Following is a travelogue entry from my journal written sometime in mid 2004. I have not been able to look at it since the fateful South East Asian tsunami devastation in Dev 2004 as most of the coastal regions mentioned in this piece were ravaged by the tsunami. Today, after reading Dilip's reports about his travels on the East Coast Road(link via Anand of Locana), I finally gathered the courage to revisit this particular piece. I had originally put this down as my tribute to a beautiful novel and a great empire; I never really thought about the people who currently live in this part of the world but the recent tragedy and its aftermath makes me think that they probably are the most important.
In Chola Country:
“It was sunset and very peaceful. The waves in the sea near Kodikarai had grown calm. The catamarans and boats that had gone out in the morning were coming back. Birds that had gone out to sea in search of prey were returning to their nests. The white sand stretched quite a distance from the shoreline. Further inland was a jungle, its trees still, with not a leaf rustling. The red sun was plunging towards the spot where the sea met the sky. The few clouds that tried to make its reddish rays were themselves tinged with light” – Thus begins the second volume of Kalki’s magnum opus ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ with the author describing Vandiyathevan’s first glimpse of the eastern tip of the Chola mainland. We were greeted by almost the same sight a thousand years later when on a glorious January evening, we traveled through an extremely narrow one-lane road down the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu to reach Kodikarai.
History is a tough discipline; it requires its students to be passionate and patient. Very few of us manage to study it like it should be; even fewer interpret it objectively. More often than not, the vast majority of us get our history not from historical texts and data but from folklore and stories that have somehow managed to stand the test of time. Fact merges with fiction and we almost never know when one ends and the other begins. Probably this could explain why I got my history of the 10th century Chola Empire not from any history textbook but from a novel written by Kalki Krishnamoorthy in the 1950s.
My first recollection of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ is from when I was nine years old – my mother used to read the episodes in the Tamil magazine Kalki and narrate the story to me at dinnertime so that I would eat more than I usually do. I gobbled up exploits of the dashing Vandiyathevan and the conniving Azhwarkadiyan between mouthfuls of sambar and rice. Having never grown up in Tamil Nadu and not having learnt to read Tamil yet, I never ventured to read the story myself. Soon Vandiyathevan was replaced by the Famous Five and the girls of Malory Towers. There he remained forgotten throughout my teenage years – through Holmes and Poirot, Pip and Sidney Carton, Atticus Finch and Holden, Roark and Aragorn. Though I must say here that once or twice, Aragorn did remind me of the hero that I had heard about long ago.
And then one fine morning nearly 7 years ago, I was glancing through the Literary Supplement of “The Hindu” and met Vandiyathevan all over again. There he was on the banks of Kollidam ogling at Chola women! Apparently, to commemorate Kalki’s birth centenary Macmillan India was bringing out an English translation of the “Ponniyin Selvan’ – a five volume (the fifth is divided into two) work by C.V. Karthik Narayanan. I waited eagerly for the first volume and was probably one of the first to buy it the moment it hit the stores. Soon after I moved to the States and became yet another displaced Indian but I made my parents buy every volume as soon as it was published and ship them to me. My father, for once, was happy that his daughter was showing some interest in Tamil literature though I am sure he would rather I read it in Tamil; my mother just put it down to another case of what she calls the ‘DISDI (displaced Indian suddenly discovering India) syndrome’.
For my part, I was totally mesmerized by the book. As every person who has read this book would agree, I was magically transported to the Chola empire of thousand years ago. I was there with Vandiyathevan on his horse when he crossed into Chola country for the first time and took in the sights and smells of the land. I was there standing next to him when he overheard the conspiracy to crown the new emperor. I was there through his numerous skirmishes with Azhwarkadiyan, his various infatuations on almost every woman he meets, his travels to Thanjavur, Pazhayarai and then to Kodikarai and Eezham where he meets Ponniyin Selvan, his efforts to save Karikalan from the tragic fate that awaits him, his adventures in the dungeons of Thanjavur, his happiness at the coronation, and his reunion with Kundavai. Finally, I was with him at Manimekalai’s deathbed, his characteristic impishness drained from him, the mantle of adulthood upon his tired shoulders.
‘Ponniyin Selvan’ taught me more about the places, culture and the people of Chola land than any history book could ever have. I wanted to retrace Vandiyathevan’s footsteps; I wanted to travel where he traveled a millennium ago. I was overcome by a feeling of belonging, something that I have never felt before with respect to the Cauvery belt. The thought that for hundreds of years, the water from Ponni irrigated my forefathers’ lands, gave us the grains that enabled us to survive, and that the water still flows in my veins today gave me a totally new perspective on what Alex Haley would call ‘Roots’.
So it was in the month of January, a year and half ago, I convinced my parents that I wanted to do a quick tour of what’s left of the once mighty Chola Empire. My mother was ecstatic at the thought of her agnostic daughter actually setting out to visit one shrine after the other all through Chola land. Because that’s all what’s left of the empire today – ruined Shiva temples dotted across the land, from Thanjavur all the way up to Kanchi. Needless to say, my mother added her own list of temples to my trip – these were mostly newer temples where devotees flock to as they have all the ‘powerful’ Gods and Goddesses who easily grant all kinds of boons!
Our first stop was the Thanjavur Brihadeeshwarar temple. Enough has been described about this temple, the magnificent Nandi, the rock Gopuram, the intricate sculptures and the elephant that greets everyone at the entrance. This temple appears in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ not as an actual structure, but as a dream in young Ponniyin Selvan – he dreams about building temples in Thanjavur and all across Chola land and this particular temple was built after he took over the mantle of the Chola empire. I was very glad to see that this temple was maintained extremely well unlike other temples in Tamil Nadu. I wish the Dept of Archaeology that maintains this one would take in more temples into its fold so that we can preserve our culture and history intact. If nothing else, it would at least ensure that the rock gopurams of temples are not painted in garish green!
Next on my list was Pazhayarai – first capital of the Chola empire before they moved it to Thanjavur. In the novel, it’s the home of Kundavai, daughter of the Emperor, sister of Ponniyin Selvan, and the only woman who manages to stay in Vandiyathevan’s mind for more than a day. However there were no proper maps on how to get to Pazhayarai and no one we asked had actually heard about the place, so we promptly got lost and found ourselves close to Thiruvaiyyaru. We went into this picturesque town on the banks of the Cauvery and it looked to me as if music was in the air – there were dhoti-clad men singing hymns all across the town. One could easily believe that this was the home of the annual Thyagarajar festival. We went into the temple and saw the pillar mandapam where the festival is held. The festival has taken place sometime recently, so parts of it were still beautifully decorated. We met a priest in the temple who knew where Pazhayarai was; so we got new directions and set out again.
We passed through Dharasuram, Udayalur, and Thirukkandiyur on our way – all these towns appear in the novel. Other than the names, there’s nothing left of them now. Almost no one in these places seems to know their heritage – in a way, I felt it was better this way since they didn’t have to compare their present impoverished state to the affluence that they enjoyed in the Chola times. We finally reached Pazhayarai – it’s a small, forgotten village that no one cares about. The only thing that remains from the Chola period is a beautiful but dilapidated temple – one half of its gopuram is missing. No one does regular puja there anymore; kids play cricket inside the temple premises; an old lady tries to do what she can to keep the temple going. In front of the temple, a small signboard says ‘Vanished City: Pazahayarai’ – the only reminder of what this village once had been. O Ozymandius, King of Kings!
We spent the rest of the day visiting more temples – most of these were on my mother’s list; so there was really not much for me to see. After spending the night at my cousin’s place in Karaikal, we set out the next morning on our journey down the eastern coast. We passed the port town of Nagapattinam where the Hindu Ponniyin Selvan recuperates in a Buddhist viharam after surviving the storm in the Indian Ocean.
We finally reached Kodikarai after a four-hour journey down the coast. This landmass juts out into the sea making a horseshoe shape. The forest mentioned in the novel exists and it is a famous bird sanctuary now. We saw the lighthouse that helped Poonkuzhali find her way back more than once. There were some fishermen’s huts along the beach and the boats were just returning. We talked to a fisherman who offered to take us for a boat ride in the ocean. We refused as it was getting rather late and the sun was about to set. Of all the places that I had seen, only Kodikarai seemed unchanged, it looks the same as it would have looked a thousand years ago; exactly how the author describes it! As we started towards the car, I turned back one last time to see if I could find Poonkuzhali’s boat. There was no cradle-like boat that I could see. It was only in my imagination that I could hear her singing in her melancholy voice:
“When the ocean waves lie still,
Why do the waves of the mind churn?
When Mother Earth lies fast asleep
Why does the heart skip a beat?
The birds of the forest wing to their nests
As archer and hunter seek their rest
As land and sky lie steeped in silence
Why does a storm blow in a beauty’s heart?
Clouds billow not and the wind is a soft breeze
Then why does a whirlwind swirl in a maiden’s heart?”