Saturday, 11 March 2017

Chapter 4 – The Ayyanar Temple

Just when Karikalan and his grandsire were talking, on the northern banks of Kollidam at a place known as Thirukannathumullur our old friends Azhwarkadiyan Nambi and Vandiya Devan were engaged in an odd occupation. This part of Kollidam River in those days was a holy pilgrimage area as the idol of Shiva from the adjoining temple was brought out for immersion in the river waters. To see this sight, many devout Saivites and Kalamugars would gather at the banks every day in the holy month of Thula. Not only Shiva, Lord Vishnu’s idols too were brought from the village temple for holy immersion with the result there were many Vaishnavaites and Saivites thronging the banks of the river.

Amidst this crowd, Azhwarkadiyan had hoisted a flag and issued a challenge.

“I have come here to debate and to establish that Lord Vishnu is the greatest among all the other Gods. Saivars, Kalamugars, Advaitis, Kapaligars, Buddhars or Jains… no matter what your faith is can come here and debate with me. If you win, I will hoist you on my shoulders and circumambulate this village but if you lose, you will need to hand over every possession that you carry on yourself except for your clothes. Who is ready for the challenge?” thus he growled looking around. In front of him, there were many rudraksha bead chains, golden necklaces, large earrings, brass vessels, costly silk and bags of coins which he had obviously won from those who were foolish enough to challenge him.

Standing near the Nambi under a Kadamba tree, Vandiya Devan pranced with a drawn sword. He barely had enough clothes on him and just the sword in his hand. His menacing looks seemed as though he was protecting the Nambi from those who had tried to mishandle him through force. He looked at the group of Saivars who had come there in response to Nambi’s challenge and said, “Be warned! You are free to debate with this Nambi as much as you want, but if you dare to lay a hand on him, you will fall prey to this sword.” He then whirled the sword around to great effect forcing the angry Saivars to rein in the violence that they were planning against the audacious Vaishnavan.

Vaishnavaney! Don’t get arrogant just because you won the debate today. Go to Thirunarayur, there you will find Nambiyandar Nambi whose skills in debating will put you to shame.”

“Well, if that is so, then ask him to go and debate with Thirunarayanapuram’s Ananda Battar. Even I might be going there…”

Saying thus, he called out for more people to challenge and when none came forth he removed the flag of challenge and put in its place a flag bearing the holy marks of Vaishnavaites – a conch and a discus. After he did that, the other Vaishnavaites who were gleefully watching the entire spectacle celebrated his victory by bearing him on their soldiers and chanted slogans.

After that one of them invited them to come to their home to partake a meal. Azhwarkadiyan agreed to come with great dignity and went along with Vandiya Devan. At the Vaishnavan’s house, they ate through a meal of tasty tamarind rice, sweetened rice (desert) and curd rice. Later, Azhwarkadiyan bartered all the items that he had won in the debate to the gathered Vaishnavaites (except for a silk upper garment that he gave to Vandiya Devan) for a bag of gold coins. He told them that he and Vandiya Devan were on a holy pilgrimage to Haridwaram and that they needed the coins for their journey. After getting the coins, they bid farewell and made their way towards Kadambur Palace.

Earlier that day they had crossed the Kollidam River on a crowded ferry that capsized when it neared the banks of the river. Since they were close to the banks, they were able to swim to the shore without much difficulty but most of them lost their possessions to the flowing waters. Vandiya Devan too lost all his possessions, the letters that he carried from Kundavai and from the Prime Minister to Aditya Karikalan were lost in the floods. He also lost the palm tree signet ring that Nandini had given him and the bag of coins that he was given for expenses. With no money in hand to buy horses, they had to earn it back with the help of Azhwarkadiyan’s debating skills. There were no horses to buy in the village that they had their meal so they had to walk all the way to Kadambur village to procure one and that too was a doubtful prospect. If none were available there, they would have to go to Thirupathipuliyur to get one.

They both vigorously argued about the merits and demerits of going to Kadambur. For one thing, they might learn news about where Aditya Karikalan was camped presently at Kadambur. This might help them plan the route of their journey. The pitfalls of going to Kadambur were also many. What if someone sees them there? What if Pazhuvur soldiers were already camped there? And if they see Vandiya Devan there would be hell to pay!

Nambi! You know how to jump over walls, why don’t you get into the horse stables of Kadambur Palace and steal two horses for us?”

“I can jump over wall… but the horses too need to know that skill Thambi!”

“If the Pazhuvur soldiers are camped there, then let’s steal away two horses from them. I still haven’t forgotten the way they had hassled my horse the last time we were there and I have been itching for some revenge.”

That steered the conversation towards the conspiracy that they both overheard the noblemen hatching and they discussed it at length all the way to Kadambur. As they expected the Kadambur village was getting ready to welcome their Crown Prince. Colourful decorations, flags and garlands were seen everywhere. Security around the Kadambur Palace was tight as ever. If that were not enough, Periya Pazhuvetarayar, the treasurer of the Kingdom too was arriving with a large entourage. It was reasonable to expect the village to be buzzing with activity for the next few days.

Nambi and Vandiya Devan learned all this at the village market where people conversed freely. They also learned that both the parties have not arrived in Kadambur yet. They found out that Sambuverayar’s son Kandan Maran went all the way to Kanchi to bring the Crown Prince to Kadambur. While the people spoke about the events to come excitedly, some expressed their grief over the drowned prince in whispers and their outrage over the fact that entertainers outran the village, even while they were mourning the death of their Emperor’s son.

Azhwarkadiyan and Vandiya Devan heard all this silently and made their way to the outskirts of the village. They didn’t want to stay the night at the village, lest they were recognised. At the outskirts, they might find an abandoned mandapam or a guesthouse to rest for the night, or they could even make their way to Veeranarayanapuram and sleep in the temple mandapam peacefully. After the being caught in the floods of the Kollidam the previous night, they both craved uninterrupted sleep. After leaving Kadambur village they walked along the length of a thick bamboo forest when they saw an Ayyanar temple hidden amidst the thick foliage.

Vaishnavarey! I can’t walk anymore. Let’s sleep in this temple tonight. We will be away from prying eyes and spies here.”

“You are wrong about that. Places such as this will always attract people like us, who wish to stay hidden from the populace.”

“That’s fine let them come. I only wish that they came with their horses. That would be good for us.”

“It would be impossible to enter this bamboo forest with a horse. Even for us, it would be difficult to enter.”

“There must be a pathway somewhere here. How else does the temple priest come here?”

They searched their way through the bamboo forest and soon found a narrow pathway as predicted by Vandiya Devan. It was so narrow that they had to be very careful while walking through the path to avoid the thorns. After walking for a while, there was a clearing around the area where the temple was built. A large sacrificial altar was erected in front of the temple and many large mud elephants and horses were kept there as an offering to Ayyanar (guardian deity of villages).

After looking at the horses, Vandiya Devan said, “Why are we so worried about horses when we could borrow some from Ayyanar?”

“Have you forgotten the proverb, that you shouldn’t trust a mud horse and get into the lake?”

Vaishnavaney! Our Ayyanar is a very powerful God. He listens to his devotee’s pleas almost immediately. Not like your Lord Vishnu, who sleeps through the day.”

“So you believe that he would bring this mud horse to life. Good for us. Might as well save some gold.”

“Those who bear true devotion in their hearts will find their wishes come true and the mud horses will come to life. What if they are made of mud? What of our bodies? Aren’t they made of mud before Brahma gave us a breath of life?”

 “Very true Thambi! We keep forgetting it that’s why our Vaishnava gurus have bid us to keep ‘thiruman’ on our foreheads just so that we remember this.”

At that moment, Vandiya Devan suddenly said ‘Ushhh’ and bid Azhwarkadiyan quiet. Dusk had fallen and all around the forest, darkness was gathering and in the twilight, they saw a miracle. A horse and an elephant were indeed coming to life! The elephant had moved from its place and so had the horse! Vandiya Devan was amazed by the sight and couldn’t stop himself from impressing upon the Nambi about the great divine powers of Ayyanar.

Vaishnavarey! Did you see?”

Azhwarkadiyan held his hand tight and bid him be quiet and led him behind a huge tree to watch what was happening at the temple.

The place where the elephant and the horse had originally stood had a hole in the ground through which a head appeared! The head turned around in all directions, which seemed pretty gory to Vandiya Devan whose eyes flitted towards the sacrificial altar that was nearby. But Azhwarkadiyan was watching the proceedings unfazed without a hint of fear. Even as they watched the head came out of the tunnel to reveal that it was indeed a man within it. The man came out of the tunnel and in the gathering darkness and Nambi was able to recognize who he was. It was Edupankari, the man who was employed in Kadambur Palace as a servant and a spy for Ravidasan’s gang.

Nambi and Vandiya Devan looked at each other in surprise and shock. Edupankari left the tunnel open below and then once again looked around him suspiciously and walked towards the temple. He then opened the temple doors and went inside. Within a few minutes, the temple lamps were lit.

Thambi! What do you think of this?” asked Nambi

Ayyanar is indeed more powerful than any God. Didn’t you see how the horse and the elephant came to life?”

“That’s alright. What about the man who just came here? What do you think of him?”

“Looks like he is the temple priest here. Shall we go in to get the darshan of Lord Ayyanar?”

“Hold on… let’s wait and watch if somebody else comes here for the same.”

“Do you really think many other people would come?”

 “Then, why else is he lighting so many lamps at the Sanctum?”

“He is the priest of the temple isn’t he?”

“Didn’t you recognise him?”

“I did. He is the soldier who procured me the horse when we crossed Kollidam. His name is Edupankari. Do you think he would help us get a horse again?”

“You do come up with brilliant ideas.”

“You disapprove?”

Edupankari is not just the soldier who procured the horse for you. He also happens to be Ravidasan’s spy.”

“Is that so? Then I do have yet another brilliant idea.”

“And what would that be?”

“What if I got inside the tunnel through which he had come?”

“It could be dangerous!”

“Every turn of our life is dangerous!”

“Alright! Just as you wish.”

“Will you watch around here and see what’s happening?”

“Of course I will. Do you have any idea where that tunnel would end?”

 “Many ideas… that’s what I would like to confirm.”

“Why do you wish to know where the tunnel ends?”

“It might come in handy sometime… who knows?

That’s when they heard voices at a distance.

“Let’s not tarry anymore. You will stay right here won’t you until I get back? Or will you do the same thing that Sugreeva did to Vaali?”

“If I am alive, you will find me here waiting for you but will you come back here for sure?”

“I will return for sure… if I am alive.”

Saying thus, Vandiya Devan ran towards the statues of horse and elephant and then jumped inside the tunnel entrance. After he disappeared, Edupankari came out of the temple and noticed that he had left the tunnel entrance open. He immediately went near the sacrificial altar and turned a lever and the elephant and horse moved back to its original position.

After he did that he stood near the temple entrance awaiting someone’s arrival and that’s when Ravidasan, Soman Sambavan and the rest of the gang arrived through a different forest path. Azhwarkadiyan tried to hide behind the thin bamboo reeds when he spied them arriving.

Ravidasan sat down at the temple entrance and the rest of the gang sat around him.

“Friends! We are about to fulfil our vow very soon.” Said Ravidasan.

“This is what we have been saying for the past six months… that the ‘time is near’ but when are we going to fulfil it?” questioned Soman Sambavan morosely.

“Yes, we have been saying it for the past six months… and each passing day we were nearing the right time when our plans would come to fruition. Now though we can count the number days that are left to fulfil our vow. I just heard that Aditya Karikalan has started from Kanchi. I heard that he is determined to come to Kadambur despite the objections that his grandfather Thirukovalur Malaimaan had raised.”

“What if someone tries to change his mind, while he is on his way here?”

Aditya Karikalan will never back down once he has decided on a course of action. He will see this through.”

“What if the message that his sister had sent reaches him?”

“How is that possible? Didn’t we tie that boy in the middle of the forest?”

“’Middle of the forest’ indeed! We saw that boy at Kollidam river banks and along with him was one other enemy of ours.”

“Who is that?”

“That rogue Vaishnavan!”

“Alright, then we will need to be very careful. We should not allow them to meet Karikalan at any cost.”

“Yes… wonderful idea indeed. When we had the boy in our hands, we will allow him to escape and then waste our time trying to hunt him down. We should have slain him right there and offered him as a sacrifice at the battlefield of our glorious king. Why does our queen pity him so? Why did we spare his life?”

“Friends! I can understand your doubts and believe me, I too asked our queen the same questions. It’s only recently that I had the opportunity to learn her entire plan and I have to concede defeat and agree that she is indeed brilliant. Vandiya Devan’s life was spared for a very important reason and you will learn the why of it very soon. Do not worry about him, when the time comes, we will take care of him. But we can’t be lenient where the Vaishnavan is concerned and if any of you spot him anywhere, slay him without any second thoughts.”

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Volume 1 - New Flood