A thousand years before the present events of this epic, there reigned a King in Elangai named Valahambahu. During his reign, a war raged between the Chola kings and the Elangai forces. Defeated by the enemy, Valahambahu fled from his capital city and sought refuge among the steep mountains of Thambilai. Later he gathered his forces and ousted the invaders from his capital city Anuradhapuram. After he successfully recaptured his kingdom, he expressed his gratitude to Lord Buddha by converting the mountain caves of Thambilai into a sanctuary of peace and piety. The caves of Thambilai were made into a shrine as the sculptors made large and small statues of Buddha and other Gods and Goddesses of the Hindus as well. Even today, one can see the wondrous beauty of these statues brought alive by the deft craftsmanship of these talented sculptors.
Vandiya Devan was awestruck by the massive statues of Buddha that were seen everywhere. He felt that he had stepped into a new world filled with astounding things to discover. Many devotees bought baskets of exotic flowers as an offering to Buddha and were seen walking towards the mountain temple. Buddhist monks clad in their customary dull saffron robes thronged the streets and occasionally they raised their voice to shout ‘sadhu’.
Vandiya Devan saw all these sights in wonder and said, “I thought we were entering a war-torn region ruled by Cholas, instead we are in a city ruled by Buddha!”
“This city is very famous for their Buddha shrines for over a thousand years now,”
“But right now, it is the Cholas who have captured it,”
“Then why is it that there are no Chola soldiers on the streets?”
“All the soldiers are garrisoned in the woods outside the city,”
“Upon whose orders?”
“The Prince’s. Who else?”
“I have been wanting to ask you. Parthibendran Pallavan came here and searched for the Prince in vain and has left. Then why are we searching for him again?”
“Do you think I would believe that Pallavan’s words and abandon my search? Did Prahaladan accept his father’s words when he said that ‘Narayana does not exist’?”
“Veera Vaishnavarey! You were constantly fighting the saivars and advaitis in our Kingdom, why don’t challenge these monks for a debate here? Are you scared by their overwhelming numbers?”
“Thambi! I have never feared anything. Can you tell me how it looks?”
“It is dark and monstrous and almost as big as the elephant that attacked us. Have you never seen it?”
“No,” said Azhwarkadiyan and approached two people who were standing on the road. He conversed with them for a while and then returned.
“Vaishnavarey! What did you ask them? I hope you didn’t ask them whether Vishnu is a big God. Even you should agree that Lord Buddha is the biggest God here,”
“Thambi! I have put aside my veera vaishnavam in Rameshwaram. I am here on a royal errand,”
“Then, what did you ask them? Did you enquire about the Prince’s whereabouts?”
“No. I asked them whether there was a festival happening here today,”
“What did they say?”
“They said that they were waiting to see two travellers from the land of China. That’s why the monasteries here have arranged many festivities to welcome them,”
“Where are these travellers from China now?”
“They have now gone to Simhagiri’s mountain fort and would be arriving here soon.”
“Where is Simhagiri?”
“At a short distance from here. It is still under the control of Elangai armies. During daytime, you could see the mountain fort from here easily. The fort of Simhagiri has a cave with many beautiful paintings. These travellers must have gone there to see that. I wonder how they got up that mountain. It is very steep. Look! They are here now,”
|Sigiriya Mountain today|
A large elephant was making its way languorously and on its back two men were seated in a covered howdah. Their garments and looks bespoke their heritage. Seated in front of them was a mahout guiding the elephant with a goad. All around the elephant, common people and the monks raised many cries…
“Thambi! Did you see?”
“Yes. I saw. Amma! Such a big beast! Shall we find out if there is a handy ravine nearby?”
“No! No! Let us stand aside. Come here,” said Azhwarkadiyan dragging our hero.
As the elephant neared, Vandiya Devan’s attention was captured by the Chinese travellers. He wondered at their piety and devotion that enabled them to step out of their homeland to pay their respects to Lord Buddha enshrined in other kingdoms. No wonder, the people here are scrambling to welcome them in their midst. Though what is truly surprising is that they were traveling fearlessly in a land that is in the midst of a war. Prince Arul Mozhi Varmar must be responsible for it then. Where is the Prince? Will I ever get to meet him?
|Travelers from China|
“Thambi! Did you see?”
“What did you see?”
“I saw the flat noses of those travelers from the land of China. Their clothes look very different,”
“I didn’t ask you about those travelers,”
“Did you notice the mahout?”
“The mahout? No. I didn’t notice,”
“You are very observant! When the mahout saw us, his eyes lit up suddenly. Didn’t you notice?”
“Somehow my observant eye missed the light in the mahout’s eyes. How did he light his eyes? Is that a trick?”
“I truly marvel at your intelligence but mostly I am amazed that Elaya Piratti saw you fit to send you on such a dangerous mission. Come with me,” said Azhwarkadiyan and dragged him behind the crowd that was following the elephant.
The elephant stopped at the entrance of the monastery. Bending its legs, it allowed the travelers the get down from its back. The monks from the monastery gave a rousing welcome to the travelers by blowing couches and ringing the bells while some showered them with flower petals.
Budham Sharanam Gatchami!
After chants ended, the travelers from China entered the monastery and most of the crowd that had gathered there followed them inside.
When the travelers had dismounted, the mahout had led the elephant away from the crowd. A group of four soldiers approached him immediately and then he handed over his mahout’s stick to them. Next, he pointed towards Azhwarkadiyan and said something to one of soldiers and then walked away hurriedly from the street. Soon enough, the same soldier approached them and whispered, “Ayya! Are you prepared to come with me?”
“We have been waiting for these summons,”
“Do you have an emblem ring?” he asked and Azhwarkadiyan took out Kodumbalur Periya Vellar’s emblem ring to show him. After scrutinizing it carefully, the soldier said, “Fine. Come with me,”
The rest of them followed him through the streets of Thambilai and soon they were at the outskirts of the city. A narrow goat path led them inside the thick forest where a dilapidated mandapam stood. The soldier asked them to wait awhile there and then nimbly climbed the nearby tree.
“What’s all this mystery? I don’t understand anything,” said Vandiya Devan.
“You will understand soon enough. Be patient,” said Azhwarkadiyan but Vandiya Devan was worried by the fact that there were only two horses tied to the back of the mandapam.
Who was that mahout? He had not paid much attention to him as he was fascinated by the appearance of the travelers from China. He tried to recollect that mahout’s face but his brain refused to remember.
“Vaishnavarey! Who was that mahout? Won’t you tell me?”
“Who do you think it could be?”
“Was he Ponniyin Selvar?”
“I recognized him only because I noticed his eyes,”
“What if others in this city recognize him?”
“They will not. Who would expect the Prince to play the mahout’s role to escort the travelers from China? Moreover the people here have never seen the Prince,”
“But you said that the travelers from China went to Simhagiri fort?”
“Yes, I did.”
“And the fort is still under the control of Elangai army. Then the Prince went all the way amidst his enemies?
“Not just Simhagiri. The Prince has travelled along with them to Mahiyangana, Samandagoodam and many other places,”
“Why did he take such a big risk?”
“The Prince wished to see the beautiful art, architecture, statues and paintings of these places,”
“This is preposterous. The Prince is playing with his life, courting such danger. And I can’t believe that Kudandai Jodhidhar predicted such great things about him,”
“I don’t need to see the astrologer to know about the Prince. I have always known that he was destined for something great,”
Suddenly they heard the hoof beats of galloping horses. The solider who was perched on top of the tree, came down hurriedly and led the horses that were tied at the back of the mandapam. He got on the back of one of the horses and urged Azhwarkadiyan to mount the other.
“In a few seconds, a group of horses will pass through this way. We must be prepared to follow them,” he said.
Vandiya Devan came forward and asked, “What about me? Do you have another horse?”
“I have orders only to bring him along,”
“I cannot say,”
“I have to meet the Prince most urgently. I have brought a very important message for him,”
“I do not know about that Ayya. I cannot allow you to come along with us,”
“Thambi, be patient. I will go on ahead and tell the Prince about you and arrange for you to meet him,”
“Nambi! My message to the Prince is most urgent and important. Don’t you know about it?”
“I do. You could also hand it over to me instead,”
“Then be patient and wait here,”
Vandiya Devan’s impatient brain refused to listen and he started thinking about a way to go along with them. It was impossible to follow them without a horse and he didn’t want to let Azhwarkadiyan meet the Prince alone. He had promised the Commander to spy on the Vaishnavan. The galloping horses were coming near and soon three horses went past them in lightening speed. The soldier and Azhwarkadiyan who were waiting for them to go past them, reined the impatient horses to stand by and then prepared to follow. Suddenly Vandiya Devan pounced on the soldier who was mounted on the horse and pushed him from the horse by lifting his leg from stirrup. The soldier fell down with a thud on the other side while he quickly mounted the horse. Enraged the soldier screamed loudly and drew his dagger and threw it at Vandiya Devan but our hero bent over the horse to miss it and urged his horse to gallop faster. With Azhwarkadiyan’s horse following his, they tried to keep up with the horses that were thundering in the forest path before them.
Vandiya Devan deftly controlled the pace of the horse and followed the three horses in front of him without getting too close. Azhwarkadiyan too did the same and said, “That was quick thinking, Thambi,”
But Vandiya Devan did not respond to him. He was deeply worried about the outcome of this quest and was wondering whether it was worth his while to come all this way to this hostile kingdom in search of an elusive Prince.