Vandhiyathevan’s body trembled as his mind realized this. In his heart was born a great agony. All of the suspicions Vandhiyathevan had had about this holy Vaishnavan had disappeared and a sort of affection towards him had developed during the journey. Is this the kind of luck that should visit someone like him? There was also the worry that he has to finish his mission without anyone’s help and guidance. Vandhiyathevan went near the spot where the Vaishnavan and the elephant had fallen into the pit and looked down.

At first it was a cloud of dust, nothing was visible. Gradually as the dust settled, fallen shrubs, vines and rocks were seen in the path the elephant had taken.

“What, Brother! You are just standing there watching the fun! Can’t you give a hand!” Vandhiyathevan was thuderstruck upon hearing the voice.

Trying not to lose his balance in his state of shock, he looked in the direction of the voice. Azhvarkadiyan was hanging, holding onto the root of a tree at the vertical decline near where the elephant had fallen. Must one strive to see Vandhiyathevan perk up? At once the jokes followed.

“Ohoho! Vaishnavar! Handing Gajendran the heaven you have waited in Thirisanku heaven?” While speaking, he clapped his hands to summon the soldiers.

He unwrapped the cloth roll that was fastened around his waist and had the two soldiers hold one end firmly. When the other end was lowered Azhvarkadiyan let go of the root and grabbed it. All three of them worked hard together -‘your turn’, ‘my turn’ – to slowly bring up the Vaishnavan.

For a short time Azhvarkadiyan letting out a long sigh, lay there as if unconscious. Others surrounded him comforting and fanning him.

Suddenly he sat up and asked, “Get started! Before it gets really dark we should reach the royal thoroughfare. Where is my turban? Where is my stick?”

“There is no hurry, you lie down for a while and rest. We can leave after,” said Vandhiyathevan.

At that time there was the sound of a fox howling. From another side another fox began its sweet music. Hundred to two hundred foxes sang in a chorus. There was movement and rustle at several points from the hill to the valley. There was no need to be told that the cause were tigers that move hidden behind the bushes. Over the valley, eagles and hawks began to circle.

“An elephant’s death is no ordinary matter. Meat-eating animals and birds would arrive in a short time even from afar to taste gajendran’s body. We would also become their meal. Start at once!” said Azhvarkadiyan.

Now Vandhiyathevan did not object to what was said. The four of them went as quickly as they could in the forest path. At sunset they reached the royal thoroughfare.

On the royal thoroughfare there was much commotion with carts, wagons and people coming and going. Vandhiyathevan was surprised to see people riding on elephants without a care. ‘Is this the animal that caused such terror in the forest?’ he bemused.

“From where to where is this royal thoroughfare leading? From where have we come? Where are we going?” he asked.

“We have come to the royal thoroughfare leading from Anuradhapura to Simmakiri. It is another five miles to Dambulla. We can be there tonight,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“We could have traveled comfortably on the royal thoroughfare. Why did we take the forest track?”

“If we had come all the way on the royal thoroughfare they would have stopped us and searched us at a hundred places. They would have stopped us completely at Anuradhapura. I came to know that the person we have come to see had gone in the direction of Simmakiri. That is why I took the shortcut. Who knows even now if we are going to find him or not? He should not have gone somewhere else!” said Azhvarkadiyan.¹

On both sides of the thoroughfare were many houses, villages, streets with shops, blacksmith and carpenter workshops. Those who lived and worked there appeared to be mostly Sinhalese. On the thoroughfare Tamilnadu soldiers were going up and down. But the Sinhalese who lived on both sides were going about their work without obstacles or fear.

“Under whom is this area now?” asked Vandhiyathevan.

“Chola garrison has taken over up to Dambulla. Beyond that Simmakiri mountain and the fortress are in the hands of Mahinthan.”

“People who live around here?”

“Mostly Sinhalese indeed. After ‘Ponniyin Selvar’ came here the nature of the war had changed. Fight is between the Chola soldiers and Mahinthan’s soldiers. That is when they face each other in the battlefield. Otherwise the citizens can live fearlessly. It is a festival for the Buddhist monks. It seems our prince has ordered to rebuild all the damaged Buddhist viharas in Anuradhapura! Did you hear the story? Why won’t the Buddhist monks celebrate? When I meet the prince, I am going to say, ‘I don’t like at all what you are doing!’…”

“Certainly, tell him. Who is this prince who does what you disapprove of? Has he got a horn sprouting?” said Vallavaraiyan.

“He hasn’t a horn sprouting. Brother! It is true! But there is some magnetism about him. However much they criticize him in his absence when they come face to face with him they swoon in. No one has the strength to speak against him. That kind of strength, – the strength to make the prince act according to their will, – only one person has it…”

“Yes, yes! Who does not know of the magical power of the brave Vaishnava Azhvarkadiyar? How can the prince compare to the one who won against the terrifying mad elephant with his stick!”

“You didn’t understand what I said, Brother! Where is Ponniyin Selvar? Where is this poor Vaishnavan? I will  stand against the rutting elephant with a stick; I will stand against the tiger, bear and the lion with bare hands. But when I stand face to face with Ponniyin Selvar my strength abandons me. My heart becomes soft. My throat is blocked. Getting a word out of my mouth becomes a challenge in creation…”

“Then whom did you mean as the person who has power over him?”

“This is news known all over the world; you don’t know? I am talking about the junior stateswoman. Kundavai Devi’s word is god’s word for him!”

“Oho! You are talking about the Pazhaiyarai junior stateswoman? I was thinking that you meant your sister, Pazhuvur Illaiyarani!”

“Nandhini also has extraordinary powers. But her power is different.”

“How? What is the difference?”

“If a man is about to plunge into hell, Kundavai Devi would stop him and make him enter heaven; that is one kind of power. What will Nandhini do? Her power is a grade above, it must be said. She will maintain that hell is indeed heaven, she will make the person believe it, and jump into it happily!”

Vandhiyathevan’s body shuddered. How accurately this brave Vaishnavan has gauged Nandhini’s strange character and the dangerous attraction she wields! Can it be true that Nandhini is his sister? Because Vandhiyathevan became immersed in this thought he didn’t question further. For a short distance they walked in silence.

Interfering with this silence the sound of hooves were heard. It came from the opposite direction. In a few minutes four horses came speeding on their four legged gait. The horses that came like the tornado stirring up the dust went past our pedestrian travelers as a flash of lightening. Yet in that short instance Vandhiyathevan was able to recognize the face of one of the men on the horses! Aha! Isn’t he Parthipenthira Varman? The confidential friend of Prince Athithar in Kanji? The one who doesn’t like me that much? Where has he come here, and where is he going? Why did he come to Ilankai? When did he come?…

After the horses went a short distance past the travelers a command was issued in a stately voice, ‘Stop!’ The horses stopped; then they turned toward them. The one who seemed to be their leader led his horse toward them. Others followed. The one in front was as Vandhiyathevan had thought Parthipenthira Pallavan whom we had seen before in Mammallapuram.

After taking a close look at Vandhiyathevan he said, “What’s this, fellow? How did you end up here? They said that you had disappeared mysteriously in Thanjavur? I thought that the Pazhuvertaraiyars had taken care of you!”

“Can the Pazhuvertaraiyars finish me off so easily? Aren’t I from the old Varnar tribe?”

“Yes, yes! There is no one like you who can somehow get away with your life intact…”

“Sir! When it is necessary to save my life I would. When the time arises to sacrifice my life I would sacrifice it too. If I have to die in that manner, I would rather die fighting a descendant of the old Pallava tribe such as you, and not the poor Pazhuvertaraiyars?” While speaking, Vandhiyathevan drew out his sword from its cover.

“Cheche! Are you telling me to fight with you? And in this distant country! Don’t, Brother, don’t! I have some urgent work! What happened to the matter entrusted to you by the prince?”

“I completed it, Sir! I gave the letter meant for the emperor to the emperor. And the letter given for the junior stateswoman to her!”

“Why did you come here?”

“I have been wanting to see Ilankai for a long time. I came with this Vaishnavar for that…”

“Aha! It looks as if I have seen this person also somewhere!…”

“Yes, Lord, you have. I came to prince Athithar to find out if he knew anything about my sister. At that time you were also by his side!…”

“Who is this sister of yours?”

“Nandhini Devi, who is now the Pazhuvur Illaiyarani!”

“Aha! If you think of the harm done to the country by that poisonous snake… we should hoist you onto the stake for being her brother!”

“Lord! I have vowed that one day I will hoist myself onto the stake and die. On that day if you could come and do the honorable service with your own hands…”

“Can I lift you up to the stake? A hundred men will be required for that. Never mind; on your way did you hear any news about the prince? Has he arrived in Anuradhapura, do you know?” asked Parthipenthiran.

“What do we know about all of that, Lord! We came through the forest! An elephant in heat began chasing me in the forest! You see, then…”

“Enough with your tale! Who knows? One day I may hoist you onto the stake and fulfill your desire!” Parthipenthiran said turning his horse.

Azhvarkadiyan, while speaking to Parthipenthiran was carefully scrutinizing the men with him.

After they turned their horses and left Azhvarkadiyan turned to Vandhiyathevan and asked eagerly, “Brother! Did you see the other three men? Have you seen anyone of them before?”

“No, I have never seen them!” said Vandhiyathevan.

“Yes, You won’t have seen. I have seen two out of the three. I saw them at Thirupurampayam pallipadai at midnight! Oh, God! What terrifying vow did they make!” When Azhvarkadiyan said this his entire body trembled.

“What is it that was so terrifying about their vow?”

“They vowed to wipe out the Chola weeds from this earth!”

“Aiyayo!”

“It is not clear how they reached here before us! Smart men! They somehow got hold of this Pallava thug, see!” Azhvarkadiyan became silent after that.

Vandhiyathevan was reminded of something he heard at Kodikarai. Didn’t he hear that on the day before he reached Kodikarai two men had left in a hurry to Ilankai, and that Poongkuzhali’s brother had taken them by boat. Were those two among these men? In that case what can be the connection between Parthipenthiran and these men?

The four were nearing the sacred Buddhist place called Dambulla.

(¹ Let’s hope that he has not gone somewhere else.)

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