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Ponniyin Selvan Part II (35 – 37)

July 15, 2015

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


In the light of the lamp held in his hand the bikhu looked around for a second. Perhaps he saw the prince and his friends. The next second the lamp and its light disappeared. He was then seen coming on the steps of the pool. He came to where the prince was standing. In the moon’s light he looked up at his face.

“Welcome, friend in God! Vaithulya Bikhu academy is waiting in anticipation of your arrival. Maha Thero guru is also here. My heart is happy and thanks you for arriving exactly at the specified time!” he said.

“Holy sage! I am aware of many faults that reside within this little man. However, I have been faithful to the good habit of being true to my word. I have never failed on that count!” said Ponniyin Selvar.

“I heard that you had not arrived even at sunset today. I was a little worried then.”

“If I had arrived earlier, I may not have been able to keep my word. That is why I came just at the specified moment.”

“Yes, yes! There are many clouds gathering to hide the shining sun in the sky; we too have found out. But these clouds will disperse in the turbulence of Lord Buddha’s mercy. Never mind! Who are they? Do you know them well? Do they have your complete confidence? Are they capable of fulfilling their promise, no matter what the circumstances are?” asked the Bikhu.

“Holy sage! I trust these friends just as I trust my two hands. However, if it is not your wish I am willing to leave them here and come with you alone!” said the prince.

“No, no! I am not prepared to take on such a big responsibility. Where I am going to take you is indeed very safe. But, it is a long way. Who can say what danger awaits behind which pillar and in which corner? Certainly let the two of them come!” said the Bikhu.

Vandhiyathevan’s heart swelled while listening to this conversation. He rejoiced that the prince had shown complete confidence and had brought him – a complete stranger – to a private meeting.

‘Something very important is taking place tonight. What can it be?’ – the thought was exhilarating.

As the Bikhu showed the way in front, the others followed. They went up the steps of the pool and went into the room carved on the back wall. The Bikhu moved to one side of the room and did something. At once there appeared a way. A light was seen inside. The bikhu took the torch in hand. Once the other three men entered the entrance closed. The stream of water falling from the lion-face in the pool outside could be heard faintly. Or else it would have been impossible to believe that only minutes ago they had been standing outside on the banks of that tank.

They went on the curving underground path. It went winding and winding. It seemed endless. The sound of their footsteps and its echo produced fear in the heart. Often Vandhiyathevan wondered if the prince had foolishly become entangled in a deceitful scheme.

The path widened gradually and a hall was seen. What a structure! With the torch in the monk’s hand just a small portion of the place could be made out faintly. Yet, it could be seen that the pillars were marble pillars. Statues of Buddha were present everywhere. Standing Buddhas, reclining Buddhas, meditating Buddahs, blessing Buddhas, praying Buddhas – there were many such statues of Buddha.

They went past the marble building. Again a narrow path, then another building. Its pillars were a mixture of copper and zinc. They were a lustrous ruby red. The roof also had copper sheets. On these were variously and intricately crafted artwork. In all four directions were present various Buddha statues. In the same fashion they came upon another building whose pillars were a rare yellow color wood. Then a building whose pillars were made out of the ivory tusks of elephants – they went past all of these. Even thought they walked very fast, Vandhiyathevan did not fail to touch these pillars now and then! The prince who walked looking ahead indifferent to the surroundings, was a source of immense surprise to him.

Passing all the metal and other structures they came to an ordinary granite building. But in this spacious hall there was an extraordinary scene. In the previous buildings there had been Buddha statues, but no people. In this granite hall several Buddhist monks had gathered. Their faces shone lustrously. At the center of them all was Maha Thero guru. He was seated. In front of him was a golden throne inlaid with precious stones. Nearby on a mantle were a jeweled crown, a sword and a scepter. Lamps were lit all over. In their light the gold throne, the jeweled crown and sword sparkled and shone.

When the prince and others entered the hall all the bikhus stood up and cheered, ‘Long live Buddha!’, ‘Long live dharma!’, and ‘Long live sangam!’

The prince walked toward Maha Thero and bowed his head in greeting. The head of the monks pointed to an ordinary seat next to the throne and entreated the prince to sit down.

“Maha Thero! Before this boy, the elders who are older than him in age and wisdom must sit,” pleaded the prince.

Once the Maha Thero sat down the prince also humbly took the seat that was pointed to him.

“Prince who is adored by the gods! This Maha Pothi Sangam rejoices in your visit. You have come accepting all our conditions and subjecting yourself to many hardships. No other evidence is required to show that Lord Buddha’s mercy is upon you!” As the head guru said this in Pali, the bikhu who had brought the prince translated it into Tamil. To show their happiness the other monks chanted, ‘sathu! sathu!

Maha Thero went on! – “We are greatly indebted to the Bharatha nation that sent to the island of Ilankai, the culture of Buddhism. But from ancient times the Cholar, Pandyar, Malayalaite and Kalingo men who have brought their troops here have committed many atrocities here. They destroyed the Buddhist viharas, monasteries and theological stations and brought on themselves the wrath of the gods. Why talk about your countrymen? This country’s kings themselves have performed such cruel acts. They split the Buddha sangam. They destroyed the viharas of the Buddhist monks who opposed their evil deeds; they burnt them. Half of this sacred town which lies twenty miles long and ten miles wide was taken up by Buddhist viharas. Most of it today lies in ruins. No king has so far commanded that the fallen viharas be rebuilt and renovated. Only Prince Arulmozhivarmar was given the good fortune of issuing such a command. Blessed by the Gods! The great Buddhist Sangam celebrates your action…”

The prince bowed his head and accepted the Maha Thero’s praise. “Moreover, for a long time the Perahara festival had been put on hold in this sacred city. Hundred years ago Pandyar once captured this city. The ruling family of Ilankai at that time went away to Pulasthiya Nagaram. Since then Perahara festival had not taken place here. In this sacred year you have ordered that the festival should again be celebrated. You have also provided the means for it. The Buddhist academy is happy about this also…”

The prince again bowed his head and said, “Honorable Guru! Please order me if there is any other service that I can do for this Buddhist Sangam!”

The head guru smiled and said, “Yes, Prince! This Buddhist Sangam hopefully awaits your continued service. Before that I must say a few more words. You would have known that Lord Buddha appeared many times before his final incarnation. Once he was born as emperor Sibi and taught this world the virtue of kindness. To save a small pigeon’s life he sliced piece after piece of his flesh and laid it on the scale. The Cholar say that they are descendants of that emperor Sibi. You have given yourselves the title ‘Sembiyan’ owing to the Sibi heritage. But until now the Buddhist Sangam did not believe it. They thought that it was a tale woven by the Chola priests. Today – after seeing your magnanimous acts, – it is imperative that we accept that Cholar are descendants of emperor Sibi. The Chola tribe has until now forgotten Lord Buddha’s benevolence owing to hypocrisy. Today that benevolence is upon you. We have received the divine blessing for it too. Here!…” When the head guru turned, some monks brought forward another bikhu carrying him on the seat in which he was reclining. The bikhu’s body was shuddering without pause. Hands were shuddering; legs were shuddering; body trembled; the head shook; teeth gritted; lips were quivering; above the reddened eyes the brows also moved.

“Thirty three million gods have taken over this bikhu. Please listen to what the gods in their mercy have to say!” said  the Maha Thero.

From the possessed Buddhist monk’s mouth came in a trembling voice a rapid sputtering of words in unknown languages. Once he finished speaking the head guru said, “All thrity three million gods are blessing you. In the past Devanampiriya Ashokavarthanar ruled the Bharatha country under one flag and spread the Buddhist culture all over the world. The gods are blessing you that you will become the commander of such a great empire. They want you like Ashokar to spread the Buddhist culture in the world. They are demanding that you do, – the great cultural service that Ashokar performed from the Padalipuram throne, – from this Anuradhapuram that has its own ancient glory. Prince! What is your reply to the demand from the gods?”

“Maha Guru! Gods are powerful! They will make us act according to their will. But right now this humble servant is unable to comprehend their order?” the prince replied.

“I will explain,” as soon as the head guru signaled, the possessed bikhu was carried away. The head Bikhu said, “Prince, please take a look at the throne in front of you, the jeweled crown and the scepter. All of the kings of Ilankai became accepted by the Buddhist Sangam only after being seated on this throne, wearing the jeweled crown and holding the scepter in their hand. This is the throne where emperor Thushtagemunu, Devanambiya Thissa and Maha Sena were crowned! This is the crown that they bore over their heads. This is the scepter that they held in their hands. Such is this ancient throne – a throne that produced kings for over thousand years – it is waiting for you. Do you agree to take this throne, the jeweled crown and the scepter?”

Vandhiyathevan became very excited as he listened. He thought of picking up the prince and placing him on that throne. But there was no visble change on the face of the prince.

In a calm voice as before he said, “Head Guru! How is this possible? King Mahintha who was crowned on this throne is still alive! Even though his whereabouts are not known…”

“Prince! The gods have deemed that the throne of Ilankai should change hands; it will happen. Many great kings arose from the heritage founded by Vijayarajan who came from the Bengal country where the river Ganges flows; they tended to justice. But later this tribe has come under divine damnation after committing many ruthless acts. It was the father that was born into this tradition that killed a son; son killed the father; younger brother killed the older brother; mother killed her daughter; daughter-in-law killed her mother-in-law. The gods are demanding that the tribe that committed such atrocities is not fit to tend to the Buddhist culture. Mahinthan who was crowned last has lost his right to the Ilankai throne. He has no one after him. No progeny. Therefore the ruling clan must change somehow. When the ruling clan changes in this manner, this sangam has the right to choose the first ruler of the new clan. This sangam wishes to choose you. If you permit we can have the coronation tonight…”

Silence as at the center of the earth or in the deep bottom of the sea reigned in that building for a short time. Vandhiyathevan’s excitement reached its climax. At that time Ponniyin Selvar rose from his seat and bowed to the assembly of Buddhist monks. Vandhiyathevan was at the summit of his happiness. He was desperate to place the jeweled crown on the head of the prince as soon as he sat on the throne.

The prince said: “Prophets! I worship you. I celebrate your generosity to place such limitless hope and affection on this boy and offer him this age old throne. But this demand of yours is beyond my power. I was born and raised in Chola Nadu. This body is built by the food from that country’s land and the water that flows in the rivers of that country. I came here obeying the order of my father, emperor Sundara Cholar. I cannot do anything without knowing his wish…”

The bikhu interrupted and said, “Don’t you know that your father, Sundara Cholar, today, lives without freedom as if in a prison?”

“Yes; my father is ill and bed ridden. He has lost the feeling in his legs. Yet I am under the command of those who had been granted power by him to rule Chola Nadu in his name. If I accept this throne without their knowledge I will become a traitor to the country and the kingdom…”

“If you feel that way we are prepared to send an emissary to Thanjavur. Your father is very fond of the Buddhist culture. He will not turn down our request.”

“There are – this country’s citizens. Who has the right to give away the kingdom without their permission?”

“This country’s citizens will consider it an extraordinary privilege to have you as king…”

“All may approve; they may also rejoice. In this world I respect more than anyone else’s opinion, my sister’s opinion. My mother gave birth to me; river Ponni saved my life. But my sister nurtured my intellect, opening my inner eyes. The voice of my conscience is the only one that can rise above such a person’s wish. Honorable Men! My inner voice is not telling me to accept this immense gift that you are wholeheartedly offering this boy! Please forgive this boy!…” Again silence reigned over the great assembly briefly. The rapid pulsation of Vandhiyathevan’s veins and arteries was heard only by him.

After a while the superintendent of the Buddhist Academy said: “Prince! Your reply does not surprise me very much. In a way I expected it. This alone is reason enough to prove that you are more qualified than anyone else to take this Ilankai throne. Having heard the judicial calling we do not have any doubts over this. But we do not want to force you. We will give time to think. After one year we will send word again one day. May you share with us your final opinion then! Remember just one thing. In this ancient Anuradhapuram many viharas have been damaged during ruthless wars. But this great bothi vihara has not been harmed until now. Because this is a vihara that is constructed below ground. The direction to this is known only to the Buddhist academy heads who are present now. Without one of us guiding no one can come here. Just once in their lives the Ilankai kings are invited here when they are crowned by the Buddhist academy. This vihara has a secret path that is so sacred. You should not tell anyone outside about coming here or what went on here. Your friends also should not tell. If you do you will be subjected to the severest of divine curse!”

“Superintendent! No need for damnation; I brought my friends here after promising not to inform anyone outside. I will never forsake my promise,” said Ponniyin Selvar.

Fifteen minutes later, Prince Arulmozhivarmar, Azhvarkadiyan and Vandhiyathevan were walking on the streets of Anuradhapuram in the moonlight. Vandhiyathevan who had kept his mouth shut in the vihara now let loose all of the thoughts that he had been suppressing.

“Chola Nadu! It is resplendent with water and land resources. But it is nothing compared to this Ilankai. You have kicked away the throne of such a gem of an island that was handed to you on a platter! What foolishness? The wisdom of the bikhus who brought you and offered you the jeweled crown, what ingenuity! I too had been standing there like a pillar beside those pillars! They could have offered it to me?” he burst forth.

The prince tried to pacify him. “Didn’t I tell you about Thushtagemunu’s son Sali who gave up this Ilankai kingdom over his love for a woman called Ashokamala? Didn’t it get through your ears?” he said.

“It got through. What woman are you in love with in that way? Who is the woman who is standing in the way of a throne?” asked Vandhiyathevan.

“Not one women; two women. I am in love with two women called truth and justice. I refused the throne of Ilankai because of them.”

“Prince, you look young. You speak like an old man.”

“Who knows who among us is old and whose life is going to end?”

They were walking by the side of an old palace when they were speaking in this manner. From the opposite side of the street came the sound of someone clapping hands. A figure was standing there.

“Come this way!” the prince said, crossing the street toward that figure. The others also followed. When they were half way across the street from behind them was heard a loud noise; they turned. The top story of the house by which they were passing had collapsed and was falling down! If they did not cross the street at that moment, it would have fallen over their heads killing them!

Three lives were saved in the space of a second. And what sort of lives!

“Ponniyin Selvar was saying, ‘who knows whose life is going to end?’ How poignanat?” While Vandhiyathevan pondered standing in the middle of the street, the other two men went to the other side.

When Vandhiyathevan followed them, in the moonlight he was able to glance at the other figure standing there. He began to doubt if he ought to trust his eyes or not.

“What madness? How is this possible?”

“How can Nandhini from the Thanjai palace of Pazhuvertaraiyar be here on the streets of Anuradhapuram? Why should she stand here at midnight!” The next second the figure disappeared as if by magic. Only the other two men remained.


Vandhiyathevan hurried toward the spot where the prince and Nandhini were standing. Before he reached them doubt crept in. Is it Nandhini? Her clothing and jewelry are not like the Pazhuvur Ilaiyarani! Her clothes are very simple as that of a sage. Face resembles Nandhini. But there is also a difference. What is it?

Once Vandhiyathevan reached the spot where they were the woman disappeared into the shade cast by the houses by the side of the street. In a state of excitement Vandhiyathevan tried to follow her. The prince stopped him with his hand.

“Sir! Who is that lady? She looks familiar!” he said.

Azhvarkadiyan who joined them at that time said, “The lady ought to be the Chola tribe’s divine patron! Look there! If we had not moved at that time by now we would have reached Buddha in person.”

They looked in the direction that Thirumalai pointed. With the building’s top story fallen it appeared like a small hill. This hill would have suffocated and killed even a large elephant. What’s to be said of three small men?

“Our divine patron turned up at the right moment to steer us away,” said Ponniyin Selvar.

“Prince! Whom did you say the lady was?” Vandhiyathevan asked in surprise.

“Whom did you think she was? Why did you attempt to follow her?” asked the prince.

“Didn’t this Vaishnava call her the divine patron of the Cholars? To me she seemed like the demon who came to annihilate the Cholar tribe.”

“In that case …? Whom are you implicating?”

“It may be my wandering mind! She looked like Pazhuvertaraiyar’s second new bride Nandhini Devi. Didn’t the two of you think that?” said Vandhiyathevan.

“I did not look properly. Still, it must be your mind’s obsession. How can the Pazhuvur Rani be here?” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“What he says is not entirely the fault of his mind. There is also the fault of the eyes. Even to me it had seemed sometimes that there was a strange resemblance of the face… Come! We can talk as we go!” said the prince.

Instead of walking along the side of the street in the shade of the houses the three of them now began to walk in the moonlight in the middle of the street.

After walking for a while Azhvarkadiyan asked, “Prince! What did the lady who called you by clapping her hands tell you?”

“She said that two enemies have come looking for me. She also said that they are waiting for the time to kill me.”

“Wretched woman! Was she talking about us or what?” Vandhiyathevan asked in shock.

Ponniyin Selvar laughed and said, “No, she wasn’t pointing to you. Even if it was you, there is nothing to worry. This lady has said that my life is very secure. She had also saved me many times before!”

“Sir! I know who these two enemies are. They had come with Parthipenthira Pallavar looking for you. I saw two figures in the palace that fell. It must be them!” said Thirumalai.

“Sir! Vaishnavar! Why didn’t you say this before? You go ahead. I will go and check that house out!” Vandhiyathevan tried to turn back.

The prince again detained him by taking his hand. “There is no hurry. We cannot find them in that broken down house. We will find out later. Until I order otherwise you must remain with me, you see? Who knows what danger is awaiting in which other corner of this city in ruins? Brave and distinguished friend! I didn’t bring any bodyguards relying on you! If you desert me like this in the middle of the street what will I do?”

Vandhiyathevan felt intoxicated by these words. His tongue faltering he said, “Sir! I will not leave you even for a second hereafter!”

Azhvarkadiyan said, “I too will not leave you. You protect the prince; I will protect you.”

In a short time they reached the interior of the ruined palace of emperor Maha Sena. In a large room three ancient beds had been prepared for them. The three of them lied down. Through the balcony on one side of the wall the moon’s rays were looking inside.

“Many hundred years ago there would have been emperors of Ilanaki, their princes, and anthapura matrons sleeping here in this place in this palace. Even then the moon’s rays would have taken a peek through the balcony just like now. These rays of the moon must now be disappointed to see ordinary men like us in this place. Isnt it so, Vandhiyathevar!” said Arulmozhivarmar.

“Sir! Say anything about yourself and this Vaishnavar. Don’t ever refer to me as an ordinary man!” said Vallavaraiyan.

“I forgot; pardon me. Aren’t you a prince born to a heroic ancient tribe?…”

“Yes, Sir, yes! If this brave Vaishnavar hears what a poet has sung about one of my ancestors, he would choke and die of jealousy.”

“Never mind! Thirumalai is a good Tamil aficionado! Like the Pallava Nandhivarman he would not hesitate to give his life for Tamil poetry. Therefore, please tell us the poem, let’s hear it.”

Somewhat reluctant, Vandhiyathevan recited the following poem:

‘my umbrella my carriage
my coat of armor my banner
my elephant my horse
exclaimed the petty kings
at the lords of the word
their meritorious gifts
awarded by the great caring
king Varnan!’

Upon hearing it Arulmozhivarmar said, “Thirumalai, you are a Tamil poet! What is the meaning of this poem, tell!”

“Sir! You are testing me, perhaps. Alright, I will tell now: At the entrance to the palace of great king Varnan several tributary kings were waiting to see him. They were not getting an audience easily. Because the poets who were the kings of verse were in the palace. King Varnan enjoyed their poems very much. He gave them many presents and sent them off. A variety of presents such as umbrellas made out of reels of flowers, ivory palankeens, pearl coats of armor, diamond banners, elephants and horses were given. The petty chiefs who were waiting at the entrance were overcome with jealousy and complained, ‘Adada! Isn’t this my umbrella? Isn’t this my palankeen? My elephant? And my horse? These cursed poets are taking them away!’ The great king Varnar had been handing out as prizes the very objects that had been the petty chiefs’ offering to the king. Prince! Doesn’t my interpretation fit the poem?”

“Can there ever be a mistake in your interpretation? Adada! What a remarkable poem! How delightful an imagination! Who is the great poet who composed this poem? Star of the Varnar tribe! Vandhiyathevar! It does not matter if your ancestors’ kingdom was big or small. They had been sung a poem like this, what greater honor do they need. You who were born in this tradition is fit to sleep in this palace. Not just on Mahasenar’s bed? If the bed of Thushtagemunu himself was now available you can sleep on that too. You have the qualifications for that!”

“Yes, Sir! Yes! I am qualified for everything. But these days who is giving any respect for qualifications? Those bikhus, did they offer me the crown of Ilankai kingdom? They gave it to you, who was likely to turn it down! Do you know how furious I was then? I considered picking up the crown and placing it on my head myself! Knowing that this brave Vaishnavar would jump into the competition, I let it pass!”

Arulmozhivarmar laughed out loud upon hearing this. Vandhiyathevan’s heart rejoiced at the sound of that laughter. Outwardly though he displayed more anger and said, “Is this something to be settled with laughter? What is the remedy for the injustice done?”

“Sir! Star of the Varnar tribe! Didn’t I mention truth and justice? Don’t these seem as good reasons to you for turning down the offer of the throne?”

“I already had a little weakness for truth and justice. I have decided to hereafter stay away from them, have nothing to do with them.”

“Adada! Why? Why did you make such a decision? Why are you angry at these?”

“No anger. Didn’t you say that you were in love with two maidens called truth and justice? That you gave up this Ilankai kingdom because of that? I won’t consider even in my mind, women whom someone else is in love with!”

Ponniyin Selvar again laughed out loud. “I have never seen someone so funny!” he said.

“Yes, Sir! You consider this funny. My belly is on fire. If you didn’t want the Ilankai throne, I was just there, by your side, couldn’t you have pointed to me and said, ‘Give it to him!” said Vandhiyathevan.

When Arulmozhivarmar finished laughing he said, “Vandhiyathevar! Is it such a simple matter to accept the kingdom? Moreover, accepting from the Buddhist monks is not at all proper. Later on it will give room to much discordance. Religious leaders should stay with religious matters. When religious leaders intervene in affairs of the state it will be bad for religion; as well as to the state. In addition, the Buddhist monks who presented me the throne today are not the leaders of all the Buddhists in this country. They are the leaders of one sect. Like their sangam there are two more. If we accept the kingdom from them we must rule according to their wishes. The other two sects will at once become our enemies!” he said.

“Does the prince of Vallam now understand the situation in this place?” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“I understand, I understand! Like the fools who fight there if Vishnu is great or Sivan is great, I understand that there are fools here also!” said Vandhiyathevan.

“You two don’t begin a fight here. It is late in the night. There is the sound of the people returning from the Perahara procession. Let us sleep now!” said the prince.

“I cannot fall asleep. I can sleep only if I find out who is the lady who saved us from being buried alive by clapping her hands in the middle of the street and calling us.”

“I still don’t know who she is. But I can tell what I know of her. If you want to listen come, sit next to me!” said the prince.


Vandhiyathevan and Azhvarkadiyan eagerly went and sat down beside the prince’s bed. The prince began thus:

“When I was a little boy, once I was going in the boat with my parents on the river Kaveri. Even my brother and sister were in the boat at that time. They were talking about something. I, myself, was watching the river Kaveri’s water running in swirls and the kadampam flowers sometimes getting caught in these ripples and swirling at the center of these vortices. It would pain me to see these tiny little flowers getting caught in the vortices and struggle. Sometimes I would bend down from the side of the boat and pick out these Kadampam flowers from the vortices. Once when I was picking the flowers I accidentally fell into the water. Because I fell headlong into the water I was in shock unable to breath.

“The sensation of my head hitting the sand bottom of the river Kaveri is still with me in my memory. I also remember the rapidly flowing water hitting me and pushing me away. It seemed that people were crying out loud from afar. I began to suffocate. Alright, river Kaveri is going to push me into the sea, I thought to myself. I thought how grieved my parents, sister and brother were going to be without seeing me. At that time I felt someone scooping me up with both hands and holding me tight. Next second I was above the water. Water was dripping from my head, eyes , nose and mouth. Still the hands that scooped me up were visible to my eyes. Then I also looked at the face of the owner of those hands. Even though it was only a few seconds the face had made its imprint on my mind. It seemed like a face that I had seen before. But I didn’t know who it belonged to.

“Then those hands passed me to someone else. Next second, I was in the boat. Mother, father, sister, brother and everyone surrounded me. Their grief, concern, love and support took my entire attention away. After a short time the question arose as to who had saved me from the water. They asked each other; they asked me also. I also looked around. That divine face could not be seen anywhere. Therefore I blinked unable to answer. Finally everyone together decided that it was goddess Kaveri who had saved me. They made arrangements to have a pooja every year on the day I had fallen in the river and survived. But my mind was not satisfied. Whether it was Kaveri Amman who saved me or a human lady who saved me, a desperate longing crept into my heart to see her beautiful face that was imprinted in my mind one more time. ‘Won’t that goddess suddenly rise up from the water and appear before me?’ – I would look around with this hope whenever I was near the river Kaveri. As days went by this thought that she could be a human being grew stronger. Therefore it became a habit to eagerly stare at the faces of all the elderly women gathered at any festival that I attended. After sometime I realized that it was not a good habit to stare like that. As years passed I lost the hope that I could see that divine face again.

“About one year ago I became commander of our troops in the south and I came here. Even before that colonel Poothi Vikrama Kesari had captured several areas of Ilankai. This Anuradhapuram had changed hands many times, and at that time it was back in the hands of Mahinthan’s troops. Our soldiers were attacking this town. While the fighting was going on I wanted to see several areas of Ilankai. The colonel sent with me a thousand hand-picked soldiers. I went to all the parts that were under our troops. Without leaving out any forests, hills, mountains and rivers I studied the nature of all these places. You may know that there are several small islands in the sea adjacent to the island of Ilankai. I went to those islands also. While we were touring like this, once a few miles north of this town we had erected tents and were staying there. It was near the port of Elephant Pass. There, the sea on the eastern part of Ilankai and the sea on the western side join through a very narrow channel. It is sometimes common it seems for elephants to go to the north of Ilankai through this channel. Therefore they say that the place got the name ‘Elephant Pass.’ When we were staying there a strange incident occurred. At night a wailing sound was heard near the camps. At first it was not clear if the voice belonged to a human, animal or bird. There was a sadness in it that would make one’s hair stand on its end. At first, the soldiers in the camps heard it. They did not pay any attention to it. Later it was heard at many places around the garrison. Some men came and told me also. I did not take it seriously. ‘Are you afraid that it may be a demon or devil? In that case go back to your place and sleep in your mother’s lap fearlessly!’ I said. This made them indignant. They decided to find out if it was the voice of a human, animal or the devil. They ran toward the place from where the wailing was heard and searched. Once they were close, the figure to whom the voice belonged began to run. It looked like a woman’s figure. But they could not catch it. Even after that the cry was continued to be heard often.

“At first I didn’t give it serious attention. But to my soldiers there was no other topic of conversation but this. Some became genuinely afraid. Because of it I decided to find out what the mystery was. One night, a few soldiers and I went in the direction of the cry. A woman’s figure emerged from the cover of a bush. For a second it looked at us and paused in shock. Then it began to run. A voice inside me said that if we all chased we won’t be able to catch the figure. Therefore, I said ‘stop’ to the others, and I alone ran behind. The figure looked behind once. Seeing that I was coming alone it waited in a welcoming posture. Now I too became frightened. I hesitated for a moment. Again I willed my heart to go further and went near the woman. The moon’s light was fully on her face. There was a smile budding on that divine face. At that moment I remembered. She was Kaveri Amman! She was the divine goddess who saved me from being washed away with the flood!… For a while I stared at her face like a mad man. Then I howled, ‘Mother! Who are you? When did you come here? Why did you come? I was searching for you for a long time! If you want to see me why don’t you come to me straight? Why are you circling this encampment? Why do you wail?’ That queen of women did not answer. Even when I asked again there was no use. Very soon tears began to well in her eyes. Those tears cleaved my heart. It appeared that she was trying to say something. But no words came out. An incomprehensible sound came from her throat. Immediately it dawned on me. That she was a dumb woman who could not speak. I have never been as sad as I was at that moment. Not knowing what to do I stood there immobile. That lady suddenly hugged me and kissed me on my forehead. Her tears fell on my head. The next second, she left me and ran. She didn’t turn and look. I too did not try to follow her. Once back in the tent, to the soldiers who surrounded me eagerly, I sternly ordered, ‘She is not a demon; or devil; just an ordinary woman! Because of some great tragedy in her life she has turned insane. If she comes again do not follow her and trouble her!’

“The entire day, the next day, I thought often of uprooting the camp from there and leaving. But I could not decide. I had the hope in my heart that she might come again. Time elapsed amid these thoughts. Night arrived. It wasn’t in vain that I had hoped. The wailing sound was heard near the encampment. After telling the other soldiers not to follow me I went in the direction of the sound. As on the previous day the queen of women again welcomed me with a smile. For a while she was looking at me intently. She tried to say something. I did not understand.

“Then she took me by the hand with her. I did not hesitate to go with her. My heart melted when I saw her pushing away the thorny twigs of the shrubs so that they won’t touch me. After a short distance there was a hut. Inside the hut an oil lamp flickered. I saw in that light an old man lying there. I saw that he was lying there ill. His body was shuddering as if from unbearable cold. His entire body heaved at times. Teeth were gritting. Eyes were red and hot like live coals. He was babbling incomprehensibly…

“Do you remember? A bikhu who was shivering in the underground Maha Bothi Vihara we saw today! They said that the gods were upon him? It reminded me of this old man I had seen in the middle of the forest. I wondered if the gods had descended upon that bikhu or if it was the terrible disease ague that had descended. I did not talk about it. Why talk? Why unsettle those pious men’s hopes? I gave permission for this year’s Perarhara festival, perhaps in a way I had made a big mistake. What will happen to this ancient city that is already more than half in ruins, if ague also struck? The remaining people also will have to run from here…”

Arulmozhivarmar remained thoughtful after saying this. After waiting for a while Vandhiyathevan said, “Sir! Never mind about this town. What happened in the hut afterwards? Please tell us!”

“Nothing happened in the hut; the lady perhaps thought that I should not wait there for long. She took my hand and brought me outside. Then through gestures she told me what she wanted to say. My heart knew what she wanted to say. ‘Don’t wait in the area. If you did you will catch this fever and chills. Remove the camp and leave at once!’ – through gestures she made me understand. I also learnt that this warning came because of the great affection she had for me. I took it as god’s order and ordered the troops to decamp that very night. It made the soldiers who were with me also happy. They were cheered that they no longer had to hear that dreadful howl…”


From → Notes

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