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Ponniyin Selvan Part II (38)

July 18, 2015

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


Abruptly pausing in his story the prince asked, “Did you hear footsteps?”

The two friends who were fully absorbed in the story said that they didn’t hear anything.

Azhvarkadiyan considered for a moment and said, “This place is warmer than before!”

“There is even a stench of smoke!” said Vandhiyathevan.

“Sir! There is no danger in this place?” Azhvarkadiyan asked with concern.

“If there is any danger Goddess Kaveri will certainly come and warn us. Don’t worry!” The prince continued with his story.

“We removed the tents and left from that place immediately. Even so, ten of our soldiers came down with fever and chills. Amammah! That fever is vicious. It will make a coward out of any soldier. Those who were not shaken even after being wounded all over the body in war, would become discouraged and begin to say, ‘I want to go home,’ after three days of fever. I felt that the Cholar deity Durga Parameswari was the one who came in the form of that lady and made us leave that place. Even after that the goddess did not let me down. Wherever I went she also followed. She saved me from wild animals, mountain-snakes, hidden enemies and many such dangers. In the same manner that she appeared suddenly, she would also disappear. In a few days I gained the ability to speak with her through facial expressions and gestures. Most of the time my heart would know what was on her mind. Not only that, I would know even without seeing her with my eyes that she was somewhere in the vicinity. Even now … good; you go and sleep on your beds. Even if you don’t feel sleepy, pretend that you are asleep! Hurry!” said the prince.

Accordingly, the two of them went to bed. They also tried to close their eyes. But their curiosity was beyond their control, their eyes refused to close.

While they were watching, a figure came and stood on the balcony where the moon’s light fell. It was the same figure they had seen opposite the palace that had collapsed earlier. ‘ssh’, a faint sound was heard. Arulmozhivarmar rose and went near the balcony. The figure outside made a sign.

The prince pointed to his friends sleeping in the room. Again in sign language a response came.

At once Arulmozhivarmar asked the two friends to follow him and went out. The three walked silently in the path that the elderly woman took. After going a long way in the path surrounded by darkness and covered with trees on both sides, in the light of the moon they saw an extraordinary sight. Big dark elephants were lined up to guard an enormous stupa. When Vandhiyathevan saw it he thought that he would stop breathing. The elderly woman, however, walked unhesitatingly toward the group of elephants. Only after Azhvarkadiyan said into Vandhiyathevan’s ear, ‘Did you see how real those elephant statues seem?’, Vandhiyathevan overcame his shock. Yet his astonishment lingered.

Each one of those elephants that were constructed standing next to each other shoulder to shoulder, had two long tusks. Among about hundred such elephants that were lined up just one had one broken tusk. She went near that elephant. She removed the large granite stone that lay at its feet. A staircase was seen in that place. As she went down these steps the others also followed. After going on a winding path for a while a hall was seen. Two large oil lamps were burning there.

After pinching the wick to incite the flame on one of the lamps the elderly lady took it in her hand. She indicated by sign that only the prince ought to go with her. The other two men became alarmed over this. But once they saw that the woman was merely showing the prince the paintings on the wall their concern was somewhat alleviated.

The paintings the prince saw on the wall in that hall appeared to be a series of pictures depicting the incidents of a linear narrative. The paintings resembled the ones in Buddhist viharas that tell the ancient story of Lord Buddha’s birth and life. But these were not about Buddha. They depicted a woman’s story. Her face somewhat resembled the face of the elderly woman now holding the lamp. Therefore, the prince easily surmised that this dumb woman had written her own biography in these paintings.

The first painting showed a young girl standing alone in an island surrounded by sea and her father returning on his raft with fish. Next, the young girl was seen walking along a path in the forest. There was a young man seated up on a tree branch. He looked like a prince. There was a bear climbing that tree. The prince was gazing in a different direction unaware of the bear. The girl screamed and ran. The bear chased the woman. The young man on the tree jumped down and threw his spear at the bear. There was a duel between him and the bear. Leaning on a coconut tree the girl watched the fight. Finally the bear fell dead. The young man approached the girl. He expressed his gratitude to her. Without answering she began to cry. Then she ran and brought her father. The fisherman informed that his daughter could not speak and was dumb. At first the prince felt pity. Then he overcame that initial reaction and became friends with her. He made a garland out of wild flowers and placed it around her neck. Holding hands both of them roamed the forest.

One day a large vessel came to the island. A few soldiers disembarked. They found the prince and greeted him. They begged him to board the ship. The prince pacified the girl and bid farewell to her. Overcome with grief after his departure the girl shed many tears. Her father saw this. With her in the boat he went across the sea. He reached a lighthouse and a shore. There, a family welcomed the father and daughter. All of them left in a bullock cart. They reached a city with a fortress wall. There, on the balcony of the palace stood the prince with a crown on his head. Around him were many people adorned in festive clothes. The young woman’s heart was alarmed at the sight. She ran from there. She reached the shore. She climbed up on the lighthouse and jumped down. The waves bore her. A man on a boat took her on board and saved her. Thinking that she had the devil in her, he left her at the temple. The priest at the temple placed holy powder on her and beat her with neem leaves.

A high-ranking queen came to worship at the temple. The priest informed her about the woman. The queen was pregnant. She learnt that the woman was also like her, pregnant. She took her to the palace in the palankeen. Two children were born to the woman in the palace garden. The queen said that she will bring up one of the children. At first the fisherwoman refused. Then she had second thoughts. She decided to have both kids grow up in the palace. Without telling anyone she ran away in the middle of the night leaving the children. For a long time she roamed the forest. But often she would develop the urge to see the children. She would go to the riverbank and wait hiding behind the trees. In the boat the king, queen and the children would arrive. She would gaze from afar and leave. Once a child accidentally fell into the water. No one had noticed it. She dived underwater and rescued the child. Immediately she dived back into the river flood and reached the shore and disappeared into the forest.

All these incidents were depicted in red chalk realistically on that wall, Prince Arulmozhivarmar followed the paintings with enormous interest and astonishment. At the last painting the prince signed, ‘I am the boy who was rescued from the river; you are the one who rescued me!’ The elderly woman embraced the prince and kissed him on his forehead.

Then she took the prince to another corner of that hall. She showed some paintings that were drawn there. They were not incidents from her life. She warned the prince by way of those paintings and through signs about the dangers awaiting the prince.

Vandhiyathevan and Azhvarkadiyan were observing all of this while they stood on a side. Vandhiyathevan often compared Nandhini’s face and this woman’s face. Several thoughts dawned in his mind; several doubts appeared. Considering it an inappropriate time to discuss these he kept quiet.

When they came out of the private hall protected by the elephant statues, the elderly woman climbed toward the top of the stupa with them. The others marveled at her body’s strength. Vandhiyathevan was very tired. Yet he climbed without showing it.

Half way up the stupa they paused. There was a fire blazing in one part of the city.

“Aha! Emperor Maha Sena’s ancient palace is on fire!” said the prince.

“Where we were sleeping?”

“Yes, the same place!”

“If we had fallen asleep there …?”

“We too would have been food for the god of fire!”

“How can you tell from this distance that it is the palace where we were sleeping?”

“The paintings in the hall spoke to me.”

“We didn’t hear?”

“Nothing surprising about that. Art speaks a unique language. Only those who know that language can understand.”

“What else did those paintings tell you?”

“They spoke of several mysteries surrounding my family. They also told me to leave this Ilankai island at once!…”

“Long live the language of art! Vaishnava! My side won!” said Vandhiyathevan.

“Prince! Paintings didn’t stop there. Didn’t they also say, ‘As long as you are in Ilankai, don’t sleep under a roof. Don’t walk near houses. Don’t go under trees?” said Azhvarkadiyan.

‘You said it correctly! How did you know?”

“You know the language of art. This humble servant understands sign language. While the patron of your tribe was speaking to you I was observing her gestures and facial expressions!” said Azhvarkadiyan.

“Very good; only a quarter of the night remains. We will sleep on top of this stupa and leave at dawn,” said Arulmozhivarmar.

The sun’s rays hit Vandhiyathevan the next day at dawn and woke him up. As if the previous day’s actual happenings weren’t enough; saboteurs, arsonists, deaf and dumb, tree climbing bears, demons and devils, Buddhist monks, jeweled crowns and the like – all tortured Vandhiyathevan in his dreams also. In the sun’s light they all disappeared as phantasmagoric illusions. Fear and confusion fled.

Vandhiyathevan saw that the prince and Azhvarkadiyan were up and ready for the journey. He too quickly got ready. The three of them climbed down from the top of the stupa. Walking in the middle of the road they went towards the Mahamehavanam. At the center of that garden was the most sacred and ancient, thousand five hundred year old Bo tree.

Bikhus and lay worshippers were going around the bothi tree, showering flowers and worshipping. Prince Arulmozhivarmar also paid his respects to the tree.

“Kingdoms and kings who ruled them can disappear from this world. But justice will prevail forever, this bothi tree is its proof!” The prince told the other two men.

While speaking he looked around. In a corner stood three horses ready for departure. Three men stood restraining them.

Once the prince approached them they smiled and bowed with respect. The prince made some inquiries. He told Vandhiyathevan, “It was indeed Maha Senar’s palace where we had been sleeping that burnt down last night. They had been worried that we too might have perished. They are very happy to see us alive!” he said.

“It is true that the thousand and five hundred year old bothi tree is still standing. But it has been many days since justice died!” said Vandhiyathevan.

“Don’t say that ever again! While I am alive how can justice die?” said Azhvarkadiyan.

The three of them left on horses. They left through Anuradhapuram’s north entrance. Because the festival crowds were still leaving the city in all directions, no one noticed them.

Northeast of Anuradhapuram, ten miles away was a small town called Mahinthalai. “It is in this town that emperor Ashoka’s son Mahinthar first arrived and began the spiritual instruction into Buddhism! What a lucky man! He didn’t bear arms and go with troops to steal another country. He didn’t have to hide from murderers!” said Arulmozhivarmar.

“His luck went only so far!” said Vandhiyathevan.

The prince laughed. “You should never leave me. If you are next to me whatever difficulty will turn into laughter!” said the prince.

“In the same fashion whatever laughter will turn into difficulty!” said Azhvarkadiyan.

At this time in front of them on the road arose a cloud of dust. The sound of horses galloping on their four legs was also heard. In a short time a small cavalry appeared. The tips of the spears that the horsemen bore in their hands shone brightly in the morning sun.

“Sir! Draw your dagger!” cautioned Vandhiyathevan.


From → Notes

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