Wednesday, December 27, 2017

True Characters of Ponniyin Selvan

One of many fascinating aspects that have captured the imagination of its readers for decades is the fact that 80% of characters in Ponniyin Selvan are real people. These individuals have found a place in history and their names are etched in stone. Their actions and subsequent life has been recorded for posterity.

The epic story of Ponniyin Selvan occurs during a period of turmoil during the last years of Emperor Sundara Chola’s reign. Their actions during this brief period of time, defines them for a lifetime and that makes this epic more interesting to read.

As we follow their characters through their life, their motivations, desires and ambitions, many of their actions become apparent.

Raja Raja Cholan aka Arul Mozhi Varman

Figure 2 - Emperor Raja Rajan's Statue

The man, who lent his name to this epic story, is one of the iconic kings of the Chola dynasty. He reigned the Chola Kingdom from 985 AD – 1014 AD. During his period, he captured Sri Lanka, Malabar Coast and Maldives Island and annexed and integrated them with his expanding Kingdom. He also built the massive Brihadeeshwarar Temple in Thanjavur (a UNESCO heritage temple today), one of the largest in India. Raja Rajan’s reign was also known for his able administration and the massive literary project of collecting the Tamil poems of Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar into one compilation called Thirumurai. This ensured the survival of many obscure literature composed by these Saint-poets. Devout, intelligent, astute and yet stern Raja Raja Cholan was unlike any other Chola King in his dynasty.

In Ponniyin Selvan, he is just a 19-year-old Prince young in years and Kalki very astutely shows us the many influences that help shape him into the Emperor that he becomes in the later years.

Princess Kundavai
Figure 3 Venkundra Kottathu Nalloor Naattin Rajarajapuram - A temple built by Princess Kundavai

Figure 4 Inscription that names Princess Kundavai

The older and wiser sister of Raja Raja Cholan was the one who inspired him to achieve greatness. She mentored him when he was young and more importantly she brought up her nephew Emperor Rajendra Cholan, Raja Rajan’s son whose reign was known as the golden period of Chola dynasty and rightly so.

In Ponniyin Selvan, Kundavai is not a demure heroine. She is a political player, wise, intelligent beyond her years. Her determination not marry and leave her kingdom comes through early on in the novel. But one young warrior manages to change her mind and captures her heart…

Vandiya Devan
No. Vandiya Devan is not an imaginary character. He was indeed the Bana Prince who married Kundavai. You will find the inscription that attests this fact at Brahadeeshwara Temple, Thanjavur.

Figure 5 Inscriptiosn that name Vandiya Devan in Brihadeeshwara Temple

Historically not much is known about him. Many acts point to him as belonging to the Chalukya clan. The plausibility of that is high because after Kundavai’s marriage to him, Raja Rajan went ahead and forged a much closer alliance with the Chalukyas by giving his own daughter’s hand in marriage to Prince Vimaladhithan.

What’s even more fascinating is the fact that Kalki originally intended Vandiya Devan to be the second hero of the novel but he became larger than life and overshadowed Emperor Raja Rajan himself in the story. That’s what makes Ponniyin Selvan the epic that it is.

Princess Vanathi
The Kudanthai astrologer was bang on when he predicted that her husband would become the king of kings and her son an emperor. She marries Arul Mozhi and bears the greatest King of Chola dynasty ever.

Queen Sembiyanmadevi
This dowager queen is renowned for the staggering amount of endowments that she gave to the temples in Chola Empire. Known as one of the most powerful queens of Chola empire, her contribution to the preservation of temples is immense.
Figure 6 - Sembiyan madevi's statue

Prince Madhuranthakan
The Illustrious son of Queen Sembiyanmadevi and the cousin of Emperor Sundara Chola, Uttama Chola ascends the throne after his demise. He was known as an upstanding and ardent devotee of Shiva. His patronage to Shiva temples is immense and it was he who codified temple patterns, epigraphy, art and instituted the upkeep of administrative records, much of which has survived to this date.

Anbil Anirudhar
One of the leading ministers of Sundara Chola’s administration we learn about him through the famous ‘anbil plates’ that lists his ancestors and that of Sundara Chola’s while attesting to his importance in the court. History attests to the fact that he served three kings subsequently as a minister.
Figure 7 - Copper Plates that names the ancestory of Anirudhar and also of Sundara Chola

Ravidasan & Soman Sambavan
These were not some random names picked up by Kalki. They were in fact high-ranking officials in Sundara Chola’s court and they find mention in the Thiruvalangadu copper plates as the conspirators behind the Crown Prince’s untimely death. They are also mentioned in the inscriptions found in Chola temple of Udaiyarkudi as being banished from the Kingdom for their involvement in Aditya Karikalan’s murder. Many historians have since theorized that since the brothers Ravidasan and Soman Sambavan were Brahmins by caste, the capital punishment couldn’t be given to them so they were instead banished along with their families.
Figure 8 - Inscriptiosn from Udaiyarkudi temple that proclaims the punishment for Ravidasan

Mandakini Devi
Mandakini Devi also known as ‘Oomai Rani’ is the deaf and mute woman who is the mother of twins Nandini and Madhuranthakan. In Ponniyin Selvan, she saves Prince Arul Mozhi’s life many times over and loves him like her own son. Kalki has certainly given his imagination a free rein when it comes to her yet there is a temple in Thanjavur built by Emperor Raja Rajan and he named it Singala Nachiyar Kovil. We know not whether she was a real character but the fact that the king built this temple certainly sparked Kalki’s imagination for good.

Figure 9 - Singala Nachiyar Temple

Sadly, a host of other characters like Nandini, Poonghuzhali, Azhwarkadiyan, Periya Pazhuvetarayar are all imaginary but they are no less fascinating if not more.
The fact that all these characters have appeared in inscriptions is a continuous source of interest for the readers and I guess that’s one of the reasons why we keep reading this epic novel again and again.

Book can be found at - Amazon
Review from other readers can be found at GoodReads

If you have missed our review of this book check out here - Review Link


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