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Ponniyin Selvan Part II (29)

June 6, 2015

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

29. ELEPHANT KEEPER

Two thousand years ago – a thousand years before the events in this story happened – there was a Sinhala king called Valahambahu. During his time also the Tamil troops went to war against Ilankai. Valahambahu at that time escaped from the capital and hid in a mountain cave in a place known as Dambulla. Later, he assembled an army and returned to capture Anuradhapura again. He excavated the mountain cave that had given him shelter and made it into a temple. As an expression of his gratitude to Buddha he instituted the placement of several Buddha statues, large and small inside this cave. The sculptors who constructed hundreds of Buddha statues did not feel satisfied that they had displayed all of their talent. Therefore in between the Buddha statues they also sculpted a few Hindu deities. These rare sculptures can be seen in the cave-temple of Dambulla even today.

When Vandhiyathevan entered this sacred place he felt as if he had entered a new world. The fragrance of fresh flowers intoxicated him. Along the streets were piled heaps of lotus and chempakam buds. The devotees bought these flowers and carried them to the temple in beautiful baskets made out of palm leaves. The crowds of devotees consisting of both men and women blocked the streets. Buddhist monks in red-ochre cloth were also seen here and there. ‘Sadhu, Sadhu’ – the crowd chanted.

All of this presented itself as a great surprise to Vandhiyathevan. “I thought we were approaching the center of a war. This looks like a site of Buddhist pilgrimage, doesn’t it?” he said to Azhvarkadiyan.

“Yes, Son! This is a site of Buddhist pilgrimage that had been famous for thousand years!” he answered.

“But you said that this is under the Chola garrison?”

“Yes; I am saying it even now.”

“Chola soldiers are not seen here?”

“They are outside the town in military settlements. This is the prince’s order.”

“Which prince?”

“Why? We have come in search of him, that same prince!”

“I was going to ask you about it. After looking for the prince here, Parthipenthiran is saying ‘no’, and going back? What is the use in us looking for him here again?”

“Would I trust that Pallavan saying ‘no’? I will find out for myself. Raniyan said that there was no god called ‘Hari.’ Did Prahalathan believe that?”

“Oh! Brave Vaishnava! Weren’t you fighting interminably with the Shaivars in our country? Here there are so many Buddhist monks going about. You are coming quietly. What is the reason? Are you fearful because the crowd of enemies is bigger?”

“Brother! What is fear? How does it look?”

“Dark and monstrous and as big as an elephant. You have never seen?”

“No,” Azhvarkadiyan after answering, approached two bystanders on the street. They appeared to be Tamils. After speaking to them briefly Azhvarkadiyan returned.

“Vaishnava! What did you ask them? Did you ask if Vishnu was great or Buddha was great? In this town anyone you ask will say ‘Buddha is great.’ Haven’t you seen how big each statue of Buddha is?”

“Brother! I have bundled up and left my fanatic Vaishnavism at Rameshvaram and come here on a government matter, you see?”

“Then what did you ask those men? Did you ask about the prince?”

“No; I asked what was special here today.”

“What did they say?”

“Today there’s going to be two Chinese pilgrims visiting here; because of that there is a ceremony at the Buddhist vihara; they said that is why the place feels so festive.”

“Where are the Chinese pilgrims coming from?”

“They came here yesterday and then left for Simmakiri. They said that they are now returning from Simmakiri and that they will be here in a short while.”

“Where is Simmakiri?”

“It is about ten miles from here. It is still with the Sinhalese. At daytime it can be seen from here. There is a well fortified fortress on top of the Simmakiri hill. There, in a cave are a treasure of beautiful brightly colored paintings. The Chinese pilgrims must have gone there to see those paintings. They would have had a difficult time climbing the hill… See there!”

Where Azhvarkadiyan pointed to, there was a big decorated elephant coming. In its howdah were two people seated. Their appearance and attire said that they were the Chinese pilgrims. With goad in hand an elephant-driver was seated on the elephant’s neck. People walked surrounding the elephant shouting and cheering variously.

“Did you see?” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“I saw; I saw! Oh, Mother! What a huge elephant? Should we see if there’s a deep pit nearby?’

“Don’t, don’t, just stand to a side of the street.”

Accordingly, they stood to a side as the elephant came closer. The elephant went past them; the crowd of people also followed the elephant.

Vandhiyathevan had eyes only for the pilgrims seated in the howdah. He marveled at the piety of the Chinese pilgrims who had crossed many seas and traveled far to visit the sacred Buddhist place. It is right that they are being received and treated so well here. But how miraculous is it that they can be on a pilgrimage facing no harm during a time of war? This must be the organization of Prince Arulmozhivarmar. He is the one who can conduct his affairs with such generosity. But where is he now? Is it possible to find him? Is it going to be a wasted effort, traveling with this Vaishnava, facing all these difficulties?

“Brother! Did you see?” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“I saw.”

“What did you see?”

“The Chinese pilgrims’ faces were flat. Their attire was strange…”

“I didn’t ask about the pilgrims.”

“Then?”

“I asked if you paid attention to the elephant-driver?”

“Elephant-driver? I didn’t pay attention at all!”

“Wonderful. You didn’t notice the light that sparkled in his eyes when by chance his sight fell on us?”

“What’s that? Is there a flame torch in the elephant-driver’s eyes for it to sparkle?”

“You are a great guy! I don’t know whether to be surprised at your inattentiveness, or to be surprised at the junior stateswoman for trusting you with such an important matter. Never mind. Come with me!”

They also followed behind at a distance, the elephant and the crowd that surrounded the elephant.

The elephant stopped when it reached the Buddist vihara. After the elephant keeper said something it lowered itself bending its legs. The pilgrims got down. The group of Buddhist monks who stood at the entrance of the Buddist vihara welcomed the Chinese pilgrims. Conch shells blared; temple bells rang out. From the tower of the vihara flowers rained down. ‘Buddham saranam kachami’ – the chant reached the skies. The two Chinese pilgrims went inside the vihara. Most of those who came along also went inside following them.

The elephant-driver who had got down from the elephant even before the pilgrims, made the elephant stand and then walked with it. He looked at four people standing a short distance away. He handed the elephant over to one of them. To another, he pointed to Azhvarkadiyan and said something. He took the other two and soon disappeared turning a corner on the street.

The man to whom the elephant keeper had pointed out Azhvarkadiyan came towards the spot where they were standing. In a soft voice he asked Azhvarkadiyan, “Sir! Are you willing to come with me?”

“We are waiting just for that,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“Do you have any identification?”

Azhvarkadiyan showed the ring with the Kodumbalur seal that the colonel had given.

“Alright, come behind me.” As he walked in front, they followed. When they went past the town, there appeared a narrow path through the forest. After a short distance on it, they reached a dilapidated building a little away from the path. The man who brought them informed them that they have to wait in it for a short time. Then he climbed on a tree and began to watch the path that they had taken.

“What is all this mystery? I don’t understand anything!” Vandhiyathevan asked.

“Soon it will be clear. Be a little patient!” said Azhvarkadiyan.

Behind the old building there were two horses tied. That there were only two horses became a source of some worry for Vandhiyathevan.

What can be the mystery about the elephant-driver? Vandhiyathevan’s eyes had just momentarily glanced at his face. After that his attention had gone to the Chinese pilgrims. He tried as much as was possible to remember the face of the elephant-driver. Nothing came to mind.

“Vaishnava! Who is that elephant-keeper? Can’t you tell me?”

“Who can it be? You make a guess, Brother!”

“Is the elephant-driver, Ponniyin Selvar?”

“It appeared so from the brightness in his eyes, that one second.”

“Like you, can’t the others have recognized him also?”

“They can’t. As for the pilgrims from China, who would expect the prince to be the elephant-driver? In addition, the people in this town has never seen the prince.”

“Didn’t you say that the Chinese pilgrims were coming from Simmakiri?”

“Yes.”

“Didn’t you say that Simmakiri was still under the Sinhalese?”

“I did.”

“Then, is the prince returning after being in the midst of enemies?”

“Not only Simmakiri! The prince had gone with the Chinese pilgrims and returned from other pilgrim sites like Mahiyangana and Samanthakudam that are in the middle of enemy held territory.”

“Why did he put himself in such danger?”

“Because of the enormous desire to see these pilgrim sites and the art and sculpture wonders there!”

“Nice desire! Nice prince! Is this playful person the prince, whom that Kudanthai astrologer said would become the sole emperor that crown kings would salute?”

“Did the Kudanthai astrologer say that, Brother?”

“You also believe that?”

“I don’t believe in astrology. And I don’t have the need to consult astrology.”

“Then what?”

“Even without astrology I know for certain…”

Suddenly the sound of hooves were heard. It was approaching the spot where they were. The man watching from the tree climbed down in a hurry. He fetched the two horses. He climbed onto one. He told Azhvarkadiyan to climb on the other one. “In a short while there will be some horses going on this path. We also must go, following them,” he said.

Vandhiyathevan asked, “Horse for me?”

“The order is for me to bring only him!”

“Whose order?”

“I don’t have the authority to say that.”

“I have to see the prince immediately. I have brought very important news.”

“I don’t know anything about it, Sir!”

“Brother! Be a little patient! I will go and tell the prince and make arrangements to bring you,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“Vaishnava! The news I have brought is very important, very urgent. Don’t you know this?”

“Give me that ola; I will hand it over.”

“I cannot do that.”

“In that case be a little patient, there is no other way!”

“Is there no other way?”

“None at all!”

Vandhiyathevan’s heart bellowed. There is no doubt that they are taking Azhvarkadiyan to the prince. ‘What is Azhvarkadiyan going to tell him’, the colonel had told him to observe. That will not be possible! The horses came close; they went past their spot; they flew at the speed it takes for a flash of lightening.

The two who were ready on horses by the building pulled and shook their bridles urging the horses to go. At that time an incident that no one expected happened. Vandhiyathevan grabbed one leg of the man on top of the horse and pushed him upwards in a toppling motion. The man fell down in one sweep. Vandhiyathevan leapt onto the horse; the horse flew. Following it Azhvarkadiyan’s horse also flew. The soldier who fell down, after shouting drew the dagger out of its sheath and threw it. Vandhiyathevan bent his head and lay on the horse prostrating his body against its spine. The dagger that the soldier threw traveled fast and sank deep into a tree. The two horses flew as wind.

The two horses went following the three going in front, not too closely and not too far behind. ‘Good job, Brother!’, Azhvarkadiyan  encouraged Vandhiyathevan. But Vandhiyathevan did not say anything in reply. His mind was caught in a worry as to what the outcome of this was going to be. The thought also appeared as to why he had for the sake of a woman’s word come crossing the sea to a distant country and got caught in such a dilemma. The horses went as fast as wind and mind on the narrow forest track.

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