Book 2 | Chapter 29 | Thambalai
About 2000 years ago, that is, about 1000 years before the time when this story happened, there was a king named Valaham Bahu. During his time too, Tamizh forces had invaded this land. Driven out of his kingdom, he hid in a cave in a nearby mountain called Thambalai (present day Dambulla). After a few months, he raised a force and recaptured Anuradhapuram.
He then went on to pay homage to Buddha in the cave that had given him protection. He got sculptors to sculpt all kinds and sizes of Buddha statues and placed them in the cave. For some reason, the sculptors never felt satisfied. They then went on to sculpt some Hindu Gods and placed them in between the Buddha statues. These beautiful carvings can still be found in the rock temples of Dambulla in Sri Lanka.
Vandhiyathevan felt refreshed when he saw the sights around. It was a typical pilgrimage centre. Pilgrims were buying fresh flowers from vendors and walking towards the cave temples. Several Buddhist monks in ochre robes were to be seen there.
“Vaishnavare, we just saw Parthibendran return from this place. So, I guess, the Prince is not here. Why are we here now?”
“Thambi, I still believe that the Prince is here somewhere. I will decide otherwise only after searching myself.”
Nambi went towards a vendor, asked him something, and returned.
“Nambiyaare, did you get any information?”
“Apparently they are expecting two Chinese travellers. That is why the town is abuzz with activity.”
“Where are they coming from?”
“They had gone to Simhagiri yesterday and are returning today. They must have gone to Simhagiri to see the beautiful cave paintings on top of the mountain fort there. Ah. Look!”
Vandhiyathevan looked in the direction that Alwarkadiyaan Nambi pointed. There was a majestically-decorated elephant trundling down the main road. There were two people in the ambari on top of the elephant. The people did look like the Chinese tourists. There was a mahout, leading the elephant.”
Vandhiyathevan and Nambi moved to the side of the street as the elephant passed them. Vandhiyathevan was indeed impressed with the devotion of these two tourists who had travelled so far to make this pilgrimage.
“Did you see what I saw?”
“Nambiyaare, I think I saw what you saw too.”
“What did you see?”
“The Chinese travellers had a flat face. Their clothes were very different from ours.”
“Humph. Did you see the mahout?”
“No. Why should I?”
Nambi shook his head. “Did you not see the roving eyes of the mahout? Did you not notice the glimpse of recognition when he saw us?”
“No. How would the mahout know us?”
“I do not know whether to point out your irresponsible nature, or of the beautiful Princess who gave you this important task. Come with me.”
They followed the gathering of people who followed the elephant, which came to a stop outside the main Buddha Vihara in the centre of the town. The two tourists went into the Vihara amidst the holy chants of “Buddham Charanam Gacchaami”. The entire crowd of people that had followed the elephant also went into the Vihara. The mahout walked over to some men in the side and handed over the elephant to one of them. He called out to another and pointed in the direction of Alwarkadiyaan Nambi and whispered something in his ear. The mahout and two others quickly turned into a nearby street and vanished.
The person to whom the mahout had whispered something, came over to Vandhiyathevan and Nambi.
“Are you willing to come with me?”
“I was waiting for you to call me.”
Nambi showed a ring with the Kodumbalur insignia.
“Please follow me.”
Vandhiyathevan and Nambi followed the man through a narrow forest path, which eventually led to a small clearing in the woods, where there was an old dilapidated mandapam. The man asked him to wait for a little while. He then climbed up a tree and started observing the path in which they had come.
“Nambiyaare, I do not understand one bit of what is going on.”
“You will soon know.”
Vandhiyathevan noticed two horses tied to the tree near where they were standing. He tried as much as possible to try and remember the face of the mahout, but could not remember anything. His attention had been on the Chinese travellers. He was getting a little worried.
“Nambiyaare, can you not tell me who the mahout was? Is it the Ponniyin Selvar?”
“I think so.”
“But I thought you said that Simhagiri was under the hold of the enemy?”
“Yes. I did say that. I would think that the Prince went to see the beautiful cave paintings of Simhagiri.”
“Is that not dangerous? Would not the people here recognise him?”
“The people here would not recognise him. Did you not notice that everyone’s attention – including yours – was on the Chinese travellers? I hear that he also went to several other ancient pilgrimage centres with these travellers – some deep into enemy territory.”
“Oh. I am pretty disappointed. Is that not very careless of a Prince? Is this the same Prince that the entire kingdom speaks so highly of? Is this the same guy that the Kudandhai Josiyar said would become the most powerful ruler in this part of the country?”
“Oh. Did the Josiyar say so?”
“Yes, he did. Do you believe in astrology?”
“No, I do not. I do not have a need to believe in astrology. I know it. If you interact with the Prince, you will feel it too.”
Suddenly, there was the sound of horses. The man on the look-out on the tree jumped down. He unleashed the horses and handed over the reins of one of the horses to Nambi, and got on to the other.
“Sir, very soon, there will be a few horses that will go by this path. We should follow the horses.”
Vandhiyathevan interrupted, “What about me?”
“Ayya, I have orders only to bring this man.”
“I have a very important message for the Prince.”
Nambi responded, “Thambi, please be patient. I will go and make arrangements for someone to come and get you.”
“But, my message is very important, and needs to be delivered as soon as possible.”
“Then, give me the scroll. I will deliver it.”
“No. I cannot do that. I have orders to deliver it personally.”
Vandhiyathevan was also worried to let Nambi meet the Prince alone. He had instructions from the Kodumbalur General to keep an eye on him.
The sound of the horses grew very near. The two men got on to their horses and got ready to ride.
Soon three horses were visible. As the horses passed by, Vandhiyathevan pulled down the nearby man from his horse. Before anyone realised, he was on top of the horse and flew behind the three horses. Nambi followed close. The man screamed, unsheathed his knife and threw it at Vandhiyathevan. Vandhiyathevan ducked and rode with this body crouched close to the horse’s back. The horse was a good one. It flew with the wind.
“Thambi, that was good work.”
But Vandhiyathevan did not respond.
They followed at a respectable distance behind the three horses through a narrow forest trail.