Book 2 | Chapter 34 | Anuradhapuram

Lavishly decorated elephants parade during the Kandy Esala Perahera festival in Sri Lanka.
Kandi Perahara festival ; img src:

The three of them reached the outskirts of Anuradhapuram when the sun was beginning to set. Vandhiyathevan was blown off his feet by the impressive city. He was awestruck by the size of the city, the height of the city walls, the grand mandapams, the beautiful stupas, and the overall grandeur of the city. He thought to himself that the three grand cities of Thanjavur, Pazhayarai and Kanchi were no match for this city. Perhaps Pataliputra of Ashoka, Ujjain of Vikramaditya or Kaveripatnam of Karikal Valavan may come close to the grandeur of this city. As they rode closer to the city, the crowds grew.

The Prince pulled his horse to a secluded area, “The horses have travelled a long distance. They need rest. Let us wait until it is fully dark, before we enter the city.”

The three of them sat down on a large rock nearby.

Vandhiyathevan looked at the Prince and asked, “ Sire, I kept hearing that there is a war in Lanka. Here, it does not seem so. Is there a festival going on in Anuradhapuram today?”

“Yes. Today is one of the very important festivals for the people here. There is a war in Eezhanaadu, but how should that affect the common people? Earlier today you had described how grandly Sri Jayanthi was celebrated in Pazhayarai. Why should these people be deprived of a similar festival? What do you think, Nambi?”

“Hmm, in a way, you are right Sire. Here, the enemies are outside; there, the enemies are within. Enemies within are much more dangerous than enemies outside.”

“But, if there are more enemies within, should not the Prince be in Thanjavur right now? The mark of a brave person is to be where the problem is.”

Thambi, you keep quiet. If that is the case, why did you run away from the Thanjavur fort?”

“Hmm. Please stop this war between the two of you.”

After darkness fell, the three of them entered the town. There was no checking at the gates. The crowds were entering the town in large masses for the festival. Vandhiyathevan saw several buildings in a dilapidated state. At the same time, he also saw several buildings being rebuilt. He was still thinking about why the Prince was doing all this humanitarian work.

In the last hundreds of years, the Lankan kings had always been at war, directly or indirectly, with the Chozhas. Given that, the natural instinct would have been to burn this entire capital city down to cinders and declare victory. But that was not what Prince Arulmozhi was doing. He thought there must be some ulterior motive.

And then it struck him – his own reasoning of why the Prince was doing all this. Prince Aditya Karikalan had been crowned as heir-apparent for the mainland empire, and he now had Madhuranthakan to compete with, as well. Perhaps, Prince Arulmozhi felt that he could establish an empire at Lanka and make himself an independent king of this magnificent island. He also remembered what the Kudandhai astrologer had told him.

They went through a side street, and in a corner of the street, they came to a stop outside a deserted looking house. The three of them dismounted from their steeds. The Prince clapped his hand three times. And as though by magic, a door opened. The Prince stepped in through the door and started walking through the darkness. Vandhiyathevan and Nambi followed him.

“The horses know the way – so don’t worry,” said the Prince, looking at Vandhiyathevan.

After walking for a few seconds in pitch darkness, he could see a faint light at the end of the passageway. Slowly the light grew brighter, and he began to hear voices as well. It looked like the interiors of an old palace.

“We have to be careful here. King Mahasenar can come at any time and drive us out of here.”

“Sire, who is this King Mahasenar?”

“King Mahasenar used to be the Emperor of this land around 600 years ago. He used to be a very benevolent king and did a lot of good for these parts. After his time, it is said that his ghost still roams around this area. No one has occupied this palace since then.”

There were people waiting to attend to the Prince and his guests in the room. After having a hot bath and a hot meal, the three of them reconvened on the terrace of the palace. From where they stood, they could see what was going on around them, but no one else could see them.

“Sire, you said you had to go meet someone at midnight?”

“There is still time. The moon has just come up. Once the moon comes in line with that large stupa over there, we can leave.”

“That stupa is so big, as are most of the Buddha statues here. Why do the sculptors create such big statues and stupas here?”

The Prince smiled and answered, “The first sculptors did it to show how big a god Buddha was. Then the rulers who came next wanted to prove how big a ruler they were, and ordered the sculptors to create bigger and bigger works of art.”

In the distance, Vandhiyathevan could hear the roar of thousands of men cheering. He looked in that direction and saw a large procession inching down the road. There were several thousands of people. There were hundreds of elephants. It was quite a sight.

Adede, it looks like an enemy army marching.”

“No. This is the biggest festival of this land – the Perahara festival.

The procession inched closer to them. Vandhiyathevan had never seen such a sight. The elephants were all decked up in gold ornaments. The elephant in the centre had a bejewelled box studded with exquisite gem stones, and a large golden umbrella on top of it. The elephants around this main elephant had Buddhist monks on top of them, holding feather fans with silver handles. The monks and people around the elephants had lamps, whose light embellished the scene with grandeur.

In the midst of the procession danced a hundred people dressed in uniquely different costumes. They were dancing to the beats of an instrument similar to the udukkai. The dancers were in a trance. Vandhiyathevan was reminded of the devarattam that he had witnessed at Kadambur. The dancers here rose in the air, swirled and fell back to the ground. Several of these dancers rising into the air at once, was a sight to see.

Behind these dancers came another row of thirty elephants, similar to the ones that had earlier gone. The middle elephant had an exquisite bejewelled box, with a golden umbrella on top. The surrounding elephants had monks with the white feather fans. Then came more dancers. Vandhiyathevan saw some dancers who were dressed as Rathi, Manmadan, and even Lord Shiva.

“Sire, how come, Lord Shiva is also here?”

“There was an emperor named Gajabahu. He brought Lord Shiva to this island, and it is lore that he refuses to leave this island.”

“Oy, Veera Vaishnavare, did you see that?”

Before Vandhiyathevan could finish his sentence fully, yet another row of elephants passed, and the dancers behind were dressed as Lord Garuda.

“Haha. Did you see that? Garudaalwar and my dear Lord Vishnu are also here. “

Behind the next row of elephants came a set of dancers who were enacting a war scene. The dancers performed with swords, knives, and spears. At times, the dance had the intensity of fighting and at other times, there was the grace of a dance form.

While Vandhiyathevan and Nambi watched the procession in awe, the Prince started telling the history of this festival.

“There was a time when the kings of Lanka and Tamizh Naadu had friendly relations. King Gajabahu and King Cheran Senguttuvan had friendly relations. Once, Cheran Senguttuvan had invited Gajabahu for a festival, which commemorated Kannagi.

The Lankan King stayed on and witnessed several such festivals in the mainland. After Gajabahu went back, he organised another festival in Lanka and invited the Tamizh King to it. He had incorporated some of the Gods from Tamizh Naadu – Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu, Lord Karthikeya and Kannagi, in that festival. He just ensured that Lord Buddha took first place, and the other Gods followed behind. The people of this land liked it so much, that the King made it an annual festival, and it still happens.

“But, Sire, I do not see any God figurines.”

“Did you not see the bejewelled boxes on the elephants?”

Vandhiyathevan could not resist and quipped, “They have the Gods locked in boxes, so that they do not escape to Tamizh Naadu?”

The Prince laughed and responded. “No. The box on the first elephant has a tooth of the Buddha. The people here treat that as a priceless artefact, which represents the Buddha himself. For the other Gods, each box contains the ornaments from their respective temples.”

Vandhiyathevan wondered what would have happened if the Periya Pazhuvettarayar had come in place of the Prince, and smiled to himself.

The procession had ended and receded into the distance. The three of them got down from the terrace and walked in the opposite direction. The streets were empty. After walking for some time, they reached a large lake brimming with water. The reflection of the stars and the moon on the water was beautiful. The lake was surrounded by beautiful flowering plants, whose fragrances filled the air. On one of the banks of the lakes, there was a statue of a lion, from within which water was flowing into the lake as a fountain. The three of them walked towards the statue. On the base of the statue were some lotus buds. The Prince counted them out loud. There were 12 buds. Vandhiyathevan was now beginning to understand the code. Perhaps it meant the twelfth hour of the night.

Vandhiyathevan, however, could not figure out, who could have asked the Prince to come here at this time of the day. He could reason out why the Prince had asked them not to bring along any weapons. Perhaps, it was going to be a meeting of an amorous nature? And instantly, Vandhiyathevan’s mind crossed the ocean, straight to Pazhayarai, to Princess Kundavai.

“Sire, this seems to have been part of a palace.”

“Yes. This was part of Dushtakamanu’s palace. You can still see some larger portions of this palace there,” said the Prince pointing to some ruins nearby.

“Hmm. Perhaps, that part closest to this lake, would have been the anthapuram ̧ and the royal ladies would have come to play in the water in this lake.”

“There is one other interesting incident associated with this lake. Around a thousand years ago, Saalivaahanan, a descendent of Dushtakamanu, was wandering in this nandavanam. He chanced to see a beautiful girl filling her vessel with water, and watering the plants. He fell in love with her. He then came to know that she was of a gardener family and that her name was Ashokamala.”

“His father did not agree to Saalivahanan’s request to marry her. His father had been adamant in saying that, if Saali wanted to marry Ashokamala, then he would need to abdicate the throne, which Saali was prepared to do.”

Vandhiyathevan’s mind raced back to Kodikkarai. Was the Prince mentioning this story with her in mind? He was thinking about how to bring up the topic of Poonkuzhali with the Prince.

At that time, a marble couch, which had been placed near the lion statue, moved. A gap was seen. A light flickered. There was someone coming from a passage behind. A Buddhist monk emerged from the hidden passageway. Vandhiyathevan stood there in amazement.