Book Review – Ponniyin Selvan #1

The minute I started reading the first book of the 5 volume magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy, I realised that I have stumbled upon a treasure of Tamil literature. Am so glad that several authors have spent time translating this epic !! To think that 5 volumes worth of work was released as weekly chapters in a magazine called Kalki feels fictional.

How did my mother-in-law’s generation have the patience to wait and read the next chapter ?? I have “devoured” four volumes in just over 15 days and the 5th volume is about to be completed. Its truly difficult not to read further.

Ponniyin Selvan traces the life of the greatest Chola emperor – Raja Raja Chola, from when he was Arulmozhi Varmar. Some fictional characters have been introduced but the Chola emperors and the wars they fought etc are all factual.

The Cholas have an uninterrupted 1600 year old rule !! Am so fascinated that I have decided to try and compile as much information as I can about them. Lets not forget, we are talking of nation builders, democratic rulers who cared deeply for their subjects and a very fair conqueror… The Cholas dominated without resorting to violence against women and children and most importantly, they were tolerant of all faiths prevalent at that time, Buddhism and Jainism.

Ponniyin Selvan Book 1 – Fresh Floods

Chola - Ponniyin Selvan

The book starts with the young soldier Vandiyathevan riding across to Thanjavur, the Chola Kingdom’s seat of power with important messages for the emperor Sundara Chola and Princess Kundavai from the crown prince Aditha Karikalan. He stops at his friend’s palace in Kadambur and stumbles upon a conspiracy being hatched to crown Prince Madhuranthakan as the successor instead of Aditha Karikalan. The kings who are plotting are led by Periya Pazhuvettarayar, the treasurer of the Chola Kingdom and a great warrior.

Vandiyathevan also meets Azhwarkadiyan Nambi who is actually a spy and tries to use every method to hang onto him. Azhwarkadiyan wants to meet Nandini, the stunning young wife of the 60+ Periya Pazhuvettarayar since she was his step-sister.

Princess Kundavai and her friend Vanathi are visiting an astrologer in Kudanthai (modern day city of Kumbakonam) where Vandiyathevan happens to see them accidentally. He falls in love with Princess Kundavai without knowing her identity.

Azhwarkadiyan also stumbles on a conspiracy being hatched by Pandiya soldiers who were once bodyguards of King Veera Pandyan. The crown prince Aditha Karikalan had killed Veera Pandyan with a single blow severing his head from his body. The bodyguards wanted to assassinate the emperor Sundara Chola, and both his sons – Aditha Karikalan and Arulmozhi Varmar.

Vandiyathevan is very resourceful and manages to get a signet ring from Nandini in order to enter the Thanjavur fort to meet the emperor. The Pazhuvettarayar brothers (older is married to Nandini) are protectors of the Chola dynasty and the younger brother is the commander of the Thanjavur fort.

Using the signet ring and weaving lots of stories, Vandiyathevan manages to meet emperor Sundara Chola but struggles to deliver the message from the crown prince. He also discovers the dungeons or caves where the Pazhuvettarayar brothers keep the treasury. The most important thing that Vandiyathevan discovers is that Nandini is helping the Pandiya bodyguards using gold from the treasury.

Vandiyathevan manages to escape from the tunnels/dungeons, the scrutiny of Chinna Pazhuvettarayar and even manages to save his friend, Kandanmaran, the prince of Kadambur. He leaves for Pazhaiyarai to meet Princess Kundavai. She tasks him to go to Ilankai (Sri Lanka) with a message for her younger brother Arulmozhi Varmar to return home. He leaves for Kodi Karai.

At Kanchipuram, Aditha Karikalan, his friend Parthibendran, and maternal grandfather Malayaman are upset that their messenger Vandiyathevan has been branded as a spy by the Pazhuvettarayar brothers. Parthibendran is sent to Ilankai with the same message of returning home. Aditha Karikalan also confides his secret passion for Nandini and his wish to marry her. She was tending to Veera Pandyan when Aditha Karikalan killed him and it totally devastated him.

My summary of book one doesn’t capture the grandeur of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s writing. I guess no translation can ever do that… and summaries, even less. The characters are so clearly etched that I won’t ever forget them.

Do read the English translation and those who can read Tamil, must read this magnum opus.

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