After 4 years in South India, THE GUILT of not knowing enough about its History, Culture and of barely having any basic knowledge of it’s languages, almost overwhelms you. And you finally resolve that this cannot continue. How is it that you know more about the English Kings than the Travancore ones. How is it that you have unlimited admiration for the Vikings but know next to nothing about the Chola(Chozha) Empire, which was the greatest naval power in South Asia at its peak.
How is it, pray tell, that you consider yourself in love with history and stories, when you barely have any knowledge about one of the longest ruling dynasties of India, or of the three crowned kings of Tamilkam. How is it my dear dear man, that you have never tried reading about Ponniyin Selvan(~Beloved Son of the river Ponni) Raja Raja Chola I, who united almost all of South India under his Tiger flag. And under whose son, The empire stretched as far as Indonesia.
No, this slight has to be corrected, and as you have an insatiable thirst for fiction, what better way to impart on this discovery of the southern lands and kings than by following one of the most celebrated Tamil authors Kalki Krishnamurthy , and his magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan, translated (blessedly!) by Pavithra Srinivasan (yes, a translated version, yes I know it won’t be the same thing, but give me a break huh!, I am trying here.)
3.5/5 Stars GoodReads Rating System
Its the late 10th century, our hero ‘Vandiyathevan’, a dashing warrior of the prestigious Vaanar clan has been given an important mission by his leader and dear friend the crown prince of the great Chola empire, Aditya Karikalan. And so, our hero departs from Kanchi towards the capital Thanjavur on his adventurous journey through the Chola empire.
The story Kalki weaves is marvelous and as I have just started (one of five), I eagerly look forward to the others. An epic is not an epic unless it combines almost all the possible genres of fiction in one fine intricate tale. And that, this marvel written in the 1950s does splendidly, it has mystery, of conspiracies being hatched against the empire and its current rulers, the threat of invasion by enemy forces, romance with woman equated to celestial nymphs, thrill of a fast paced chase, and the glory of an adventurous & exploratory journey across the proud and plentiful Chola Empire, with cities bustling with people and produce, temples and palaces to shame even the heavens, and greenery and rivers at their brimming best. The Romance in Kalki’s writing is palpable. The story undeniably invokes a sense of pride, “This was Glorious, This time, This age, These places, These achievements, This was Us, Our Ancestors Did This” the book almost seems to say. Me, being from Northern India, still had an urge to join in the “Vaazhga vaazgha!” chants of the people wishing “Long lives” to the Chozha emperor, the Chozha empire and the Tiger flag. Quite a rosy picture indeed, the comparison he draws between the Chozha princesses and celestial nymphs like Urvashi, Menaka, Rambha etc etc brought a smile to my face, ‘with skin as smooth as marble, as fragrant as sandalwood and lips as soft as lotus petals’, I mean, Goddamn this man had flair.
The story had many dynamics, and needless to say many interesting characters. The one disadvantage (among many) I had was of, not knowing the Tamil tongue, and thus I missed out on the various Tamil songs and prayers recanted in this story. Of the ones, that were duly translated, I understood but I missed out on the word play that must have been in their chaste Tamil version. And the names, oh Gods, the names, such complicated names (or so it seemed to me, again, not a Tamil speaker) like “Periya Pazhuvettarayar” or “Azhwarkardiyan Nambi”, again and again I went to my Tamil speaking friends, seeking clarifications and correct pronunciations (unsuccessfully I am sad to say, oh well). Another aspect that Intrigued me was the bit about religious tension, this was 10th Century, Allah and Jesus had yet to enter South Indian politics, Hindu deities ruled supreme in people’s mind, but that is no reason for them not to fight among st themselves, oh no sir, so they fought over who is more strong and supreme “Lord Shiva” or “Lord Vishnu”. The arguments between Shaivites and Vaishnavites, made me roll my eyes more than once.
And now to Pavithra Srinivasan, She I hope, had done as much justice to Kalki’s writing as she could. This I have to believe, as the words I have read, I assume, are as close to his as they can be in English. The book is well written and only Tamil speakers might be able to find possible trouble, I as a neutral party found nothing to complain about.
This is a worthwhile series to follow, specially if you are an Indian or South Asian, these are stories that are lost to other stories, they are there but ignored, looked over. The only mention that I could remember about Cholas, Cheras, Pallavas and Pandayas were about their architectural marvels, the legacies that they left in stone which the world couldn’t ignore were the only ones that found mention. Why, even that legacy is eroding, save a few temples which are maintained and looked after. So, lets go back to their stories I say, lets go back to the court intrigue of the south. This historical fiction written in 1950’s should be picked by every reader across the length and breadth of this country, because along with imparting the pleasure of a well written historical fiction, it serves a greater purpose, it keeps these stories alive, it keeps the wonder of the south for all to experience.