Book 2 | Chapter 24 | It is all Kundavai’s plan

“Listen, there is even more to what he has to say. He claims that you met this young spy outside the Thanjavur gates when you were travelling here. He also says that you must have given him the ring then. He claims that the spy also came into this very palace and met you surreptitiously here. Or, he says, the ring must have gotten to him through that other magician who keeps frequenting this palace.”

Kandanmaran noticed the Pazhuvettarayar’s angry approach and hoped that he had not heard the conversation between Nandini and himself. He hoped that the Pazhuvettarayar had not formed any wrong impression of him. But then, he now witnessed a miracle.

Nandini looked at him and fluttered her eyes, “Naada, I was worried that you had been away for so long. It is good that you are back in town.”

The old man looked at his lady love, and when he heard those golden words, melted. He smiled awkwardly.

“The work for which I had gone took a little while longer. What is this young man doing here? Has he brought any romantic poetry for you?”

Kandanmaran’s face flushed crimson. Nandini was quick to retort, and she laughed.

“This young man does not know how to be romantic, nor does he know how to write poetry. All he knows is to get wounded in a fight.”

“Yes, I heard. I have also gotten wounded in battle. Never have I been in bed recuperating though. It has been more than a week, and this young man has still not recovered. Or perhaps, it is because he got wounded in the back, that it has taken so long.”

“Sire, I treat you on par with my father. And that is the only reason I am tolerating these words of yours.”

“Else, what would you do?” the Pazhuvettarayar’s voice grew a tad bit louder, and his hand gripped the sword on his scabbard.

Nandini interrupted at this moment. “Naada, you know that it was not just his back that was wounded. His heart was broken too. The man that he thought was his best friend turned against him. The back wound has healed, but the heart has not. You know what transpired that night, when all this happened.”

She looked into the Pazhuvettarayar’s eyes. There must have been some message that was passed on, because the old man regained his composure immediately.

“Yes, I remember that night. This boy is but an innocent person. I should not take his words too seriously. His father is also a very close friend of mine. Anyway, let it be. I came here to share some important news. Perhaps, Kandanmaran should know about this too.”

“I hear they have captured a spy at Mathottam, in Lanka. He was also apparently holding a scroll meant for the Prince. By the descriptions of the spy that I am hearing, it does seem like Kandanmaran’s handsome friend, Vandhiyathevan. This fellow is a slippery one. Look how he escaped from here to Lanka.”

Naada, I am not very surprised that he slipped away to Lanka. I have told you numerous times of the incompetence of your brother and his forces.”

“Hmm. Yes, you have told me many times before and I had not taken it seriously. I think you are right.”

“Listen, there is more to this. Among the spy’s belongings, they found a ring with the palm-tree insignia.”

“Ah, how could he have one of our insignia rings? What does your brother have to say about that?”

The Pazhuvettarayar laughed a loud villainous laugh. “Kaalanthakan seems to think you must have given the ring to the spy.”

Nandini feigned laughter along with Pazhuvettarayar.

“Listen, there is even more to what he has to say. He claims that you met this young spy outside the Thanjavur gates when you were travelling here. He also says that you must have given him the ring then. He claims that the spy also came into this very palace and met you surreptitiously here. Or, he says, the ring must have gotten to him through that other magician who keeps frequenting this palace.”

Pazhuvettarayar continued laughing his loud raucous laugh.

Naada, I was wrong about your brother. He does make up for his lack of intelligence with his wonderful sense of imagination. I am however sad that you were just listening to all these accusations against me without reacting.”

Suddenly, her face turned angry. The change in emotions was drastic. The old man who had fought so many battles before, was confused.

“Of course, I was not silent. I shot back at my brother. I gave him a piece of my mind.”

Kandanmaran was caught in the middle of all this. He wished not to be there. He cleared his throat.

Ayya, we forgot about this young man here, while discussing the intelligence of your brother. Kandanmaran wishes to return to Kadambur. I hope this is fine with you?”

“Yes. I think it is time. His father would already be worried by now.”

“I also wish to send a scroll through him to Kanchi.”

The Pazhuvettarayar was taken aback by surprise.

“Why are you writing to the Prince at Kanchi?”

“If the Princess writes a scroll and sends it to her younger brother in Lanka, why should I not write a scroll for the elder brother?”

“How do you know that the scroll found on the spy was written by the Princess?”

“I know all. You keep asking me why I meet the magician. He tells me many things – one of which is this. The incompetence of your younger brother’s guards is demonstrated again. They told you about the insignia. Did they tell you about the author of the scroll?”

“This news did not come from my brother’s forces. I heard this from Anbil Aniruddha Brahmaraayar, who has just returned from Lanka.”

“Did he tell you about the author of the scroll? I have been telling you for a while now, about vile happenings around you. There are people plotting against you. The Princess is part of all this. I am not saying this based only on the magician’s words. I had the Pazhayarai Vaidhiyar’s son brought here and interrogated. He confirmed this as well.”

The Pazhuvettarayar was confused. He was also not in favour of discussing all this in front of Kandanmaran. Nandini realised this.

Naada, why should we delay this young man’s departure on his journey? I think, with your approval, he should leave now.”

Ayya, please ensure absolute secrecy. Deliver the scroll in person to the Prince. If he wishes to give a reply scroll, ensure it reaches me in absolute secrecy. Do not forget to invite him to the Kadambur palace.”

“I am wondering what I should tell my father, Devi. Can I mention that it is the Pazhuvoor King’s request?”

“Yes. You can. The Pazhuvoor King’s request is always in alignment with his queen’s thoughts. Is that not right, sire?”

The Pazhuvettarayar nodded uncomfortably.

After Kandanmaran left the room, she looked at him with her dove-like eyes, and spoke in her sweetest seductive voice. “Naada, it looks like the conversation with your brother has reduced your trust in me?” He was clearly blown over. “Uh oh. Never. I might even lose trust over my spear and sword, but my trust in you would never diminish.”

“If that is true, why did you throw so many accusative words at me, and that too, in front of that young man?”

Tears brimmed over her beautiful eyes.

“Oh, please do not cry. It tortures my soul to see you cry. But still, there are some activities of yours that I wish to clarify with you. Do I not have the right to do that?”

“Of course, you can. You definitely have the right to ask me. But, not in front of others. Ask me now. There is no one around.”

“Hmm, okay. Why did you send a scroll to Aditya Karikalan? Why did you invite him to Kadambur? Isn’t he the primary enemy of our plan?”

“No. He is not our primary enemy. Our main enemy is the serpent of Pazhayarai, Kundavai. If you remember, I have been telling you that she has her own plan. I think I have found out what that plan is.”

The Pazhuvettarayar was hooked, and was listening intently.

“I think she wants her favourite younger brother, Arulmozhi to be Emperor. She is willing to side-line anybody else, to achieve her purpose. That is the reason why she has sent the spy to Lanka. That is also the reason why she has now come to Thanjavur. Now, do you see why I sent a scroll to Kanchi?”

The Pazhuvettarayar was even more confused, but he did not show it.

“Yes, I see what you are doing.”

“You and your ancestors have been of so much service to this great Chozha kingdom. I want you to enjoy the throne at least for one day. I want to see that glorious sight. If this idea of mine is wrong, please kill me with your sword right now.”

“Nandini, please do not speak such gruesome words.”

Book 2 | Chapter 23 | Nandini’s scroll

She wants her favourite younger brother Arulmozhi to become the king. That is why she has sent for him. If Arulmozhi comes back, she can control the Chozha kingdom the way she wants. She will rule the kingdom by proxy

Nandini was sitting at a bejewelled table, writing a scroll. It was a cool night, one of her handmaidens was fanning her, and yet, one could spot droplets of sweat glistening on her forehead. The message read –

Dear Prince Karikalan, it is with great hesitation that I am writing to you. I am hearing a lot of inauspicious rumours. I am not sure if they are reaching you, or perhaps you are not reacting to any of them. Your father is very sick. Despite several invitations from him to you, you still have not come to meet him. I would like to talk to you. If you think you cannot come to Thanjavur, we can meet at the palace of Sambuvarayar. The bearer of this scroll, Kandanmaran, who is the son of Sambuvarayar, can be trusted with any news from your side. Please revert with your response. – Nandini”

She looked at her handmaiden and said, “Go and bring our guest Kandanmaran here.” Kandanmaran walked into the room. He stood beside a window staring into the garden.

“Ayya, please sit down. I understand that the eyes that have just appreciated Kundavai’s beauty are hesitant to even see me.”

“A thousand Kundavai-s would not be equal to one Nandini Devi.” She laughed off his appreciation.

“Devi, you can talk about anything in front of me, but please do not speak highly of the Princess. When I think of the way she was supporting Vandhiyathevan, my blood boils even now.”

“Still, your imagination did get the better of you when you described your wrestling bout with Vandhiyathevan.”

Kandanmaran felt a little ashamed.

“I had to say something to that effect. It is true that he stabbed me in the back. I hope you do not doubt me?”

“No. I do not. But I do believe you should try and recall, once more, what happened the other night. You met the Periya Pazhuvettarayar and me midway through the passage. Do you remember that?”

“Yes, I do remember that, Devi.”

“Do you remember what you said when we met?”

“Unfortunately, I do not remember the exact words. I do remember that I stood enchanted looking at you that day.”

“You said, ‘Sir, your Devi is the most beautiful woman on Earth.’.”

“Did I say that? No wonder his face flushed red. And I think that is probably the reason why he does not like me too much even now.”

“That is fine. As long as you like him, it is ok.”

“To be honest, I do not like him either.”

“That is also fine. What matters is that I like him a lot. I am blessed to have such a wonderful husband.”

Kandanmaran sat confused not knowing how to respond.

“Ok. Let us get back to that night. After meeting us, what happened?”

“The soldier with the torch went ahead of me. I followed him, thinking of you. We reached the secret door. He opened it, and stepped aside. I entered the secret passage. And then someone stabbed me in the back. That is all I remember. I still feel he must have been waiting for me outside, and then stabbed me when he got the opportunity.”

“That is where I think you are mistaken. I do not think he was waiting outside. I think he was waiting inside the passageway, searching for a way out. Once he saw you, he followed you all the way out. On his way out he must have stabbed you in the back. But, once he did that, perhaps his conscience got the better of him. He took you to the flower seller’s house, left you there, and escaped.”

“In hindsight, I think your theory is more probable, Devi. In this world, you would either see beautiful women or intelligent women. It is rare to see someone both beautiful and intelligent. You are one of those rare ones that Brahma created.”

“I need you to do me a favour. Would you help me with a task?”

“Anything that you tell me to do, Devi?”

“I would like you to take a scroll to Prince Karikalan in Kanchi. After he has read the scroll, and if he is willing, please take him to Kadambur as a guest.”

“Devi – would that be a wise thing to do? You do know about the plan that is being devised by Periya Pazhuvettarayar and some of that area’s chieftains.”

“Yes, I do know about those plans. But right now, all of us are threatened by one common enemy.”

“And who is that enemy?”

“The poisonous snake that came and visited you this afternoon.”

“The Princess …”

“Yes.”

“The Princess has sent your friend Vandhiyathevan to Lanka on the pretext of getting herbs to cure her father. That is a farce. The reality is that, after her father, she wants neither Aditya Karikalan nor Madhuranthakan to become the king.

She wants her favourite younger brother Arulmozhi to become the king. That is why she has sent for him. If Arulmozhi comes back, she can control the Chozha kingdom the way she wants. She will rule the kingdom by proxy. You know who will rule the kingdom with her – your dear friend Vandhiyathevan.”

“Aha. We need to stop this. Should we not tell my father and Pazhuvettarayar about this?”

“Hmm. There is no use telling them. They will not believe this. They do not believe that she is capable of all this. Kundavai’s dirty tricks should be countered by similar tricks. Would you do me the favour or not?”

She gave him the scroll. Caught in the smoke of lust, Kandanmaran held her hand, instead of taking the scroll, “I would do anything for you, Devi.”

Just at that time, there was commotion from the direction of the latha mandapam entrance. The Pazhuvettarayar entered the premises, and he seemed very angry. A parrot kept in a cage near the entrance fluttered its wings in surprise. The hand-maiden at the door let out a gasp on seeing the angry approach of the master of the palace.

Book 2 | Chapter 19 | Kandanmarans Imagination

He turned towards Nandini and hissed, “I hear that Princess Kundavai is planning to come to our palace. And I hear that it was you who invited her. Why does she have to come here? Have you forgotten how she insulted you earlier?”

The inauguration function had left the Periya Pazhuvettarayar in a very irritable state. He felt that the whole function had raised the confidence of the people in the royal family. He was very irritated at the fact that land from several villages were being written off in the name of social service. He felt that at this rate, there would be nowhere he could collect taxes from. And if he did not collect taxes, the treasury would not have enough money to send for the troops, which the Emperor kept asking him to send.

He turned towards Nandini and hissed, “I hear that Princess Kundavai is planning to come to our palace. And I hear that it was you who invited her. Why does she have to come here? Have you forgotten how she insulted you earlier?”

“I neither forget good deeds that people have done for me, nor do I forget people who have insulted me.”

“Then why is she coming here?”

“She is the daughter of the Emperor of this country. She does as she pleases.”

“Then, why did you invite her?”

“I never invited her. She invited herself. She wanted to meet Kandanmaran. Could I refuse her request? There will be a time when I will refuse. Until then, I would have to be patient.”

“I cannot be in this palace when she comes. In fact, I cannot be in this town, when she comes. I have some work in Mazhapadi. It will be a few days before I return.”

“I would also prefer that. Leave this poisonous snake to me. I know how to handle her. When you return, you might hear some interesting news. Please do not be shocked when you hear them.”

“What kind of interesting news are you talking about?”

“News such as Kundavai wanting to marry Kandanmaran, or Prince Aditya Karikalan wanting to marry Kandanmaran’s sister.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Not everything that is talked about would happen.”

She looked at him with steely eyes.

“You have been telling everyone that you are going to make that effeminate fool, Madhuranthaka Thevar, the Emperor. Is that going to happen?”

He stood shell-shocked for a moment, and then slowly took her hand and kissed it. “The day when you would become Empress of the Chozha kingdom is nearing.”

Kandanmaran felt very excited about the impending visit of Princess Kundavai. He had heard about her beauty and intelligence. It was also an honour to be visited by the Princess of this large kingdom. He would have to repeat the story of his back-stabbing friend to her as well. He felt a little bad, when he thought about his participation in some of the activities that were being carried out against the royal family, to which she belonged.

When he did meet the Princess, he lost himself in her. He was completely enamoured by her humility, her beauty, and her friendly nature. He spoke to her about his own valour.

“I would have even forgiven him if he had plunged his spear into my heart. The fact that he stabbed me from behind is what makes me so angry.”

The resentment and the anger in his face even made the Princess rethink, for a moment, about whether she should believe Vandhiyathevan, or this young warrior in front of her.

“He started cheating me when we were at Kadambur itself. He did not tell me the real reason why he was going to Thanjavur. He showed some fake insignia and entered the city. He met the Emperor claiming that he had some scroll from Aditya Karikalan. Apparently, he brought you also into the story, by claiming that he was going to meet you and deliver another scroll from your brother. He has escaped from the Fort General’s guards. I still cannot believe he would be a spy. I knew him to be an eccentric person, but a spy, I cannot be sure.”

This was when Kandanmaran’s imagination took over.

“I set out in search of him and wanted to talk some sense into him. He was treading into dangerous territory. I set out alone along the outer walls of the fort. I did not want to take anyone with me, and humiliate my friend. That was when I saw someone scaling down the Thanjavur forts. I recognised it to be my friend. I accosted him and spoke with him. I asked him to tell me the real reason why he had come to Thanjavur, and I promised him all the help that I could offer. It was then he kicked me on my chest. We then started wrestling. Very soon, he accepted defeat and asked for forgiveness. I forgave him. He said he wanted to sit and talk. I led the way.”

“Suddenly he plunged a long knife into my back. And before I could react, he ran away. I lost consciousness. When I woke up next, I found myself in the house of a dumb lady.”

Kundavai smiled within herself. There were so many loopholes in the story that Kandanmaran was spinning. “How did you get to the dumb lady’s house?”

“That is what I am unable to fathom. Apparently, the dumb lady has a son, who also vanished around the same time. If he comes back, we can ask him. Else, we will have to wait until the Fort General’s troops capture Vandhiyathevan.”

“Do you think he will get caught?”

“Of course, he will. I am waiting here only with that thought in mind. I would like to talk some sense into him, and perhaps even get forgiveness from the Pazhuvettarayars.”

“I am impressed by your love for your friend.”

Just at that time, a hand-maiden ran into the house and announced, “Amma, the spy has been caught. They are bringing him into town.”

Book 2 | Chapter 18 | Thanjavur Hospital

“Apparently, someone named Vandhiyathevan, a Vaanarkula warrior from Thiruvallam, in Thondainaadu. My brother-in-law has sent men all over the country to capture the spy.”

In olden years of Tamizh Nadu, royal ladies used to participate significantly in public service. The ladies had separate trust funds, which were used to promote several activities such as temple renovation, daily rituals for temples, and food for travellers. In particular, Princess Kundavai had set up several medical facilities. We have already seen the Ayurvedic hospital at Pazhayarai. On this day, she was all set to inaugurate a hospital on the outskirts of Thanjavur.

The Garuda Mandapam opposite the Perumal temple, just outside the Thanjavur fort, was abuzz with activity. The inauguration of the Thanjavur hospital by Princess Kundavai was to start shortly in this mandapam. Crowds milled around the mandapam. There were administrative personnel, small kings and vassals, band musicians, and official engravers, who had assembled. The royal family had started to arrive. Prince Madhuranthakan came, seated very uncomfortably atop a white horse. Princess Kundavai and several others of the royal family arrived in palanquins. Nandini arrived in her own palanquin with the palm-tree insignia.

The inauguration function started when the Periya Pazhuvettarayar arrived. The temple musicians sang a Devaram song, talking about the benefits of the sacred ash – Thiruneeru.

Nandini whispered to Kundavai, “When Sambandhar sang this song, the sacred ash had such medicinal powers that it cured the Pandiya king of an incurable disease. These days, it seems, the sacred ash has lost its power. We need doctors and herbs to cure people.”

“Yes. In those times, people led a dharmic life. It was because of this that the sacred ash had such powers. These days, people lead lives filled with sins. There are even people who are conspiring against the King and the royal family. Have we ever heard of such things in the past?”

“I am surprised that there are people plotting against the King. Who are they?”

“I am not sure, but I am still investigating. Very soon, I will find out. I am planning to stay on in Thanjavur until I find out about everything.”

“I will try and help you with anything that you require of me, Princess. I will have to leave soon. We have a visitor at home – the Kadambur prince, Kandanmaran. He is a handsome young fellow. He is in a pitiful mental state right now though. He keeps mumbling something about a spy and a backstabber. He keeps talking about a close friend who had turned traitor.”

“Who could have committed such a bad thing?”

“Apparently, someone named Vandhiyathevan, a Vaanarkula warrior from Thiruvallam, in Thondainaadu. My brother-in-law has sent men all over the country to capture the spy.”

“Hmm. I seem to recognise that name somewhere. How do we know if he is indeed a spy?”

“I do not know anything about this. All this information came from Kandanmaran. If you want to know more, you should probably come and talk to him.”

“Yes, I will come and meet him sometime. The Sambuvarayar clan has been loyal to us for several generations.”

By this time, the Devaram music had ended. The accountants ceremoniously read out details of the donations of land and money towards setting up the hospital. The engravers recorded this on brass plaques. On behalf of the treasury, the Periya Pazhuvettarayar ceremoniously handed over the plaques to the accountants to be formalised. Various formal announcements were made, such as the amount allocated for the Chief Doctor’s salary. There were also agreements in kind, such as the donation of milk for the patients’ consumption.

Cheers praising the royal family members rose from the crowd.

Book 1 | Chapter 39 | Amudan to the rescue

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Vandiyathevan wanted to take care of the guard first. He lunged towards him and slit his throat. He then focused on his friend. Kandanmaran was laying limp half inside the chamber, half outside. He gave Kandanmaran a push, and slipped out of the chamber. He noticed that the wall closed behind him automatically. He lifted his friend onto his shoulders, and picked up his spear too. The wind was blowing strong, and Vandiyathevan realized that he was now outside the fort. He looked around and saw that he was close to the bank of a river. He had heard about the river Vadavaar flowing close to the Thanjavur fort. This must be it. Vandiyathevan gauged the depth of the river with his spear. It appeared to be very deep. He decided to walk along the banks of the river. It was too deep to cross here. He walked a little while until he saw a large tree that had fallen across the river. Grunts and sighs from Kandanmaran gave confidence that his friend was still alive. He checked the depth of the river near the tree. It was much shallower. He crossed the river with a lot of effort.

Once he had crossed the river, he placed Kandanmaran down to check if he was still breathing. There was no point in carrying around a dead corpse. His friend was still alive. He did not want to risk extricating the curved knife, which was still lodged in Kandanmaran’s back. That would increase the blood loss. It would require the assistance of at least a couple of people to bandage this wound. He thought about Sendhan Amudan. He remembered Amudan saying his flower garden was close to the river. He had to get Kandanmaran there.

Kandanmaran momentarily opened his eyes.

“Kandanmara, do you see who I am?”, Vandiyathevan asked, wanting to see if Kandanmaran was in his senses.

“Yes. I know who you are. You are Vandiyathevan — my best friend. A friend so close that you choose to kill me by putting a dagger through my back. What a friend I have. I wanted to come and warn you that the Pazhuvettarayar’s guards were hunting for you. I came to save you. And you …”

Vandiyathevan stopped shocked. He could not get himself to react. His mind just stopped working.

Kandanmaran slipped back into unconsciousness.

He lifted Kandanmaran back into his shoulders and started walking. In less than an hour, he could smell the strong scent of flowers. He knew he was almost there. He walked through the shrubs. What greeted him was not the pleasant garden he had seen the other day. The Chinna Pazhuvettarayar’s guards had come here as well, searching for him. And they had ransacked this place. He felt sad that Amudan had been affected like this.

He slowly walked to the cottage. He gently tapped the sleeping Amudan’s shoulder. Amudan woke up with a start.

“Shhhh,” said Vandiyathevan. “This is my close friend, Kandanmaran, Prince of Kadambur. He has been knifed on the back. I saw him while escaping from the fort. I want your help.”

“Cowards. Stabbing someone from behind. Do not worry. I will take care of him as much as I can. Since the evening, several warriors have been coming around and asking about you. Look at the garden. They have ransacked it. But I am happy that you are safe. And your horse is also safe. Get on your horse and flee.”

“But, Kandanmaran …”

“Do not worry. My mother is an expert in healing wounds.”

Amudan walked in to the cottage and gently woke his mother up. He told her something using sign language, which she understood immediately. The three of them lifted Kandanmaran into the cottage. She went and plucked a few leaves from a medicinal plant in the garden. She ground the leaves into a green paste.

While Amudan held Kandanmaran, she instructed Vandiyathevan to swiftly remove the curved dagger. Kandanmaran winced in pain and regained consciousness momentarily with a curdling scream of pain. Amudan closed Kandanmaran’s mouth. Blood spurted from the wound. His mother quickly applied the herbal paste on the wound and bandaged it with a cotton cloth. Kandanmaran lost consciousness again.

They heard the distant sound of hooves.

“Go Vandiyatheva, flee right now.”

“Do you believe me, Amudha?”

“I believe in God, but I like you. Tell me what you want?”

“I need to get to Pazhayarai as soon as possible. I have a message for Princess Kundavai. I do not know these parts. Can you ride with me for a distance and show me the way?”

Sendhan Amudan looked at his mother and said something to her in sign language. All of this did not seem to bring any surprise to the gentle elderly woman. She motioned for him to go, and that she will take care of the wounded man.

The two got onto Vandiyathevan’s horse. They first rode slowly not making any noise. And then Vandiyathevan gently kicked his horse’s side to get it to ride in a swift canter. The well-rested horse flew through the night.

At the same time, six warriors banged on Amudan’s cottage. His old mother made unintelligible noises and refused to let them in. They forced themselves in and found the wounded Kandanmaran. This man did not look like the man they were searching for. While they were contemplating whether to haul this man back to the fort, they heard more hooves. They rushed outside.

Book 1 | Chapter 38 | Stabbed in the back

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Vandiyathevan slowly traced his way down the underground passageway. After a little while, the steps stopped. He was in a chamber of sorts. At the end of the tunnel he could see some glimmering light. He walked closer. It was not light from a window. It was not moonlight. The glimmer was from objects heaped on the ground — heaps of jewels of gold, silver, diamonds, valuable gem stones and pearls, jewelry of every type — crowns, necklaces, and rings. And there were heaps of gold and silver coins and bars. Vandiyathevan looked around astonished. He had never seen so much wealth in his life. Thankfully, his pragmatic side took over. He had to escape from here first. He looked around and something in the corner of the room shook his bones. He saw skeletons. That shook him out of his reverie. The skeleton seemed to tell him to ignore the riches and leave. It seemed to tell him not to make the mistake it did.

He had to flee. He looked around helplessly for the passageway that led him here. He could not find it in the darkness. He flailed helplessly around to find a way to escape from this hell that he had reached.

In a corner of the room he saw a heap of gold over which a spider was spinning its web. That led him thinking on how human beings are led into greed. He had been lured by all three kinds of desires today — pen aasai (desire of woman), mann aasai (desire of land), and pon aasai (desire of wealth). Nandhini had tried luring him using lust. She had also tried luring him by promising to get his kingdom back. And now, this lust of gold and wealth all around him was taunting him.

He wanted to leave this place as soon as possible. “Why am I leading this life of dangerous espionage?” he thought. “I should have just led a simple life of a common man — someone who can sleep when he wants to; someone who can eat satisfying food from what he earns; someone who can enjoy the simple pleasures of life”. He resolved to do exactly that, when he succeeded in getting out of this chamber.

He then heard the creak of a door opening and slamming shut. “When will the surprises of this night stop?” he thought.

He saw two torches this time — coming from two different directions. Vandiyathevan deduced that this chamber he was now hiding in was in the middle of a larger passage. The two torches came closer. Vandiyathevan strained his eyes to see how many people were coming and who they were. There were four people, two coming from either direction.

As they came closer, he noticed that the two people who were coming in from the left hand side were Kandanmaran and a foot soldier. He peered at the right hand side and recognized them as the Periya Pazhuvettarayar and his queen Nandhini.

They walked swiftly towards the chamber. When they met, it seemed like they were surprised to see each other. The Periya Pazhuvettarayar asked Kandanmaran something, to which Kandanmaran responded. Vandiyathevan could not hear what they were saying. Right afterwards, the Pazhuvettarayar pointed to a different direction and said something. Kandanmaran bowed his greetings and left on his way. The Pazhuvettarayar whispered something into the foot soldiers ear as well. This was when Vandiyathevan realized that there was a third way from this chamber, which he guessed must be the way out.

The foot soldier followed Kandanmaran down the third flight of stairs.

All this had happened in just a few minutes. Vandiyathevan thanked providence that he had seen all of this from a hidden stance. He was lucky that he had not gotten caught between these two sets of people.

He slowly followed the faint torch light down the third tunnel. The passage way curved its way for a long distance and then led to a flight of stairs leading upwards. At the end of the stairs, there was another small chamber. The foot soldier reached out to a corner of the wall and turned what looked like a cork screw, to open a small gap in the wall. The gap was just enough for a single person to slip through. The soldier pointed out the gap to Kandanmaran, who started to slip out through it.

When he was half way through, the guard slowly took out his curved short dagger. Vandiyathevan could not bear this any longer. He could not see his friend being attacked. He lunged forward, but was too late. The soldier had struck Kandanmaran’s back. Vandiyathevan cursed the guard for a coward for stabbing someone from behind.

Book 1 | Chapter 37 | Secret Tunnel

img src: unsplash.com photographer Linus Sandvide

The reader might recall that Vandiyathevan had been instructed to wait in a corner in the darkness. We might also recall that when Nandini and the Sorcerer had sought him out, he could not be found.

Vandiyathevan, who had moved to the darkness of the garden, had tried very hard to eavesdrop on what Nandini and the Sorcerer were talking. He had not succeeded. He could not hear a word. He had also decided that, the sensual intoxication that he felt when in the presence of Nandini was proving to be very dangerous. He had decided that it was far more prudent to escape than to get in touch with Nandini again. He had also been very surprised to see so much of hatred of the Pazhayarai princess in Nandini.

He had to escape through the garden. But then, what if, the guards searching for him were waiting on the other side of the wall. That would be suicidal. He looked around. He noticed that the building on the other side of the hallway was pitch dark. He wondered why the building had no lights. What could be inside? There had to be something secretive about the building. He decided to enter and check. He noticed that the building had a huge solid oak door. The lock on the door was huge. Not being someone who could be discouraged so easily, Vandiyathevan looked keenly around the door, and noticed a much smaller opening embedded in door. He pressed it slightly, and it opened.

Vandiyathevan stepped in and gingerly closed the door behind him. Heavy darkness enveloped him. He could not see anything in front of him. But, Vandiyathevan knew that, after a few moments, his eyes would get adjusted to the darkness. He slowly walked around by flailing his hands in front of him. He made out a large circular pillar in front of him. He felt cold stone. He moved ahead and felt another similar stone pillar.

He slowly moved forward step by step, and he almost fell. He crouched and regained his balance. He felt that he was descending into a flight of steps. He slowly stepped down a few more steps. He was feeling claustrophobic. He heard the distant sound of bats fluttering their wings. He thought he also heard some footsteps. He froze for a moment. He braced himself flat against the wall. He felt around and noticed another pillar. He hid behind the pillar. He noticed light. Light from a torch. It was coming up from a flight of steps that led down from the place where Vandiyathevan was standing. In the approaching light, he could make out the place where he was hiding was a small chamber. There were several pillars and Vandiyathevan was hiding behind one of them. He was shivering with fear. Yet, rivulets of sweat ran down his neck.

From his hiding place, he could see the light of the torch coming closer and closer. There were three people walking in. The first had the torch. The last had a spear. The one in the middle had nothing. Wait. He knew the person in the front. It was Vandiyathevan’s childhood friend, Kandanmaran. Who was the next person following behind him? Ah, it was the same person who had come out of the covered palanquin in Kadambur — Madhuranthaka Thevar. The last person seemed to be just a guard. He had not seen him before.

Vandiyathevan was now able to piece together the puzzle slowly. The Pazhuvoor queen, Nandini, and the Periya Pazhuvettarayar came in through the normal gates of the palace. But, the movements of Madhuranthakan were still secretive. This underground tunnel was being used to smuggle him in and out secretively. This was the reason why this building was kept so dark.

Vandiyathevan had not met Kandanmaran since they had parted ways at the Kollidam banks. It all came back him to now. Kandanmaran had said, he also had some work in Thanjavur and might have to come there soon. So this was the work. Work, that was part of the secretive plan of Periya Pazhuvettarayar.

Vandiyathevan decided it was best not to reveal himself in front of his friend. It would have been dangerous for him, and for his friend. He waited silently, as the three of them ascended the same steps that he had descended from the latha mandapam.

Once he was sure that they had gone far enough, Vandiyathevan started climbing down the stairs slowly.

Book 1 | Chapter 9 | Riding with Kandanmaran

Kollidam river in full flow

Read from the first Chapter — https://medium.com/son-of-cauvery

Vandhiyathevan could not sleep. He rolled around thinking about the discussion in the courtyard. He felt like a wasp stuck in a honey pot. He now knew more than he should. Tornadoes of thoughts ripped his confused mind apart. Slightly before dawn, tiredness took over him, and he fell asleep.

He did not awaken until well after dawn, when Kandanmaran came to wake him up.

“Did you sleep well?”

“I slept like a log Kandanmara. It must have been the tiredness.”

“Yes, I came and checked on you after taking care of the guests, and you were deep in slumber.”

Vandhiyathevan knew that his friend was not telling the truth, but what could he do?

“Kandanmara, I must get ready and leave soon. It is getting late.”

“Why are you in so much of a hurry? I thought you would stay for a while.”

Vandhiyathevan quickly responded, “I had gotten news that my uncle in Thanjavur is terribly sick and is on his death bed. If I get delayed any further, I will not be able to see him alive.”

“Hmm. Ok. I will then accompany you to the Kollidam river bank.”

Vandhiyathevan tried protesting; citing that Kandanmaran had several high profile guests to attend do, but Kandanmaran would have none of it.

The two friends rode their horses alongside, chatting happily about old times. They had almost reached the river shore, when Vandhiyathevan broached the topic about Kandanmaran’s sister.

“It is a pity that your sister is so shy. I was searching for her when we went to the andhapuram. She hid behind your mother most of the time. What is her name?”

“Manimegalai.”

“Ah. What a beautiful name.”

Kandanmaran shifted uneasily in his horse. “Vandhiyatheva, my friend, I would like to ask a favour from you. I would like you to please forget my sister. My parents have arranged another alliance for her.”

Vandhiyathevan was shocked, but tried his best not to show it out. “What happened, my friend? Even yesterday you were alluding to giving her in marriage to me?”

Kandanmaran blurted out — “Something has come up. Just last night.”

Vandhiyathevan smiled and said — “I am not surprised though. One of the rich influential guests must be the lucky one. Who would marry off their girl to a wandering poor soldier like me?”

Kandanmaran protested.

Vandhiyathevan could easily guess who the bridegroom would be. It would have to be none other than the Prince who rode in the covered Palanquin — Madhuranthaka Thevar. A marriage alliance to forge the leadership alliance.

“I have taken no offense Kandanmara. And I will not talk about it anymore. I can see it hurts you”, said Vandhiyathevan.

“There is more to this marriage. I cannot tell you more than that, Vandhiyatheva. We will fight together on the same side again. Please do not ask me any more details. I guarantee you though, that our friendship will remain the same ever.”

They had reached the Kollidam river bank, and there was a boat with two oarsmen and a single passenger, that was about to leave. The oarsmen decided to wait for Vandhiyathevan.

“One of my men will take your horse back to Kadambur, and another will accompany you on the boat. Farewell my friend, until we meet again.”

The lone passenger in the boat looked like a staunch Shaivite. He had sacred ash smeared all over him. The oarsmen were about to push the boat away from land, when there came a scream from afar — “Stop. Stop the boat. I would like to cross the river too.”

The voice sounded familiar and as the rotund figure neared, Vandhiyathevan recognized the familiar Alwarkadiyaan Nambi, who clumsily clambered onto the boat.

Book 1 | Chapter 5 | Kuruvai Koothu

Theru koothu — Street play — source wikipedia (Gowri Sankar Photography)

Read from the first Chapter — https://medium.com/son-of-cauvery

They walked along a long passageway to the other end of the courtyard, to the andhapuram (the ladies quarters). Kandanmaran introduced his friend to his mother and to the other ladies in the room. Vandhiyathevan looked around the room to see if he could spot the lady whose fair hands he had seen earlier in the covered palanquin, but in vain.

As they left the room, Vandhiyathevan heard the ladies giggling and laughing.

“I wonder what they are so amused about now”, said Vandhiyathevan.

“They were talking about the Pazhuvettarayar’s new wife. There is a lot of talk about whether this old man, who had crossed the ripe age of 50, needed to have wed such a young lady. The lady is supposed to be extremely beautiful. One of the hand-maidens who had seen the new young queen was describing the lady as we walked in.”

“Yes, with such a fair hand, I am sure she must be a very beautiful maiden”, said Vandhiyathevan, surprising his friend.

“You have seen her? Be careful. Pazhuvettarayar might even kill you. They say that, the warrior king does not spend even a minute without her. He takes her in the covered palanquin everywhere he goes. He does not even let the young queen to come to the andhapuram.”

Vandhiyathevan laughed and said — “I did not do anything wrong to go see her. Neither am I afraid of all these threats of Pazhuvettarayar. I was in Veeranarayanapuram earlier today, when the convoy of the Pazhuvettarayar passed by. At that time, I saw a fair hand from inside the covered palanquin open the silk screen of the palanquin. The hand and her bangles were all that I saw.”

“Judging by the color of her fair hand, she is probably from Kalingam or Kashmiram. Or perhaps from across the ocean like Kadaram. Or maybe even from an Arab country. I have heard that ladies from the Arab countries cover themselves from head to toe, right from birth.”

“I heard that the elephant, the soldiers, and the grand reception were all arranged by the Kadambur palace?”

“Yes, why do you ask, my friend?”

“No. I was just thinking about the reception given to Pazhuvettarayar, and the reception that was meted out to me.”

Kandanmaran laughed heartily and said, “With Lord Muruga’s blessings, if you marry my sister, we will give you a befitting maapillai (bridegroom) reception.”

At this moment, the sound of musical instruments filled the air.

“Kandanmara, what is that sound?”

“Kuravai kootthu is going to start. Would you like to see it?”

“Aha. I have never seen this wonderful art form before. I would love to see it.”

A stage had been set up in one of the open courtyards surrounded by the fort walls. There was adequate lighting with torches. Kuravai kootthu was a dance art form glorifying Lord Muruga, son of Lord Shiva. The artists sang songs describing the valour of the Lord. Nine dancers danced graciously to these songs.

Once the Kuravai kootthu finished, a male dancer and female dancer ascended the stage to dance another traditional art form — devarattam (the dance of the Devas). Vandhiyathevan noticed that this was much more intense. The percussionist drummed an intense beat and the dancers seemed to go into a trance as the dance progressed. At the end of the dance, the two dancers were in a trance and were dancing in a wild frenzy.

The fort temple priest started a slow eerie beat with his udukkai. He stepped up onto the platform and asked the possessed dancer — “Vela, Muruga, please tell us the future of this great kingdom.”

To this, the dancer in trance replied — “The kingdom will prosper. Rains will come. Crops will flourish. But you fools forgot one thing. You forgot to give your sacrifice to my mother. Mother Kali is upset. She is asking for the sacrifice now.”

“What is it that she desires?”

“Will you be able to give? Whatever she asks?”

“Yes. We will definitely please the Mother.”

“She wants narabali (human sacrifice). She wants the blood of a royal. A royal from a family which has ruled for a 1000 years. Can you give this?”

Sambuvarayar looked at the priest and made a sign. The priest stopped beating the udukkai. There was a hushed silence. And then the possessed dancer fainted. He was taken away swiftly. And the crowd dispersed.

In the deathly silence, Vandhiyathevan heard the sound of howling wolves. Instinctively he turned towards the direction of the sound. And he caught sight of a familiar face. Someone was clinging atop the tall fort wall. A face so familiar. Where had he seen this face? It was Alwarkadiyaan Nambi.

Book 1 | Chapter 5 | Kuruvai Koothu

Theru koothu — Street play — source wikipedia (Gowri Sankar Photography)

Read from the first Chapter — https://medium.com/son-of-cauvery

They walked along a long passageway to the other end of the courtyard, to the andhapuram (the ladies quarters). Kandanmaran introduced his friend to his mother and to the other ladies in the room. Vandhiyathevan looked around the room to see if he could spot the lady whose fair hands he had seen earlier in the covered palanquin, but in vain.

As they left the room, Vandhiyathevan heard the ladies giggling and laughing.

“I wonder what they are so amused about now”, said Vandhiyathevan.

“They were talking about the Pazhuvettarayar’s new wife. There is a lot of talk about whether this old man, who had crossed the ripe age of 50, needed to have wed such a young lady. The lady is supposed to be extremely beautiful. One of the hand-maidens who had seen the new young queen was describing the lady as we walked in.”

“Yes, with such a fair hand, I am sure she must be a very beautiful maiden”, said Vandhiyathevan, surprising his friend.

“You have seen her? Be careful. Pazhuvettarayar might even kill you. They say that, the warrior king does not spend even a minute without her. He takes her in the covered palanquin everywhere he goes. He does not even let the young queen to come to the andhapuram.”

Vandhiyathevan laughed and said — “I did not do anything wrong to go see her. Neither am I afraid of all these threats of Pazhuvettarayar. I was in Veeranarayanapuram earlier today, when the convoy of the Pazhuvettarayar passed by. At that time, I saw a fair hand from inside the covered palanquin open the silk screen of the palanquin. The hand and her bangles were all that I saw.”

“Judging by the color of her fair hand, she is probably from Kalingam or Kashmiram. Or perhaps from across the ocean like Kadaram. Or maybe even from an Arab country. I have heard that ladies from the Arab countries cover themselves from head to toe, right from birth.”

“I heard that the elephant, the soldiers, and the grand reception were all arranged by the Kadambur palace?”

“Yes, why do you ask, my friend?”

“No. I was just thinking about the reception given to Pazhuvettarayar, and the reception that was meted out to me.”

Kandanmaran laughed heartily and said, “With Lord Muruga’s blessings, if you marry my sister, we will give you a befitting maapillai (bridegroom) reception.”

At this moment, the sound of musical instruments filled the air.

“Kandanmara, what is that sound?”

“Kuravai kootthu is going to start. Would you like to see it?”

“Aha. I have never seen this wonderful art form before. I would love to see it.”

A stage had been set up in one of the open courtyards surrounded by the fort walls. There was adequate lighting with torches. Kuravai kootthu was a dance art form glorifying Lord Muruga, son of Lord Shiva. The artists sang songs describing the valour of the Lord. Nine dancers danced graciously to these songs.

Once the Kuravai kootthu finished, a male dancer and female dancer ascended the stage to dance another traditional art form — devarattam (the dance of the Devas). Vandhiyathevan noticed that this was much more intense. The percussionist drummed an intense beat and the dancers seemed to go into a trance as the dance progressed. At the end of the dance, the two dancers were in a trance and were dancing in a wild frenzy.

The fort temple priest started a slow eerie beat with his udukkai. He stepped up onto the platform and asked the possessed dancer — “Vela, Muruga, please tell us the future of this great kingdom.”

To this, the dancer in trance replied — “The kingdom will prosper. Rains will come. Crops will flourish. But you fools forgot one thing. You forgot to give your sacrifice to my mother. Mother Kali is upset. She is asking for the sacrifice now.”

“What is it that she desires?”

“Will you be able to give? Whatever she asks?”

“Yes. We will definitely please the Mother.”

“She wants narabali (human sacrifice). She wants the blood of a royal. A royal from a family which has ruled for a 1000 years. Can you give this?”

Sambuvarayar looked at the priest and made a sign. The priest stopped beating the udukkai. There was a hushed silence. And then the possessed dancer fainted. He was taken away swiftly. And the crowd dispersed.

In the deathly silence, Vandhiyathevan heard the sound of howling wolves. Instinctively he turned towards the direction of the sound. And he caught sight of a familiar face. Someone was clinging atop the tall fort wall. A face so familiar. Where had he seen this face? It was Alwarkadiyaan Nambi.