Book 1 | Chapter 22 | Velakkara Padai

Thanjavur temple and fort (img src: skyscanner)

When they reached the convoy, he suddenly kicked the horse in its sides, making it rear up.

“Maharaja! Prince! Somebody, please help. These palanquin bearers are ramming into my horse. Please help.”

The diversion was perfect. The palanquin stopped. The front guard had rushed to grab the horse. Vandhiyathevan was on his knees before the palanquin screen, as he continued pretending to plead for mercy.

The palanquin screen opened slowly. The same fair hand. But he was mistaken. He was shocked. Shivers went down his spine. From behind the screen emerged the most beautiful face he had ever seen. This was the beauty of the kind that he had only heard of before. This was the beauty that drove people to madness. I can see why the Pazhuvoor King had fallen in love with this damsel.

“Nandini Devi …”, Vandhiyathevan blurted out and stopped mid-sentence. He was still shaking.

She said in a very husky voice — “Did you say that my palanquin bearers rammed your horse?” Her voice was of derision. She laughed — a laugh that was a mixture of humour and ridicule.

She stopped laughing and looked straight at Vandhiyathevan’s eyes — “Humour apart, what is the real reason for which you were following me?” The steely voice entranced Vandhiyathevan.

The warrior had been prepared for this. “My friend Alwarkadiyaan Nambi ..”, he said in a low voice. “He asked me to meet you.”

She stopped him, mid-sentence. “This is not the place to talk about these kinds of matters. Come to my palace tomorrow, and we can talk.”

“But your Highness, how will I even get into the fort, leave alone, get into your palace?”

She reached for a silk purse in the palanquin and took out a ring with a palm tree insignia. “Show this ring, they will let you in.”

His glance moved from her face to the ring, and in that instant, the silk screen closed.

“It is better if you do not follow me from here on. It is not safe for you”, she said from within the silk screen. And the convoy moved on.

Vandhiyathevan moved to the side of the road and settled under a tree. His thoughts now kept going back to Nandini. He waited for the convoy to go out of sight before he started again for Thanjavur.

Within an hour, he could see the tall ramparts of the Thanjavur fort. The city had expanded well outside the fort. The road that led to the fort gates were filled with markets selling all different kinds of eatables, fruits, house-wares, utensils, and weapons. The streets were busy and noisy. Sellers were hawking their wares by shouting out their prices.

The main fort gates were closed at this time. The guards at the gates were urging the people to move to the side. It looked like they were all waiting to see some kind of a parade that was soon going to come out of the gigantic gates. Vandhiyathevan wanted to know what was happening. But he did not want to go to the main gates and expose himself to the guards and ask them. He did not want to get into any form of argument or fight.

He looked around and noticed a young man standing next to him with a basket of flowers. He seemed to be a pious person, judging by the sacred ash on his face and the rudraksha necklace he was wearing. He asked the kindly young man — “What is happening? What are all these people waiting for?”

“Anna, it looks like you are not from these parts?”

“Yes, I am not from these parts. I am from Thondainaadu.”

At that time, there was a sound of trumpets and the sound of a hundred men marching.

“You may want to get down from your horse.”

Vandhiyathevan, did what the young man asked him to, and asked him — “Why are you asking me so?”

“The sounds you are hearing is the sound of the Velakkaarapadai. They are the Emperor’s bodyguards. They are returning after getting their daily audience with the king. All these people here are waiting to take a look at the spectacle of this force marching through.”

Vandhiyathevan thought for a bit, “hmm, but why cannot I watch from atop my horse?”

“It is better to not get noticed by these soldiers. They are brash and rowdy sometimes, wanting to exhibit their power. They are indeed very powerful in this city. In fact, even the Pazhuvettarayars do not interfere in their matters.”

The Kings of the Tamizh kingdoms had always had bodyguard forces. There was one thing however, that distinguished the Velakkaarapadai. These warriors take an oath in front of Goddess Durga, that, if something happens to the king whom they guard, they would cut their own heads off. Such was the dedication of this force.

The gates slammed open. Two lead horses carrying soldiers marched forward. They held tall flags. The flag of the Velakkaarapadai looked deadly. They had images of the tiger (the Chozha symbol), a crown, a sacrificial altar, and a severed head.

Behind the lead horses, a wagon pulled two large bulls rolled forward. The wagon had large horns, which were being blown by two men. Behind them were more conch and horn blowers. And behind them came the infantry, marching in unison. These forces were hailing the king using various panegyrics.