For the love of 'Ponniyin Selvan': How four women went on a road trip to relive the Chozha era

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For the love of 'Ponniyin Selvan': How four women went on a road trip to relive the Chozha era

United by their love for Kalki's 'Ponniyin Selvan', these women set off on a road trip to rediscover history and in the process, themselves.

Nithya Seetharaman

Four women from different professions – a birthing instructor, teacher, HR professional, and auditor – decided to go on a trip. They had met on a Facebook group and discovered that they shared a common love for Ponniyin Selvan, Kalki Krishnamoorthy’s much loved epic originally written in Tamil. They have busy careers and young children but their passion to visit the places they’d grown up imagining drove them to making it happen.

Ponni, as the river Kaveri is fondly called in the southern parts of Tamil Nadu is the lifeline for the civilisation that thrives in this fertile belt. The book, Ponniyin Selvan or ‘Ponni’s darling son’, is about the Chozha reign during 900-950 AD. The plot revolves on the power struggle and conspiracies around the ruling King Sundara Chozhan and his sons Aditya Karikalan and Arulmozhi Varman (later known as the famous Raja Raja Chozhan).

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What started as a small discussion on a private Facebook mommies group about the book led us into this mindblowing road trip down south to trace the places that are mentioned in the narrative – from where its hero Vandhiyathevan travels from Thondai Mandalam (North TN) to Pazhaiyarai (early Chozhanadu capital).

There were a lot of reasons for this trip to fail. A sick child, work, last minute nerves and so on. Also, the four of us did not know each other too well beyond our interactions on the Facebook group but the glue of Ponniyin Selvan held us together. Throughout the journey and much later as well.

The Chozha reign in Tamil Nadu can be demarcated as Early Chozhas and Later Chozhas. The early Chozhas belong to the Sangam age (200BCE - 200CE) and not much documented data is available about this period. The Sangam age is classified into three - First, Intermediate and Last (Mudhal, Idai, Kadai Sangam). The Chozha ruler of the Last Sangam age was Chozhan Senganaan.

From L-R: Sripadma Ganapathi, Deepa Naveen, Jayapriya Adimurugan, Nithya Seetharaman

After that, there was a vacuum for many centuries and once the Pallavas took over the reign, somewhere around 850 AD, there came the famous war of Thirupurambiyam. This was the Waterloo moment in Tamil Nadu war history.

Kaveri, while flowing towards the east, splits itself into many tributaries that go south. One such tributary is Maniyaaru, which flows between Kollidam and Kaveri. On the northern banks of this river is Thirupurambiyam. This is where the legendary war between the Pallavas and Pandiyas happened. And Chozhas, specifically Vijayalaya Chozhan, fought on the side of the Pallavas and fought magnificently.

The Thiruvalangangadu Inscription speaks highly about this Chozha king's valour and the way he battled earning victory for the Pallavas and thus re-establishing the Chozha lineage of rulers. And cutting the long story short, quite reluctantly if I may add, the book Ponniyin Selvan starts with around 950 AD.

Vijayalaya Chozhan's grandson Paranthaka Chozhan had three sons - Rajaditya, Gandaraditya and Arinjaya Chozhans. Due to war misfortunes and other incidents detailed in the book, Arinjaya's son Sundara Chozhan becomes the king of consolidated Chozha Nadu and his sons Aditya Karikalan and Arulmozhi Varman (Raja Raja Chozhan I, whom we fondly call RRC-I) are some of the main characters of this book.

The hero, Vandhiyathevan, traces his journey from Thondai Mandalam (roughly around contemporary Chennai) to Thanjavur through places like Veeranam, Kadambur, Thiruvaiyaar, Thanjai and Pazhaiyarai (then capital) and Kodiyakkarai. This was our main itinerary.

The other prominent places around the Chozha time period like Pazhuvur, Gangai Konda Chozhapuram, Darasuram, Udaiyalur, Tanjore Peruvudayaar (now Brihadeeswara) were also added to the plan.

So, thus began a journey of re-discovering not just these places but also bits and pieces of our past, our personalities that were long forgotten in the sepia tone monotony that had painted our lives after marriage and motherhood. The chart below may explain the Chozha lineage and the book characters, including those which are fictional.

Image courtesy: Mani Gunasekaran

Day 1

First stop: Veeranam Lake & Veeranarayanpuram

If you have read Ponniyin Selvan, the sight of this place could make you cry. Kalki Krishnamurthy described this lake, built by Rajaditya Chozhan, through the eyes of Vandhiyathevan during the fertile season of Adi perukku.

Veeranam Lake

Vadavaaru is a tributary of the Kaveri through which water drains into this lake that spans 235 kms (146 mi), almost resembling a sea in the eyes of the hero Vandhiyathevan. From the lake come 74 canals that irrigate the fertile belt of south Tamil Nadu. All we could see when we went was a barren lake, hoping for a good monsoon this year.

From here we went to Veeranarayar Temple that is on the banks of this river. The Chozhas are famous for their intricate architecture and magnificent temples that are built along this belt of the Kaveri. So, many of the places we visited were temples which had stood the test of time and invaders - though not too successfully since most of them are in ruin. The palaces and dwelling units were not as lucky and were destroyed.

Second stop: Kadambur & Maaligai Medu

Almost all the villages in Kadambur are split into two: North and South. We guessed that this must be due to the early varna system.

Image courtesy: Rudrapathi Temple

Our next stop was Keezhakadambur, Rudrapathi Temple. The inscriptions found in the Adhistanam are in the script dating to 12th century CE. There was something unique about these sculptures. Though made of stone, these sculptures were hollow and you can test this out by clinking a coin against them and listening to the sound.

A local person showed us a tunnel that starts from the sanctum sanctorum which was believed to be the escape route that goes up to Gangai Konda Chozhapuram. He alleged that sculptures were stolen from the temple and that there has been increased vigilance by the TN ASI and local residents as a consequence.

Maalaigai Medu

In Maaligai Medu lie the palace ruins of Rajendra Chozhan, son of RRC I. There is nothing much to this place other than the ruins.

The adjacent shed houses precious sculptures believed to have been taken from the nearby areas. This site is preserved by the Archaeological Department.

The early Chozha palaces and temples were mostly made of bricks and later, the temples were made of stone carvings influenced by Pallava architecture. As per the book Udayaar by Balakumaran, Sembian Maadevi - a Chozha Queen – was hailed for converting these brick temples into stone.

Sculptures from the Chozha period are mostly forms of the deity Shiva and the karanas (dance postures), Boothakaaris, Brahma, Dakshinamoorthy, Lingothbhavar, Chandikeshwarar and forms of goddess Parvathy (Durga, Mahishasuramardhini). Also, this was a period when the Shaivite-Vaishnavite conflicts were at their peak though there is enough documentation as to how the kings maintained harmony and strived for peaceful co-existence.

A short respite from the excruciating sun came in the form of an unplanned visit to Gangai Konda Chozhapuram museum. In the hunt for most of these places, we tried a combination of Google maps and directions from local villagers.

Third Stop: Gangai Konda Chozhapuram

Gangai Konda Chozhan

Rajendra Chozhan, inspired by the Thanjai Peruvudayaar Temple (now Brihadeeswara) built by his father, created this architectural wonder. This one also houses a giant Nandhi and is very similar in terms of size, architecture and deities to the Thanjavur Big Temple.

We spent a considerable amount of time observing its technical precision, later restoration, and adjacent structures standing testimony to the Chozhar culture, taste and history.

This was a very significant stop in our journey for other reasons, too. This is where we got together, spoke, shared views, joked, and finally broke the ice. Sitting on the steps to the entrance of the sanctum sanctorum, we spoke for hours about Ponniyin Selvan, the itinerary, books we have read on Chozhar and Tamizh history. And when we were quiet, we were introspecting this pleasant turn life had taken, though for a brief period of time. From being travel companions, this is where we became friends. 

Day 2

Day 2 was a packed day. From Kumbakonam, after brief stops at Sarangapani Temple, we proceeded towards, Pazhuvur. For me, Nandhini, the projected antagonist who makes his chessboard moves, is nothing short of a hero with may be a negative shade. She is addressed as Pazhuvur’s younger queen and her husband (as per the book), Pazhuvettarayar, was the ruler of this place.

First stop: Pazhuvur

It was a hard task to find this place. But it wasn’t just that. These sites, which are preserved by the ASI, are locked and the key is usually handed over to a local person who stays nearby. In this case, it happened to be the local priest. We landed there on a Friday, a busy day for him, and he refused to come and open the site or hand over the key to anyone who could show us the place.

We were disheartened. After traveling for 2 hours in the crushing heat, we couldn’t see the- Twin Temple Keezhaiyur. On top of it, the online material about these twin temples had already spiked our curiosity and to leave without seeing it wasn’t acceptable. However, one of us, Sripadma, used her contacts and after 90 minutes of innumerable phone calls and explanations to people from the ASI, politically connected local persons and their contacts, we were given ten minutes to see the place.

Entering the temple, we had to manoeuvre through cob webs, bat droppings and the unbearable stench. But it was worth it. In here, we saw unbelievably beautiful sculptures made with such a sense of taste and a dash of humour.

The life-like Nandhi, the naughty Boodhakaris in varied poses, warriors fighting inside a dragon’s mouth, creatures of fantasy and mythology like the Yaali (a mix of lion, elephant, horse), rare sculptures of Brahma, Lingothbhavar and the Shiva Lingam at the sanctum sanctorum, gave us goosebumps.

Second stop: Nathan Koil and RRC I Mausoleum at Udaiyalur

At Nathan Koil, we had to get the keys and open the temple ourselves. More bats, more stench.

This is the site of Panchavan Maadevi Pallipadai. Pallipadai is the concept where the kings build temples over the buried remains of a noble person. This temple was built by Rajendra Chozhan for his stepmother Panchavan Maadevi who was instrumental in shaping his political career.

This was a very interesting site and so was RRC Mausoleum. There is a contention that this is not the actual site where his mortal remains rest. However this is the documented place which also fits into the timeline.

At Udaiyaalur, we were told that a kalvettu (epigraph) announcing the death of RRC I was available in another place called Paal-Kulathi-Amman temple. We hunted for the place were saddened to see that such an important piece of history, a pillar to a gate of a historical temple, had a City Union Bank ad on it.

Arulmozhi Varman (later crowned as Raja Raja Chozhan) was the character we’d all fantasized about when we’d read the book. He was noble, brave, and kind. But he was more than just this. As a teenaged prince, he performed spectacular deeds and later went on build the famous Thanjai Peruvudayaar temple. A visit to his mausoleum nearly brought us to tears.

Third stop: Chozhan Maaligai

This is like any other village. The only ruins we saw were that of a Shiva Temple said to be built by the Chozhas. However, according to someone we met there, most of the lands are now private properties and the treasures which were unearthed were either sold or given to museums.

Fourth stop: Pazhaiyarai

The next destination was Pazhaiyarai. This place has so much historical and cultural significance. The capital of Chozhanadu moved from Uraiyur (Early Chozhas) to Pazhaiyarai (Ponniyin Selvan time period) and later to Thanjavur.

Pazhaiyarai was a significant point in our itinerary and we were searching for the Metrali temple significant to the Chozhas. Driving through the interior roads of this village which was once a capital city, we imagined the busy streets and bustling activity as described in the book.

We came to an Early Chozha period temple where we saw unique sculptures, inscriptions, a marvellous marble Shiva lingam at the sanctum sanctorum with unique symmetrical dimensions and a gopuram built to unbelievable precision. The caretaker was full of historical trivia and philosophy.

Fifth stop: Darasuram

The last stop for the day was Darasuram. This temple is huge and is an architectural wonder. From the stone steps musical sculpture which gives out the seven notes, it is  distinctly Chozha in its architecture.

We headed towards Thanjavur for the night.

Day 3

We had an exciting day ahead of us. The famous Thanjai Peruvudayaar temple (Brihadeeswara) and Kodiyakkarai on the coast were awaiting us. We wanted to be at the temple, a UNESCO world heritage site, at sunrise. You see, Raja Raja Chozhan, our favourite from Ponniyin Selvan, built this temple and how he did it is a book in itself. Do read Udayaar by Balakumaran!

First Stop: Peruvudayaar aka Brihadeeswara

We were there at 5.30, even before the temple doors opened. When we were let inside, we could barely contain our emotions. This is where our hero would have walked, stood, inspected…oh, too much to take for us fan-girls!

This is what we wanted. Living the book, the characters and discovering the places in our own way centuries later. We spent about three hours admiring the site inch by inch.

We observed how the later ruler, Saraboji (Serfoji), had added idols, paintings and inscriptions to this site. We had fun interpreting the Thamizh inscriptions and also noticed that there inscriptions in Hindi  in the surrounding structures that were built later, probably during the Saraboji time period.

The Saurashtra influence in that Kumbakonam- Thanjavur belt could also be observed. Interestingly, there was a locked-up sannadhi (designated place) for Yama, the god of death. Something we had never seen elsewhere. There were mentions of Udayaar Sri Raja Raja Thevar (as he was called by the people) in so many inscriptions, Raja Rajee (a key character in Udayaar who was instrumental in building the temple). We saw the inscriptions containing names of all the devaradiyars (devadasis as they were later called), of the daily, monthly and yearly rituals as instructed by RRC himself to be performed to the Lord.

We also visited the Nisumba Soodhani deity, the goddess whom the Chozhas, especially RRC, worshipped before war.

Also in Thanjavur, we learnt about the concept of Navakandam. This is a practice where soldiers or common folk, voluntarily came forward to sacrifice their life before a war or any other major event to prepare first-timers for the sight of bloodshed.

Second Stop: Kodiyakkarai

According to Ponniyin Selvan, Kodiyakkarai is the place from where Arulmozhi Varman, Vandhiyathevan and others left for Eezha Naadu (now Sri Lanka). It is the place where Poonguzhali lived with her hallucinations and sang those wonderful songs. For the Chozhas, this place (Point Calimere now) was key for entry into Sri Lanka and a port for trade and military transit.

We spotted deer, fox, horses, and peacock at the reserve and walked up to the beach where the Chozha period lighthouse remains can be found.

Kuzhagar Temple at Kodiyakkarai was the last stop on our journey. By this point, our driver had become as enthusiastic as us about Ponniyin Selvan!

They say the journey is more important than the destination and this couldn’t have been truer in our case.  We couldn’t have done this trip with temperamental toddlers or an impatient spouse. The four of us came together from different walks of life, cities, and day jobs that have nothing to do with history or archaeology, all for the love of one book, Ponniyin Selvan.