Book 2 | Chapter 27 | Mad elephant

“Oh yes, General. I had half a dozen armed soldiers near the door for company. The house was large. And for dinner, they sent me a cat. Just when I was about to finish off the cat, this Veera Vaishnavan came and disturbed me. The cat, which was a staunch Shaivite did not like this man one bit, and scratched his skin and drew blood.”

Lankan Forest img source unsplash
Lankan Forest – img src unsplash photographer Sameera Thilakaratne

General Boodhi Vikrama Kesari, also known as the Kodumbalur Periya Velaar was a wise old man, who had seen many a war. He was one of the trusted generals of the Chozha Empire. After his younger brother had been killed in the war in Lanka, he had taken a particular interest in seeking revenge. This was one of the main reasons he was the General of the forces that were fighting in Lanka. We have also heard about the problems that were being created by the Pazhuvettarayars in sending supplies for the troops in Lanka. So, the generations-old rivalry between these two clans had only been increasing day-by- day.

It was no surprise that, given the rivalry between the Pazhuvoor and the Kodumbalur clans, the General had become incensed when he saw the palm tree insignia ring on Vandhiyathevan. It was only due to good fortune that Chief Minister Aniruddha Brahmaraayar had sent Nambi hurriedly to let the General know about the real reason why the Vaanar clan warrior was in Lanka. Nambi was a trusted messenger, and the Kodumbalur General had gotten the message.

When Nambi and Vandhiyathevan met the General, the latter tried to reconcile from the previous meeting.

Thambi, I hope you were treated well.”

“Oh yes, General. I had half a dozen armed soldiers near the door for company. The house was large. And for dinner, they sent me a cat. Just when I was about to finish off the cat, this Veera Vaishnavan came and disturbed me. The cat, which was a staunch Shaivite did not like this man one bit, and scratched his skin and drew blood.”

“Oho. It looks like this young man has a good sense of humour.”

“General, what he says is true. The cat did scratch me very violently. And yes, he does have a sense of humour. Apparently, his ancestors were poets. So, he retains some of their sense of imagination too.”

The General roared in laughter seeing the scratch marks on Nambi.

“If you cannot handle a small cat, how are you going to cross the jungle paths of Lanka? I am glad you are going to be taking this young man as your companion.”

“General, I do not require any companion. I forgot to take my wooden staff when I went there. That was the problem.”

“Ok. Then you should be the companion to this young man. Make sure you feed this young man a good meal before you leave.”

Thambi, try to have a decent meal before you leave. I apologise if the meal you get is not the best. That is all we can afford. Mahendran’s forces breached all the lakes and rivers before they left. All the crops are lost. The supplies coming in from the mainland are also neither regular nor sufficient.”

“I did hear this elsewhere as well, sir. I overheard some of the ladies in the army camp complaining to the Princess that their kin in Lanka were not getting enough supplies from the mainland.”

“Oho, so this information is known there as well. Good. And what did the Princess reply?”

“She reassured the ladies that, with the Kodumbalur General in power in Lanka, their men were in safe hands, and that they should not worry.”

The General smiled proudly.

“There is no one equal to our Princess in kindness and generosity.”

“There is one other person, General – the next Princess of the kingdom.”

“And who are you talking about now?”

“The Kodumbalur princess, of course.”

“How is Vanathi doing, young man?”

“She is doing very well, sir. She is an inseparable companion to the Princess. You can never see either of them without each other’s company.”

“I am very glad to hear this. Has the Princess given any message for me?”

“No, sir. But I will be honest with you. She has sent a message about Vanathi for Prince Arulmozhi, which I can relay only in person. I am not at liberty to share it with anyone else.”

The General smiled and hugged Vandhiyathevan.

“I have never seen such a smart warrior as you.”

“The two of you should not be wasting any further time. You should leave.”

“General, should this Veera Vaishnavar definitely accompany me? I would prefer to journey alone.”

Thambi, it would be better if the two of you travel together. It is difficult to track the Prince down. Also, Nambi carries a scroll for the Prince too.”

The General went close to Vandhiyathevan and whispered in his ear, “Thambi, do not worry about Nambi. He is a reliable person. But I would advise you to be careful, none the less. I would also like you to pay attention to the message that he delivers to the Prince, and let me know the same, once you return.”

Vandhiyathevan had originally thought that the General was sending Nambi as a spy along with him, but he now realised that it was quite the contrary – he was being sent as a spy with Nambi.

Vandhiyathevan and Nambi started on their journey that night with the company of two soldiers. They travelled eastwards for two days. Initially, they passed through a few towns. They passed through damaged embankments on rivers and lakes. Then slowly the path turned towards the forests.

Dense vegetation surrounded them. Nambi and Vandhiyathevan debated on the effects of war. Nambi was heavily anti-war, while Vandhiyathevan, warrior that he was, tried to justify the need for war. Then they turned southwards. The forests became deeper and denser. They were also rising in altitude. Along with the merry chirping of birds, they could occasionally hear the frightening sounds of wild animals too.

The knowledgeable Nambi was describing the kinds of animals that lived in these forests – elephants, jaguars, cheetahs, bears, and wolves. Nambi described how lone wolves and cheetahs hunted together in those jungles.

“Nambiyaare, I hear the sound of water gurgling somewhere. Is there a river nearby?”

“There must be. I am not sure. The sound you are hearing resembles a herd of elephants drinking water.”

“Isn’t it dangerous to get caught in the middle of a herd of wild elephants?”

“No. It is not. Elephants in herds are safe. You just need to step aside.” Meanwhile, one of the soldiers had climbed a tree to see what was going on.

“Ayyo, there is a lone mad elephant headed our way.”

Nambi got the jitters and screamed, “Run!”

“Nambiyaare, you said you were not worried about a herd of elephants, why are you afraid of a single elephant? There are three of us who have spears. You have a staff in your hand.”

“No. One can even manage a herd of elephants, but a lone mad elephant is more powerful than a thousand of your spears. It is very dangerous.”

As he spoke this, the elephant came into full view. It was charging towards them.

The four of them started running away from the elephant. After running a few steps, they realised that they were running towards the edge of a deep ravine. The soldiers and Vandhiyathevan darted to the sides towards the dense forest.

Vandhiyathevan turned back and saw Nambi standing rooted to the spot. It was a familiar sight. He stood swinging his staff and screaming, “Stop! Do not come near me. Stop!”

Book 2 | Chapter 15 | Sparks Fly

The other half was covered in darkness and the smoke from the lamps in the room. She was shocked to see that the face, which was visible, resembled that of the Pazhuvoor queen, Nandini.

During those times, Thanjavur was famous for its theatre arts. Most of the theatre companies resided within the fort premises. In recent times, the trend of these companies was to create plays based on eminent warriors such as Karikal Valavar and Vijayalaya Chozhan. There were plays on three of the nine days of Navarathri. Crowds thronged the outer balconies of the fort to watch the play. There was a separate seating area for the royal family.

During these plays, Nandini came and sat beside Kundavai. While the people initially did not like this, they consoled themselves with the fact that if their Princess could show such consideration, the people should as well. The third and final play depicted the life of Paranthaka Chozhan.

Koppara Kesari Paranthakan was the grandfather of the current Emperor. He had ruled for a grand period of 46 years. He expanded the kingdom from Eezhanaadu to the River Tungabhadra. He was the Emperor who made the golden dome for the Chidambaram temple. Towards the end of this reign, his son led a large Chozha army against the Canara forces at Thakkolam. He routed the Canara forces but lost his life atop an elephant. When the forces brought the slain king’s body back to the palace, the Emperor and his wife wept. The drama depicted this scene beautifully.

During those times, Paranthaka Chozhan had two able generals – a chieftain from Kodumbalur and the other from Pazhuvoor. The Emperor treated them with great and equal respect. The chieftain from Kodumbalur was none other than Vanathi’s grandfather. The Pazhuvoor chieftain was none other than the current Pazhuvettarayar’s father. The theatre troupe had taken care to portray each of the families equally.

There were some in the crowd who were in the Pazhuvoor camp and others in the Kodumbalur camp. Whenever there was a scene depicting the bravery of one leader, there was a roar from the respective camp. This competitive cheering was growing more and more boisterous. Kundavai was egging Vanathi whenever the Kodumbalur camp cheered; and she egged Nandini whenever the Pazhuvoor camp cheered. Nandini’s ego hurt each time the Princess compared her to Vanathi.

Nandini wanted to get up and leave, but in doing so, she would portray defeat. She gritted her teeth and stayed. Kundavai noticed all this. But there was one thing that was still a mystery to her. During the scenes where the Pandiya king was shown as defeated and running away, the entire crowd was cheering, but there was sorrow writ over Nandini’s face.

“If only my father felt better, he would have loved to see this drama. He is also as accomplished as his grandfather.”

“He will feel better very soon. His favourite daughter has come now. The herbs from Lanka would also come very soon.”

“Herbs from Lanka?”

“Why are you pretending as though you do not know about this? I heard that you had sent the son of the Pazhayarai Vaidhiyar to get herbs from Lanka. Isn’t that true?”

Kundavai bit her lip.

Thankfully, there was more commotion and cheering and the conversation ended there. The play had ended with loud cheers for the Emperor and the audience began to dissolve and leave.

The elder ladies of the palace left for the Durga temple. Queen Vaanama Devi had arranged for special pujas on every night of Navarathri. She had been arranging these pujas for the sake of the Emperor, praying that he would get better. Sometimes, the priest would get possessed and foretell prophesies. It was for this reason that the younger ladies were not allowed for the night puja. However, Kundavai was an exception. The royal matron had confidence in her maturity and bravery. During these times, Vanathi had to be in the palace all alone.

The night of the last play, Vanathi was in a very excited state of mind. She was feeling proud of her ancestors. She was also proud of the fact that the Prince had gone to Lanka to avenge the death of her father. Sleep eluded her. Instead of lying sleepless in her bed, she decided to walk to the terrace. She knew that one could get spectacular views of Thanjavur from the terrace. She was new to this palace. She slowly walked past the long corridors looking for the entrance to the terrace.

Suddenly she heard a feeble voice. It sounded like an old man. The old person seemed to be pleading for help.

“Is there no one who can help me? Please save me.”

She froze. Her legs could not move.

She heard the voice again, “Please, save me. Help!”

It was the Chakravarthy’s voice. Was he in trouble? Did he need anything? Was anything wrong with his health?

She decided to go and check. Her legs shook as she moved forward. The voice seemed to come from downstairs. She peered downwards and saw a large room. She recognised it as the Emperor’s bedroom. She saw the Chakravarthy in his bed too. He seemed to be alone. He seemed to be mumbling to himself.

“I know. I know it was I, who killed you. I did not do it willingly. But still, I realise that it was me. What am I supposed to do? It has been 25 years, and you are still tormenting me. Will your soul never rest? Will you not give me peace? Tell me. What should I do? Please, let me be. Will someone not please save me? Everyone seems to be searching for medicines for my physical illness. Will someone please search for medicines to cure my psychological problem? Ey. Go away.”

He paused.

“No. Do not go. Tell me what am I supposed to do. And then go. Please do not be silent and leave. I will go mad.”

Vanathi heard all of this. She shivered. She trembled with fear. She peeped downstairs again, letting her eyes travel the entire length and breadth of the room. She saw a figure in front of the Emperor’s bed. Only half of the figure was visible. The other half was covered in darkness and the smoke from the lamps in the room. She was shocked to see that the face, which was visible, resembled that of the Pazhuvoor queen, Nandini. Was she dreaming?

She saw another figure hiding behind a nearby pillar and recognised it to be the Periya Pazhuvettarayar. There was no doubt now. She could not understand why the Emperor was saying all these things to Nandini. Why was he lamenting about killing her?

Vanathi felt giddy. She felt that she was going to faint. She did not want to faint right there. She bit her teeth resolutely and walked away from there. She walked a distance away, but the passageways never seemed to end. She could not hold on any further. She fell unconscious.

When Princess Kundavai returned from the temple, she found her dear friend Vanathi unconscious on the passageway, very close to their rooms.