The mint where the Chola Kingdom made its coinage was as heavily guarded as the Thanjavur fort. That evening, Kundavai and Vanathi made their way through its heavily guarded corridors even as the goldsmiths were departing after a hard day’s work. The guards checked each of the goldsmiths thoroughly before letting them leave. When the guards and the goldsmiths noticed the arrival of the Princesses, they raised a cheer, “Long live Elaya Piratti!” The commander of the Mint and the Dungeons came hurriedly to welcome them. He showed them the fire smithy where the gold was melted and the moulds bearing the ensign of a tiger and the image of a ship. Mounds of freshly minted gold coins lay on one side and their glint caught the light of the lamps dazzling the onlookers.
“See Vanathi! For many centuries, gold has been coming to our kingdom from all our conquered lands. So long, it was the womenfolk who had to bear the burden of this gold as ornaments and trinkets. Thankfully that time is past now as our Dhanadhigari (Royal Treasurer) started minting the gold into coins,”
“Akka! How do these coins help?”
“They are a big help to merchants and traders as they can now easily sell their wares for ‘so many coins’ instead of bartering them with something else. It is easy for the common people to pay their taxes instead of giving their produce. It is easy to trade with foreign kingdoms as the coins help to regulate our transactions. That’s why our merchants and traders are indebted to Periya Pazhuvetarayar since he has eased their burden. It also helps in many other things Vanathi! It also helps those who want to plot against the King and his family. It is easy to buy treason with a bag of gold coins…”
The Commander of the Mint who was standing next to her, heard this and said, “Yes Princess! We have heard of such rumours and that’s why we have increased the guards in this fort. That could be the reason why so many prisoners arrive and leave.”
“I know that Prisoners are coming quite frequently but I didn’t realize that they left too…”
“Yes. That has been happening too. This morning they brought a prisoner to shut in the dungeons and about a hour ago, he was released and taken away…”
“Who could that be?” wondered Kundavai.
After looking at all the fire smithys’ in the Mint, the Commander took them to the inner chambers of the fort through a small door. As they climbed down the steps, to the dungeons, they could hear the blood curdling growls of many hungry tigers. A guard stood at the end of the steps with a fire log to show the way. In the light of the fire, they could see many cages with tigers locked up in them. Some were prancing around majestically, while some were lying down.
|Tigers in the dungeon|
Kundavai held Vanathi’s hand tightly and whispered, “Vanathi! Are you frightened? Please do not faint away here, it would be very difficult to revive you.”
Vanathi gave a faint smile and said, “How could I be frightened of tigers akka? They are the protectors of our clan!”
“Many times it our protectors who join our enemies and become more dangerous than ever.”
“No Akka! Human protectors might do that but these tigers will never turn against us,”
“We can’t say that for sure. These tigers have tasted the flesh of many traitors and undoubtedly their blood would have intermingled with these tigers…”
Vanathi shivered when she heard these words despite the bravado that she had put up for the Princess.
“Akka! What are you saying? Do these guards feed the prisoners to these tigers?”
“No! The dungeons have only one door. Any one who enters has to go past these tigers to the prison below. If someone from below plans to escape, he needs to come through this chamber and that’s when they become prey to the tiger’s hunger,”
“Shiva Shiva! That’s barbaric!”
“That’s how great kingdoms work Vanathi! Compassion and cruelty are shown in equal measures here. You should have heard the way Chinna Pazhuvetrayar spoke to me today. I would not have been surprised if he had shut me in the dungeons with these tigers…”
“Akka! There is no one in these 14 worlds who has power enough to shut you in the dungeons. If someone were to attempt it, the earth that we stand upon would split and swallow everything in its wake. I am a bit worried about our Pazhaiarai Physician’s son. Let’s hope that poor boy did not attempt to escape…”
“He is a poor boy indeed! But one can’t always be sure as when they will change…”
As they neared the chamber, the growls of the tigers increased as they noted the new visitors. Kundavai asked the guard, “Looks like the tigers are very angry today…”
“No Princess! They are growling thus to welcome their Chakravarthi’s daughter,”
Kundavai smiled at this clever retort and said, “That’s a nice welcome…”
“Moreover it is time for their feed…”
“In that case, we will leave early. Where is the door to the dungeons below?”
The guard took them to the farthest corner of the dungeon and then moved the tiger cage. On the floor, there was a strong iron door, which required two strong guards to open. Built deep within the ground, there was no light save the fire log that their guard carried. The dungeons were narrowly built and they had to go in a single file following the guard with the fire torch. The narrow path ended in a chamber filled with prison cells. Some had single prisoners while some shared a cell. Most of them were skin and bones and their sad sorry selves was pitiful to watch. Yet among these there arose a soulful sweet voice singing –
Minnaar senjadai mel
The cells in the dungeons were not built in order. They had to move around the chamber like a maze to look into each cell as the guard raised the fire torch. Some prisoners were left to roam in the cell free, while some were chained with iron. Noting this, Vanathi asked, “Akka! This is very cruel indeed. So many prisoners shut down here? Didn’t these people undergo any trial?”
“These men are not ordinary prisoners Vanathi. They have committed treason against the King and the crown. Spies and people who help these spies are incarcerated in these dungeons. If they confess their crimes and tell the truth they are banished from the Kingdom but most of them have nothing to tell. Their condition is quite pitiful, indeed.”
As they searched for the Pazhaiarai’s Physician son, they neared the cell where the prisoner was singing. They found a young man with a slight build in the cell. He was none other than our old friend, Senthan Amuthan.
His innocent looks and thoughtful eyes made them stop there for a while. Kundavai, “You were the one who was singing?”
“Looks like you are quite happy here.”
“There is no dearth of happiness for me here amma! My God who is omnipresent, is here with me in this darkest of the dungeons…”
“You speak like a wise man. Who are you? What were you doing outside?”
“I am not a wise man Princess. I used to present my lord with flowers as my offering, when I was outside. Since that’s not possible here, I am offering him songs.”
“Do you know only this one song or many others?”
“I know many others Princess. But ever since I came here, I have been singing this song…”
“And why is that?”
“When they brought me here, I came through the mint and there I saw piles and piles of gold coins. The sheen and the glint of the gold reminded of my Lord Shiva who glows like a gold… hence the song,”
“You are lucky! It is easy to corrupt people with gold and fortunate are those who see the God in them. Do you have any relatives living outside?”
“My mother is there. She lives outside the Thanjavur Fort where we have our garden…”
“What is her name?”
“I will meet her and tell her that you are living happily here.”
“That would be useless, Amma! My mother is deaf and mute.”
“Is that so? Is your name Senthan Amuthan?” asked Kundavai
“Yes. How is it that the Princess knows my name?”
“Do you know why you have been imprisoned here?”
“I didn’t know about it until yesterday. I learned about it today.”
“What did you learn?”
“They have shut me here because I helped a ‘spy’ to escape from Thanjavur Fort.”
“Who was this spy?”
“I met a traveller near the Thanjavur Fort. He was looking for a place to rest that night so I took him to my home. I didn’t know that he would turn out to be a ‘spy’,”
“Do you know his name?”
“His name was Vallavareyan Vandiya Devan. He said that he belonged to the old Vanar clan…”
Excited by his reply, Kundavai and Vanathi looked at each other. Vanathi asked Senthan Amuthan, “Tell us everything that happened after you met him…”
Senthan Amuthan told them all about their meeting and Vandiya Devan’s return during the dead of the night with his wounded friend, Kandan Maran. And then he also described their flight from Thanjavur on the horse and the chasing Pazhuvur soldiers and his subsequent capture.
“Why did you help this stranger? It seems like, he got you into a lot of trouble…”
“Devi! Life is strange. I didn’t know Vandiya Devan very well but I liked him and trusted him, right from the moment I met him. I would have sacrificed my life too, if I had to save him from those murderous soldiers of Pazhuvetrayar. And there are some we meet for a very little while and we feel like murdering them. The guards brought a prisoner today and shut him in this cell along with me. I couldn’t control the anger that I felt towards him. Thankfully, he got released by Pazhuvur Elaya Rani’s men, a short while ago…”
“Is that so?” said Kundavai. She bit her lips with her pearly white teeth and let out an angry sigh, “Do you know this prisoner’s name?”
“I don’t know his name but he is the son of a physician from Pazhaiarai.”
“What did the physician’s son say to make you so angry?”
“He spoke ill of my uncle’s daughter, Poonguzhali who lives in Kodi Karai. That is why I got very angry. But he also gave me a good news so I let him go…”
“What good news was that?”
“This scoundrel went to Kodi Karai along with my friend Vandiya Devan and he double crossed him and betrayed him to the Pazhuvur soldiers but my friend escaped.”
“He escaped? Are you sure about this?” asked Kundavai and Vanathi simultaneously.
“Yes Devi! Poonguzhali took him on her boat across the sea to Elangai and this fool got captured by the Pazhvur soldiers instead…”
Smiling with relief, Kundavai said to Senthan Amuthan, “If you are so happy because a ‘spy’ escaped, then it is best that you stay imprisoned here in the dungeons…”
“Devi! If that is true, then you both should rightfully occupy the cell next to me…”
His witty reply elicited laughter from both the women. The sound of their mirth sounded as strange and out-of-place as Senthan Amuthan’s song.
“You are very clever indeed! If we leave you here, you might just corrupt the other prisoners with your songs. I will speak to the commander and get you released immediately…”
“Devi! Please do not do that. One of the prisoners here keeps telling me, ‘Teach me at least one song and I will tell you where I have hidden the Pandyan Crown and Indra’s pearl necklace in Elangai,’ I don’t want to leave this place before learning that secret,”
Smiling at his wit, Kundavai said, “So you want to be here until you become mad like the rest of them. What will happen to your mother then? Think about it…” and left with Vanathi. After an hour’s time, the guards released Senthan Amuthan and escorted him out of the fort.