Ever since I laid my hands on this book, I'd have to say I am possessed. I'm unable to find an equivalent adjective for the kind of impact this book has had on me. And this happens to anyone who reads this book, unanimously- that is the greatness of the legendary writer, Kalki Krishnamoorthy,who will be remembered and cherished for centuries, for the treasure he has left behind. I'm not writing this post to describe the book, I can never do that. One has to read it, to experience it. I can't even write a description about the book, when I think about the descriptions written by Kalki for Ponniyin Selvan.
As a result of my obsession/possession/addiction of Ponniyin Selvan, for the past one year, I have been wanting to visit all the places described in the book, and see how it is in the present day. I'm sure it is the same case with all the people who have read the book. Infact, many years ago during early 2000's the leading Tamil Magazine Anantha Vikatan had organised a "Ponniyin Selvan" trip, in which all the PS enthusiasts traveled along the same path as the protagonist Vanthiyathevan, the tall, dark and handsome hero. His travel starts from Veeranarayanan Yeri (present day Veeranam Lake near Chennai) and descends towards south till Thanjavur , Kodiyakarai, and then stretches to Eelam. The details of places covered in the Vikatan trip can be found in this link:
I did a mini version of the trip and managed to cover few places. I did not the visit the places in the same sequence, so my first destination was Thanjavur, big temple. First time I visited this temple was when I was in 4th std, for a school trip. Some of my classmates told me that, the huge bull (Nandi) in front keeps growing and when it touches the ceiling, the world will come to an end! I was too scared then. I remember seeing a very huge honeycomb on of the temple pillars. I cannot remember anything else from my first visit of the temple. Second time I visited the temple, I was a grumpy teenager who was bored of visiting temples and wanted to do something fun. The third time was two years ago, when I became an architect. This time I couldn't help but wonder the marvel of this structure - I took my time to take it all in and appreciate the beauty of it. I remember sitting for hours in the late evening, just immersed by the magnificent ambiance. This time it was different.
This was the first time, I'm visiting the temple after reading PS. And I'm amazed how this place makes me look at it differently, every-time I see it. I imagined Arulmozhi Varman (Raja Raja chozhan) walking in the temple complex. I tried deciphering the inscriptions trying to spot a word that read "Kundavai" or "Vanthiyathevan". It was crazy. I was wondering if there were secret passages around the shrines that housed any belongings of the King. Touching the stone pillars, thinking it was laid there 1500 years ago, when this place was thriving city and a capital of the chozha empire, gave me goosebumps. Sadly none of the Chozha palaces of Thanjavur remain today.
My next visit was to the once capital (before Thanjavur) of the Chozhas - Palayarai. As per Kalki's description of Palayarai, it must have been an ancient metropolis, with wall fortifications all around, with a very deep moat. Palayarai was the capital initially, before it was shifted to Thanjavur. It also had one of the magnificent palaces which housed great kings and queens like Sundara Chozhan, Kundavai, etc. The present day Palayarai (called now as "Keezha Pazahayarai") is nothing but a small deserted village near Kumbakonam. Absolutely nothing remains of the ancient city - except the main temple, which is also now in a ruined state.
The main tower was destroyed by a Pandiya King, and what remains now is only the stone base. I can only wonder in awe, if just the stone base is so tall and wide, the main tower would have almost been as tall as the one in Thanjavur. I managed to climb on top of the ruined tower. Unlike Thanjavur, this was built in brick (which again proves the marvel of the tower in Thanjavur). It is believed that, this temple had eight praharas - and only one is remaining now. I cannot visualise the grandeur of this temple which was almost eight times bigger than what it is today. It is only understandable that a temple of this scale was required in the capital city of the Chozha empire. There are many temples built during the Chozha period (around 10th century) in and around Kumbakonam. For people who are not aware of this fact, Kumbakonam is Kudanthai as mentioned in Ponniyin Selvan.
Kudanthai a.k.a Kumbakonam is a beautiful place. Many villages still have the ancient houses retained. I had a chance to visit one such agraharam street in a small village called Udaiyalur (this might have been part of the ancient Palayarai city - Raja Raja Chozhan was also called as 'Udaiyar' )
I was having an emotional mood swing in Udaiyalur. I was excited, sad and angry at the same time.
Excited - because I'm finally seeing places that I've been wanting to for so long. Sad - for the kind of state that it is in now, as compared to the beautiful description given by Kalki. Angry - for not being able to do anything about it.
This is one place I regretted visiting, only because it disturbed me so much. The tomb of the great Raja Raja Chozhan , the mesmerising Arul Mozhi Varman , the great ruler, the perfect king, is in a state, none of us would even want to admit to ourselves. It is said that the actual tomb built by Rajendra Chola - I , son of Raja Raja Chola is buried under the ground and till now, no one - I repeat, NO ONE, has taken steps for excavation. During those days, when a great King expires, a linga is placed above the tomb. That is the one we see in the picture here, but it is currently misplaced located now in a place where there was a well. The well is buried up now, and the linga was misplaced due to a flood that occurred during the 90's. According to the care-taker of this place, politicians usually do not prefer visiting the Thanjavur big temple fearing they might lose their seat/power in the elections. It is a jinx he says, that the great king who has built the big temple will punish any ruler who is not loyal to his people - which is why no politicians visit the Thanjavur temple he says. I really do wish all our corrupt politicians visit the temple, you know, just in case. Anyway, because of the same reason, none of them are taking steps to excavate or build a tomb for this Great Emperor. There was a time when Rs44 lakhs fund was allocated to build a memorial - but was spent for "something else" apparently - one of those moments when you feel ashamed of the people who run your country.
On the way to Palayarai you also come across a small village called "Chozhan maaligai" (Chola palace). It must have been the place where the Palayarai palace once stood majestically.
I also visited Kodumbalur sometime back (not part of this trip), to see the place Princess Vanathi (spouse of Raja Raja chozhan) grew up. It was another important city of the Chozha dynasty, which housed palaces and forts, nothing of which remains. It is now just another village, that you pass by on the highways - with small petty shops and no 3G mobile networks. Only thing that remains now in Kodumbalur is part of a temple complex
called "Moovar Kovil" - which houses three shrines. It has striking similarities to the the big temple in Thanjavur. The way in which the gopuram above the shrine is built especially looks like a module from which the great king might have been inspired to build the temple in Thanjavur.
The image shown here is the only picture that is recorded and available of Raja Raja Chozhan. The person standing next to him, is his Guru, Karuvur Thevar. It is only from this damaged image that we come to know how this great man must have looked. He does seem very young in this painting. Currently, a digital copy of the original painting (which was discovered in one of the walls of a small passage near the main shrine) is printed and kept in the museum in the Thanjavur big temple.
The next time I'm going to visit the big temple in Thanjavur would be after finishing the book, "Udayar" by Balakumaran. I'm sure it would be a totally new experience the next time too. There are still many places (Kadambur, Veeranam Lake, Anbil, Nanthipuram, Koneri Rajapuram, Kodiakarai, parts of Srilanka and many more) yet to be seen which features in Ponniyin Selvan - my wishlist still stands incomplete - Someday soon..
PS: There is a program in Thanthi TV, every Sunday 6:30-7:00pm, called "Yathreegan" which traces the path of all the places of Ponniyin Selvan novel - a really good show.