Sunday, 14 December 2014

Chapter 15: A Voice of Distress

The Chola Kingdom in those days was the epitome of art, dance, drama and music. In particular, the theatrical artists and their plays were very popular with the general populace. There were many streets in Thanjavur dedicated solely for the performance of drama and arts. However the best of the artists lived right at the royal palace of King Sundra Chola.

Well renowned for their creative plays, the playwrights of Chola Kingdom wrote many new plays inspired by the glorious history of their kings and their victories. Some of their best plays featured Chola heroes of renown, Karikala Vallavan, Vijayalaya Chola, Paranthaka Thevar and many other kings of the past.

On the occasion of Navrathri, the artists put up a show for the royal audience at the palace for three days in a row. The royal theatre was set in a large courtyard that could easily accommodate more than thousand people while the royal women viewed the performance from an enclosure complete with silk screens and cushions. The queen and many other royal ladies sat through the performance of most plays here. Kundavai and Vanathi too attended them on the last three days of the Navrathri. And on many an occasion, Nandini too joined Kundavai and her companions. The womenfolk didn’t like this but they couldn’t show their displeasure openly, especially when Kundavai welcomed her with utmost respect. On the other hand, life might get very unpleasant for those who courted the displeasure of the Pazhuvur queen and her Lord. And when Kundavai herself regarded her with such respect, they had no choice but to follow her example.

Of all the plays that were performed, the artists performed a play on Paranthaka Devar’s life that was well received by the audience. The audience’s reaction to this play served as a mirror to the public opinion.

Of all the kings in the past, King Paranthaka I (who was King Sundara Chola’s grandfather) was hailed as a brave and wise king. During his long reign of 41 years, Chola Kingdom reached the heights of prosperity. The tiger flag ruled over the lands that lay from Elangai to Tungabadra river. He led many campaigns and won many victories by crushing the Pandya rule in Madurai. He was also known for his piety and devotion and he gave away gold to gild the roof of Chithambaram Temple. Unfortunately during the last years of his reign, the Chola Kingdom lost its hold on the neighbouring kingdoms. Kannara Devan, brought a large army to attack from Erattai Mandalam (Rashtrakuta Kingdom) to attack the Cholas. King Parathaka’s eldest son and Crown Prince Rajaditya led the army but it proved disastrous for the Cholas as he died on the battlefield killed by a poison-coated arrow.

Dramatizing the death of this brave prince, the play was an emotional reminder for the audience about events that had happened not so long in the past. There was also yet another reason why the public enjoyed this play more than the others. During the reign of Parathaka I, two royal lords played a very important role – Pazhuvetrayar and Vellar. Both these lords were immensely powerful, brave and performed many valorous deeds in the service of their king. They were also related to the King through marriage. The Pazhuvur lord, Kandan Amuthan depicted in the play was the father of the present Pazhuvur Lords,  while the Vellar lord was the father of Kodumbalur Siriya Vellar. In other words, he was Vanathi’s grandsire.

The play by itself was very carefully enacted to glorify the deeds of both the lords and to avoid any misinterpretation by the audience. They also showed the audience how King Parathaka I acted impartially towards both the lords while respecting them for their contributions. Despite the good intentions of the artists, the play opened the doors for favouritism among the audience as they quickly took sides to support their favourite lord. When the Pazhuvur Lord came on stage, the Pazhuvur soldiers cheered him loudly and when the Vellar lord waged a war, his supporters clapped uproariously. What began as a harmless tug-of-war, soon became quite serious thanks to Princess Kundavai. 

When the cheering of the Vellar crowd sounded loud, Kundavai would lean towards Vanathi and said, “Look Vanathi! Your side is winning.” Innocent and na├»ve Vanathi would smile and express her happiness at this. And when the Pazhuvur soldiers cheered loud, she would lean towards Nandini and say, “Rani! Looks like your side is winning now!”
Kundavai and Vanathi
Nandini didn’t relish the prospect of Kundavai placing her in the same pedestal as Vanathi. With Kundavai’s encouragement the audience’s preference and opinions was soon apparent enough for all to see. Nandini’s anger knew no bounds and she was tempted to leave the mid-way through the play, but it would only signify her defeat, hence she sat back grudgingly.

Kundavai didn’t miss anything. She could read through Nandini’s mind easily. Her face reflected all the emotions that she was undergoing. However she was intrigued by Nandini’s reaction to the defeat of Pandya King. When the play showed the Pandya King being refused help by the Elangai king, the audience cheered madly forgetting their own differences but Nandini’s face showed deep misery and sadness. For the rest of the play, Kundavai couldn’t help wondering about Nandini’s reaction to the Pandya King’s defeat.

Hoping to learn more about it, Kundavai tried to engage her in conversation. “I wish that the King was well enough to see this play. If only his health had permitted…”

“He will be fine soon Princess, now that you are here to look after him. If the medicinal herbs from Elangai too arrives on time, his recovery would be very fast indeed.”

“Medicinal herbs from Elangai?”

“Why Princess? I heard that you have sent the Pazhaiarai physician’s son to get medicines for your father from Elangai? Isn’t that true?”

Kundavai bit her lips in silence. No matter how beautiful one’s lips are it does hurt when one bites it. Thankfully she was spared from replying when the crowd cheered madly drowning all the noise around.

The play ended amidst resounding cheers and claps from the audience. After the audience dispersed, the royal women and their retinue sought their palanquins to return home.

Later, the Chakravarthini Queen Vanamadevi and other women went to the Durga temple the patron Goddess of Chola Kings. The queen regularly went to the temple to pray for the health of her husband and during the auspicious nine days of Navrathri it was customary to stay until the Pujari gave bali (blood sacrifice) and returned to the palace during the early hours of the morning.

Young girls were not taken to Durga Temple as the Pujari of the temple often got possessed by the Goddess. On such occasions, they would dance wildly and recount bloody wars and tales of revenge but no one had temerity to tell Kundavai that she would get scared hence she too went along with her mother to the Durga temple and performed the puja. But Vanathi was left behind in the palace on these nine days for the same reason.

Vanathi’s heart was bubbling with happiness and pride on the day ‘Paranthaka Thevar’s’ drama was staged. She felt proud of her grandsire’s achievements and that of her clan as well. She was also reminded of her dead father, whose martyrdom in Elangai was one of the main reasons for the present war campaign against them. And the man leading the campaign was the beloved prince who has been giving her sleepless nights. After trying to sleep rather unsuccessfully in her room, Vanathi decided to wait for Kundavai to return from the temple.
Nisumbasoothani Temple in Thanjavur
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Instead of lying in the room, Vanathi found herself walking towards the terrace of the royal palace as one could see the entire Thanjai city from there. Vanathi was not very familiar with the royal palace of Thanjai though the palace was alight with lamps that were set in each pillar. By following the winding paths of the palace she ended up near the King’s royal quarters by mistake. Suddenly she heard a faint voice that made her tremble.

“Is there no one who could save me?”

Aha! Isn’t that Chakravarthi’s voice? He seems to be in some distress. She knew that the queen and her womenfolk had left the palace to go to the temple.

Thinking thus, Vanathi, entered a room and found herself on a private balcony that overlooked the King’s room. Looking down, she saw the king’s private chambers and the king himself lying on the bed, alone.

“You wretch! It is true that it was I who killed you. Though I didn’t intend any such thing, I will not deny the fact that your death occurred because of me. What is it that you wish from me? How long will you continue to haunt me? Will your soul never rest in peace? It’s been 25 years since your death and you are still tormenting me. Will I ever get peace in this lifetime? What is it that you want? What do you want me to do? I will do it! Just leave me in peace. Everybody rushes around to find a medicine to cure me but no one wants to help me find peace. Go! Go! Go away! No! No! Don’t. Wait a moment. Tell me what I should do? Do be silent. Tell me. Tell me!”

Hearing these words, Vanathi’s trembling increased. Looking down carefully she leaned down to see ‘who’ was with the king. There stood a figure at the far end of the room behind the pillar. It was a woman, who was half visible from the shadows cast by the pillars and the dimly lit lamps. Looking carefully at the figure, Vanathi’s eyes widened when she recognized who stood there. It was Pazhvur Elaya Rani, Nandini Devi! Why would the King talk such things looking at Nandini? How could he say ‘he killed her’ when she was well and alive?

With fear gripping her senses, she felt weak and knew instinctively that she would faint soon. She found the room and the world swirling away, ready to whisk her away to the world of darkness.  Gritting her teeth, she slowly traced her way back to the room, until she could walk no more.

When Kundavai returned from the temple that night, she found Vanathi lying unconscious in the corridor that led to their room.

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