Before Ponniyin Selvan became a household name, Chola history remained in the magnificence of the Thanjavur Brihadeeswarar Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram or the Kallanai aqueduct for thousand(s) of years. The common people had no idea of literary Tamil that waxed eloquent about ancient kings, conquerors, army commanders, strategists and seafarers. But all that changed in the 1940s when Kalki Krishnamoorthy, inspired by European historical fiction (especially the works of Alexandre Dumas), decided to write on Chola, Pallava, Chera and Pandya history.
And thus, the average Tamil who was reading magazines until then, started experiencing the illustrious grandeur of historical Tamil kings, battles, victories, conquests, political drama and much more through the words of Kalki Krishnamoorthy and the artwork of artist Maniam. Parthiban Kanavu and Sivagamiyin Sabadham were huge hits in the 1940s. But without a doubt, Kalki’s best was Ponniyin Selvan, which was serialised in the Kalki magazine from 1951 to 1954. The effect was phenomenal. Suddenly, small talk with neighbours included Chola history and political strategy. People named their kids Arulmozhi, Kundhavai, Nandhini, Poonkuzhali, Anirudha and Aditya. It continued with later generations, unabated.
There was renewed interest in Tamil history and Ponniyin Selvan has inspired tours to Thiruppurambiyam forests, Buddha Vihaara ruins and Anuradhapura solely because they were important landmarks in the books. Most of the Chola history that Tamils know today is not from textbooks but from Kalki’s works. Almost every family that subscribed to the Kalki magazine in the '50s cut and bound original pages of the chapters into books. It’s one of the most precious possessions of my father-in-law, who loves the old, yellowing pages for Kalki’s words and for Maniam’s art.
Today, it is said that director Mani Ratnam has ventured to make a movie based on Kalki’s epic. Soundarya Rajinikanth had also announced a web series on the same. Before them, quite a few from the film fraternity did toy with the idea but gave up because it was too large to be packed into a 3-hour movie. MGR personally picked J Mahendran (the veteran director who died recently) to script Ponniyin Selvan. After a year or so, the project was shelved. Kamal Haasan tried dabbling with a script based on PS but gave it up. Director Mani Ratnam attempted the project earlier but shelved it soon after. When Rajamouli made Baahubali and left us spellbound with his treatment of historical fantasy fiction, Tamils couldn’t help but ask him if he was interested in making a PS franchise.
Every generation has had its fantasy leagues, with stars who’d make the best Vandhiyathevan, Arulmozhi, et al. From thespian Avvai Shanmugham’s theatre group to the Chicago Tamil Sangam, several groups have also staged plays based on Ponniyin Selvan.
A page from the series in Kalki magazine | Courtesy: indian-heritage.org
When the Game of Thrones show became popular, quite a few fans couldn’t help but notice the similarities: medieval political drama has the same stakes in Pazhayarai and Thanjavur and in Westeros. And that intersection of PS and GoT fans figured that PS could be made into a series, without chopping down on important plot details. Like with Game of Thrones episodes (except the forgettable final season), every PS chapter leaves the readers on a cliffhanger with shocking twists. Like Tyrion Lannister in Westeros, Alwarkadiyaan Nambi is one of the cleverest men in the Chola kingdom. His lines are brilliantly written and his sharp mind pulls and pushes levers to get things done for Prime Minister Aniruddha Brahmarayar, a crown loyalist. There are succession wars, conspiracies, great warriors, unexplained and mysterious deaths, love, friendship, wit, betrayal, revenge and much more in Ponniyin Selvan. Oh, and tell Cersei that Ponniyin Selvan has elephants!
The story thread of Ponniyin Selvan spans years and more than 50 characters. Vallavarayan Vandhiyathevan is the playful narrator of the 5-part series and we see the story unfold through his eyes. The prince and heir apparent to the Chola throne, Aditya Karikalan is a brooding young man who has set camp in Kanchi and sends his friend and confidante, Vandhiyathevan, to deliver a message to his father and sister in the Chola capital.
Adityan’s younger brother Arulmozhi Varman (who the world later knows as Rajaraja Chozhan) is in Sri Lanka on a conquest. One of the most memorable snippets of the series is Vandhiyathevan describing his amazement when he enters the fertile lands of the Chola kingdom on Aadi Perukku day. Festivities dot the lifeline of the Chola empire, the river Cauvery. In fact, the title Ponniyin Selvan translates to ‘The Son of Cauvery’. Ponni is the Tamil name of River Cauvery. The aged king, Sundara Chozhan, is ailing and there are plots to overthrow the reigning family. Therefore, Vandhiyathevan becomes a pawn in the Game of Thanjai.
Kalki’s most skillful characterisation is seen in his treatment of Nandhini, the mysterious wife of the army commander Periya Pazhuvettarayar, who seems to be a step ahead of everyone in the game. When you read the chapters and see Nandhini through Maniam’s art, you cannot help but fall in love with her. And Nandhini happens to be the main antagonist of the series. Along with the juvenile Kandhanmaaran who gets infatuated with Nandhini within seconds, the whole of Tamil Nadu’s reading populace fell in love with the vengeful beauty who stops at nothing to achieve her goal of decimating the Chola empire. And despite the pro-Chola narrative, Nandhini finds a special place in our hearts. If you have a Tamil friend named Nandhini, you can be sure that a PS fan named her. After 1.5 years of scripting PS and giving it up, director Mahendran was probably so influenced by Nandhini that when he wrote Uthiri Pookkal, one of Tamil cinema’s finest gems, he shaped the antagonist to be the central character of the movie.
Strong women characters
The 1950s (not that much has changed today) were not exactly known for strong women characters. But in Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan, you find that the kingdom’s most powerful people are Kundhavai and Nandhini. Kundhavai, Arulmozhi’s elder sister, moulds him and decides on political matters. She runs the Chola show, and her father and brothers respect her political acumen. Her romantic interest in the series, Vandhiyathevan, is willing to listen and follow her because he knows that she knows better.
And then, we see the liberal-minded, freedom-loving Poonkuzhali. She holds a torch for Arulmozhi and helps him out when he’s at his weakest. Their unstated love for each other is beautifully described by Kalki. She’s fierce and tames the roughest of the seas with her oars. The equation between Poonkuzhali and Arulmozhi is surmised with one line from her, ‘Alai kadal oindhaalum agakkadal ponguvadhaeno’ (Even as the churning sea becomes quiet, why does the sea within me still swell?).
Ponniyin Selvan family tree | Courtesy: Mani Gunasekaran via Wikipedia
Kalki travelled far and wide, from early Chola cities, towns, ports and woods along the Cauvery to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. He learnt much from culverts and research from Nilakanta Sastri, the renowned archaeologist. Maniam travelled alongside. His artwork inspired women to wear their hair like Nandhini and Kundhavai. Later, when the Kalki magazine ran reruns of PS, they included artwork by Maniam Selvan, Maniam’s son. Most of the central (and secondary) characters are based on real people. The mystery with Aditya Karikalan is documented history. Kundhavai married Vandhiyathevan, who became an important Chola army general. The culverts in the Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple gave much information to Kalki.
The most striking feature of Ponniyin Selvan is that Kalki uses very simple language to narrate a brilliant story with unexpected twists and revelations. My father-in-law recounts that he was an eight-year-old boy when the series started appearing in Kalki. He read every single chapter, every single week. If you can read Tamil and haven’t read Ponniyin Selvan yet, you really should give it a shot. While there are several translations, most Ponniyin Selvan loyalists say the essence is lost in translation. If you cannot read but understand Tamil, you can try PS audio books.
Arunkumar Jayaraman, a senior management professional, is a huge Ponniyin Selvan buff. The voracious reader grew up in the Chola capital of Thanjavur and read PS before turning 12. “The book is special, not only because it is brilliant content rendered in an engaging narrative style… it’s predominantly from a part of the town I come from. It’s about a king who made his name for posterity coming from that place. It’s a great illustration of an heir and a spare philosophy. Aditya Karikalan is the heir and Arulmozhi, the spare. What happens afterwards is world history. I particularly love the narration of the sword fight between Vandhiyathevan and Arulmozhi Varman in the second part. They meet each other for the first time and it’s a battle of two powerful warriors. Kalki waxes eloquently about the fight.”
But the epic defies age, and anyone can get hooked. Subha Arun, a homemaker, says she picked up the book at 21. She adds, “I wasn’t particularly interested in historical fiction but Ponniyin Selvan changed all that. This was a story of very real historical figures from our own lands.”
The legacy of Ponniyin Selvan can be seen everywhere in Tamil Nadu. When you drive past the Gemini flyover in Chennai, look on either side. The young warrior and horse adorning either side of the flyover is homage to the narrator, Vallavarayan Vandhiyathevan. When you visit the Thanjavur Big Temple, you see three kinds of people: foreigners following their copy of Lonely Planet, school children on field trips and Ponniyin Selvan readers who are there to visit their holy shrine. Inspired by Kalki’s magnum opus, other authors have come up with Kaaviri Maindhan (which again translates to ‘The Son of Cauvery’) and Udayaar by Balakumaran. Writer Sujatha Rangarajan’s Kandhalur Vasantha Kumaaran Kathai reminds one of Kalki’s influences.
When we think of Lord Krishna, we envisage him in the form of Nitish Bharadwaj, because the actor played the role of Krishna in the TV series Mahabharata. Most Telugus think of NTR when they envisage Lord Rama. Similarly, the average Tamil thinks of Kalki’s characterisation of Arulmozhi Varman and the transition of this young warrior into Rajaraja Chozhan, the greatest emperor that south India has known.
In fact, much of the Kalki magazine’s circulation was attributed to the series!
Can Mani Ratnam’s movie on Ponniyin Selvan or Soundarya’s web series capture the magic of 5 parts, 2,600 pages, 4 years of yearning for the next chapter and 70 years of adulation? PS fans are waiting to find out with bated breath.
Deepa Harishankar is interested in bots, linguistics and historical fantasy fiction.