Book 1| Chapter 52 | Make me Empress

Mahabalipuram by night (img src: wikimedia commons)

Parthibendran had been devoid of emotion until now. But now, he wiped off a tear, proving that he was a human too. He could not believe it himself. He was choking.

“My prince, I can now see, how much, love can affect the bravest of the brave. None of us knew this incident had occurred on your coronation day. I remember that you seemed sad that day. I remember cracking jokes at your expense. We tried cheering you up.”

“Yes. I remember. I remember your jokes. I remember you telling me how much I would succeed in expanding the Chozha empire. I remember how much it hurt me that day.”

“And then one day, Nandini sent me a message that she wanted to meet me in her palace. I was unsure whether I should meet her or not. I was confused, but then eventually decided that I would go. I would go and ask her the questions within my heart. I wanted to ask her about her birth. I also wanted to ask her if the Chakravarthy fainting had anything to do with seeing her.”

“While I had all these questions to ask her, the questions were just an excuse for me to go see her.”

“The Pazhuvettarayar was not in town. There was no one who could question the Crown Prince. No one in the palace knew about our earlier relationship. It would just be a visit to get the blessings of the Pazhuvoor queen. We met in the latha mandapam in her palace.”

“Parthibendra, you might have heard from captains of our navy about whirl currents in the middle of the oceans. If ships get caught in them, ships break down into bits in no time. I felt like those ships, when I saw Nandini. I was broken down into bits.”

“She expressed happiness on my being crowned as heir apparent. I rejected these words. I heaped insults on her for having destroyed our love and loving my enemy. I questioned her marrying the old Pazhuvettarayar. While my mind was cowering in shame, my mouth was blabbering uncontrollably. It was my heart speaking.”

“She calmly replied, `Prince, you first killed my love. You killed the person whom I loved. It looks like you are still not satisfied.’ She then took out her small dagger from her hip. She gave it to me and said, `Kill me, if that is the only thing that will satisfy you’. I replied with the most shameful words. I said that it was not she who should be killed. It was she, who was killing me, by doing all this.”

“I said, `It is still not too late. I will leave my kingdom for you. You run away from this old man.’”

“She laughed like a maniac hearing my words. She then said the most incisive words that I had ever heard. `Becoming the Pazhuvoor Rani is not my end goal. I aim to become the Queen of the Chozha Empire. I will slay the two Pazhuvettarayars myself. You put the Emperor in prison and ascend the throne as Emperor. I will then accept to live with you, as the Empress of the Chozha Kingdom.’

“The words killed me, my friend. My anger then took over me. I cursed her and started to leave. On my way out, she still insisted one more time, that if I ever change my mind, I should come back and take her.”

“I have not seen her since.”

“I cannot imagine that a rakshashi like her exists in this world. It is good that you have not seen her after that incident.”

“While I have not gone to see her, she does not seem to leave me alone. She haunts me in my thoughts during the daytime. She kills me in my dreams during the night. There are times when she comes with a lusty smile. There are times, when she comes sobbing with sorrow. There are times, when she comes with a dagger to kill me. There are times when she is laughing hysterically.”

“Now you also know why I have been hesitating to go to Thanjavur. And why I want my father to come here instead.”

Parthibendran bristled at that thought. “Are you not going to Thanjavur because of the fear of a woman? What can she do to you?”

Karikalan sighed. “You still have not understood me, my Pallava friend. I am not afraid that she would kill me. I am afraid that she would make me do what she wishes. Either she dies. Or I die. Or both of us die. Until then, the heaviness in my heart will remain.”

“Why should you die, my king? Give me permission. I will go to Lanka later. I will go tomorrow to Thanjavur and kill her.”

“If you do something like that, you will become my arch-enemy. If Nandini has to die, it would have to be me who kills her, for I will kill myself soon after. If anyone else attempts to lay a finger on her, I will finish him off.”

“My friend, forget everything that I said about Nandini. Forget everything. Go to Lanka tomorrow. Bring back Arulmozhi. Let Malayamaan and him discuss and decide what to do. Meanwhile, you and I will take a large naval force down to the island countries of Java, Sumatra, and surrounding areas. We will capture these new lands and raise the flag with the tiger all over.”

At that moment, Malayamaan walked in. “Are you both still up? Parthibendra, I hope you did not forget that you have to sail to Lanka tomorrow.”

“We were wrapping up a discussion about my trip.”

Book 1 | Chapter 51 | Deeply Wounded

Gangai Konda Chozhapuram (img src: https://sunrise.maplogs.com)

It looked like the cultural program had ended. There were loud cheers praising the Emperor and the Crown Prince.

“The cultural program has finished. Malayamaan will return soon.”

“The program might have finished, but your story has not finished.”

“Haha. I am still wondering about Malayamaan. Look at his energy at this old age.”

“My lord, men from those days, have a reason to be fit — both physically and mentally. Kings of those days did not get caught in the traps of love. They never fell in love with daughters of a common priest. Even if they did, they would not wallow in the self-pity of love. They would have brought the lady immediately and added her to their andhapuram.”

“Parthibendra, Nandini is not the daughter of a temple priest. There is some secret of her birth that I do not know, yet”

“Who cares if she is the daughter of a priest? So what if she is a princess? Or even an orphan? Look at what the Periya Pazhuvettarayar did. He saw her in the middle of a jungle trail. He lusted. He brought her back to his andhapuram. End of story.”

“Which is what is still a mystery to me. The lady whom I loved. The lady who said she was in love with Veerapandiyan. How could she accept to be the wife of this old man?”

“I don’t find it a mystery at all. Actually, what you did seems more of a mystery to me. The lady who gave refuge to the enemy that you had sworn to kill — you left her unscathed and came back. That is something which I cannot digest.”

“In fact, now I remember. You brought out the decapitated body of Veerapandiyan and laid it in front of us. We were flooded with euphoria. I heard someone wailing from inside the hut. I remember asking you who was inside the hut. You had said that it was some temple priest’s daughter, and that she had been shocked with the happenings. You asked us not to go into the hut. We were in the throes of victory. So we did not care. We took the head of Veerapandiyan and rode back to the camp.”

“I also remember that you did not partake of much of the celebrations that night. You were not yourself. I even asked you if you had any hidden wounds.”

“I did not have any physical wound, Parthibendra. It was my heart that was wounded. When she stood pleading for his life, my heart was torn. How could I have given what she was asking for? She was important to me, but what she was asking for, that could not be done. I cursed myself for it.”

“My prince, you did the right thing that day. If not, for the sake of a few fake tears, you would have forgiven the Pandiya king, and things would have been much different now.”

“Friend, you are an unlucky one who hates women. You hate even the word love. You would not understand.”

“Yes. I am like that. I would not fall for any woman. Look at your friend Vandiyathevan. He falls in love with anything with a face smeared with turmeric. And perhaps, that is why you like him more than you like me.”

“Oho. I was wondering how you had not brought in Vandiyathevan for so long.”

“Anyways, let him be. What happened next? Did you not meet her ever again? Have you asked her recently why she married the Pazhuvettarayar?”

“After the celebrations, you had all gone to sleep. I could not get a wink of sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, the events of the evening kept flashing by me again and again. I had to meet her. I had to console her. I had to maybe apologize to her. I took my horse and went back to the priest settlement.”

“The huts had all been burnt to ashes. I saw an old couple wailing uncontrollably nearby. They saw me and asked where their daughter was. They had been to the other side of the river to attend to their elder daughter, who was about to give birth. Nandini had refused to come. While coming back, they had seen a few men roughing up a girl, whose hands and feet were tied. They were trying to push her onto a burning pier, where a human corpse was burning. The couple had silently slipped unnoticed and came back to their settlement, only to see that it was burnt to cinders.”

“I had known earlier that they were not Nandini’s real parents. Now it was confirmed. If they were her real parents, would they have let their daughter alone at a time like this?”

“I was choking with sorrow, anger, frustration and many more emotions that I could not describe then, nor can I describe now. I cursed them — `Your daughter went searching for the corpse that was burning. You also go and burn.’.”

“I came back before dawn and fell asleep. None of you knew that I had even slipped out.”

“Yes, my prince. None of us knew. And I, as a friend, did not know that, you had hidden so much in your heart, for so long.”

“Let us not talk about the past any more. Did you meet or talk to her after that? Did you talk to her before her wedding with Pazhuvettarayar?”

“Hah. If I had seen her before her wedding with Pazhuvettarayar, she would not be his wife now.”

“If you remember, the two of us were not in town, when their wedding happened. A few months later, there was a function when I was crowned as the heir-apparent of the Chozha kingdom. It was the idea of my father and grandmother. They did not wish there to be any discussion on who would be the next Emperor. Perhaps they knew that someday, someone might attempt changing the mind of Madhuranthakan.”

“Every one of our vassal kings and the people of our land had unanimously agreed on this. In this joyous moment, I had completely forgotten Nandini. Right after the coronation, the Emperor, my father, took me to the andhapuram, to get the blessings of the royal ladies. My mother, grandmother, my sister, all of her handmaidens, and several others were in full attendance. But, out of all of them, only one face was visible to me. Yes. It was Nandini. Yes, the same love of my life, whom I had thought to have been burnt to ashes. How did she come to the andhapuram? She was bedecked in the finest of clothes and jewelry. She had a charming smile on her face too. I thought, due to some magical happening, the love of my life had also returned on the same day of my coronation. I thought, perhaps, she would become the queen-apparent.”

“My grandmother then stepped forward and blessed me. At that very moment, my father let out a cry, and fell down unconscious. We focused on my father then. All the ladies except my immediate family went inside. We sprinkled water on my father’s face and he regained consciousness. I took my sister aside and asked her how Nandini had gotten there. Kundavai had revealed the news of the Pazhuvettarayars wedding. Parthibendra, it felt like someone pierced me with a spear. I have been wounded in many a war. I have recovered from all of them. But the inner wound that was caused when my sister told me that Nandini was the Pazhuvoor queen, has still not healed.”

Karikalan wept silently. Parthibendran could see that the wound had not healed.

Book 1 | Chapter 49 | Heavy Heart

Another view of the Shore temple at Mahabalipuram. img src: cgtn.com

The three warriors decided to stay in a royal guest house in Maamallapuram. After dinner, Malayamaan went to a cultural program that he heard was happening in the town. Parthibendran and Karikalan went to the terrace. Karikalan was looking at the beautiful night view of the city. There was the flicker of lamps in many households. The evening prayers of the temples were just getting over and the temples were getting locked for the night. It was predominantly silent. He could hear the waves crashing on the shore. He could also hear story-telling at a distance — perhaps the same cultural program that Malayamaan had also gone to.

“Parthibendra, look at Malayamaan. He was so tired just a while ago. Now, he has gone to the cultural program. The people of his era are indeed different. Strong. Defiant.”

“My friend, it surprises me that you have also started talking about people of a different era. What have they achieved that we have not achieved? Look at yourself. You went into battle at such a young age. You have fought and won battles that one can only dream of.”

“Parthibendra”, the Prince caught hold of his friend’s shoulders, “I admire you. You are one of those who speak from your heart. Not like some, who feel something, and talk something else. Only because of that, I tolerate what you just said. You know I hate anyone praising me in my own presence.”

“If I said something which is not true, then you should punish me. What I claim is true. Comparing you to your ancestors is well within the realm of reality.”

“Stop, Parthibendra. I will not take any more of this. My ancestors were legends. I am far from them.”

Karikalan then went to list a few of the great accomplishments of his ancestors. He spoke about the war with the Kalingas. He spoke about the great war with the Pandiyas. He spoke about the Pallavas who built this glorious town of Maamallapuram. He spoke about the art of sculpture.

“You still think, you can compare me with my ancestors?”

“But then, my lord, you should also remember, I do not just praise you all the time. I do from time to time point out your faults too. Like now, I would like to remind you that you are also getting ahead of yourself in terms of promoting the arts, when you should probably be expanding your empire.”

“You should remember that kingdoms tend to ebb and flow over time. There are times, when the kingdoms flourish and then there are times when there is a lull. It is all part of a grand scheme of things.”

Parthibendran was surprised to hear his friend and king speak this way.

“My king, you are not yourself today. I have never heard you speak so dejectedly. Something in your heart is making you talk this way. Would you not share it with me today?”

“Who do you think lives in my heart?”

“It is precisely what I would like to know.”

“The great beings who brought me into this world — my father and mother — are not in my heart. The two people whom I love to death — my brother and sister — would not be there either. My closest friends — you and Vandiyathevan — would not be there. The one lady whom I hate more than anything else in this world, resides there in all her glory. The Pazhuvoor queen — Nandhini — the one person who is worse than the deadliest poison. I have not told this to anyone else till now. You are the first person I have opened up to.”

“I guessed so. Every time, someone spoke about her, I could sense the change in your demeanor. But what caused her to get into your heart? Why the hate? However much you might hate the Pazhuvettarayar, she is now his wife. Is it right to keep her thoughts in your heart?”

“Her venom of love had crept into my heart before she wed the Pazhuvettarayar. I knew her from before.”

“How did you know her from before?”

“It is a long story. It is late. Would you like to hear the story today?”

“Yes, Sire. I would. You have asked me to leave for Lanka tomorrow. I would like to hear your story, console you if possible, and then leave. If I do not hear the story, I would be continuously thinking about you and the mental torture you are going through, and perhaps would not be able to discharge my duty properly.”

“Hah. You are going to console me? I do not think anyone can console me, at least not in this birth.”

He heaved a long sigh, and started narrating his story.

Book 1 | Chapter 48 | Wise Counsel

img src: holidify.com

After hearing what his grandfather had to say, Aditya Karikalan stood rooted to the spot. He could not think straight. Parthibendran also stood staring into nowhere. The waves seemed to suddenly become silent.

Karikalan looked into his grandfather’s eyes and said, “Thatha, I have been hearing these rumors for a while. I did not think such things could really happen. Are you sure?”

“Why not? As per formal succession rules, Madhuranthakan has more rights to become Emperor than you.”

Parthibendran sneered back, “Never. That fool of a person. He cannot even string together four words to make a proper speech. He has never touched a sword, let alone use it. He should have been a girl, or at least that was how he was brought up.” He spat, as the uttered the last few words in rage.

Thatha, I do not care who rules over the kingdom. I can go conquer ten other kingdoms with the help of my sword. It would have been fine, if it had been announced earlier itself that Madhuranthakan was heir apparent. But, when it has been announced that I would succeed the Emperor, far and wide in the kingdom, it is not fair. Would you accept this?”

“I would never accept it. If you ever decide to give up your throne to Madhuranthakan, I would kill you, my grandson, with this very sword. And then, I will go and kill your mother, for having begotten such a son. And then I will kill myself.”

The old king’s eyes were burning as hot embers. He was trembling. “As long as I am alive, I would never accept such a thing. Never.”

Parthibendran was overjoyed. “That is more like it, Thatha. Aaha.” He hugged Malayamaan. Tears rolled down his cheeks.

“If that is how you feel, I will take our forces to Thanjavur. I will kill these vassals who are planning this coup, and bring back my father. There is no other in this world, who can survive an attack by Parthibendran and me.”

“In force, no one can beat you, Karikala. But these people are very good at creating cunning schemes. They will start rumors that a Chozha son is coming to fight a war with his own father. If the Emperor hears this, he will die of sadness. Will you be able to bear the blame of someone who killed his own father?”

“Shiva Shiva. I cannot even hear of such a situation. But then, what is the solution, Thatha?”

“I already told you. We are in a dangerous time. You should first send someone trustworthy to Lanka, and bring back Arulmozhi. It would be very difficult. Knowing Arulmozhi, he will never leave his troops behind and come back.”

Parthibendran stepped in front. “If you agree, I will go myself.”

“That is up to Karikalan to decide. But, whoever goes, will have to be careful. He should not indulge in any other act of bravado, like our friend Vandiyathevan.”

Parthibendran snapped back, “Haha, I always knew…”

The Prince cut him short and begged the old King to continue.

“I originally had some doubt about Vandiyathevan’s loyalty. I came to know that he was also in Kadambur the night of the meeting. But then, I got it confirmed that he was not part of the meeting.”

Thatha, how did you find all this out?”

“I was suspicious when I had not gotten an invitation for the event at Kadambur. So I laid a trap for one of the vassal kings — Kundrathur Kizhaar — when he was returning back to his kingdom, after the meeting. I took to him to my fort, tortured him, and got all this information.”

“Apparently Vandiyathevan and Kandanmaran are close friends from the days when they served in our army.”

“Yes, Thatha. I recall vividly that they were pretty close friends.”

“I was still not sure if Vandiyathevan was in the meeting or not, since he was still in the premises of the fort that whole night. But, I also got to know that he had gotten into a fight with Kandanmaran. This confirmed to me that Vandiyathevan could not have been part of the plot. If he was, they would not be fighting among themselves.”

“Karikala, did you hear the news that Vandiyathevan stabbed Kandanmaran in his back?”

“Impossible. You can put any blame on Vandiyathevan, but he would never stab someone in the back. And that too, never a friend.”

“What if he had found out that the close friend was part of a wicked plot?”

“Even then, he would have fought face to face, and not stabbed someone in the back. Never.”

“I admire the faith you have in your friendship, Karikala.”

“Vandiyathevan would never turn against us. I would never doubt his loyalty.”

Parthibendran also added, “I would also vouch for his loyalty. The only fault that I keep pointing out in Vandiyathevan is his weakness for a pretty face.”

Karikalan roared in laughter. “That is why I have sent him to Kundavai’s palace, after delivering my message to the Emperor. If he sees my sister, he would be enchanted and never leave that place.”

“Any news of Vandiyathevan, after he escaped from Thanjavur?”

“No. I have been waiting anxiously, but no news yet.”

“Once Arulmozhi gets here, we should get Kundavai also here. Then everything will fall in place. We should leave all the strategizing to the Princess.”

“And why is that, Thatha?”

“She is a brilliant strategist, right from her young age. She has a very sharp intellect. There are very few in this world, who can match her intellect. Do you know that our wise Chief Minister, Aniruddha Brahmaraayar himself seeks your sister’s ideas sometimes? You should not feel bad if I praise your sister. You should instead feel proud.”

“What if our friend Vandiyathevan gets enchanted by someone else before he reaches Pazhayarai? What if he meets the famed beautiful queen of Pazhuvoor?”

Karikalan spun around and shot an angry glare at Parthibendran. The Pallava warrior shuddered and kept quiet.

“Parthibendra, I am assuming you are leaving to Lanka tomorrow. You are youngsters. The two of you must have lots to talk about. I will not let an old man like me stay here any longer. I will leave to my palace.”

The old man started walking towards the chariot. The two warriors faced the sea and looked into nothingness, not saying a word.

“My friend, my king, my leader, may I ask you a question? Something seems to be bothering you. It seems to be killing you from the inside. I also gather it has something to do with the Pazhuvoor queen, Nandhini. Whenever anyone mentions Nandhini, your demeanor changes. Your eyes become fiery red. You become angry. What is the problem? How long are you going to keep this within yourself? You have said numerous times, that I am your best friend and confidant. Can’t you even open up to me? It kills me to see you suffering like this.”

Karikalan sighed.

“My friend. This suffering that I face inside of me is something that will kill me forever. It will die with me. It is not that I do not want to tell you about it. I will tell you tonight. Come, let us go with the old king. It is not wise to send him back alone.”

Book 1 | Chapter 46 | Maamallapuram

Mahabalipuram Beach Temple (img src: wondermondo)

We wish to take the reader to Maamallapuram. This port town was built by Mahendra Pallavan and Maamalla Narasimhar. Three hundred years later, the town was not the model city that the founders had planned it to be. The market places and the streets were empty. The warehouses were bare. Some of the palaces were on the brink of crumbling. The massive natural harbor had been ignored and there was so much silt deposited, that only small vessels could come into the harbor. The big ships had to anchor further away, and the goods had to be transported to land using smaller boats.

Not all was gone in this town. There continued to be some masterpieces. Most significantly, there was the beautiful stone temple on the beach. In the middle of the town was another famous Perumal temple. Thirumangai Alwar sang the praises of the reclining Perumal of this temple. The years after Thirumangai Alwar saw very little development in this town. However, there was one thing that did not diminish at all, in this beautiful harbor town — the art of sculpture. Beautiful sculptures were everywhere. This art kept the town alive with tourists swarming in to see the beautiful sculptures of chariots and kings.

On this day, three important people were riding on a chariot towards the beach to discuss important matters of the state.

Prince Aditya Karikalan was one of the bravest warriors, who had gone to war at a very young age. Having killed the Pandiya king, he had earned the title of Veerapandiya Koppara Kesari. He had been crowned heir to the throne right after the Pandiya war was won. He had expanded the Chozha kingdom significantly. He had been camping in Kanchi so that he could coordinate expansion efforts to the north of the kingdom. It was at this time that the Pazhuvettarayars started objecting to the Prince’s plans. They had suggested that the northern expansion should happen only after the war in Lanka was over. He had also heard rumors that food and supplies were not being sent properly to the warriors in Lanka. The Crown Prince had been getting very perturbed with such news.

Sitting beside him in conversation were two other warriors. One of them was Thirukovilur Malayamaan. The Emperor’s second wife, Vaanama Devi, was his daughter. He was hence, Aditya Karikalan’s grandfather. He could almost be called the Bhishmacharya of this clan, respected for his strategy and bravery. He was the Prince’s advisor. But there were still some times when the sane advice irritated the young impatient Prince.

The third person in conversation was Parthibendran. His lineage was through one of the branches of the Pallava dynasty. He was slightly older than the Crown Prince. While he did not have an opportunity to exhibit his prowess as a ruler, he made up for it with his courage on the battlefield. He was the right hand of the Crown Prince, closest confidant, and dear friend.

Aditya Karikalan was speaking, “The Pazhuvettarayars are stepping too much out of their bounds. How dare they brand my messenger warrior as a spy? They have apparently announced a reward for the one who helps in his capture. How can I stand all this? My patience is running out.”

Parthibendran spoke, “Patience is important now. I had told you earlier, not to send Vandiyathevan. He does not have that much maturity. It is not enough to just be able to wield a knife and spear. When he goes as a messenger carrying an important state message, he needs to use his intellect more.”

It was clear that Parthibendran did not favor the Crown Prince’s showing so much trust in Vandiyathevan.

“Heh. You have started again. If you do not find fault with Vandiyathevan, you will not be able to sleep peacefully. If he does not have a sharp intellect, I do not know who else has. I had asked him to personally deliver the message to the Emperor. That must have made the Pazhuvettarayar very angry. That is not Vandiyathevan’s fault.”

“He would not have just stopped at that. He must have …”

“You keep quiet, Parthibendra. Thatha, why are you so quiet? I want to know your opinion. Should we take a large force to Thanjavur and bring my father back to Kanchi? How much longer should we tolerate these foolish Pazhuvettarayars?”

Malayamaan cleared this throat to speak. They could now start seeing the waves of the sea.

Thambi, let us first get to our usual spot. I will talk after we get out of this chariot. I am getting old and feel very uncomfortable speaking while riding.”