Sunday, 20 December 2015

Chapter 10: Choodamani Viharam

After Poompuhar went under the sea, Nagapattinam became the most important sea port for the Cholas. Many merchant ships came to the beautiful land of the Cholas through Nagapattinam bearing precious gems and fast horses of Arabia, seeking to barter goods.

Years ago, when Sundaramurthy Nayanar came to Nagapattinam he saw rich ships helmed by the prosperous merchants bringing in their goods to the port. He described the scene in a song where he hails Nagapattinam as a port city of beautiful palaces. Nambi Aroor, yet another poet saint too described Nagapattinam as a port, where one can procure a rare breed of fast Arabian horses. That’s probably why Sundaramurthy Nayanar too got himself a horse instead of buying the rich wares that the merchants were peddling.

Many historical plaques have hailed this port city as the most prosperous and bustling place where goods were often bartered. They also describe it as a city with many palaces and mandapams and the famous Choodamani Viharam.

Malay of today was known as Sri Vijaya Nadu in the olden days. Kadaram was an important city of this Kingdom and the Kings of Shailendra vamsam ruled over Sri Vijaya Nadu for many years. Of all the kings in this lineage Magaradwajan Choodamani Varman was most famous. He was known as a political strategist of great intelligence, his knowledge about worldly affairs could only be compared to the wisdom of Guru Bhagawan himself. The plaques of Anaimangalam compared his intelligence and acumen to the sun himself.

The son of this great king, Mara Vijayathunga Varman wanted history to remember his father’s name in posterity, therefore he built a huge Buddha Viharam at Nagapattinam and called it Choodamani Viharam. One may wonder why the Kings of Kadaram, came all the way to Nagapattinam to build a Buddha Viharam. In those days, Nagapattinam and Sri Vijaya Nadu were engaged in trade for many long years. Many people from Sri Vijaya Nadu who had come to Nagapattinam to trade had settled in the port city. The Kings of Kadaram and his citizens belonged to the faith of Buddha and since large number of his citizenry were settled in Nagapattinam, he built the Choodamani Viharam for their benefit. The Chola Kings who were benevolent towards the followers of Buddha allowed the Kadaram king to build a Viharam in their land. Apart from giving them the land, the Chola Kings also gifted many grants and bestowed tax-free lands on the Viharam.

Later after many years when Arul Mozhi Varmar (Raja Raja Cholan) was crowned the king, he would bestow the entire village of Annaimangalam as a tax-free gift to the Choodamani Viharam and would inscribe this royal decree as a stone plaque for posterity. Today these stone edicts can be seen at the Netherlands museum.

Leiden Copper Plates of Chola that describes
Choodamani Viharam in Nagapattinam

Leiden Copper Plates of Chola
Right from the time of Vijayalaya Chola, the kings who came after him were great devotees of Lord Shiva. King Aditya, Paranthaka Chola, Gandarathidhar and others were very devout and had built many temples and had bestowed many lands and riches to their beloved God. However, they were also very tolerant of people who followed other faiths and religion. In this regard, King Sundara Chola was more benevolent than his ancestors, as he bestowed many rich grants for Buddha Viharams. Pleased by his actions, many Buddha Viharams and their principle Bikshus hailed Sundara Chola’s grace and benevolence every day. Added to this, when they heard about Prince Arul Mozhi Varmar’s actions in Elangai where he had ordered his army to rebuild the dilapidated Buddha Viharams, their joy knew no bounds.

Now that we know this, we wonder what had happened at this Buddha Viharam that has agitated the peaceful Buddha Bikshus. One can hear a lot of confused gabble of voices at the entrance of Viharam. Let us go along with Senthan Amudhan to see what is happening there.

When Senthan Amudhan entered the Viharam through the rear entrance there was no one about, so he made his way through to the main entrance. At the public entrance of the Viharam there was a main temple of Buddha. Many devotees had gathered there holding offerings of lotus flowers, camphor and pooja plates laden with flowers of Shenbagam. But the devotees had not gone up the temple and were instead listening intently to someone who was narrating something. Many Buddha Bikshus too had gathered around them listening to the man with their eyes filled with tears. The crowd gathered there exclaimed ‘Ayyo!’ even as the man continued his story.

Senthan Amuthan understood what had happened after he reached closer. The man narrating the story was one of the crew members from Pallava Parthibendran’s ship. Their ship had reached Nagapattinam one day earlier and soon after their arrival, rumours about the Prince’s death had spread around the city. Worried by these rumours the head of the Viharam bid one of the crew members of the ship to come so that they could learn the truth of the matter. Narrating the incidents that happened during the storm, the man completed his story with the news that the Prince had jumped into the sea to save someone.

When they heard it, everybody in the crowd started crying and shouting in anguish. The head of the Viharam, an old Bikshu started crying and streams of tears wet his ochre clothes. Anguished and in despair the old Bikshu climbed the steps to the temple and the other Bikshus followed him. Senthan Amuthan too followed them behind but no one noticed him.

“I can’t believe that this is the will of Lord Buddha. How many castles did we build in the air? Recently when I went to Thanjavur and met King Sundara Cholar and told him about the great deeds that his young son was doing for us in Elangai. Princess Kundavai too was right next to them. She called me again for a private audience and told me that she wished to open a medicine clinic next to this Viharam and that she would bestow grants from her own income for the same. That was not all. She also made an important request to me. She said that there would come a time when her brother might need shelter from his enemies and that she looked upon us to provide it. She asked me whether I would be able to protect him! And I told her that I would be honoured to host the Prince as my guest and that I would protect him from any harm. What a calamity has visited upon us? The prince drowns in the sea and along with him all our dreams has shattered.  How did the Sea God dare to take away the beloved son of Cholas?”

Listening to the anguish of their leader the other Bikshus silently shed tears and silence descended upon them. Senthan Amuthan moved towards the leader thinking that now would be a good time to speak to him.

When he came forward the other Bikshus noticed him for the first time and wondered aloud as to who he was?

Senthan Amuthan addressed the leader saying, “Ayya! My name is Senthan Amuthan. I have come from Thanjavur. I wish to speak to your leader privately,”

“I keep no secrets at my Viharam. You can tell whatever you want to, in front of them,” said the old Bikshu.

Ayya! I have come here with someone who is very unwell,”

“Who is he? What ails him? Where have you left him?”

“He is at the rear entrance,”

“How did you get there?”

“We came by the boat through the canal. He is suffering from Shivering fever. I request you to…”

“Oh God! The shivering fever spreads in the air. Why did you bring him here that too now of all times?”

“Acharyarey! So long, I was under the impression that King Ashoka belonged to the faith of Buddha. Now I know that he was not,”

“Why do you say that?”

“I once saw the pillar of Ashoka near Kanchi and in that it was written that it is one’s prime duty to take care of the sick and infirm but here you are driving me away,”

The old Bikshu looked at his disciples and said, “Wait here, I will go with him to see this person,”

As they neared the rear entrance, the Bikshu got agitated when he saw a young woman was standing with a young man.

“How could you do this? How dare you bring a woman to this Viharam? Women are prohibited from entering our Viharam, don’t you know that? That’s why we keep a separate monastery for women monks!”

After raging thus, he neared them and saw who the young man was and he stood transfixed in shock and surprise. He couldn’t speak for a while and when he did, he looked at Senthan Amuthan for confirmation, “Is it Prince Arul Mozhi Varmar?”

But the Prince heard him and answered instead, “Acharyarey! No! I am not a Prince. This woman and this man are trying to drive me mad. I am an ordinary man who pliĆ©s the boat for a living and I asked this woman, “Will you marry me? Let us get on a boat and go far away from here,” but she is babbling something odd. She says that I was born to rule this world and that she wouldn’t marry me because she is but a mere fisher girl. She just wants me to be happy and well and that she wishes to see me succeed in life. How is this story? Now tell me who is truly mad? Me or her?”

Senthan Amuthan whispered something in the ears of the old Bikshu. He had by then realized that the Prince was in the grip of the fever and was incoherent. He remembered Kundavai Devi’s request and was glad that he finally got the opportunity to repay the benevolence showed by the Cholas.

He turned towards the other Bikshus and said, “This boy is indeed afflicted with ‘shivering fever’. If we let him outside he would infect other people. In Elangai, thousands of people died thanks to this fever. I will take him to my personal chamber and will oversee his medication. If he says something inappropriate in the meanwhile, ignore it. He is not in his senses,”
Bikshu takes Prince Arul Mozhi Varmar inside the Viharam
Saying thus, the old Bikshu took the Prince’s hand and Senthan Amuthan held his other hand and together they took him inside the Viharam.

As they took step after step, towards the Viharam door, Poonguzhali felt that the door of her desires would soon shut, never to be opened again. She would never see the Prince again in this birth. 

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