Thursday, 23 June 2016

Chapter 23: Vanathi

Princess Vanathi
If the poets were asked to describe the beauty of Princess Vanathi, they would surely compare it with the lovely elegance of the dusk. When the sun sets in the evening after a glorious day there is a hint of sadness and a still peace. That’s probably why the Gods of nature lit the skies with the lustrous moon and many millions of stars to compensate for the disappearance of the sun.

While it is true that the lovely lotus flowers close their petals during the dusk, the jasmine blooms and its heady fragrance intoxicates every one around.

The birds return to their nests during the dusk and the world is bereft of their chitter chatter but the bells of the temple tinkle through the space and the heavenly music of the nadaswaram and flute replaces them. The alluring strings of an ancient Yazh and the dainty fingers of the beautiful maiden who plays them are certainly worthy sights to behold during the dusk.

Vanathi’s beauty had the same tinge of sadness and forlorn sorrow mixed with charming elation of innocent joy. Her character too had the same twin characteristic of sorrow and joy in equal measures. Sometimes she would seem as sorrowful as Chandramathi and Savithri (mythological characters) while at other times she would be as joyful as apsaras Urvashi and Rambha in the heavens. When she is sad Sometimes it would be difficult to find this Princess grant even a small pitiful smile to those around her while on some days she would be found laughing gaily immersing those around her in a joyous world.

The origin of these dual characteristics in Vanathi can be traced back to the time of her birth and the circumstances of her upbringing. When she was in her mother’s womb, her father Kodumbalur Siriya Vellar was fighting many terrible wars. The news from the battlefield swung from good to bad everyday, swaying her mother’s anxious heart from joy to sorrow. Weakened in heart, her mother died after giving birth to her and her father took on the responsibility of bringing her up. Unfortunately, this too did not last. Kodumbalur Siriya Vellar was a great warrior he didn’t wish to stay away from wars even for his own daughter. When Veera Pandiyan escaped yet again, he sought the command of the armies that chased him all the way to Elangai and bravely gave his life on the battlefield winning acclaim and glory for eternity.

After her father’s death, Vanathi felt as if all the joy in her life was sucked out. She felt adrift, lonely and lost. No words can describe the sorrow of the child who has lost both the parents and only those who have sadly experienced this can feel the pain of such a situation. Though servants and handmaidens brought up Vanathi lovingly, none could replace her father in her heart of hearts. Many tried to console her in different ways and one of them said, “Don’t grieve child! Your father will be reborn as your child and he will be a great warrior too.”

For some reason, these words stayed with Vanthi, embedded deep within her. She transformed her loneliness and grief into imagination and daydreamed about the son that would be born to her. She would imagine her son to be a great commander who would win countless wars and come back to her unscathed. She would see his battle campaigns through imaginary eyes and cheer for him loudly when he brought back treasures and presented to her. She would see him climb the throne of a great kingdom and watch with pleasure when other kings paid homage to him. She would watch him sail away in thousands of ships and conquer lands far away and when he came back to her he would say, “Mother! You are the reason why I have been so victorious.”

Innocent of the ways of the world, Vanathi would sometimes touch her womb and wonder whether her son was already there. In those days, men and women were taught the great mythological stories of yore like Ramayanam, Mahabharatam and many more. She knew how Kunti Devi conceived the Pandavas by uttering a potent mantra. She wondered whether some God would appear before her and grant her a son who would fulfil all her dreams. Young as she was, she didn’t realize that marrying a husband was a perquisite to have a child in their society. When she came of age, she learned that only her husband could grant her a child but she didn’t think too much about it. All her dreams were focused solely on the wonder child that she would have in the future.

When her uncle sent her to Pazhaiarai as a companion for Princess Kundavai, her life changed for better. Kundavai’s grace, benevolence, wit and intelligence had a huge impact on her. She learned more about the whole wide world at the knees of this princess than anywhere else. Courtly behaviour, scriptures, poetry, mythology, history and yore of lands far away were the many things that Kundavai taught her pupil. Kundavai’s affection for Vanathi was a bone of contention among the other princesses who too had been sent to her as companions. Vanathi was pleasantly surprised and also bemused by the fact that they were jealous of her, as she never thought herself to be special in any way. Vanathi’s sweet nature and innocent charms endeared her to all and Kundavai preferred her company more than anybody else. Amidst all this, she didn’t stop daydreaming about the son that would be born to her.

Prince Arul Mozhi Varmar
One day, she met Ponniyin Selvar and all her dreams shattered. She knew that she had to marry if she wished to give birth to a son but she didn’t think much about the husband in the first place. Unfortunately her heart didn’t listen to the dictates of her mind and she lost hers to the Prince, who was the object of affection of every maiden in the realm. Marrying the Prince seemed like an unattainable dream for her and not could she marry anybody else either. Therefore her dream of a son disappeared like a puff of a smoke.

Disappointment and grief overtook her and she soon forgot to smile. Kundavai who astutely deduced the source of her grief began to counsel her and encouraged her towards her dream by saying that she could dream of marrying her brother. To top this, their visit to Kudanthai Jodhithar resurrected her old daydream of a great warrior son. Whenever she experienced extreme joy or grief her senses overwhelmed her and she fell faint. One can even say that it was nature’s way of saving her life from excess of emotion.

When Vanathi went to Thanjavur along with Kundavai she couldn’t forget the day when she heard the Emperor’s pitiful plea for help and the subsequent scene that she had inadvertently witnessed. She also learned the extent of hate and distrust that existed between her clan and that of the Pazhuvur. She also realized the true state of affairs and the extent of power that the Pazhuvur brothers wielded at the capital. She would often wonder whether the Pazhuvru brothers would allow a Kodumbalur Princess to marry Arul Mozhi Varmar.

If even they didn’t object Nandini might have something to say about it. Whenever she thought about Nandini she was reminded of a beautiful cobra snake – alluring, mesmerizing and dangerous. What if she tried to weave her seductive allure upon the Prince? She also remembered Nandini standing in front of the King, in his bedchamber? Was it really her? Why did the Emperor piteously beg her to leave him alone? Kundavai had not spoken to her about any of these things but she knew that the Princess was terribly worried. That’s why she refuses to speak about certain things to me. Is she perchance worried about the Prince? That’s probably why she is hesitant to talk to me about it.

Kundavai was missing again today. In her absence these girls behave with uncontrollable abandon. They have truly never known any worries, pain or unhappiness.

Vanathi was sick of her companions and just wished to be left alone. The past few days, she had been immersed in sorrow that she found it jarring to hear her friends mock her with jokes and japes. As she searched through the palace for the Princess, her handmaiden told her that she had gone to Sembiyanmadevi’s palace. When she reached the palace, she learnt that Sembiyanmadevi was with her son and that they were not to be disturbed. This news unnerved Vanathi and made her impatient to meet the Princess. In the meanwhile, she also noticed the crowd that had started gathering outside the palace, which seemed ominous. She went back to Kundavai’s palace and learnt that the Princess was meeting with Azhwarkadiyan at the lake. Vanathi hesitated to go there as the Princess often sought the lake only when she wished to be alone. While she stood debating whether to go there or not one of her friends Varini burst into the room running.

“Ponniyin Selvan has gone missing in the sea!” she shouted and started crying. The rest of the women in the room started crying in disbelief and true agony. Vanathi didn’t really feel anything at first. She stood watching the scene with a detachment that was very uncharacteristic of her.

She looked around and found the women watching her and accusing her. It seemed as though they were saying, “Girl! It was your bad luck that drowned our darling Prince in the sea!”

She couldn’t stand them staring at her thus. She turned on her heel and ran towards the lake. As she ran, the news about the Prince sank into her mind and things began to make sense. She had been seeing the Prince’s face as a reflection whenever she was near the lake. When she drew near to touch the water, his face would vanish.

The Prince probably thought about me when he died and he called me to him. The foolish girl that I am, I didn’t heed his summons and stayed on in the banks. I must go to him now. I can’t bear to be here alone when he awaits for me. This lake goes all the way to Arisalaru, which goes to the sea. At the bottom of the sea, my Prince awaits me. Why should I stay here and for whom?

After deciding what to do, a strange peace settled into Vanathi’s heart and she stopped running. She felt strangely light. Her worries and burdens fell away. She came near the lake and climbed down the steps that led them into the water. She looked around the lake and at a distance she spotted a boat. Kundavai was with the warrior who had gone to Elangai taking her message.

That’s probably why the Princess wanted to meet him alone. She wanted to spare me from all the horrific details of the Prince’s tragic death. I need to go to him before she comes back. If she comes back she would try to console me, give me courage and would stop me from joining my beloved prince. But I do wish that I could bid her a last farewell before I leave. I wish I could thank her for all that she had done for me… but no. I can see his visage on the water again. He was calling her again with outstretched arms. ‘Come… we can get married now. There are no more hurdles to cross…” Why should I wait? He is calling me now and I have to go. Why is my head whirling? Am I going to faint? It would be good if I can faint and fell into the water…

Vanathi’s wish came true. She fainted and fell into the water. The cool swirling waters of the lake soothed her heated body and as she floated down she travelled to the magical world that exists beneath the sea. Corals, pearls and many other treasures lay there beckoning her in their midst. She saw palaces of crystal, gold, silver filled with all the treasures of the world.

Next she saw a group of maidens who looked like snake maidens of yore with a serpentine grace and an alluring glance which made her wonder she was in the Kingdom of Nagas.

The maidens took her into a palace and adorned her with all the beautiful ornaments that they could find in their world. A beautiful courtyard was waiting for her decorated with flowers and there stood her Prince with a garland in his hands and a beautiful smile. They got married by exchanging garlands and the heavens burst upon them millions of flowers to celebrate their union. Unable to bear the happiness, Vanathi fainted once again and for a long time she felt as though she was floating until a pair of hands held her. At first she thought that it was Ponniyin Selvan who had taken her in his arms and held her in his lap trying to revive her. However she heard the sound of bangles and the beautiful voice of Princess, “Vanathi! Vanathi! How could you do this to me?” With much effort, Vanathi opened her eyes and saw Kundavai’s worried face and murmured, “Akka! Akka! Did you come for my marriage? I didn’t see you there.”

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