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. 

Book 2 | Chapter 13 | Ponniyin Selvan

While the Princess’s mind was flitting between so many of these thoughts, Vaanathi’s clear thoughts were focused on only one person – Prince Arulmozhi. She was worrying about the Prince, and the potential hardships that he was facing in Lanka. She was thinking about when he would return.

While Vandhiyathevan was walking towards Maathottam, and while Nambi was narrating his experiences to Chief Minister Aniruddha Brahmaraayar, Princess Kundavai and her best friend Vanathi were nearing Thanjavur in a covered ambari atop an elephant. The Princess had not travelled to Thanjavur for a while, because of one predominant reason. Thanjavur did not have separate palaces for the ladies of the royalty. Everyone had to reside in the main palace of the Emperor. The rest of the palaces in the city had been taken over by the Pazhuvettarayars, their family, and various members of the administration.

In Pazhayarai, Princess Kundavai and her hand-maidens could come and go as they pleased from their independent palaces. Movements in Thanjavur fort were much more restricted because of security rules imposed by the Pazhuvettarayars. The Princess did not also like the attitude of the Pazhuvoor queen. It was also the wish of the ageing Emperor that the Princess stay at Pazhayarai.

However, ever since she had met Vandhiyathevan and heard his stories, she had felt very guilty about being in Pazhayarai. Her elder brother was in Thondainaadu, the younger was fighting a war in Lanka – it did not feel right not to be with her father in Thanjavur. She felt obligated to play a role in the administrative affairs of the Kingdom. The sinister plots that Vandhiyathevan had mentioned reaffirmed her decision to go to Thanjavur and be with her father. Her father’s life itself might be in danger. She guessed that several of these plots were being driven by her arch-enemy Nandini. She had to be there at Thanjavur.

There was one other reason why she had to be at Thanjavur. She had to get regular updates about Vandhiyathevan. She had heard that the Pazhuvettarayars had sent guards to capture Vandhiyathevan. If the guards were indeed successful in capturing him, they would bring him to Thanjavur. She could help reduce the sentence and perhaps even free him. The Princess also had one more thing in her mind – she had to somehow convince Kandanmaran that it was not Vandhiyathevan who had stabbed him in the back.

While the Princess’s mind was flitting between so many of these thoughts, Vanathi’s clear thoughts were focused on only one person – Prince Arulmozhi. She was worrying about the Prince, and the potential hardships that he was facing in Lanka. She was thinking about when he would return.

Suddenly, Vanathi turned towards the Princess and asked her, “Akka, you told me that you would tell me the story of how your brother got the name – Ponniyin Selvan. At the rate at which this elephant is moving, it would take a while to get to Thanjavur.”

The Princess agreed to tell the story.

When Emperor Sundara Chozhan had just come to power, the whole family used to go on cruises down the River Ponni. The yacht would be filled with happiness and laughter. The children used to be on one side of the craft, having fun, while the elders would be sitting on the other side, indulging in light banter. This used to happen on a regular basis, providing a respite from the stressful life of the Emperor.

On one such excursion, Princess Kundavai had suddenly noticed that Prince Arulmozhi was not to be found. Out of everyone in the family, Kundavai was the one who was closest to Arulmozhi. At this time,

Arulmozhi was five years of age, and Kundavai, seven. When she could not find her brother, she started shouting to attract the attention of the elders. Everyone started searching the boat, but in vain. The ladies started wailing. Some of the soldiers and the Emperor himself jumped into the water to search.

At that very moment, an amazing sight was seen. Right in front of the anchored boat, there was a lady who had the Prince raised in her arms. She was half way submerged in water. When the Emperor saw this sight, he swiftly swam to the lady, and took his child into his arms. By this time, more soldiers had reached close to him. Hands grabbed the child and pulled him on board. More people helped the Emperor to board the yacht. Once on board the yacht, the Emperor fell unconscious. In the confusion that ensued and the relief that was felt, no one remembered to look for the lady who had helped save the Prince. No one even remembered how she looked like. The lady did not come forward to claim the pride either. She just vanished.

People assumed that it was the Goddess Kaveri herself had come to the rescue of the Prince. People familiar with this incident started calling him – Ponniyin Selvan.