Thursday, 11 May 2017

Chapter 7 – The Monkey without a Tail

Manimeghalai stood still in front of the mirror, wondering whether she had indeed seen the face or not.

Did she really see it or was it a dream? If it was a dream, shouldn’t she be sleeping? 

She touched her face to confirm that she was indeed standing in the Pazhuvur Queen’s chambers in front of her mirror. She turned around and saw that she couldn’t have imagined the face in the dark as the lamp near the mirror was lit rather brightly. She stared hard at the opposite wall. She knew that there was a secret entrance there and she also knew how to open from outside. Through the secret entrance, one could enter the hunter's chamber where they had preserved wild animals that were hunted by the menfolk of their clan. She thought she also heard some sound from the secret inner chamber.

Manimeghalai went near the wall and opened the secret entrance. There was a small lamp burning low in the hunter’s chamber and suddenly it appeared as though someone had moved in front of the light. When she saw again she could see the lamp and nothing else.

Manimeghalai shook her head and blinked her eyes again.

Did she just hallucinate again? Was she still dreaming?

Manimeghalai clapped her hand and asked, ‘Who is there?’ In response, she heard the flapping sound of a bat that moved from one end of the chamber to hang upside down near the never-blinking owl that was perched on the roof. Manimghalai also heard a coughing sound that sounded very suspicious.

Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, Manimeghalai stood at the entrance and called out for her companion.

Chandramathi! Chandramathi!”

“You called me Princess?”

“Bring a lamp and come here soon.”

After a while, her handmaiden came there holding a lamp in hand. After stepping inside the hunter’s chamber, she said, “But Princess there is a lamp lit here already. Why do you need another lamp?”

“I wish to inspect this place. I thought I heard a sound.”

“It must be the bat flapping its wings. What else could it be?”

“No. Just now I was looking at the mirror and I thought I saw somebody else’s face in it.”

“A face? How did it look? Was it as handsome as Arjuna or Manmadhan?” asked her companion and laughed.

t“Chandramathi! Are you mocking me?”

“No Princess! You told me that a man plagues your dreams… Did you perchance see his face?”

“Yes… but it seemed so real to me.”

“There comes a time when all girls daydream but thankfully it may just last for two days for you. Once the Crown Prince from Kanchi comes here you will forget that other face. I am sure of it.”

“Be that as it may. Right now let’s go into the Hunter’s Chamber and check.”

“We will be wasting our time Princess! The place must be full of cobwebs and dust. We will merely ruin our saris.”

“That’s alright. Let’s go.”

“We might be plagued by a cough and sneeze. And tomorrow when everybody comes…”

“I don’t care if I cough and sneeze. I wish to check the chamber now. Come with me.”

Both women stepped into Hunter’s chamber. Chandramathi kept the lamp in her hand slightly elevated while Manimeghalai moved around the cavernous room. Manimeghalai also noted that there were many footprints on the dusty floor as though as someone had roamed around there.

“Look at that!’ Said Chandramathi

“Why are you scared? What is it?”

“It seemed like that monkey moved!”

“Looks like the monkey is very happy to see you.”

“Princess… now you are mocking me?”

“You have mocked me for so many days. Can’t I do the same?”

“Maybe you saw this monkey’s face in the mirror. It stands opposite to the wall through which we came. See there… the monkey is moving again!”

“No! It the shadow, that’s moving. When you move the light in your hand the shadow moves and it seems like the monkey is moving. Come let’s leave. I see no one here.”

“Then I might be right. You must have seen the monkey’s face in the mirror or it could even be this owl’s face. Look how it is staring at us.”

“Us? Why would you include me? I think it is staring only at you, entranced by your beauty!”

“Then whose face do you think it was, that stared at you in the mirror?”

“You and others have decided that I might be suffering from delusions and if I tell you god knows what you will think. It was the face that I keep seeing in my dreams. But I know not how it came into the mirror. After seeing such a handsome face, it pains my heart to see the lifeless ever-staring faces of these animals. Come let’s leave now. I will go back to the mirror and see if I can see that face again.”

Both the women left the chamber through the secret entrance. After they left, Vandiya Devan came out of hiding from behind the monkey that had no tail. He sneezed, again and again, thanks to the dust and cobwebs that was there behind the monkey.

After that, he expressed his thanks to the monkey that had hidden them so well.

“Monkey! I got angry when that handmaiden compared my face to yours. I had to stop myself from revealing my handsome form. Thankfully you stood there as tall as a man shielding me from them or else I would have been caught by those women and god knows what they would have done to me.”

Even as he spoke those words, he knew in his heart that it wouldn’t be so bad if the women had spotted him there. He already knew their identities.

He had heard the conversation between both the women and was able to guess who they were. That too, Manimeghalai’s voice was pretty loud and clear to him.

Didn’t she say that the face she saw in the mirror was the one that she has seen in her dreams? What could that mean?

Many old memories came back to his mind.  He knew that Kandanmaran had spoken about him to his sister many times. He remembered the last time he was in the palace and a few glimpses that he had of that shy girl who was hiding behind her mother. Kandanmaran then had told him that they had got a better alliance for his sister and that she had accepted the said groom.

Did he lie to me then? Maybe this girl hasn’t changed her mind after all.

He realised that these were fanciful thoughts and that he needed to escape from this hunter’s chamber soon. He can’t use the elephant’s trunk to leave the chamber as it led to the women’s anthapuram. He needed to find a way back to the Ayyanar temple. He tried to look for clues on the wall but could find nothing. As he came round he neared the crocodile that was lying near. He tried to check the wall for more clues to open the way out of the chamber but knew that he was wasting time.

God! Do I have no choice but to enter the women’s anthapuram and escape? Maybe Manimeghalai might take pity on him and help him escape! What answer could he possibly give if she asks why he came there? Could he perhaps tell her that he loved her dearly and came there to meet her secretly?

Even as he thought that he rejected it. It was a terrible lie. Even ‘he’ couldn’t say it to save his life. He was sure that even if he dared to utter such a lie, there is very little chance of Manimeghalai believing it.

If he escaped through the anthapuram Manimeghalai might not be alone on the other side. There might be other women too. And if Sambuverayer knew about this, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill him!

As he thought thus, he looked at the lifeless crocodile on the floor again. “Stupid Crocodile! Why do you gape thus with your mouth wide open?” he said and aimed a good kick in its direction. The crocodile moved and as it moved a trap door opened on the nearby wall.

“So it’s you that has been hiding this secret. Why didn’t you tell me this before?” he said and moved the crocodile further. As the crocodile moved, the trap door opened wide and steps were seen. They were the steps that he had taken to lead him into the chamber.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Chapter 6 – Manimeghalai

Sambuverayar’s daughter and Kandanmaran’s sister Manimeghalai was an energetic and spirited girl by nature who was cherished and loved by her family. The palace of Kadambur was her own royal court where she ruled over everyone like a queen. For many years, life was a happy dream until four months ago… something changed. Her family started pressuring her to agree to something that her heart couldn’t accept. Her pleas fell on deaf ears and but they seemed determined to have their way.

For the past three years, her brother Kandanmaran had been talking incessantly about his friend Vallavareyan Vandiya Devan. His wit, quick thinking, fiery temper, skill with the sword and spear were the many things that Kandanmaran would dwell upon incessantly. He would describe Vandiya Devan to be as handsome as Manmathan, as brave as Arjuna and as intelligent as Lord Krishna himself. He would often end the conversation by saying that ‘Vandiya Devan is the right groom for you. He is the only one who can keep a girl like you under his thumb’. Manimeghalai loved to hear him tease her with his friend but she would fight with her brother nonetheless.

“You are so full of talk. Why don’t you bring him here one day? Let me see how clever he really is.”

“We will see…” Kandamaran would say.

Before Vandiya Devan came to their Palace, Manimeghalai has spent many days and hours, daydreaming about him. Sometimes she would speak about him to her friends and companions too. While this went on for some time, unexpectedly, her brother’s plan to wed her to Vandiya Devan changed a few months ago. 

He started telling her that Vandiya Devan was an orphan with nary a home or land to his name. ‘He has nothing to offer… forget about him.’ Instead, he started hinting that she has a chance to become the Empress of the Kingdom. One day, he told her quite bluntly that she would be married to Prince Madhuranthakan (who was already married to Chinna Pazhuvetarayar’s daughter). He also told that Prince Madhuranthakan would be next Emperor of the Kingdom and she had a chance to be his queen consort and their progeny the future kings of the Chola dynasty. Her parents agreed and assented to everything that Kandanmaran proposed.

Manimeghalai couldn’t imagine herself as an Empress or as anybody else’s wife other than Vandiya Devan. Her brother’s words about Vandiya Devan remained etched in her heart and she struggled hard to forget all about him as her family demanded. She was also not very impressed with what she had heard about Prince Madhuranthakan - a coward who had never set foot on a battlefield. His piety and his declaration that he would become a Sanyasi and renounce the world too was well-known. Many were surprised when he did a sudden turnabout and married Chinna Pazhuvetarayar’s daughter after his public declaration. All this and more had not endeared him to Manimeghalai and she was determined not to wed this cowardly prince. 

Later, she also heard a bit of news that strengthened her resolve. A few months ago, when Periya Pazhuvetarayar had come to their palace, they were told that his younger queen Nandini Devi too had come along. She never visited the Anthapuram and nor did she meet her mother and greet them. This breach of etiquette was not only surprising but also became a point of conversation among the womenfolk to ridicule Periya Pazhuvetarayar and his jealous nature. As days passed on, the truth was revealed. Nandini Devi had not come to their palace at all. It was Prince Madhuranthakan who was brought there in a veiled palanquin in Nandini’s stead. That sealed her decision.

“I will never wed someone who hides his cowardly face within the veils of a palanquin. Never!’

Ironically, the day Prince Madhuranthakan had come hiding in the veiled palanquin, Kandanmaran’s friend too had come there. He had come to the Anthapuram and was there for a very short while but Manimeghalai was overcome by shyness. She stood behind the rest of the womenfolk and looked at him with bashful eyes. She couldn’t look up and see him face to face. Yet his twinkling eyes, handsome face and open smile created an everlasting impression in her young heart. He embodied everything that she had ever dreamed in a man and the few words that he spoke remained in her memory for long.

Meeting Vandiya Devan in flesh and blood and finding him much more than her own daydreams strengthened Manimeghalai’s resolve of not marrying anybody else, especially a coward like Madhuranthakan. She fought endlessly with Kandanmaran and ridiculed his attempt to marry her to Madhuranthakan and swore on the Gods that she would never agree to his plans.

Kandanmaran felt vexed and frustrated with his sister. At first, he tried to pacify her with sweet words. Later, he tried to sway her mind by saying, ‘Vandiya Devan is a friend turned enemy. He stabbed me in the back and left me to die. If you marry him, I will not hesitate to kill both of you…”

Then he would show the gaping wound on his back and eloquently describe how Nandini Devi had nursed him back to health.

“If you really love me, you will forget all about Vandiya Devan.”

After Manimeghalai heard this she did indeed change her heart. She loved her brother and knew that it would be impossible for her to wed the man who had tried to kill him. She tried to forget Vandiya Devan, yet the man would creep into her dreams and give her sleepless nights.

The chirpy girl who used to skip around the palace with boundless energy and enthusiasm had become a shadow of her old self. The old womenfolk in the palace hinted that this transformation was because she had become old enough to be married. Her companions and handmaidens teased her often and tried to cheer her up but in vain.

Though for the past few days, she was almost her old self because she had reason to believe that her parents and her brother had changed their mind about marrying her to Prince Madhuranthakan. She also learned that they had decided to get her married to the Crown Prince, Aditya Karikalan.

Next, to Prince Madhuranthakan, Aditya Karikalan was almost a giant in the people’s opinion. His bravery the glorious victories on the battlefield were well known to all. Added to that he was the Crown Prince of the Chola Kingdom, the heir apparent of a dynasty that was celebrated for its glorious legacy. 

Kings far and wide would happily give away the hands of their daughters to this Prince, wouldn’t they? 

Yet the Prince had shied away from marriage for various reasons so long. When she heard rumours that her parents were considering offering her hand in marriage to the Crown Prince she was excited and relieved.

When she learned that their palace would be used as a seat of power to broker peace between Aditya Karikalan and the Pazhuvur clan, she almost became her old self and was excited to play the hostess to such esteemed guests. When she learned that Periya Pazhuvetarayar would be bringing along his queen (and this time for real), her curiosity knew no bounds. She knew that Nandini Devi was instrumental in saving her brother’s life. Kandanmaran’s new-found eloquence about Nandini’s beauty, grace and intelligence made Manimeghalai all the more curious to meet her. She also knew that Nandini was responsible for the peace talks that were to happen soon and that it was her idea to wed her to the Crown Prince. Kandanmaran wanted his sister to become Nandini’s companion and friend during their visit at the palace and learn courtly behaviour and etiquette from her. Manimeghalai had no objections to this scheme. That was another reason for her enthusiasm.

The past week saw her overseeing the arrangements for the guest rooms. She stayed up late checking the palace wing that has been allocated to the Prince and his entourage and the Pazhuvur clan. Most importantly, she would often visit the chambers that have been made ready for the Pazhuvur queen to ensure it didn’t lack in material comforts. Her scrutiny vexed her servants and handmaidens who were made to clean and decorate the rooms again and again.

She also scrutinised the chambers that were allocated for the Crown Prince.

Someone called Parthibendra Pallavan was also accompanying the Prince it seems. God knows who that is? These days, one can’t be sure when someone will change. That Vandiya Devan too was once a part of Aditya Karikalan’s entourage. If only he didn’t turn out to be such a traitor, he too could have come here along with the Crown Prince.

Thus ran her thoughts and though she tried to keep herself engaged with the novelty of playing the hostess, she couldn’t forget her brother’s friend.

Periya Pazhuvetarayar and his queen were expected to arrive that night, therefore, late in the evening, Manimeghalai found herself back in the guest wing scrutinising the servants as they made things ready. As she walked through the chamber, she stood for a while in front of the ornate large mirror that was kept there. She looked at herself rather objectively and then decided that she was indeed attractive. Just when she had decided to move, she noticed that there was another face along with hers in the mirror. It was the face of a person that had tormented her in many dreams.  She couldn’t help but scream.

The next instant, the other face disappeared and only hers was seen in the mirror.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Chapter 5 – The Underground Passage

After entering the secret underground passage at the Ayyanar Temple, Vandiya Devan walked for a while in the dark. A faint light was seen from the entrance of the tunnel through which he had entered and that gave him the confidence to venture further into the darkness. After taking a few steps, he heard a rumbling sound of a lever being turned and the tunnel entrance closed. The underground passage became so dark that Vandiya Devan became disoriented.

His first thoughts were of the resolution that he took not so long ago -- about not getting involved in things that do not concern his mission.

Why did I get into this tunnel now? My mission was to reach Aditya Karikalar as soon as possible and stop him from coming to Kadambur… then what am I doing here instead? Why do I act so rashly? When will I learn?

He slowly traced his way back to the tunnel entrance and tried to find the lever that would open it but the darkness that had enveloped the place suffocated him from all directions. He could hear faint voices too and surmised that some more people might have come to the Temple, which was probably why Edupankari was lighting all those lamps. Ravidasan’s gang might have come there to meet with Edupankari… then it would be dangerous to try and escape from the tunnel now.

Why did they come here? What are they planning?

Thankfully the Vaishnavan would be there to keep an eye on them.

Why should I wait here until they leave? I probably fall unconscious before I can escape from here. Instead, why not explore this underground tunnel. It might be useful in future to learn where it leads.

After deciding thus, he turned around started walking forward again. The ground was rough and was filled with stones. He surmised that the tunnel might lead him to Kadambur Palace. The bigger question was where in the Palace would it lead him? Most palaces had tunnels such as these built in the women’s anthapuram. During times of peril or war, the womenfolk would use such escape routes to save their honour from their enemies. That apart, they would also use these underground tunnels to hoard their treasures. So it might lead him towards the treasure chamber of the Sambuverayar clan. Nandini had aided the Ravidasan gang to loot the treasure of Cholas from the Dark Palace and Edupankari is probably doing the same with Sambuverayar too.

But why would they want to loot the treasure now, especially when Aditya Karikalan is expected at the Palace? What if they have another motive?

He remembered the coronation drama that had occurred at Thirupurambayam forest and Nandini wielding the sword that was etched with the Pandya royal emblem of Fish. His body shivered when he remembered the scene.

They have no interest in Sambuverayar’s treasure. They are here for a bigger fish obviously.

They have a more dangerous motive and that’s why they are using this tunnel to gain entrance into the Palace.

It is important that I find what lies at the end of the tunnel because it would help me thwart their plans.

He walked slowly feeling his way through the walls. Though it had been just a few minutes since he entered the tunnel, he felt as though he had been inside for more than an hour. He wondered how long the tunnel would be and tried to calculate the distance between the Palace and the Bamboo forest. At the outset, it seemed too vast a distance but then he and the Nambi had wandered through many alleys and streets before they got to the outskirts of the town. Maybe it was not that far a distance after all. If someone were to take an aim through the forest at the palace, the arrow would travel a straight path… that meant he was probably near the palace if not inside it.

Even as he thought that a gush of fresh air came through a hidden crevice in the tunnel and cheered him up. The stale air and the darkness that had enveloped the tunnel had him sweating profusely so much so that he would have fainted in a short while. The fresh air cleared his mind and he stood there for a while. He could hear faint voices of soldiers who probably were manning the fort. He could also see a very faint light from the crevice that was providing him with the fresh air. It had been built so cleverly that those who were on the ground above could not even see it even as they trod upon it!

Now that he had neared the Palace entrance, his destination too should be nearby. But where would the tunnel end, at the treasure chamber of Sambuverayars or at the Anthapuram? He wondered what he would find at the treasure chamber of Sambuverayars?

Will they have pots of gold coins… pearls, gems, diamonds, diadems? Will there be skeletons and skulls guarding his treasure? Will there be webs of a spider weaving their desire on men who chance upon the treasure?

Thinking thus, he kept walking forward. At a point, he stumbled and looked down. He could faintly discern a staircase leading upstairs. This is probably where the treasure chamber would be there or he might be entering the Anthapuram. If it happened to be the Anthapuram, then his plight would be doubly dangerous.

Ah! Kandanmaran’s sister… that dark complexioned beauty. She would be there! He had once thought that he would get married to her. He smiled thinking thus but sadly there was no one there to see his handsome face beaming. He wondered what would happen to the womenfolk if he appeared in their midst at the anthapuram.

What if they were bathing or changing their robes? How awkward it would be!

He laughed when he thought as he climbed the stairs. Next second, the laughter died in his throat as he stared at the sight that unfolded in front of him. He could see hundreds of eyes staring at him from the depths of darkness and they belonged to wild animals. Vandiya Devan took a step back in panic and then heard a sound behind. It was the sound of the tunnel closing!

That meant this chamber was open all this while and when I entered it closed its doors! While one part of his brain issued this warning to him, he stood frozen in that place unable to move.

Why are all these wild animals waiting for me here? Tigers, cheetahs, leopards, lions and lionesses, bears, jackals and wolves were standing there watching him silently! There were two elephants too standing majestically!

Why aren’t they moving? Why are they standing so still? Why don’t they pounce on me and prey on my flesh?

There was a giant big owl sitting on the ledge of the roof. Then he spotted a crocodile on the floor below and he wondered how the beast came to be lying amidst these animals.

That’s when the truth hit him and he exhaled with a relief. They were real wild animals for sure but have been dead and gone for many years. Their flesh has been preserved and their bodies have been stuffed with cloth and straw. Fascinated he touched the animals in wonder as if to make sure they were really dead.

He wondered what to do next.

Should I go on and find the entrance back into the tunnel or move on and find a way to exit this chamber?

The chamber had no visible door and as time ticked on he found himself getting angry and he berated himself for his rash decisions. He circulated the chamber by touching the wall everywhere hoping to find a lever to release him from this prison. At one place there was an elephant’s face with its trunk kept on the wall. In his anger, he twisted the elephant’s trunk saying, “Stupid elephant! It was you who got me into this trouble. Had you not moved at the Ayannar temple, I wouldn’t be here.”

The next instant a cavity opened on its own on the wall and Vandiya Devan astonished put his head inside to have a look around.

The first thing that he saw was a woman’s face. A beautiful dark-skinned woman with beautiful doe-like eyes was looking into a mirror! He was standing near the chamber’s door in such a way that his face was so close to her in the mirror. Almost as though he would kiss her!

The woman looked surprised and then shocked. The next instant a scream escaped her lips and Vandiya Devan panicked and took his hand of the elephant’s trunk and the chamber closed.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Chapter 4 – The Ayyanar Temple

Just when Karikalan and his grandsire were talking, on the northern banks of Kollidam at a place known as Thirukannathumullur our old friends Azhwarkadiyan Nambi and Vandiya Devan were engaged in an odd occupation. This part of Kollidam River in those days was a holy pilgrimage area as the idol of Shiva from the adjoining temple was brought out for immersion in the river waters. To see this sight, many devout Saivites and Kalamugars would gather at the banks every day in the holy month of Thula. Not only Shiva, Lord Vishnu’s idols too were brought from the village temple for holy immersion with the result there were many Vaishnavaites and Saivites thronging the banks of the river.

Amidst this crowd, Azhwarkadiyan had hoisted a flag and issued a challenge.

“I have come here to debate and to establish that Lord Vishnu is the greatest among all the other Gods. Saivars, Kalamugars, Advaitis, Kapaligars, Buddhars or Jains… no matter what your faith is can come here and debate with me. If you win, I will hoist you on my shoulders and circumambulate this village but if you lose, you will need to hand over every possession that you carry on yourself except for your clothes. Who is ready for the challenge?” thus he growled looking around. In front of him, there were many rudraksha bead chains, golden necklaces, large earrings, brass vessels, costly silk and bags of coins which he had obviously won from those who were foolish enough to challenge him.

Standing near the Nambi under a Kadamba tree, Vandiya Devan pranced with a drawn sword. He barely had enough clothes on him and just the sword in his hand. His menacing looks seemed as though he was protecting the Nambi from those who had tried to mishandle him through force. He looked at the group of Saivars who had come there in response to Nambi’s challenge and said, “Be warned! You are free to debate with this Nambi as much as you want, but if you dare to lay a hand on him, you will fall prey to this sword.” He then whirled the sword around to great effect forcing the angry Saivars to rein in the violence that they were planning against the audacious Vaishnavan.

Vaishnavaney! Don’t get arrogant just because you won the debate today. Go to Thirunarayur, there you will find Nambiyandar Nambi whose skills in debating will put you to shame.”

“Well, if that is so, then ask him to go and debate with Thirunarayanapuram’s Ananda Battar. Even I might be going there…”

Saying thus, he called out for more people to challenge and when none came forth he removed the flag of challenge and put in its place a flag bearing the holy marks of Vaishnavaites – a conch and a discus. After he did that, the other Vaishnavaites who were gleefully watching the entire spectacle celebrated his victory by bearing him on their soldiers and chanted slogans.

After that one of them invited them to come to their home to partake a meal. Azhwarkadiyan agreed to come with great dignity and went along with Vandiya Devan. At the Vaishnavan’s house, they ate through a meal of tasty tamarind rice, sweetened rice (desert) and curd rice. Later, Azhwarkadiyan bartered all the items that he had won in the debate to the gathered Vaishnavaites (except for a silk upper garment that he gave to Vandiya Devan) for a bag of gold coins. He told them that he and Vandiya Devan were on a holy pilgrimage to Haridwaram and that they needed the coins for their journey. After getting the coins, they bid farewell and made their way towards Kadambur Palace.

Earlier that day they had crossed the Kollidam River on a crowded ferry that capsized when it neared the banks of the river. Since they were close to the banks, they were able to swim to the shore without much difficulty but most of them lost their possessions to the flowing waters. Vandiya Devan too lost all his possessions, the letters that he carried from Kundavai and from the Prime Minister to Aditya Karikalan were lost in the floods. He also lost the palm tree signet ring that Nandini had given him and the bag of coins that he was given for expenses. With no money in hand to buy horses, they had to earn it back with the help of Azhwarkadiyan’s debating skills. There were no horses to buy in the village that they had their meal so they had to walk all the way to Kadambur village to procure one and that too was a doubtful prospect. If none were available there, they would have to go to Thirupathipuliyur to get one.

They both vigorously argued about the merits and demerits of going to Kadambur. For one thing, they might learn news about where Aditya Karikalan was camped presently at Kadambur. This might help them plan the route of their journey. The pitfalls of going to Kadambur were also many. What if someone sees them there? What if Pazhuvur soldiers were already camped there? And if they see Vandiya Devan there would be hell to pay!

Nambi! You know how to jump over walls, why don’t you get into the horse stables of Kadambur Palace and steal two horses for us?”

“I can jump over wall… but the horses too need to know that skill Thambi!”

“If the Pazhuvur soldiers are camped there, then let’s steal away two horses from them. I still haven’t forgotten the way they had hassled my horse the last time we were there and I have been itching for some revenge.”

That steered the conversation towards the conspiracy that they both overheard the noblemen hatching and they discussed it at length all the way to Kadambur. As they expected the Kadambur village was getting ready to welcome their Crown Prince. Colourful decorations, flags and garlands were seen everywhere. Security around the Kadambur Palace was tight as ever. If that were not enough, Periya Pazhuvetarayar, the treasurer of the Kingdom too was arriving with a large entourage. It was reasonable to expect the village to be buzzing with activity for the next few days.

Nambi and Vandiya Devan learned all this at the village market where people conversed freely. They also learned that both the parties have not arrived in Kadambur yet. They found out that Sambuverayar’s son Kandan Maran went all the way to Kanchi to bring the Crown Prince to Kadambur. While the people spoke about the events to come excitedly, some expressed their grief over the drowned prince in whispers and their outrage over the fact that entertainers outran the village, even while they were mourning the death of their Emperor’s son.

Azhwarkadiyan and Vandiya Devan heard all this silently and made their way to the outskirts of the village. They didn’t want to stay the night at the village, lest they were recognised. At the outskirts, they might find an abandoned mandapam or a guesthouse to rest for the night, or they could even make their way to Veeranarayanapuram and sleep in the temple mandapam peacefully. After the being caught in the floods of the Kollidam the previous night, they both craved uninterrupted sleep. After leaving Kadambur village they walked along the length of a thick bamboo forest when they saw an Ayyanar temple hidden amidst the thick foliage.

Vaishnavarey! I can’t walk anymore. Let’s sleep in this temple tonight. We will be away from prying eyes and spies here.”

“You are wrong about that. Places such as this will always attract people like us, who wish to stay hidden from the populace.”

“That’s fine let them come. I only wish that they came with their horses. That would be good for us.”

“It would be impossible to enter this bamboo forest with a horse. Even for us, it would be difficult to enter.”

“There must be a pathway somewhere here. How else does the temple priest come here?”

They searched their way through the bamboo forest and soon found a narrow pathway as predicted by Vandiya Devan. It was so narrow that they had to be very careful while walking through the path to avoid the thorns. After walking for a while, there was a clearing around the area where the temple was built. A large sacrificial altar was erected in front of the temple and many large mud elephants and horses were kept there as an offering to Ayyanar (guardian deity of villages).

After looking at the horses, Vandiya Devan said, “Why are we so worried about horses when we could borrow some from Ayyanar?”

“Have you forgotten the proverb, that you shouldn’t trust a mud horse and get into the lake?”

Vaishnavaney! Our Ayyanar is a very powerful God. He listens to his devotee’s pleas almost immediately. Not like your Lord Vishnu, who sleeps through the day.”

“So you believe that he would bring this mud horse to life. Good for us. Might as well save some gold.”

“Those who bear true devotion in their hearts will find their wishes come true and the mud horses will come to life. What if they are made of mud? What of our bodies? Aren’t they made of mud before Brahma gave us a breath of life?”

 “Very true Thambi! We keep forgetting it that’s why our Vaishnava gurus have bid us to keep ‘thiruman’ on our foreheads just so that we remember this.”

At that moment, Vandiya Devan suddenly said ‘Ushhh’ and bid Azhwarkadiyan quiet. Dusk had fallen and all around the forest, darkness was gathering and in the twilight, they saw a miracle. A horse and an elephant were indeed coming to life! The elephant had moved from its place and so had the horse! Vandiya Devan was amazed by the sight and couldn’t stop himself from impressing upon the Nambi about the great divine powers of Ayyanar.

Vaishnavarey! Did you see?”

Azhwarkadiyan held his hand tight and bid him be quiet and led him behind a huge tree to watch what was happening at the temple.

The place where the elephant and the horse had originally stood had a hole in the ground through which a head appeared! The head turned around in all directions, which seemed pretty gory to Vandiya Devan whose eyes flitted towards the sacrificial altar that was nearby. But Azhwarkadiyan was watching the proceedings unfazed without a hint of fear. Even as they watched the head came out of the tunnel to reveal that it was indeed a man within it. The man came out of the tunnel and in the gathering darkness and Nambi was able to recognize who he was. It was Edupankari, the man who was employed in Kadambur Palace as a servant and a spy for Ravidasan’s gang.

Nambi and Vandiya Devan looked at each other in surprise and shock. Edupankari left the tunnel open below and then once again looked around him suspiciously and walked towards the temple. He then opened the temple doors and went inside. Within a few minutes, the temple lamps were lit.

Thambi! What do you think of this?” asked Nambi

Ayyanar is indeed more powerful than any God. Didn’t you see how the horse and the elephant came to life?”

“That’s alright. What about the man who just came here? What do you think of him?”

“Looks like he is the temple priest here. Shall we go in to get the darshan of Lord Ayyanar?”

“Hold on… let’s wait and watch if somebody else comes here for the same.”

“Do you really think many other people would come?”

 “Then, why else is he lighting so many lamps at the Sanctum?”

“He is the priest of the temple isn’t he?”

“Didn’t you recognise him?”

“I did. He is the soldier who procured me the horse when we crossed Kollidam. His name is Edupankari. Do you think he would help us get a horse again?”

“You do come up with brilliant ideas.”

“You disapprove?”

Edupankari is not just the soldier who procured the horse for you. He also happens to be Ravidasan’s spy.”

“Is that so? Then I do have yet another brilliant idea.”

“And what would that be?”

“What if I got inside the tunnel through which he had come?”

“It could be dangerous!”

“Every turn of our life is dangerous!”

“Alright! Just as you wish.”

“Will you watch around here and see what’s happening?”

“Of course I will. Do you have any idea where that tunnel would end?”

 “Many ideas… that’s what I would like to confirm.”

“Why do you wish to know where the tunnel ends?”

“It might come in handy sometime… who knows?

That’s when they heard voices at a distance.

“Let’s not tarry anymore. You will stay right here won’t you until I get back? Or will you do the same thing that Sugreeva did to Vaali?”

“If I am alive, you will find me here waiting for you but will you come back here for sure?”

“I will return for sure… if I am alive.”

Saying thus, Vandiya Devan ran towards the statues of horse and elephant and then jumped inside the tunnel entrance. After he disappeared, Edupankari came out of the temple and noticed that he had left the tunnel entrance open. He immediately went near the sacrificial altar and turned a lever and the elephant and horse moved back to its original position.

After he did that he stood near the temple entrance awaiting someone’s arrival and that’s when Ravidasan, Soman Sambavan and the rest of the gang arrived through a different forest path. Azhwarkadiyan tried to hide behind the thin bamboo reeds when he spied them arriving.

Ravidasan sat down at the temple entrance and the rest of the gang sat around him.

“Friends! We are about to fulfil our vow very soon.” Said Ravidasan.

“This is what we have been saying for the past six months… that the ‘time is near’ but when are we going to fulfil it?” questioned Soman Sambavan morosely.

“Yes, we have been saying it for the past six months… and each passing day we were nearing the right time when our plans would come to fruition. Now though we can count the number days that are left to fulfil our vow. I just heard that Aditya Karikalan has started from Kanchi. I heard that he is determined to come to Kadambur despite the objections that his grandfather Thirukovalur Malaimaan had raised.”

“What if someone tries to change his mind, while he is on his way here?”

Aditya Karikalan will never back down once he has decided on a course of action. He will see this through.”

“What if the message that his sister had sent reaches him?”

“How is that possible? Didn’t we tie that boy in the middle of the forest?”

“’Middle of the forest’ indeed! We saw that boy at Kollidam river banks and along with him was one other enemy of ours.”

“Who is that?”

“That rogue Vaishnavan!”

“Alright, then we will need to be very careful. We should not allow them to meet Karikalan at any cost.”

“Yes… wonderful idea indeed. When we had the boy in our hands, we will allow him to escape and then waste our time trying to hunt him down. We should have slain him right there and offered him as a sacrifice at the battlefield of our glorious king. Why does our queen pity him so? Why did we spare his life?”

“Friends! I can understand your doubts and believe me, I too asked our queen the same questions. It’s only recently that I had the opportunity to learn her entire plan and I have to concede defeat and agree that she is indeed brilliant. Vandiya Devan’s life was spared for a very important reason and you will learn the why of it very soon. Do not worry about him, when the time comes, we will take care of him. But we can’t be lenient where the Vaishnavan is concerned and if any of you spot him anywhere, slay him without any second thoughts.”

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Chapter 3 – The Eagle and the Pigeon

The old man looked at the spot that his grandson has pointed. It was an old mandapam dilapidated and careworn built many years ago by some kind-hearted nobleman to aid those who travelled the roads in these parts. Though the structure was old, it was ornamentally superior with much beautiful sculptural work.

“Did you see thatha?”

“Child! You are pointing towards that mandapam but I see nothing there. There is no one inside the mandapam too.”

“Thatha, only now I can truly say that you have indeed grown old. Your eyesight is definitely not what it used to be. Look there! There is an eagle, see how large and ferocious it looks. Look at its wings, so vast and powerful. But what is this? Oh! How terrible? The eagle is holding a pigeon as its prisoner with its sharp claws. Can’t you see it? It is shedding the blood of that poor pigeon! There I can see another bird! It is hovering around that eagle trying to rescue its mate. Will it beg the eagle to leave her mate alone? No. The way it is trying to soar over the eagle, it looks like it will fight for its lover. My God! That ladybird has more courage than all the men in this world. It is trying to fight for its mate’s life. Will the eagle relent? No… never. The eagle has preyed many such pigeons, why would it leave its prey? That wretched bird! You deserve to be slain!” growled Aditya Karikalan and then picked up a pebble from the ground and threw it at the mandapam.

The pebble hit the inner wall of the mandapam and fell down seeing which Karikalan laughed out thunderously.

Malaimaan who had long been worried about the sanity of his grandson looked at him with concern.

“Thatha! Why are you staring at me thus? Go to that mandapam and see it closely.”

Malaimaan got up and walked towards the mandapam and found that within its inner walls a beautiful statue depicting the scene that Karikalan had just described.

Malaimaan came back and said, “Child! You were right. I have indeed grown so old that my eyes have become weak. I could see that statue only after I neared it. It is an extraordinary statue by all means.”

“Extraordinary? It is surely something more than that. I am sure it was sculpted by someone who possessed incredible talent and vision… probably during the time of Mahendra Pallava. When I saw it first, I thought it was real!”

“Aditya! It is an amazing statue no doubt about it but beauty such as this can be spotted only by those who have a discerning eye. Imagine how many people must have passed by road. Most of them would not even notice the statue, leave alone admire its beauty. Very few people like yourself will find it extraordinary… worthy of admiration.”

“I have no admiration for it thatha, instead I am angry. I am incensed enough to pound that statue to dust. How could someone portray so much cruelty through his art?”

“Karikala! What is wrong with you? When did your heart relent so much that you couldn’t stand cruelty in art? An eagle kills a pigeon because it is his prey, nothing more and nothing less. It’s in his nature to grab its prey. If the lion starts showing compassion to the goat, then it can’t be the ‘King of the forest’ anymore. Those who wish to rule the land must eliminate all their adversaries and those who spy for them. If that eagle didn’t prey on that pigeon then will you ever call it the ‘king of the birds’? Why would you get so upset about something this simple?”

“Thatha! I agree with what you said but don’t you think that Eagle should have pitied that ladybird and have spared the life of its mate? Tell me something! If you were about to kill your enemy what would you do if his wife or lover fell at your feet begging you to spare his life? Won’t you feel pity for her and release your enemy?”

“If I were in this situation, I wouldn’t hesitate to kick her aside and kill my enemy. Karikala! Have no doubts about it. Do you know what Valluvar said about one’s enemies? He said, your enemy might have a sword in his hand to attack you, but it’s a woman’s tears that you need to be careful about because they are as lethal as a sword. They have the power to melt your hardened heart. And those who fall prey to their tears will remain enslaved by them and can never achieve any greatness in this world.”

“Thatha, How could you have such a low opinion of women? That means the same opinion holds good for mine own mother and your daughter, isn’t it?”

“Child! The affection that I bear for your mother can’t be compared to anything else in this world. I once had six warrior sons, each one as mighty as Bhima or Arjuna. I sacrificed them on the altar of war and when I heard that they were slain by our enemies, I didn’t grieve their death. But when I gave away my daughter’s hand in marriage to your father my sorrow knew no bounds. Even the knowledge that she would be the Empress of this Kingdom, didn’t grant me any happiness. Did I show my sorrow to anyone? No! And nor did she know the sorrow that I bore in my heart. I spoke to her at length, a day before she was to wed your father. Do you know what I told her? I said, ‘Dear Daughter! You are to wed the Emperor of this Kingdom. Don’t become arrogant or entertain unwanted pride for this fact within your heart. You will only suffer unhappiness because of that. The fact that your husband is so loved and popular will only add to your grief. Even the handmaiden of your palace would lead a happy domestic life than yourself… so prepare your heart to be disappointed. If you fail to bear children for your husband, he would marry another woman for the same. Don’t grieve if such a situation arises. If you do bear sons to him, it is onto you to bring them up as good warriors. If they die on the battlefield, grieve in your heart but do not allow tears to escape your eyes. If your husband is happy, you too be happy with him. If he grieves, try to make him happy. If he lies on the sick bed, take care of him with dedication. If he dies, become a Sati and follow him to the world beyond. No matter what happens, no matter how hurt you are, do not let those tears escape your eyes. Thus I asked her to uphold the values of our clan and she has been following my advice since then. She brought up her sons, as peerless warriors and when your father became sick, she took care of him day and night. As a father, I am so proud of the fact that she is my daughter.”

“Thatha! You are right. I am proud of my mother too but I do have a doubt. What would my mother do, if a deadly enemy should raise his sword to strike at my father? Would she shed tears and beg for her husband’s life? What if this enemy was someone who she has known since childhood?”

“Child! Your mother would never beg for your father’s life and bring shame upon the clan that she was born and bred and nor will she shame the clan that she has married into. If such a situation arises, her husband’s enemy would become her enemy. She would never beg for his life. If he dies, she would die along with him right there or else she might harden her heart and seek vengeance and seek to stay alive until she takes her revenge upon the enemy.”

Aditya Karikalan let out a long sigh when he heard this and then said, “Thatha! Shall I take your leave now?”

“Do you really have to go?”

“Why do you still have doubts about it? We have come half way through the king’s road.”

“Yes. We have come halfway through the journey. I first advised you not to go and then I asked you to go. After hearing the news about your brother, I felt that it would be best if you went there. I don’t believe that he is lost to the sea…”

“Neither do I”

“When your father was young, he too went missing for a while in Elangai. I think Arul Mozhi too would return to us one day but the entire kingdom is in turmoil because of this news. Your parents are worried and troubled and it is your duty to stay next to them and ease their burden and offer support. I thought that it would be best that you go to Thanjavur as the friend of Pazhuvur brothers, rather than as their enemy. That’s why I asked you to accept the invitation of Sambuverayar. He didn’t invite me deliberately if he had, I would have accepted it and come along with you.”

“Thatha! You are so scared? Do you really think that I am so helpless?”

“No Child! You aren’t helpless. You are a peerless warrior and I would never hesitate to send you out to the war front. I wouldn’t even be worried if you went to the battlefield alone to face your enemies. But I do worry when you go to meet a woman who would melt your heart with her tears.”

“I doubt if Sambuverayar’s daughter knows such tricks. From what I have heard from Kandan Maran, she is painfully shy who hides from the gaze of menfolk. And I really wouldn’t seek a marriage alliance without my parent’s consent. I also know that two of your own clans women are unmarried…”

“Aditha! I have no such thoughts. My oldest son’s daughters are ready to be wedded but I have no intention of saddling you with them. Right from the time, my daughter wed the reigning Emperor many who wished to seek an alliance with him became my enemies and has since envied my position. If I tried to marry off more women from my clan, then you will have no friends in this kingdom. It is for the best that you marry Samburverayar’s daughter. You need new friends and new alliances. I am old and frail… and sometimes I feel myself drowning in sorrow and fear. Sometimes I worry that this might be last time that I would see you alive! I don’t think I can be of use to you anymore. You need friends who would support your claim to the throne and for that reason alone, if you marry Sambuverayan’s daughter, I would be very happy.”

“Thatha! I can’t marry someone just to make you happy and nor do I seek Sambuverayar’s friendship to support my claim.”

“Then why are you going there? Won’t you tell me the truth? I have heard your friends talking about it. Are you really going there because of the summons that Pazhuvur Lord’s wife has sent you? Is it really true?”

“Yes Thatha! That’s true.”

“My God! I can’t believe it. Karikala! Listen to me. Your dynasty has been ruling this kingdom for over two thousand years now. Some were kings of smaller areas while many were Emperors of the entire southern region. Some married once and remained faithful to their wife, while some married multiple times and had a hoard of sons through them. Many were devout and spiritual while some turned out to be atheists and insisted that there are no Gods but none of them so far have a blemish to their character. They would never look at a woman who was wed to another. Child! Marry whomsoever you want, so long as they are single. Your great grandfather Paranthakan I married seven women from different clans. Do the same…but do not cast your eyes on another man’s wife especially the one who has seduced the senses of a warrior like Periya Pazhuvetarayar.”

“Forgive me, Thatha! I have no such intention and nor will I ever taint the name of my clan or yours with such actions.”

“If that is so… then why do you answer her summons?”

“I will tell you the truth before I leave thatha. I once did a grave injustice to her and wish to seek her forgiveness. That’s why I am going to meet her.”

“What are you saying? You will bow down and seek forgiveness… that too to a woman! I can’t believe my ears!”

Aditya Karikalan remained silent for a while and then rallied his heart to share the truth with his grandsire. He narrated the story of how he had hunted for Veera Pandyan and how he found Nandini in the hut along with the wounded king. He told him how he had beheaded the Pandya King after kicking aside Nandini who was begging for the life of her lover. He also told him of the torment that he has been experiencing ever since he rejected her plea.

“I am tormented by the memory of my brutal act and unless I seek her forgiveness, I will have no peace in my heart. Her message to me also indicates the fact that she wishes to forget the past. She doesn’t want any confusion or chaos in the kingdom. That’s why she sent the message. I will meet her there and return almost immediately to Kanchi. After that, I plan to take a ship to Elangai and hunt for my lost brother.”

Malaimaan let out a long sigh and said, “I am able to understand many things that had eluded me earlier. I now know that it is impossible to win over one’s fate and destiny.”

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Volume 1 - New Flood