By SI Blog reader Racer44
(Parts 1 to 3)
(For SI readers Boopalanj and Shadowfax_Arbit who first mentioned this tour de force)
Note to SI Readers: I have used the word “Sozha” which I have verified with scholars as being the phonetically correct spelling, as opposed to “Chola”.
Caveat: Before delving into the review of Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki, I would like to acknowledge that my knowledge of other similar historical Tamil fiction novels is limited, having had the good fortune of reading only two more works, also of Kalki, Parthiban Kanavu and Sivagamiyin Sabadham (those too a fairly long time back). Readers should, therefore, forgive me for not including references to what, I hear, are works of similar magnitude such as Sandilyan’s Kadal Pura series and Yavana Rani.
Set in the latter half of 968 A.D and beginning in the month of Aadi (which corresponds roughly to July-August), Ponniyin Selvan is a semi-fictional account of the tumultuous period that culminated in the simultaneously orchestrated assassination attempts on the lives of the then Sozha Emperor Sundara Sozhar and his two sons, the anointed heir to the throne Adithya Karikaalan and his younger brother, Arunmozhi Varman (whose sobriquet forms the title of the epic and who would go on to acquire great glory, take the Sozha empire to dizzy heights and forever etch his name in the annals of history as the Great Rajaraja Sozhan).
From the very outset, Kalki chooses not to follow the oft-tread path, by centering his saga, not around any of these aristocratic men, whose own heroic deeds would easily fill a thousand pages, but around a little-known bold, quick-thinking young man, our protagonist Vallavaraiyan Vandhiyathevan, who happens to be the last remaining descendant of the great Vaanar kulam (clan) who, in their glory days, controlled large swathes of the peninsula and cast terror into the hearts of the Sozhas, Cheras and Pandiyas, his father’s generation having been vanquished, ironically, by the very Sozhas to whom he now swore allegiance.
In fact, a poem composed about a Vaanar king goes:
En kavigai, en sivigai
En kavasam, en duvasam
En kariyeedhu en pariyeedhu
enbare – pankavala
The poem is an amusing account of how even great kings (Vendhar) had to wait in line to seek an audience with the Vaanar Emperor as they had been preceded by great poets (PaaVendhar) who had already gone into the royal palace. As the kings wait patiently, they watch in a mixture of awe, shock and envy as the tributes they have brought for the Vaanar Emperor, such as jewel-encrusted shields, prize horses and elephants and expensive palanquins are generously handed out by the Vaanar Emperor to the poets with no heed to the expensive nature of these gifts. The poem exemplifies the boundless munificence and large-heartedness of the once-renowned Vaanar kulam.
Having earned the confidence and friendship of the Crown Prince Adithya Karikaalan while serving under him in the Northern Division of the Sozha Army, Vandhiyathevan is entrusted by Karikaalan to deliver two confidential letters, one each to his father, the Emperor who lies bed-ridden at his fort in the Sozha capitol of Thanjavur, rendered unable to walk by a debilitating illness that has its roots in a troubled past, and his sister, the lovely Kundhavai Devi living in Pazhayaarai, once capitol and now home to the ladies of the royalty.
The story thus begins with Vandhiyathevan aiming to rest for the night at the waystation of Kadambur, home to the minor kingdom (one among several in the Sozha Empire) of the Sambuvarayars, whose prince Kandhamaran is a close friend of his. Vandhiyathevan’s curiosity is piqued when he discovers that, on the very night of his stay at Kadambur, the Sambuvarayars will also be playing host to a coterie of minor rulers and chieftains from around the Empire, gathering for a clandestine rendezvous convened by one of the most powerful men in the Empire, the Revenues and Foodgrains Minister, Periya Pazhuvettarayar (Elder Pazhuvettarayar). Circumstances arise that cause him to stumble upon their meeting, and, in a life-changing decision, he decides to spy upon the assembly.
In an atmosphere charged with growing resentment against the two princes (for the elder’s alleged vanity and indolence at the northern front and the younger one’s insistence on shipping foodgrains from home to feed the soldiers fighting under his command in Sri Lanka), and pent-up frustration against an Emperor seen as relying too much on the advice of his daughter and aunt on critical issues of governance, the members of the secret conference soon decide to take matters in their own hands and thus, the seeds of a conspiracy take root, whose stated purpose is to install on the throne the cousin of the present Emperor, Madhuranthakan, once the Emperor, whose demise is said to be imminent, passes away. Vandhiyathevan also discovers, to his mounting dismay, that several previous communications to the Emperor have been intercepted by the Commander of the Thanjavur Fort, Chinna Pazhuvettarayar (the Younger Pazhuvettarayar), and prevented from reaching His Highness.
Kalki’s story-telling skills come to the fore in this segment, as he conjures up the scene in front of our eyes in prose that is, at once pithy and yet, evocative.
“Keezhe kurugalaana mutram ondril, moondru pakkamum nedunchuvargal soozhndhirunda idathil pathu pannirendu paer utkarnthirundhargal. Paadhi madhiyin velichathai nedunchuvargal maraithana. Aanaal oru suvaril padhithirundha irumbu agal vilakkil erindha deepam konjam velicham thandhadhu.
Much like a Lion stalking its prey from behind the long grasses of the savanna, Kalki criss-crosses between the cover of Vandhiyathevan’s feverish thought process and the open space of the narrow courtyard beneath him whose occupants are discussing the fate of an Empire he has sworn to guard with his life.
Now burdened with the twin tasks of delivering his letters as well as alerting the Emperor about the dastardly plot being hatched by high-ranking officers of his Empire, Vandhiyathevan resumes his journey to Thanjavur. While crossing the Kaveri, he chances upon a fellow traveller, a Vaishnavite devotee going by the name of Azhwaarkadiyaan, whom he had previously met during his journey to Kadambu. Azhwaarkadiyaan narrates the sorry tale of how his adopted sister Nandhini was captured by Periya Pazhuvettarayar after being caught red-handed tending to the fatally-injured Pandiya king, Veerapandiyan, during the Sozha-Pandiya war. Veerapandiyan’s head is chopped off at her house, but Nandhini, who catches the fancy of Periya Pazhuvettarayar is taken away and eventually forced to marry the latter and becomes the Pazhuvoor Queen, trapped in a splendid isolation that prevented her from contacting any member of her adopted family. Moved by his plight but unable to offer any assistance, Vandhiyathevan parts with Azhwaarkadiyaan at the opposite river bank.
A salient point to note here is Kalki’s introduction of Nandhini. The character has no basis in history, having its roots only in the fertile imagination of the author. But it speaks volumes about Kalki’s ability to spin a tale when we see that not only is she seamlessly integrated into the re-imagining of what was a recorded event in history, she is also given an intriguing, multi-hued and minutely chiseled persona that elevates her to an inseparable part of the story’s soul.
Coming back to the narration, from here on, it is a complete roller-coaster for the rest of the first part. Suffice to say, Vandhiyathevan, employing all the ingenuity and wit at his disposal, and we find that he is blessed with considerable quantities of both, eventually delivers both of his letters successfully and gives the slip to the notoriously astute and all-powerful Chinna Pazhuvettarayar, but not before being branded an enemy spy and a bounty set on his head. However, his journey is far from over as he sets off on another errand, this time at the bidding of Princess Kundhavai who wishes to summon her brother in Sri Lanka home to discuss the disturbing news she is receiving about plots against the ruling family.
In a parallel track that occasionally references the main one, Azhwaarkadiyaan uncovers wheels within wheels in the form of an underground Pandiya revivalist cabal that aims to subvert the Pazhuvettarayar plans to their own ends, using the erstwhile Nandhini to poison the elder Pazhuvettarayar’s dulling intellect and to siphon off much-needed funds from the Treasury of the very enemy they are fighting.
The first part ends with a brief interlude on the shores of Mahabalipuram, where Adithya Karikaalan, beset by inner demons, reveals to his close friend, Parthibendra Pallavan of his early childhood romance with Nandhini, and how, years later, it all ended abruptly when he himself had come across Nandhini tending to the wounded Pandiyan, and in a fit of rage, ignoring her remonstrances, he had hacked off Veerapandiyan’s head.
The first part is also significant in that it is here that the first tell-tale signs of love appear between Vandhiyathevan and Kundhavai. And it would be remiss on my part to leave out Kalki’s fantastic portrayal of Nandhini, who stands as one of the finest and most impenetrable femme fatales ever encountered in world literature, whose magical beauty laid bare the hearts of all men who were (un)fortunate enough to look upon it, and whose tears had the power to transform lion-hearted men having won many a great war and bearing a hundred wounds as souvenirs into cowering weaklings. None were and none would prove to be immune to her bewitching countenance and silken voice save one man: Vandhiyathevan.
Kalki comes up with a nuanced analysis of the two beauties, Nandhini and Kundhavai Devi, concluding in this sparkling quip from Vandhiyathevan that sums it up in a nutshell.
“Oruvan naragathil vizhappogiravanaai irundhaal, avanaith thaduthu niruthi Kundhavai Devi Swargathukku avanai kondu poi serthu viduvaar. Adhu oru vidha Sakthi. Nandhini enna seivaal theriyuma? Avaludaiya sakthi innum orupadi maelaanadhu endrae solla vendum. Naragathaiyae Swargam endru solli saadhithu, adhai nabumbadiyum seidhu, naragathil santhoshamaaga kudhikkumpadi seidhu viduvaal !!!”
For those who aren’t familiar with Tamil, Vandhiyathevan comments that while Kundhavai’s pleasant beauty wields the power to stop a man who is condemned to hell and send him to heaven, Nandhini, with her ethereal beauty, possesses the far deadlier power to convince the poor man that hell is actually heaven, and make him leap in joy.
The second part sees a shift in backdrop to the coastal settlement of Kodikkarai, where Vandhiyathevan plans to enlist the services of boat-men to cross over to northern Sri Lanka. Little does he expect to be bowled over on his arrival in Kodikkarai by a feisty, volatile and doe-eyed lass named Poonguzhali, who saves his life not once but thrice, first when he finds himself waist-deep in quick-sand while trying to chase her in vain and again when Pazhuvettarayar’s men come hunting for him, and finally when Vandhiyathevan jumps into the sea foolishly after finding, to much indignation, that, unbeknownst to him, she had read the letter he was carrying to Prince Arunmozhi Varman and only then agreed to row her boat for him. After landing in Nagatheevu, one of the islands on the northern part of Lanka, Vandhiyathevan travels to Mathottam, which is under the occupation of the Sozha Army. In Mathottam, he pairs up with an old friend acquaintance Azhwaarkadiyaan (who is revealed to be working under the sagacious Prime Minister of the Sozha Empire, Aniruddha Brahmaraayar) and together they head for the rugged terrain of the Lankan hills in search of the Prince.
One of the alluring aspects of Ponniyin Selvan is the intimate familiarity Kalki brings to all his locations, be it the vibrant streets of Thanjavur, the derelict palaces of Pazhayaarai, the sands and sculptures of Mahabalipuram, the sea-breeze wafting on the tranquil Kodikkarai shores, or the eerie jungles of Sri Lanka. At each of these places, the authenticity of the depictions draw you in, and it is moments like these that linger for a long time and make you want to return, again and again, to read this timeless work.
Take, for example, his richly-colored portrait of a serene evening in Kodikkarai:
Andhi neram amaidhi petru vilangiyadhu. Kodikkaraiyin orathil kadal alai adangi oindhirundhadhu. Kattu marangalum padagugalum karaiyai nerungi kondirundhana. Kadalil irai thaedachendra
paravaigal thirumbi vandhu kondirundhana. karaiyil siridhu dhooram ven manal parandhirundhadhu. Adharku appaal vegu dhoorathukku vegudhooram kaadu padarndhirundhadhu. Kaattu marangalin kilaigal aadavillai ; Ilaigal asaiyavillai ; Naala pakkamum nisaptham nilaviyadhu. Sengadhir Devan kadalum vaanum kalakkum idathai nokki viraindhu irangik kondirundhan. Maegathiralgal sila sengadhirgalai maraikkap paarthu thaangalum oli petru vilangina
The above passage finely details the shores of Kodikkarai in the evening, with the huge expanse of forest looming behind, all of whose trees and their leaves stand still as the golden-rayed Sun descends to the point where the sky dissolves into the sea. Prey-seeking birds are shown to return to the shores after a long day’s work. What a terrific allegory!!! To the idle reader it is just another description, but venture deeper and you find the hidden reference to the fishermen who are also making their way home after fishing in the sea. And then the final flourish, as Kalki calls to mind the incandescent glow of the clouds as they try to smother the fiery ball in the horizon.
Returning to the story, Vandhiyathevan and Azhwaarkkadiyan are successful in their quest, but events soon take a mysterious turn when they find that the younger Prince is in ever-present danger from unlikely quarters but is saved at each turn by a deaf-mute old woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Nandhini (whom he had met in Thanjavur) who treats the prince like an own son. In another momentous decision, the head of the largest buddhist sect of the island offers to crown Arunmozhi as the King of Lanka, an honor seldom granted to outsiders, but Arunmozhi gracefully declines citing his desire not to go against his father’s wishes . Amidst these strange happenings, Parthibendra Pallavan arrives, seeking Ponniyin Selvan’s immediate return to Kanchipuram, so that the two Sozha Princes can march unitedly towards Thanjavur to demolish the machinations of the Pazhuvettarayars. But before Arunmozhi can decide, Poonguzhali, who accompanies Parthibendran, conveys more ill tidings regarding two ships sent by the Emperor with orders to arrest and bring the Prince back to Thanjavur for allegedly plotting to crown himself the King of Lanka. Faced with contradicting advice regarding his course of action, Arunmozhi Varman decides to obey his father’s command and makes for the ships on an elephant with only Poonguzhali by his side, leaving the others behind lest they try to delay him. But as fate would have it, many in the ship desert it upon finding its true purpose, and the remaining dozen sailors find themselves utterly unprepared as they are ambushed by a party of marauding Arab sailors and killed in battle.
Ponniyin Selvan takes place in an era when the Sozha Empire is at the cusp of a trade (and conquest) revolution. It is, therefore,only natural, that only a few references to the outside world are present in the story. One of them is the Arabs, and Kalki comments on the differences between the mild-mannered, cultured Arab traders of pre-Islamic times and “a new breed of barbaric, cruel Arabs” with the single-point agenda of imposing their will on other races and destroying other cultures. Interestingly Vandhiyathevan is also shown to be amazed at the consideration these Arabs show for their horses by ensuring that all their horses are shod to protect their hooves. Through this and other instances later on, Kalki takes us through the cultural exchanges of those times, as seen through the eyes of an ordinary traveller.
Following the prince via boat, Vandhiyathevan and the others come across the Sozha ship that has been stolen by the Arabs. Under the impression that it is carrying the prince back to Thanjavur, Vandhiyathevan swims over to the ship and is promptly captured by the Arabs, who also happen to have with them members of the Pandiya cabal travelling alongside. His spirits undampened, Vandhiyathevan does some quick thinking to free himself of his bonds, and overcomes his Arab captors, only to find that he is stranded in the middle of the ocean as the Pandiyan plotters escape on boats, leaving him alone to steer the ship with a storm approaching in the distance. As if to confirm that his fate is sealed, lightning strikes the ship, setting it ablaze. Just when all appears lost, a ship appears carrying Arunmozhi varman, Parthibendran and Bhoodhi Vikrama Kesari, one of the commanders at the Lankan front. The prince, along with two soldiers, rescues Vandhiyathevan from the burning ship, but soon, their own boat capsizes leaving both of them holding on to their dear life on a log of wood. This way they remain until the next morning, when, by a stroke of good fortune, they are spotted and rescued by Poonguzhali on her boat. On the other side, observing the sinking ship and boat and not seeing any survivors in the dark, Parthibendran and the others bemoan the loss of the Prince in the turbulent ocean. And thus draws to a close, the second episode of this epic.
The second part too, like the first, contains a parallel narrative that describes Princess Kundhavai’s trip to Thanjavur to visit her ailing father and the Emperor’s confession of the dark truth in his past concerning his relationship with the deaf-mute woman who is earlier seen helping Arunmozhi Varman in Lanka. Her stay at the Thanjavur Fort is livened by the subtle tension and wordplay between the Princess and Nandhini, who is also residing at the Fort. Meanwhile, Nandhini sets her own agenda into motion with a carefully worded letter to Adithya Karikaalan, inviting him to meet her at the Kadambur palace, claiming the need to discuss the rumours abounding about conspiracies against the empire and her plans to resolve them.
When seen in the light of Kalki’s other works, Parthiban Kanavu and Sivagaamiyin Sabadham, Ponniyin Selvan is equally well-researched (the author clearly attributes events occuring within the story such as land allotment for injured soldiers, granting of funds from the exchequer for hospital construction etc to corresponding archaeological discoveries like inscriptions on copper plates, foundation stones and such) but much grander in scope, dealing with a plethora of characters, each having a crucial role to play in the unfolding of the narrative. And though Kalki’s crisp narrative style largely remains invariant, the sheer wonderment we experience at witnessing such a prodigious opus seems to reduce his other equally well-written works to hors d’oeuvres.
The third installment begins with Periya Pazhuvettarayar and Nandhini arriving at the Kodikkarai coast to personally escort the arrested Prince to Thanjavur, unaware of the happenings at sea. But soon, the storm that had originated off the Lankan coast makes its way to Kodikkarai, wreaking havoc all around. Soon after, Parthibendra Pallavan’s ship anchors off the coast, and news is received of the Prince’s untimely rescue effort and the fear that he may have drowned. This prompts Pazhuvettarayar to leave for Thanjavur, taking along Parthibendran to convey the course of events to the Emperor.
Meanwhile, Poonguzhali steers the boat close to the Nagappatinam coast, away from the prying eyes of watch-guards at Kodikkarai, and, with help from Vandhiyathevan and a distant cousin, Sendhan Amudhan (who serves at a temple in Thanjavur where he had previously helped Vandhiyathevan), admits the Prince, who is now suffering from a fever he contracted from his long travails at sea, into the Nagappattinam Chudamani Buddhist Viharam for treatment. Vandhiyathevan takes his leave to return to Pazhayaarai and report to Kundhavai on the successful completion of his duties. But as luck would have it, he is waylaid by acquaintances from the Pandiya clique who take him to Nandhini who then tries to elicit Arunmozhi’s whereabouts from him. On his refusal to yield any information, Nandhini sets him free, with plans to use him at a later date. Upon reaching Pazhayaarai, Vandhiyathevan tells all to Kundhavai, including the unexplained resemblance between Nandhini and the deaf-mute woman in Sri Lanka. Piecing together the myriad links, Kundhavai concludes that Nandhini is her half-sister and, having learnt of her plans to meet Adithya Karikaalan in Kadambur via the omniscient Prime Minister Aniruddha Brahmmarayar, fears that untoward incidents may befall Karikaalan at Kadambur. And so it falls on Vandhiyathevan once more to warn Karikaalan and stop him from being lured into a trap, and if that should fail, stick close and shield him from any harm.
This journey, like others, proves anything but straightforward. First, he walks into a decrepit, crumbling old Mandapam in the middle of a forest, only to find a beguiling, handsome little boy of obviously aristocratic lineage. The child engages Vandhiyathevan in idle talk that the latter finds precocious yet disquieting. The pitch is further queered when they are surrounded by members of the Pandiyan cabal who greet the infant as “Emperor”. Both the boy and Vandhiyathevan are taken to the desolate forests of Thiruppurambiyam where the Pandiyas were once defeated by the combined might of the Kangars, the Pallavas and the Sozhas in a war that would be the first in a series that would eventually establish the primacy of the Sozhas over the entire Tamil-speaking lands. Here they are joined by Nandhini and a bizarre ritual ensues, at the end of which Nandhini is chosen as the one who would kill Karikaalan. Inexplicably to the others and Vandhiyathevan himself, Nandhini once again decides to lets him go unharmed. With the premonition of evil things preying upon his mind, Vandhiyathevan departs. He soon meets Azhwaarkadiyaan and the two set off to meet Adithya Karikaalan.
One of the many reasons the book is so popular and well-known even today is because of its sharp, witty lines. When, for instance, the mood is foreboding and the outlook daunting at the Pandiya camp in Thiruppurambiyam, we see a refreshing exchange like the one below:
The child:”Amma, ivandhaan ennai iruttil pisaasu vizhungaamal kaappaatriyavan. Ivanai yaen kattip pottirukiradhu?”(He was the one who saved me in the dark from ghosts. Why are you tying him up?)
Vandhiyathevan:”Kuzhandai! Summa iru! Periyavargal pesi kondirukkumpodhu pesakkoodathu. Pesinaal unnai Puli vizhungividum.!”(Shut up, child! Keep interrupting your elders and the Tiger(Sozhas) will gobble you.
Child:”Puliyai naan vizhungividuven” (I’ll swallow the tiger)
Vandhiyathevan(with a mischievous grin creasing his face):”Meenal puliyai vizhangamudiyuma?”(“Can a fish(Pandiya) swallow a Tiger(Sozha)?”; The other Pandiya plotters glare at him)
With such repartees adorning the book is it any surprise that the book has been nationalized by the State government to enable free publication and a wider audience?
The book’s immense popularity to this day is also evident via other means, such as web sites dedicated to discuss the magnum opus (like www.ponniyinselvan.in) and being staged regularly as plays and skits in schools, sabhas and other cultural centres in Tamil Nadu.
True to Kalki’s style, in the third part too we see multiple strands interwoven with the main one. Even as Arunmozhi Varman recovers from his illness in the Chudamani Viharam, news of his demise is spreading like wildfire and we see how bereaved people take to the streets in grief, but unlike present political leaders, the people here are shown to have genuine love and affection for the Prince, with whom they appear to have a direct bond. Next we are introduced to the naive, but power-hungry Madhuranthakan who reneges against the promises he made years ago to his aging mother not to seek political power and who blindly trusts the might of the Pazhuvettarayars to back his bid to the throne. We are also taken through the ambitions Princess Kundhavai nurses for her younger brother and her wish to see him married to one of her friends, Vanathi. Vanathi herself harbours romantic thoughts for Arunmozhi Varman, fueled by distant memories of the time they spent together before the war in Lanka, and the open encouragement of Kundhavai.
Upon hearing Vandhiyathevan informing Kundhavai of the Prince’s safe passage to Nagappattinam, Vanathi attempts to travel to Nagappattinam under the pretext of converting to Buddhism, but is stopped, in a hilarious encounter, by Aniruddha Brahmmarayar, who pretends to interrogate her and threatens her with torture before Vanathi faints and is handed to the safe custody of Kundhavai Devi, who is also journeying to Nagapattinam.
The third part ends with the duo meeting a convalescing Arunmozhi Varman.
But it wouldn’t be right if I failed to highlight the defining feature of third part, for this is the book where love blooms forth out of all and sundry.
If Kundhavai proposing to Vandhiyathevan across the bars in Pazhayaarai jail didn’t fascinate you for its sheer poeticism, Parthibendran’s head-over-heels capitulation in front of Nandhini didn’t astound you and make you marvel over the power of intoxicating beauty, and Sendhan Amudhan’s far more Sattvic proposal of love to Poonguzhali didn’t move your heart to tears, then you are incapable of love.
The first three parts, as a whole, stand out for their taut and edgy narrative style that strikes a wonderful balance with some vivid and expressive descriptions sprinkled throughout.
For the more discerning and curious reader, the historical explanations provided at some key junctures serve to illustrate and inform the happenings of the present. Not to forget the elegant poems that grace this fine work, each one apt for a different occasion.
All in all, Ponniyin Selvan is a story relevant for all ages that pulls the circumspect reader like a fish on a hook for the adventure of a lifetime. And this holds true for the first three parts as well.