Sunday, 3 May 2015

Chapter 35: The Throne of Elangai

The Bikshu who had suddenly appeared looked around here as if he was searching for someone. When he found the Prince standing near the fountain, he climbed the stairs to join them. He looked at the Prince’s face for a while and said, “Devapriya! Welcome. Vaithulya Bikshu Sangam awaits your presence eagerly. Our leader, Maha Thero Guru has come for this meeting. I am happy that you were able to come here at the appointed time,”
Prince at Maha Sangam

Adigaley! I am but a mere boy with many faults but I have never gone back on my word,”

“We were worried when we learned that you had not arrived in the city even after the sun had set,”

“If I had come early to the city, we might not have come here on time,”

“We know that there are those who would seek to harm you. With the blessings of Lord Buddha, your enemies will disappear like dust in the storm,” he said and continued, “Who are these people? Do you know them well? Are they completely trustworthy? Will they keep their word and their silence?”

Adigaley! I trust them as completely as I would trust my own hands. Nonetheless, if you wish, I am prepared to leave them here and come with you,”

“No! No! We are not prepared to shoulder such a big responsibility. Though the place that I would be taking you, is safe, one can never tell where danger might lurk. God knows what is hidden behind the dark corners and pillars. Let them come with you,”

Vandiya Devan’s heart raced with excitement when he heard this. He felt gratified when he learned that the Prince said that he trusted him completely despite the fact that he had known him for a short time. He had intuitively known that the Prince had set out that night on a very important mission. He knew that something very important is about to happen today!

The Bikshu strode forward with his lamp held high while the others followed him towards the fountain’s stone seat. Within the alcove, the Bikshu opened the secret entrance that lay within the walls. An underground path opened up for them and they entered it. After they were inside the cavernous dungeon, the Bikshu closed the walls using a lever hidden cleverly within the walls. They were now beneath a dungeon that was right under the fountain and possibly even the lake.

The underground path wound its way almost endlessly. The echoes of their footsteps were heard magnified hundred times in the hollow cavern that lay ahead.  Vandiya Devan, despite his excitement couldn’t help wondering whether the Prince was walking into a trap.

Soon enough the rocky path of the dungeon ended to make way for a marble mandapam that is built underneath the ground. There were many statues of Lord Buddha in his many forms. Some were lying, some meditating while some were standing. After walking past the marble mandapam, the path became rough again until they entered a mandapam made of some exotic wood. The pillars of this mandapam were carved exquisitely with beautiful art while the roof was painted with some beautiful murals. Soon after they passed this, they came upon a mandapam that was made from ivory. Walking past them Vandiya Devan looked around and tried to touch the pillars that were embellished with precious stones but the Prince didn’t look around.

After crossing across mandapams made of different metals, they entered a stone mandapam. While the rest of the madapams that they had passed were empty, save for Buddha statues, this mandapam was filled with Buddha Bikshus. Calm and serene many of them looked like men of wisdom and piety. At the center of the mandapam sat their leader, Maha Thero Guru and opposite to them there was a golden throne and on it lay a golden crown and the royal sceptre. The mandapam was well-lit from all directions making the throne glow with an ethereal light.

When the Prince and his companions entered the mandapam, the Bikshus stood up to welcome him with chants, “Long Live Buddha!” “Long Live Dharma!” “Long Live Sangam!”

The Prince moved towards the Guru and bowed low in respect. The Guru acknowledged his salutations and motioned him to sit on a stone seat near him.

“Guruvey! You are older and wiser than I am. I cannot sit with you standing. I beg of you to seat yourself” said the Prince and sat in his seat only after the old Guru had taken his seat.

“Beloved Prince! This Maha Bodhi Sangam is delighted by your arrival. You accepted all our conditions and have graced us with your presence despite various hardships that lay in your path. This proves that you have the complete grace of Lord Buddha’s blessings.” Said the Guru in Pali while the Bikshu who had escorted them translated it in ‘Tamizh’ for them. The monks added their voice to the Guru’s welcome and shouted ‘Sadhu!’ ‘Sadhu!’

Maha Guru continued, “We are indebted to Bharathakandam (ancient India) for bringing the faith of Lord Buddha. But sadly, hoards of invaders too came to our Island Kingdom; Cholas, Pandyas, Cheras, Kalingas brought death and destruction in their wake to our people. They razed our monasteries to the ground, put our monks to the sword and brought grief upon our people and incurred a deathly curse upon their race. I do not hold only the invaders responsible for our loss. Even our own Kings have mercilessly killed countless innocents and have burned our holy monasteries to the ground. They hunted the monks who dared to raise their voice against such injustice and killed them without any remorse. There was a time, when our sacred monasteries occupied this vast stretch of land from end to end but now they lay as dilapidated ruins. None of our kings took an effort to rebuild and repair them for us. That honour lay reserved for Prince Arul Mozhi Varmar. Beloved Prince! Our Maha Sangam is forever in your debt!“

 The Prince bowed his head low and acknowledged Maha Guru’s praise. The Guru continued, “It has been many years since we celebrated the holy Perahara Festival. Hundred years ago, this city was under the control of Pandyas and the royal family of Elangai was in Pulathiya and since then this festival was not celebrated here. It was written by the Gods that this festival should be held on this sacred year and by your royal commands. Despite many challenges you allowed our people to celebrate this holy festival and lent us all manner of help to conduct it. The Maha Sangam is very delighted by this action of yours,”

The Prince reverentially bowed his head and said, “Maha Guruvey! I am at your disposal. If you need anything else, you just need to command me,”

The Maha Guru smiled at Prince’s words and said, “Yes Beloved Prince! We have many great expectations from you and we hope that you fulfill them. Before I talk about that, allow me to say few a words.

You must have heard that Lord Buddha was born as many other avatars before he was reborn in this world. We believe that he was born as Sibi Chakravarthy in this world to teach us the value of each and every living being. He sought to save the life of a small pigeon by carving out a piece of his own flesh. You Cholas venerate this great Chakravarthy as your ancestor and name yourself ‘Sembian’ to honour his memory. But the Buddha Sangams never believed these stories. We thought that it was merely a story that poets and bards loved to repeat. But after seeing your great deeds in this war-torn Elangai, we concede defeat and agree wholeheartedly that you are a worthy scion of Sibi’s illustrious race. We believe that everything happens for a reason and that’s why Lord Buddha has showered you with his grace and mercy. We have received divine orders from him… Look here!” he said and pointed towards another Bikshu who sat reclining on a pillar. Other Bikshus, lifted him along with his seat and brought him near them.

The Bikshu’s body was shivering uncontrollably and his head lolled from one side to another. The Maha Guru said, “The Gods have come upon this Bikshu. They have brought a message for you,”

The shivering Bikshu spoke many words in an unknown language while his bloodshot eyes looked hither and thither.

“Beloved Prince! The Gods have deigned to shower their bountiful blessings upon you. Hundreds of years ago, King Ashoka brought the entire Bharatakandan under his rule with the blessings of Lord Buddha. The Gods say that you too will do that same. You will follow on Ashoka’s steps and bring glory and peace to Elangai. You too should spread the faith of Buddha all over the world just as Ashoka did. Ashoka made Pataliputra as one of the greatest cities in this world. The Gods say that you too will do the same with Anuradhapuram. Beloved Prince! Do you accept the order of the Gods?”

The Prince bowed his head again and said, “Maha Guru! I am ready to fulfil the command of the Gods but I do not understand what they want of me?”

“I will tell you about it,” said the Maha Guru and signalled his disciples to remove the possessed Bikshu.

“Beloved Prince! Please look at this throne here, this crown and sceptre. They belong to the royal family of Elangai. The kings of Elangai have donned this crown and with the royal sceptre in hand, they have ascended the throne to rule over this Kingdom and have been recognized by this Maha Sangam. This is the very throne where Kings like Dushtagamnu, Devampiya Tissa and Mahasenar sat and reigned this Kingdom. This is the crown that they wore and the royal sceptre that they wielded. We offer you this ancient throne and this kingdom, will you accept it?”
Prince Arul Mozhi and the Throne of Elangai 

Vandiya Devan who had been listening to the Maha Guru intently was thrilled with anticipation. If he had not reined in his eagerness, he might have bodily lifted the Prince and placed him on the throne. But there was no eagerness or shock in the Prince’s face. With a calm voice he replied, “Athiyatchika! How is this possible? The King of Elangai, King Mahindan is still alive, even though he is in hiding…”

“Prince! The Gods have willed the royal dynasty of Elangai to change and it will happen. This royal dynasty that was established by King Vijayarajan from Vanga Nadu has seen many Kings. Some followed the strict code of Dharma and reigned the Kingdom righteously, while many others invited the curse of the Gods through their heinous crimes. This kingdom has seen kings where a father killed his own son, the son killed his own father, a brother killed his brother, a mother killed her own daughter while the daughter-in-law killed her mother-in-law. This dynasty has committed many such grievous sins and is rightly cursed by the Gods. They can no longer uphold the divine teachings of Lord Buddha therefore they have lost the right to the throne. Our Maha Sangam holds the right to select the next King and we have chosen you. If you accept this honour, we can crown you the King of Elangai, right away and hold the coronation ceremony,”

The mandapam fell silent after Maha Guru’s said this. It was a silence that could only be compared to the stillness that one might feel at the core of the earth. Not even a draw of breath was heard as the Bikshus waited with bated breath to hear the Prince’s response. Vandiya Devan’s eagerness became a fevered anticipation when the Prince rose to bow down to the assembly. His heart sang over a hundred songs and he was ready to crown the Prince himself.

The Prince said, “Wise men of Maha Sangam! Please accept my salutations. I humbly bow my head for the honour that you want to bestow upon me. You offer this ancient throne and the kingdom of Elangai to this mere boy but sadly I cannot accept it. I was born in the Chola Kingdom and the waters of Cauvery and the food of Ponni have made this body of mine. I came here at the behest of my father, Chakravarthy Sundara Chola and I cannot accept this kingdom that you offer without learning his wishes,”

Maha Guru interjected here and said, “Beloved Prince! Do you know that your father lies imprisoned in his palace?”
Sundara Chola in Prison

“My father is paralyzed in both his legs and is incapacitated from moving. Despite that, I am bound to follow the commands of the Lords who govern the realm in his name. If I accept this Kingdom without their consent, I will be known a traitor and would be guilty of conspiracy,”

“If you feel thus, then we are ready to send a party of envoys to Thanjavur with our request. Your father has great regard for the faith of Buddha and his patronage to our God is well known. He will not refuse us,”

“What about the people of this Kingdom? Isn’t their consent important?”

“The people of this Kingdom will consider it an honour to have you as their king,”

“Everyone might accept this and might even be happy. But you must know that more than anybody else, I respect the wishes of my sister, Elaya Piratti Kundavai Devi. My mother gave birth to me, river Ponni saved my life but it was my sister who gave me knowledge and opened my eyes to this world. I might even ignore her words but I cannot ignore the voice of my heart. Maha Guru! Sadly, my heart asks me not to accept this great honour that you wish upon me. Please forgive me…”

There was impenetrable silence in the chambers for a while. Vandiya Devan’s heart and veins were throbbing silently as he sought to hold his silence.

After a while, Maha Guru said, “Beloved Prince, I am not surprised by your answer. It wouldn’t be amiss to say that I had expected it. This decision of yours makes you more worthy of this ancient throne than anybody else. We who have lived our lives in Dharma and possess the knowledge of the same can vouch for this. But we do not wish to force this decision upon you. Do consider our request and reflect upon it. After a year, we will meet again and you can give your final decision then…. However do remember one thing. Hundreds of monasteries have been destroyed in many foolish wars. But this Maha Bodhi Viharam has survived them all because it is built under the ground. Without the guidance of the Bikshus convened here, none can enter this place. Kings of Elangai are invited to this monastery only once during their lifetime; for their coronation ceremony. This is a sacred monastery and you shall not talk about what happened within its precincts and neither shall your friends. If you do, the curse of the Gods will descend upon you,”

 “Maha Guru! There is no need for a curse. My friends will not talk about what they saw here. You have my word.” Said Ponniyin Selvar.

After half hour, they were once again on the streets of Anuradhapuram. Vandiya Devan who had until then held his emotions in check, gave it a free rein.

“I agree that the Chola Kingdom is very beautiful indeed but it is incomparable with this island kingdom. How did your heart permit to refuse the throne of such a beautiful land? They offered you this lovely island in a platter and you kick it away as if it is distasteful. And these Bikshus are so witless, they offered it to someone who would refuse it, while I was standing right there. Couldn’t they have offered it to me?”

The Prince tried to pacify him saying, “I told you about Saali who renounced his right to the throne for the love of Asokamala. Didn’t you hear it?”

“I heard it but who is this woman that you love so much that you wish to renounce this beautiful island.”

“Not one woman but two. Truth and Dharma are the two women that I am in love with. I refused the crown of Elangai for them,”

“Prince! Your speech belies your age. You look so young and yet you speak like an old man,” said Vandiya Devan

The Prince replied walking under the shadows of an old dilapidated palace, “Young and old is a matter of introspection. How do we know who is young and whose time is about to end in this world?”

Just then, they heard the sound of someone clapping their hands in the street and a woman stood waiting for them at the opposite end. The Prince immediately turned in the direction and said, “Come this way,”

The others followed the Prince and crossed the street after him. And even as they were crossing, they heard the rumbling of the stone behind and to their horror saw that the palace that they were walking by shortly had collapsed. If they had tarried for few more seconds they would have been buried under the rubble. The Prince’s words, “How do we know who is young and whose time is about to end in this world?” seemed more meaningful now that they escaped within an inch of being buried alive. Vandiya Devan shocked and astonished by the sudden events stood for a while looking at the rubble and then turned towards the Prince.

With the moonlight streaming almost peacefully on the streets, Vandiya Devan’s heart missed a beat when he saw the woman who was standing in the street. “What is this foolishness? Why do my eyes betray me thus? How is this possible? How could Nandini Devi who lives under the watchful eyes of the Pazhuvur Lord come here? Why should she stand on the streets of Anuradhapuram?” 

Even before his astonishment of finding her there could dissipate, she had vanished leaving the Prince and the Vaishnavan on the streets. 

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Volume 1 - New Flood