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Ponniyin Selvan Part II (34)

June 28, 2015

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


At sunset they reached Anuradhapuram. Even while looking at the ancient capital city of Ilankai island from a distance Vandhiyathevan was swept in a sea of wonder losing his ability to speak. He had heard from many about Anuradhapuram. From their descriptions he had even pictured it in his mind. But this great city superseded all that he had conjured. Amammah! How big is this wall? How it extends forever on both sides? It is impossible to know where it bends and takes a turn? Inside the wall there are so many towers, stupas and roof terraces raising their heads and standing majestically! How spaciously spread out they are one from another! Can all of these be part of one city, contained inside one wall? Next to this great city where does one place Kanji, Pazhaiyarai, Thanjai and other cities? Perhaps Padalipuram in  the time of emperor Ashoka, Ujjayini during the reign of Vikramathithan and Kaveripattinam in the days of Karikalvallavan may have been like this city! No other city at the present time can compare to this!…

As the city’s wall and its main entrance came closer, the crowd that was going towards the city also grew. Tamils and Sinhalese, bikhus and laymen, men and women, boys and girls, all turned up in a big crowd. They all went happily as if to a festival parade. A few among them started to notice our three travelers pointing to them. Seeing this Ponniyin Selvar after signaling to the other two left the royal thoroughfare and took a side path. He brought the horse to a stop at the base of a small manmade hill that was hidden by trees. He told the two men following, “The horses have come a long way. Let them rest for a while. We will go into the city once it is dark!”

The three got down from their horses and seated themselves on a rock. “Crowds of people are walking? Perhaps there is some festival in this town today?” asked Vandhiyathevan.

“Of all the festivals in this country today happens to be the biggest!” said the prince.

“I heard there was a war going on in Eezha Nadu. But when I come here it is rather festive!” said Vandhiyathevan.

“Didn’t you say that in Pazhiyarai they celebrated Sri Jayanthi festival?”

“Yes, but Pazhaiyarai is in Chola Nadu…”

“Anuradhapuram is in Eezha Nadu. So what? In Chola Nadu also it is the reign of emperor Sundara Cholar. In Eezha Nadu also it is his sovereign authority…!”

“But there are still enemies in this country?…”

“The enemies are somewhere out there. What can the people here do about it? War must take place in the battlefield; festival must be celebrated in the countryside! Thirumalai! What do you say?” said the prince.

“If there are enemies on the outside here, there, there are enemies on the inside. The ones inside are more dangerous than the ones on the outside. Therefore this servant would say that it is better for the prince to be in this country conducting both festival and war,” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“Very nice. If the internal enemies are more dangerous than the foreign enemies, shouldn’t our prince be there? Isn’t the place facing the highest threat the place for brave men?” said Vandhiyathevan.

“Does chivalry mean stupidly getting caught in the hands of saboteurs and murderers? A brave soldier like you should then be getting caught there! Why have you come running here?” said Thirumalai.

“Enough! Enough! Both of you don’t have to start a war here!” Arulmozhivarmar made peace.

The three entered the city after dark. That day the pilgrims were not stopped at the fort entrance. All were allowed in without restrictions. The guards were merely watching. With the crowds our three gentlemen also entered the city.

The crowds were boundless on the strees of Anuradhapuram also. ‘Sathu! Sathu!’ – the chanting reached the skies. Here and there Vandhiyathevan saw several broken down palaces, towers and viharas. He also saw several broken down buildings being renovated. He decided that the rebuilding work must have taken place following the orders of the prince. What is his intention for doing it? Why is he being so generous toward a conquered people? These Sinhala kings have been fighting with the Tamil country for a thousand years. Instead of burning down and flattening the capital city of these longtime foes, he is permitting festivals and the renovation of fallen buildings! How strange? There is something mysterious about this; what can it be?  An astoundinging thought dawned on Vandhiyathevan’s mind. Yes, yes! It must be so. He has no claim to Chola Nadu. Crown prince Athitha Karikalar is there. To compete with him there is Mathuranthakathevar. Therefore perhaps in this great Ilankai island he wants to establish an independent kingdom and reign as a free king! Who knows? Perhaps his wish may come true! Didn’t the Kudanthai astrologer say? ‘Arulmozhivarmar is like the north star! Those who trust him will have nothing to worry!’ he said. His heart was filled with joy that he had ended up with such a heroic figure.

They stopped in front of an old palace that was broken down on the outside and lay surrounded in darkness. They got down from the horses. The place was a little cloistered away from the main streets. Therefore there were no crowds of people. The prince clapped his hands three times. Immediately as if by Indran’s magic a door opened on the side of the palace making way. It didn’t appear that anyone was present. The prince went in in the dark. Vandhiyathevan looked anxiously behind wondering about the fate of the horses. The prince saying, ‘the horses know the way!’ and dragged him by his hand. They walked in the dark for a while. Then there was a light flickreing, ‘minuk, minuk’. Afterwards a bright light was seen. Vandhiyathevan saw that it was the interior of an ancient palace.

“We must be a little cautious here. This is the anthapuram of emperor Mahasena. Suddenly the emperor might appear and try to chase us away!” said the prince.

“Who is Mahasenar?” asked Vandhiyathevan.

“Mahasenar is the emperor who ruled this Ilankai kingdom six hunderd years ago. He did many good deeds for the common people. Therefore the people think that his ghost is still strolling in this city. Thinking that his ghost will suffer in the cold with no clothes on, they leave clothes hanging on the tree branches! In the palace also no one had lived after him. They have left it empty!” said the prince.

There were servants to help the prince and his guests. After bathing and eating the three went to the tower of the palace. From there they could see the surrounding area. But those below could not see them. They went and sat in such a spot.

“Sir! You said that the Buddha statue gave you the message to be somewhere on the twelvth hour?” asked Vandhiyathevan.

“There is still time. Moon has risen only now! There, when the moon is over the top of that ‘dagoba’ we will go!” said the prince.

Where he pointed stood a large mound like dagoba stupa. As there was ashes from Lord Buddha’s body buried underneath these stupas they were called ‘thathu karpam’. This word later became ‘dagaba.’

“Why did they build such large buildings?” asked Vandhiyathevan.

“In the beginning they built such large symbols to indicate to the people how great Buddha was. The kings who came later though, built them even more big to show how great they were!” said the prince.

After a while a loud uproar like that of the tumultuous ocean was heard. Vandhiyathevan turned in the direction of the sound. In the distance was a large crowd, an ocean of people – was seen coming endlessly stretching into the streets. In the middle of this ocean of people were seen big dark whale like elephants in the hundreds. Like the stars that reflect on the surface of the sea thousands of flame torches shed their light. People were in the hundred thousands.

Vandhiyathevan said, “What’s this? Looks like the enemy is mounting a war?”

“No, no! This is the biggest festival of Ilankai Nadu, Perahara festival!” said the prince.

As the procession neared, Vandhiyathevan’s astonishment increased. He had never seen in his lifetime a scene like that.

At first about thirty elephants came parading. All were adorned with gold masks over their faces. The elephant at the center was statelier as well as the most decorated than all others. On its back was a gold box inlaid with precious stones. Over it was a gold umbrella covering it. Surrounding this center elephant were elephants on whose back Buddhist bikhus were seated moving back and forth white yak tail fans fitted with silver handles. In between the elephants came people bearing oil lamps, flambeaus, and other ornamental lights. In the light of these various lamps, the gold face masks and other jewelry on the dark hill like elephants and the white fans in the Bikhus hands shone brightly and dazzled the eyes.

Behind the elephants was a big crowd of people. In the middle of that crowd came about hundred people dancing dressed in ornamental clothes and jewelry. Many among them beat on a tambourine like instrument and danced. Other kind of instruments were also heard. Apapapa! Some dancing! Before this, where would the frenzied performance of the Kadampoor palace courtesans Thevaralan and Thevaratti be? Sometimes the dancers sprang suddenly upwards into the sky and twirled two or three times in a circle before touching the ground again. When they twirled in this manner the folds of clothing hanging from their waists also twirled as garlands of umbrellas. Two eyes were indeed not enough to take in this sight of hundred dancers synchronously rising, twirling and then jumping down! One would need at least two thousand eyes. But to take in the music from the instruments that rose at the same time, two thousand ears would not do! Certainly two hundred thousand ears would be required. Horns, drums, tambourines, kettle-drums, mridangams, and copper cymbals sounded together turning the listener deaf!

Once these dancers and the crowd surrounding them passed, another thirty elephants adorned with jewelry came like before. On top of the elephant at the center again was an intricately crafted box. Over it was a gold umbrella covering it. Those seated on the surrounding elephants moved the white yak tail fans back and forth. Behind this group of elephants also were dancers. At the center of these dancers were people dressed as Rathi, Manmathan and the three-eyed Sivaperuman. The surrounding dancers danced and jumped.

“What’s this? How did Sivaperuman come here?” asked Vandhiyathevan.

“The Ilankai king called Gajabahu brought Sivaperuman here. After that he had stubbornly remained here!” said the prince.

“Oh, Veera Vaishnava! Did you see? Do you know now who the greater god is?” Before Vandhiyathevan could finish some more elephants similarly adorned had arrived. At the center of the dancers who came behind these elephats were dancers dressed like Karudazhvar with an eagle’s nose and wings, who danced riotously twirling, flying and shaking their noses.

“Appan! Did you see? Our Thirumal has arrived in his eagle vehicle!” said Azhvarkadiyan.

Again a group of elephants followed. The dancers behind them performed a terrifying war dance bearing swords and lances in their hands. Keeping time with the beat and dance, their swords and lances also clashed one against another, ‘danar, danar’.

The dancers who followed the last group of elephants each held a pair of ankle-rings, one in each hand while dancing. All the ankle-rings together sounded ‘kaleer, kaleer’ while they danced. At one instance their dance was highly energetic. At another instance it changed into a more calm and beautiful art form. To Vandhiyathevan who stood amazed at this sight and the virtuoso sounds, the prince told the history and significance of this procession and festival.

There were also times when the Tamil country kings and Ilankai kings exercised their right to be friends. King Gajabahu of Ilankai surrounded by its sea and Seran Senguttuvan were such friends. Gajabahu attended when Seran Senguttuvan celebrated the feast of the goddess of chastity, Kannaki. He enjoyed the other festivals of that country also. Later when Seran Senguttuvan visited, Ilankai King Gajabahu had his festival. He celebrated at the same time the four gods, god of Tamil country Sivaperuman, Thirumal, Karthigeyar and the goddess of chastity. Seeing the enjoyment of the people during this celebration he decided to have the festivals every year. In the festival he placed Lord Buddha first and had the other four gods come behind him. From that day this festival had become permanent in Ilankai and is celebrated as a grand festival every year.

“But the gods weren’t seen anywhere?” said Vallavaraiyan.

“Did you see the box on top of the elephant that was at the center of each group of elephants?”

“I saw! Have they locked up the gods in those boxes, so that they won’t escape to Tamil Nadu?”

After laughing at this Ponniyin Selvar said, “Not like that; In the box on the first elephant they have a tooth of Lord Buddha locked up safely. Among the treasures that the Buddhists cherish and guard in this country that is the most valued and priceless. Therefore they take this sacred object in a beautiful box and parade it on an elephant!”

“What’s in the boxes that come behind?” asked Vandhiyathevan.

“Teeth weren’t available from Sivan, Vishnu, Murugan and Kannaki! Therefore, instead they carry with caution in these boxes the jewels that adorn the gods in the temples,” said the prince.

After being thoughtful for a while Vandhiyathevan said, “Aha! If only the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar had come to war here instead of you?…”

At this time the final portion of the festival parade turned the corner from the street. The sound of the instruments, the commotion of the people… their noise began to lessen.

“There is only a half hour before the specified time, we can go!” the prince climbed down from the tower. The three of them came down to the street. They walked in the direction opposite to the parade. Since all the town’s people were at the Perahara festival there weren’t anyone on the streets they took. In a short time they arrived at the shore of a vast lake. In the lake water was brimming creating waves that beat on the shore. The moon’s rays played on the waves turning them into silver.

From the lake’s shore they went down. The pleasant smell of chenpakam flowers was in the air. In addition various flowering shrubs bore thick clusters of white flowers. Here and there, there were small manmade hills and ponds that led in with steps. From the lion head situated at the top of one such pond a stream of water flowed down. The three of them went and stood near the edge of that pond.

The sight of the Buddha statue that stood on the side of the street outside of Anuradhapuram appeared in Vandhiyathevan’s mind. “The prince counted the lotus buds arranged at the base of the statue and came up with the number twelve. Perhaps they specified twelve hours. The lotus being in the form of buds and not flowers may have indicated night time! Vandhiyathevan also remembered the lion face goblet that was near the lotus buds. Perhaps that vessel pointed to this pond with the lion head fountain!”

“All of this is correct! But why and who had brought the prince here? It is not clear what sort of dangers may arise from this! What is the significance of the prince barring all weapons from here? Is there some romance about to take place here?”

With this thought Vandhiyathevan’s heart swelled. It crossed the sea and leaped toward Pazhaiyarai. The junior stateswoman and Vaanathi Devi appeared in his mind’s eye.

Vandhiyathevan thought of picking the prince’s mouth. “Sir! This place looks like an ancient palace garden!” he said.

“Yes; this is where the palace garden was situated. A thousand years ago next to this garden was the palace of Thushtagamunu. Look over there! There are some parts of the palace still present undestroyed!” he said.

Vandhiyathevan looked at the old palace towers seen a short distance away and said, “These buildings may have been the palace’s anthapuram. The princesses would have enjoyed bathing in this pool!”

“There is another interesting incident that happened in this garden. It happened a thousand years ago. King Thushtagamanu’s son called Sali was one day taking a stroll down here. He saw a girl taking water from this pond and watering the flowering shrubs. He fell in love with her. He found out that she was of low birth and that her name was Ashokamala. He stubbornly insisted that he would marry her regardless of her status. The father said, ‘In that case you cannot ascend the throne!’ ‘I don’t want the throne; I must have Ashokamala’ Salivahanan said stubbornly. Do you think any other prince in this world can speak like that?”

When Ponniyin Selvar said this, Vandhiyathevan was reminded of the ocean princess who had rowed the boat on the sea. Aha! Is he also telling this story with that woman in his mind or what?

When he was wondering how to bring up the topic of Poongkuzhali, an amazing incident took place. The backwall of the lion fountain pond was caved in with a stone seat for two. Suddenly a light appeared on one side of that room. At first the hand holding the lamp emerged. Then a Buddhist monk’s face appeared.

Vandhiyathevan stood watching this Indrajala scene with unsuppressable awe. In the excitement of finding out what more was about to happen his breathing also stopped for a short time.


From → Notes

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