Book 1 | Chapter 45 | Stealer of Hearts

Gangai konda Chozhapuram — pic src: navrangindia.blogspot.com

The next morning, the sun was shining bright, warming up the front verandah of the Princess’s palace. An elephant with a howdah came and stood near the entrance. Kundavai and Vaanathi climbed up a flight of stairs and got into the howdah.

The elephant trundled slowly towards the Paranthaka Chozha Hospital. The heavy footsteps and the sound of the small bell around its neck was enough to get people off its way. The mahout walked briskly next to the elephant. The onlookers paid their respects when they saw the two ladies on top of the elephant. They thundered down the street and passed through the cantonment area. There were roosters, sheep, pet dogs tied to the front of the houses. Young boys were playing pretend war with bamboo sticks. There were pictures of wars and fighting on the verandah walls of the houses. There was general commotion when the elephant passed through the streets.

There were several who hailed the Princess and the Emperor. Some people followed the elephant. At the end of the road was the hospital. Princess Kundavai had established this hospital for the sake of the families whose men-folk were part of the army. Several of them were fighting in Eezhanaadu at this moment. She had built the hospital using her own funds and had named it after her ancestor.

Whenever the Princess came to the hospital, she would enquire about the wellness of these people.

“I hope the hospital is being helpful. Are the doctors coming regularly? Are there enough medicines available?”

There was general agreement among the public that the hospital was being very useful. Several people came forward and shared anecdotes of how the hospital was being helpful.

“It fills me with happiness, that our ancestors have specialized in medicine, and that the doctors here are able to use the knowledge to help all of you.”

Someone shouted, “Make way for the Chief Doctor.”

The aged doctor came forward and paid his respects to the Princess.

“Chief Doctor, you were saying you wanted someone to go to Kodikkarai and get some medicinal herbs. I had sent a warrior for the same. Did he come and meet you?”

“Yes, Princess. That perky young man has come. I will send my son with him. My son can bring back the herbs, while the warrior can leave for Lanka from there.”

“Do you need medicines from Lanka as well?”

“Oh yes. If you remember, when Lakshmana was hurt, in the Ramayana, Hanuman went to get the Sanjeevani Mountain. Hanuman is said to have crossed the seas to Lanka at Kodikkarai, and hence some medicinal herbs are available there. Since the Sanjeevani Mountain itself is in Lanka, there are several more herbs that we can get there. If only I can get the medicines that I want from Lanka, I think I can cure the Emperor completely.”

“Where are the two young men now?”

They are inside, getting ready for the journey. They wanted to meet you before they left.

Vandiyathevan was dressed in a different kind of attire, to not attract attention.

“Are you the person who agreed to go to Lanka and get the medicines for the doctor?”

Vandiyathevan’s eyes met hers. “Yes, Princess. I am the one.”

“I may even get to meet the Prince there. Is there any message that you want me to give him?”

“Yes. Please tell him that the Kodumbalur Princess Vaanathi has still not been cured of her sickness. She still keeps fainting often. And if the Prince wants to see her in good health, he should come immediately and see her.”

“I will pass on the message.”

Vaanathi blushed red. “Please do not tell him that. Tell the Prince that Princess Kundavai has been taking care of Vaanathi very well.”

“I will pass on this message as well.”

Kundavai was amused. “How will you pass on both the messages? One of them is the truth and the other is not.’

“Princess, I will pass on both the messages, and I will leave it to the Prince to figure out which is the truth.”

The Princess looked at the doctor, “Have the official scrolls that I had asked for, arrived?”

“Yes, Princess. Two scrolls have been received. One official scroll states that these two warriors are going on official business for collecting herbs for the Emperor, and that any and every one should ensure safe passage for them. The second scroll is specifically addressed to the Kodikkarai lighthouse keeper. I have handed over the scrolls to them.”

“It is all settled, then. I think you should leave right away.”

Princess Kundavai and Vaanathi headed towards the elephant. Vandiyathevan and the doctors’ son headed towards two royal horses, rearing up and raring to go.

Kundavai gave some last minute information about some dangers that Vandiyathevan could possibly face on the way. And the two parties parted ways.

The warriors mounted the horses. He turned and took a last look at the Princess. He kicked the horse into a quick gallop.

Kundavai smiled and wondered how her heart had gone out to this smart young warrior.

Akka, what are you thinking about?”

“I was thinking about this arrogant warrior. I am even wondering why I chose him to deliver a message to my brother.”

“Yes. He seems to be a big thief too.”

“Why are you calling him a thief, and that too a big one?”

“Normal thieves steal gold and silver. This big thief is attempting to steal the heart of the Princess of the Chozha kingdom.”

The two ladies laughed heartily. “Nothing like that will happen.”

On the way back to the palace, there was a group of women who wished to speak to the Princess.

As the elephant came to a stop, one of them stepped forward and said, “Princess, we have no information about how our troops are doing in Lanka. We also hear that the Thanjavur leaders have not been sending food for them. Without food, how will our warriors fight?”

“Do not worry. Food is being shipped to them from Maamallapuram. Also, do you think your Prince Arulmozhi will keep quiet if he comes across such happenings? He will never let such a thing happen.”

The elephant continued towards the palace.

Book 1| Chapter 41 | Sembiyan Maadevi

Ten-Kurangu-Aduthurai temple — Renovated by Sembiyan Maadevi (img src gcmouli.com)

A master temple architect from Maamallapuram stepped up next and exhibited the miniature model of a temple. He explained how this was a new and unique temple construction. He expressed his desire to utilize this design for each of the 276 paadal-petra-sthalam temples, where the three main Shaivite saints had sung the Devarams.

The Royal Matron, Sembiyan Maadevi looked at the person standing next to Nambi and nodded her agreement.

“Eesana Shiva Bhattare, do you see how beautiful this temple design is? We should definitely do this. This has been my life purpose. If only, my husband had not turned northwards and headed towards Kailasam, I could have done so much more.”

The priest replied, “What is different now, O Matron? The Chakravarthy has ordered that all of your wishes be fulfilled without any question. The two princes are even more eager to ensure that your wishes are carried out.”

“Even then, my enthusiasm is dying down. I am hearing murmurs; some people feel that my temple building initiatives are affecting the Kingdom’s treasury. Apparently some are even asking why there should be so many temples for Lord Shiva. I do not care for public opinion, but from the Prince in Kanchi?”

Alwarkadiyaan Nambi stepped forward and said, “I am also one of those who question such.”

“Oh Mother, I disagree with this as well. You, of all people, should not be part of this.”

Eesana Shiva Bhattar interjected, “Oh Royal Matron, please forgive my brother Thirumalai. Sometimes, he gets emotional like this. I would like to apologize on his behalf.”

In those times, the division between Shaivites and Vaishnavites had not happened. In the same family, some could be staunch Shaivites, some could be staunch Vaishnavites, and yet others could worship both the Lords. Eesana Shiva Bhattar was one of those. As a priest, he took care of the Shiva and Vishnu temples.

“Thirumalai, calm down and speak your mind.”

“You build so many temples for that God who roams around with a skull in his hand. But for the great Lord who has saved the people of the Earth so many times, you have not raised any temple. Could you at least not renovate any of the olden temples?”

At this, Thirumalai’s cousin retorted, “For the great Cosmic Dancer, we need to build grand temples and mandapams. For a Lord who is always sleeping on his snake bed, why should one raise grand temples? He just needs a small dark room without a light.”

“Anna, the same sleeping Lord was the one who measured the Earth, Heavens, and Mahabali’s head in three giant steps.”

“But, the same God found it so difficult to find our Lord’s feet. He had to dig so deep into the ground just to get his blessings.”

Sembiyan Maadevi interrupted this verbal duel with a vibrant laugh.

“Stop, stop this bickering. Thirumalai, no one has said, we should not build or renovate Vishnu temples. Please tell me clearly which temple you are referring to.”

“Recently I had been to Veeranarayanapuram. Your father-in-law, the great Paranthaka Chakravarthy built a massive Vishnu temple there. The Vishnu over there stands guard”, and he looked at his cousin with disdain,” without sleeping, over the large Veeranarayana tank. The brick walls of the temple seem to be falling apart. I request you to please renovate that into a stone temple.”

“Yes. We can renovate this temple. Please stay and give me more details.”

She looked at the others and bid them to excuse themselves. The whole hall emptied out, except for the Matron and the Veera Vaishnavar.

“Thirumalai, what else did you see and hear during your pilgrimage? There must be some important things you want to tell me. Else, you would not have gotten my attention in such a manner a while ago.”

“Yes, Oh Queen. You started to say something about the Prince in Kanchi. I had to stop you. We have no idea about the people who were present in the hall then. There could even be spies in the midst.”

The old Queen sighed. “Yes. It has come to a point where members within the family have started doubting each other — even Prince Aditya Karikalan. There was a time, when he used to love me, even more than his mother. That is not true anymore. I should have perhaps left this Earth, along with my husband. I asked, but he asked me to stay back.”

“Oh Queen, it is the good fortune of this land, that you are here to guide us all.”

She sighed again and looked forlorn into the distance. “My own son has started to not listen to my words. Who else will?”

She looked at Nambi again, “You said, there are spies here. Who do you think could have sent spies? Aditya Karikalan?”

Nambi started to narrate a meeting that he had overheard. “It was in the stone temple at Maamallapuram. Three of them were present — the Crown Prince, Thirukovilur Malayamaan, and Pallavan Parthibendran. In the darkness, I was hiding behind a pillar and listening. They were claiming that the Pazhuvettarayars and your son Madhuranthakan have kept the Emperor imprisoned in his own palace in Thanjavur. Malayamaan was saying that you could also be involved in this.”

“They were planning to take an army to Thanjavur to bring back the Emperor by force. The Prince intervened at this time, and mentioned that one more attempt should be made to bring back the Emperor without a war. They decided to send a messenger to Thanjavur.”

“I know that messenger. He is a very smart warrior. He is not only a messenger, but well versed in the art of espionage. I met him and tried getting information from him. This warrior was so smart that, not only did he not divulge any information, but he was trying to get information out of me. The Kudandhai astrologer also tried, but in vain. I heard that he succeeded in delivering the message to the Emperor.”

The Queen who was listening to all of this intently asked, “And then what happened? Did the Emperor give any reply message?”

“Apparently, the Emperor told him that he would give a reply the next day. But during this time, the Pazhuvettarayars started doubting this young man. On noticing this, the young man slipped and escaped from the famed Chinna Pazhuvettarayar’s fort guards. He is now on the run.”

“Hmm. If he was able to do all this, he is definitely a very wise man. There is no doubt.”

She sensed that there was more that Nambi had to say. “Where else did you go from Kanchi?”

“I was on the way here. But, on the way, in Veeranarayanapuram, by Lord Vishnu’s grace, I got to know about another secret.”

She exclaimed, “One more secret?”

“Yes. There was a meeting that was being organized that night in the Kadambur fort. All the vassal kings were there, including Periya Pazhuvettarayar. He was accompanied by his young wife’s palanquin.”

The Matron’s voice was now laced with deep sorrow. “It is all because of her — the current state of affairs in the Chozha Kingdom. It is all because of her. Did you meet her?”

“No. I could not. I tried. The fact that I raised her as a sister makes my blood boil. I had such high expectations of her.”

“What else happened in Kadambur?”

“When I knew that she was headed to Kadambur, I pursued. I wanted to somehow meet her. I climbed the outer walls of the Kadambur fort. There was a meeting with the vassals happening in the courtyard. This was where I learnt the secret.”

Nambi paused for a while.

“Thirumalai, go on. I am listening.”

“Pardon me, your Highness. But I feel very hesitant to even say it.”

Nambi somehow got to his senses, and said in a low hushed voice. “We all thought that Pazhuvettarayar was taking his Queen in the palanquin. We were all wrong. It was not the Queen.”

Nambi stumbled over his words, and could not get himself to say it.

“It was your son, Madhuranthaka Thevar.”

Sembiyan Maadevi could not believe what she had just heard. Her face paled. The sorrow in her eyes deepened.

Nambi continued to narrate what had happened in the courtyard in Kadambur. He told her about the secret plan and the support of the vassals of the kingdom.

She felt ashamed for her son. She buried her face in her arms and wept.

She wiped her tears and turned to Nambi.

“Thirumalai, please see me once before you go. I want to talk to Kundavai and see what we can do in this situation.”

“Would you need to tell the Princess about this, Oh Queen?”

“Do you doubt her also?”

“Isn’t that natural? Kundavai is very close to Prince Aditya Karikalan.”

“I have supreme faith in the Princess. I would never doubt her intentions, Thirumalai.”

“Did the Princess tell you about her visit to the Kudandhai astrologer? Did she tell you about the Vaanarkula warrior that she met during the journey?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“The warrior that the Princess met is the same messenger-spy that Aditya Karikalan has sent. There must be something that the Princess knows, but has not shared with you.”

“I do not suspect her of anything. If she has not told me of something, there must be a reason.”

Nambi bowed low and wished to be excused. He said, “The Princess wanted to see me as well. I will let her know that you wanted to meet her.”

Book 1 | Chapter 40 | Pazhayaarai

Mandapam in ruins near Patteeswaram temple. (img src: gcmouli.com)

Before we get to Vandiyathevan’s entry into Pazhayarai, the reader is invited to get a brief glimpse of this beautiful city. It was one of the finest cities in the Chozha land filled with grand temples like Thirusakthimutram and Patteeswaram. It was a planned city with segregated areas for soldiers, traders, merchants, and royalty. Palaces were grand and the streets were wide.

After the Emperor had left for Thanjavur, the visits of royalty from other nations had decreased. Half of the soldiers were in Lanka. The remaining were in the northern frontier. Hence, the roads were relatively empty.

It seemed like today was a festival of sorts. There were skits and plays happening on the side of the roads. Most of these plays were depicting Lord Krishna’s stories. Ah, it was Shree Jayanthi — Lord Krishna’s birthday. There was general festivity all around.

In the middle of all this, Vandiyathevan heard a familiar voice singing the Alwar Paasuram. Aha, it was Alwarkadiyaan Nambi. There was a group that was beginning to form around the man.

He also noticed a line of chariots waiting outside the Vinnagaram Perumal temple.

A group of royal ladies were coming out of the temple towards their chariots. There was Sembiyan Maadevi, the widow of the great Chozha King Kandaraaditha. The Royal Matron had a majestic aura about her. Behind her came Arunjaya Chozhan’s wife, Queen Kalyani. She was the current Emperor Sundara Chozhan’s mother. The Emperor definitely got his looks from his mother. After that came one of Sundara Chozhan’s wives, Paranthaka Devi. And then came, Princess Kundavai, Vaanathi, and several of her hand-maidens.

While the Chozhas had traditionally been staunch worshipers of Lord Shiva and Goddess Durga, the royal family did not have any animosity towards Lord Vishnu and his followers. The royal ladies had come to the Vishnu temple today on account of Shree Jayanthi. Just at the time when Sembiyan Maadevi was about to step into her chariot, she noticed Alwarkadiyaan Nambi, who seemed to be singing louder than before, just to attract her attention.

The Royal Matron gestured for one of the guards to get Nambi closer to her. Nambi approached the chariot and paid his respects.

“Thirumalai, it has been a while since I last saw you. Had you been on a pilgrimage?”

“Yes, Royal Matron. Tirupati, Kanchi, and Veeranarayanapuram were some of the places I had been to.”

“Hmm. Come to my palace tomorrow, and tell me about all that you saw and heard during your pilgrimage.”

Nambi hesitated and said, “I need to leave tonight.”

“Then, I will expect you in the evening.”

Nambi bowed low and excused himself.

Nambi’s eyes met with Kundavai’s. Through her eyes, she expressed her intention to meet him as well. Nambi expressed his approval by bending his head low and showing his respect.

Sembiyan Maadevi’s palace was the biggest and lay in the center of the royal complex. In the middle of the hall where she met people, there was a large golden throne studded with precious gems. On it sat the Royal Matron swathed in a simple white silk sari. The only ornament that she wore was a rudraksha necklace. She had bright sacred ash smeared on her forehead. She represented the ultimate example of humble piety coexisting with opulent royalty. The aura around here was due to her personality, rather than her beauty.

Such a lady was now facing some confusion. Her son, Madhuranthakan had wed the Chinna Pazhuvettarayar’s daughter, against her wishes. She was also getting news from various quarters that he was beginning to have a desire to ascend the throne. The Royal Matron had raised her son in a pious way, hoping that he would never come to this very decision. She raised him to be a Shiva Bhaktan away from all the royal activities. She had not wanted any confusion on who should ascend the throne. She had already made up her mind that one of Sundara Chozhan’s sons would be the heir to the throne.

It was normal that Sembiyan Maadevi’s meeting hall was always full of temple sculptors, Devaram singers, poets, and temple priests. Today was no different. Temple priests put forward requests for renovating temples. One of them was the priest of Mazhapaadi.

The Matron asked about the history of the temple.

“O Matron, this temple was the one where Lord Shiva called out to Sundaramoorthy Swamigal. Sundarar was about the cross the river near the town, when he heard Lord Shiva calling out to him — ‘Did you forget to meet me here?’ Sundarar immediately went behind the clump of Konnai trees from where the voice came from, and found a small Shiva temple. It is here that he composed the famous ‘Ponnaaar Meniyane’ song.”

“The temple still remains small. We request you to help in renovating it.”

“Yes. We will begin renovating this temple soon.”

Alwarkadiyaan watched all of this intently from the corner of the hall.