Next morning, the King summoned his daughter to his chambers after bidding his servants, bodyguards, handmaidens and the physicians to stay away. He asked Kundavai to sit next to him on the bed to talk confidentially but she could sense that he was struggling for words.
“Appa! Are you angry with me?” asked Kundavai.
Her words brought tears in his eyes and he asked, “Why would I be angry with you, child?”
“I came here ignoring your commands.”
“Yes. You ought not to have come here. This Thanjavur Palace is not the right place for young girls like you. It is quite obvious from last night’s incident.”
“What incident are you referring to, Appa?
“I am referring to that Kodumbalur girl fainting near my chambers? How is she feeling now?”
“She is fine now, appa. She has fainted many times like this in Pazhaiarai.”
“Did you ask her Kundavai? Did she tell you why she fainted? Did she hear or see anything in this palace?”
Kundavai thought for a while before answering her father and said, “Yes. She said that she wanted to go the terrace but lost her way and ended up near your chambers by mistake. She said that she heard someone moaning in fear and pain which scared her to death.”
“I also thought so. Now do you realize, dear daughter, a ghost haunts this Thanjavur Palace. I don’t want you to stay here. Leave this place at once,” Said Sundara Chola and his eyes were fixated at a distant place and his body shivered in fear.
Noting this with alarm, Kundavai said, “If that is so father, why do you and mother have to stay here? Why don’t you come back to Pazhaiarai? I don’t think your health has improved by any measure after shifting here.”
Hearing her words, the king smiled bitterly and said, “My health is not going to improve. I have no such hope,”
“Appa! Please do not lose hope. The head physician at Pazhaiarai says that he can cure you completely,”
“And you believed him and sent some men to Elangai to get medicinal herbs. I heard about it. Your actions attest to your affection,”
“Is that wrong father?”
“No. I am fortunate to have a daughter like you. There is nothing wrong in you sending people to Elangai to get herbs for me. However I do know one thing for sure, even if you get medicines from Elangai or some other island or even from Indra’s Devalogam (Heaven), my health is not going to improve…”
“Ayyo! Don’t say that father?”
“You came here despite my commands, dear daughter. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me…for many days, I have been wanting to tell someone this truth. I will not get this opportunity again. Listen to me! If my illness was related to my physical body, then the medicines would work but they won’t work on those who are sick in the heart and mind. I don’t think there is any medicine for a worried heart…”
“Dear Father! You rule over the three worlds. What are you worried of?”
“Child! You are quoting the poets who would hail me as the king of the three worlds! I am not the king of the three worlds! I am not even a king of one world. I rule over a very small portion of land in the world. When I can’t bear the burden of this small portion of the world, dare I hope to rule over three worlds?”
“Father! Why would you want to bear the burden of the kingdom? You have two valiant sons who are peerless warriors. Let them bear the burden of this kingdom…
“Child! That’s what worries me day and night. Your brothers are valiant warriors indeed but if I hand the burden of kingdom to them, I will not be doing the right thing. There is a deadly curse on this kingdom that they will inherit from me…”
“Father! What is this you keep referring to? How can there be a curse on a kingdom that had kings like Sibi who offered his flesh for a pigeon or King Manu who sought to sacrifice his heir and son to give justice to a cow. Our ancestors were the peerless warriors like Karikala Vallavan and Perunar Killi and Vijayalaya Chola who bore 96 deadly wounds to save this kingdom. Aditya Chola built over 108 temples along the banks of River Cauvery and your own grandfather Paranthaka Cholar gave away gold to build a roof for Chithambaram. Your uncle Kandarathidhar was a king not unlike the Dharma in the Mahabharatha. How could you call such a kingdom cursed, father? It’s your health that is troubling you, father. If you leave this fort and come back to…”
“Do you know what would happen if I leave this fort? Do you think I am happy to stay here in this fort away from the beautiful gardens of Pazhaiarai? Kundavai! My presence in this fort is the only thing that is keeping this Chola Kingdom from disintegrating. Did you see what happened at the play yesterday? I was watching it from the balcony. I had a mind to stop it in the middle…”
“But father, why? I thought that the play was well enacted. I felt so proud to see the valiant acts of my ancestors. Why did you want to stop it in the middle? Which part of the part did you dislike?”
“The play was indeed well enacted, child. I had no complaints about it however I was not pleased with the actions of the audience. Did you not notice how the audience took sides with Pazhuvetrayars and Kodumbalur Vellar and shouted their support?”
“Yes. I did father.”
“If they have the temerity to act thus even when I am here, what do you think would happen if I were to leave? The minute I leave Thanjavur, a deadly skirmish would break out between these two clans and just as Lord Krishna’s Yadava clan was destroyed, our kingdom too would be doomed.”
“Father! You are the Chakravarthi. Whether it is Pazhuvetrayars or the Vellars, they are bound by their holy oath to follow your orders. If they don’t, they will be destroyed by their own hand. You don’t have to be unduly worried about…”
“Child! Both these clans have been the backbone of our kingdom. They have supported us in countless wars and battles. If they destroy themselves, it is but natural that the kingdom will become weak.”
“Father! If it is known that one of these clans is involved in a plot against the kingdom and you…”
Sundra Cholar looked at Kundavai with surprise and asked, “What are you saying Child? Who is plotting against me?”
“Appa! There are people whom you trust implicitly in this kingdom but sadly it is they who have turned against you and your sons… they are involved in a secret plot against you. They want to deprive your sons of their right and crown somebody else as the king.”
“Who? Whom do they want to crown?” asked the king hurriedly
Kundavai lowered her voice and said softly, “They want to crown my uncle Madhuranthakan as the next king. Ever since you have become incapacitated by your illness, these people have been hatching this plot…”
The king suddenly sat up and said, “If only their plot was successful…how wonderful it would be”
Shocked by his words, Kundavai said, “Father! How can you say such a thing? Would you turn against your own sons?”
“No. I am not trying to turn against my own sons. I wish to do them good. I don’t want this cursed kingdom to go to my sons. If only Madhuranthakan would agree to ascend the throne…”
“Why wouldn’t he agree? He is more than ready to ascend the throne. Are you going to give this kingdom to him? Won’t you speak to my brother about this decision of yours?”
“Yes. I will need to speak to Aditya Karikalan about it. And not only him, we need to ask Sembiyan Madevi’s permission as well…”
“If the son is going to inherit a kingdom will the mother say ‘no’?”
“Even after all these years of staying with your grandmother, you still have not known her well. Years ago, I ascended the throne only because of Sembiyan Madevi’s insistence. It was she who pushed me to crown Aditya Karikalan as the heir apparent and crown prince. Child! Your grandmother loves you as much as her own daughter, you can sway her heart and get her to agree for Madhuranthakan’s ascension as the next king.”
Stunned by his words, Kundvai could only look at him speechless.
“After you speak to her, go to Kanchi and convince your brother to give up this cursed kingdom. Let us crown Madhuranthakan as the next king. Only then, we will be relieved from this curse…”
“Appa! What is this curse that you keep referring to?”
“Child! Do you believe in past life memories? Some people remember things from their past life and recount it accurately. Do you believe in it?”
“Father! I have no opinion about it as I do not know anything about it.”
“They say that Mahavishnu took ten avatars and Buddha was the last avatar. There are many beautiful stories about him.”
“Yes. I have heard about them.”
“I keep wondering when Gods can have different avatars, why can’t a man remember his past life?”
“It is possible, appa!”
“I remember many things from my past life, child. I haven’t spoken about it to anyone so far. Even if I did, no one would believe it and nor would they understand it. They would say that this paralysis has affected my mind as well and would bring magicians along with the physicians to cure me.”
“You are right father. Even now, many are saying that your mind is not alright…”
“See? I was right. But I hope you wouldn’t think of me as ‘mad’. I hope you will not laugh at me.”
“Do you have to ask, father? Don’t I know how distressed you are? Would I laugh at you, ever?”
“I know child. That’s why I have decided to reveal certain things in my past life. Listen to me…”
There was a beautiful island, green and lush with pristine sands and emerald greenery all around. A young warrior was hiding behind a large bush and was watching the beach intently. At some distance, one could see a large ship sailing away… The soldier watched the ship until it disappeared from his line of sight and then stood up saying, “Thank God!”
That young warrior was of royal lineage but he had no claim on the kingdom and nor did he crave for that responsibility. His father had two brothers who would succeed to the throne therefore he never had any aspiration or dream of ruling a kingdom. But he wanted to perform valiant and valorous deeds in the service of the kingdom, hence he went to along with their army to fight their enemy in the seas. He took charge of a small army of soldiers but they lost the battle and his men were killed. Though he fought bravely and had every intention of dying along with his men his life was spared. He joined the band of soldiers who were returning home by ship. But he was not happy to return home. He felt that he could not return home after losing all the men under his command. His ancestors were great warriors. His father, uncles, his grand father and great grand father were great kings who had won every inch of their kingdom with the might of their swords. He couldn’t bring himself to go back home as a failure who couldn’t lead his soldiers to victory. When the ship started to move, he spotted a beautiful island and when no one was noticing he silently jumped into the water and swam towards it. He waited in the shrubs until the ship disappeared and then climbed the tallest tree to see his new home. It was a beautiful place, untouched by civilization. He realized that he was alone in that island. He was not unduly worried about it. He sat down at the base of the tree and thought about his future.
Suddenly he heard a screeching voice of a woman. He turned around to see a woman running through the woods with a wild bear on her heels. He ran after her with his heart beating and even as the bear neared her he threw his spear on it with unerring precision. The bear turned around to attack the youth and a fierce fight ensued between them. In the end, the youth killed the bear successfully and stood panting with exhaustion. He searched for the woman whose life he had saved. He found her looking at him from behind a tree, her eyes expressing her happiness and surprise. Her looks and attire attested to the fact that she lived in the forest well away from the civilized world but it didn’t diminish her beauty in any way. To him, she seemed like the most beautiful woman in the world! Her beauty was so ethereal that he was afraid that she might vanish in thin air. He neared her to ascertain whether she was real. She didn’t vanish, however she ran away. He followed her for a while but soon gave up when she outstripped him and moreover he didn’t think it was decent to follow a girl thus.
“She lives in this island. I will see her again for sure. Where will she go?” he said to himself and went near the beach and lay down under a tree. His surmise was right. She came back soon, along with an old man. He learned that the old man was a fisherman who belonged to the ‘Karaiyar’ community and he lived in one of the many islands that lay near Elangai and the girl was his daughter. He also learned that earlier when he lay hidden behind the shrubs watching the ship leave, the bear had crept behind a tree and was poised to attack him. The girl who had seen all this from a distance had shouted to warn the youth about it. After learning that the girl had saved his life, the youth thanked her most eloquently but the girl did not respond. Instead her father acknowledged his thanks. This surprised him at first but when he realized that the girl was deaf and mute, his regard and admiration for her grew.
As hours stretched into days, they became friendly with each other and she took him along to see the vast deserted stretches of beach in the lonely island. To him, she seemed like the most perfect woman created by God. Her inability to hear and speak didn’t seem like a big hurdle to form affection for her person. He learned to speak to her through signs and as days passed, he could intuitively discern her innermost thoughts from the expression of her beautiful eyes. He also noted that as a woman who lived in the forest, her sense of intuition was very high as she could sense danger or threat very easily. Life took on an easy routine for the youth and soon he began to consider that island as his home and found pleasure in her company.
Suddenly one day, the carefree life of the youth came to an end. A ship was sighted near the island and a few men came to the shore of the island searching for him. From them, he learned the many calamities that had befallen his family back home. His uncle had died most tragically in a war and his father was at the death’s door thanks to deadly wounds. His uncle who had no children was crowned the king, which resulted in him being the next heir apparent. The youth felt as if he was caught between two storms… on one end there was a call for duty and on the other there was the girl who had stolen his heart. But he gave precedence to duty. He could not roam around free and irresponsible when his family, kingdom and people were under imminent threat of war.
“I come back soon… I will come back after fulfilling my duties…” he said to her and left in the ship. She had not come forward to bid him goodbye. Shy and wary of strangers, she had stayed behind the tree where they had first met and watched him leave with sad eyes that haunted him to this day.
“Kundavai! I still remember her standing behind that tree watching me with her beautiful eyes brimming with unshed tears. I cannot forget that scene no matter what. But there is one other scene that tears my heart to pieces… Shall I tell you about that?” he asked piteously.