Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan: How nature’s five elements act as characters

Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan: How nature’s five elements act as characters

The discussions about Cholas, one of the longest-ruling dynasties in the world history, are never-ending in Tamil cultural sphere. Noted filmmaker Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan, based on Kalki Krishnamurthy’s 2,200-page novel by the same name, has added fuel to the fire. The film, which released on September 30, has triggered the interest of a large section of people who are now feeling inclined to read the novel.

The magnum opus of the popular Tamil writer Kalki Krishnamurthy, the1950s historical fiction has a cult following, largely because of its connect with Tamil Nadu’s culture and heritage. And Mani Ratnam has adapted it for the screen quite faithfully. Starring Vikram, Karthi, Jayam Ravi, Aishwarya Rai, Trisha, R Sarath Kumar, Radhakrishnan Parthiban, Jayaram, Prabhu and Vikram Prabhu, the film has done well, both critically and commercially, since its release.

The audience who watched the film would have definitely been drawn to the story, the cast of characters and, particularly, the graphics used in the climax scene. The Federal tries to cull out how Kalki has used nature’s five elements — space, water, air, fire and land — as characters in determining the important turning points in this historical fiction.

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A comet: The harbinger of death

The novel has five parts, titled as Pudhu Vellam (New Floods), Suzhal Kaatru (Whirlwind), Kolaivaal (Killing Sword), Manimagudam (The Crown) and Thyaga Sigaram (The Zenith of Sacrifice).

In the seventh chapter of the first part, Kalki mentions about a comet, a harbinger of death. He further writes that the arrival of a long-tailed comet Dhoomakedhu towards the Earth means that someone in the Kingdom is about to die. This sets the foundation for the story to unfold.

A section of Kalki aficionados believes that the comet mentioned by the writer could have been Halley’s Comet, which can be visible from the Earth once in 75-79 years and can be seen through the naked eyes. It is said that the comet could stay in the sky between 75 and 82 days.

According to the available recorded observations, the comet claimed to be appeared in 989 BCE, around the time the Chola emperor Sundara Chola, the father of Aditha Karikalan, Kundavai and Arulmozhi Varman, was at the home stretch of his reign (957 BCE – 980 BCE). No doubt, Kalki could have taken authoritative freedom and adjusted the years, but he chose to take a nugget from the real history.

Water: A mute spectator

From the beginning to the end, lakes, rivers, oceans play the role of a mute spectator in the novel. It was from the banks of Veera Narayana Lake that the Vaanar clan warrior Vallavarayan Vanthiya Devan saw the majestic Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar and started following him towards Kadambur, where the secret meeting of chieftains decided on the next king of Chola empire. Also, by jumping into the river Vadavaar, Vanthiya Devan was able to save his friend Kandha Maran and entrusting the job of treating Maran with Sendhan Amudhan.

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It was on the banks of river Arisil that the flirtatious Vanthiya Devan met his love interest Kundavai, the Chola princess, for the first time. Similarly, it was at a pond near the palace of Sembian Mahadevi at Thirunallam that Vanathi met her lover Ponniyin Selvan aka Arulmozhi Varman for the first time.

It is interesting to note that while Kanyakumari, the southern tip of the country, has been a favourite destination for scores of people to witness the sunrise and sunset since time immemorial, Kalki, on the other hand, vividly describes the beauty of the sunset in Kodiakkarai (Point Calimere), a little-known shore located along the Coromandel coast, some 500 km from Kanyakumari.

“The sun sank into the western sea. It was a remarkable sight in Kodi Karai. The coastline which went southward suddenly turned at a right-angle to stretch westward. Therefore, if one viewed from atop a dune in Kodi Karai, one could see the ocean in all three directions: east, west and south. In some months, one could glimpse the full moon rising from the eastern sea in splendorous light while the sun sank with fiery glory into the western ocean,” writes Kalki (translation Indra Neelamegham). It was here that Poonguzhali, the ocean princess, and Vanthiya Devan embark on the trip to Sri Lanka to bring Arulmozhi Varman.

Cyclones: A reality and metaphor 

Kalki used cyclones not just as a metaphor to show the battles happening in the minds of the characters, but also in their mundane lives which later became adventurous journey.

At first, Kalki gives a glimpse about different kinds of winds such as Kondal, Vaadai and Chozhaga, which are known to Tamils, and their impact on the sea. This was during the journey of Poonguzhali and Vanthiya Devan to Lanka.

“When the winds blowing from one direction encounter the gusts blowing from the opposite direction, a whirlwind takes shape. During the months of Thai and Maasi (January to March), the Kondal Breeze blows in these parts. There is nothing to worry then. We can easily cross between Kodi Karai and Lanka. In fact, we can go and return in one night. By Vaikasi (May-June), the Chozla Winds will start. It is a little difficult to go to Lanka from here on the Chozla Wind. Now it is the season between the Chozla Winds and Monsoon Winds (Vaadai). Sometimes, on the open seas, strong winds will encounter swift gales blowing from the opposite direction. Like a butter churn swirling milk, the whirlwind will churn the water. Waves will swell into mountains and fall down. Deep chasms will be created on these waters. The sea will swirl into great whirls in those chasms” explains Poonguzhali to Vanthiya Devan, who has the fear of oceans (translation Indra Neelamegham).

The second major cyclone appears when Arulmozhi Varman and Vanthiya Devan travel together from Sri Lanka. The third happens when Arulmozhi Varman is in Nagapattinam, saving a Buddha monk from being sunk in the ocean.

Fire: A licence to ruin 

In two instances, fire plays a critical role. In the first instance, the fire is used to kill lives; in the second, time it is employed to destroy the evidences.

In the first instance, the ship in which Vanthiya Devan is travelling along with Ravidasan, the chief of mercenaries from Pandya kingdom who plans to kill Arulmozhi Varman, catches fire and he is left alone to die, while the mercenaries escape in a boat. While writing about this incident, Kalki gives such graphic details that makes the readers feel how fire could suffocate us.

“How will I reach the shore safely? The sky seemed to give him a reply: A bright flash lit the whole sky; a hundred suns came to stand before him. But he could see nothing in that great light. He was even afraid if he had lost his sight. He pinched his eyes shut, tightly. Now, his ears were in danger. Lord Indra’s thunderbolt must have come unsheathed. This cannot be a mere thunder of earthly skies. He could not open his eyes and his ears were ringing with a whirring noise. After some minutes, some new light seemed to pry his eyes open. A new noise penetrated his ears. It was similar to the sound made by trees in a forest fire. “oiiiieee!” He opened his eyes to see that the main mast of his ship was on fire. Now, he understood: that last flash and thunder — lightning must have struck somewhere very close, his mast had caught fire,” writes Kalki.

It is the line found in the next chapter that compels the readers to appreciate the valour of Vanthiya Devan. “He wished to gaze upon the still turbulent sea and enjoy it’s beauty in the light of the burning mast”.

The second instance of fire happens at Kadambur palace and that again becomes an example for how loyal Vanthiya Devan was to his master Aditha Karikalan.

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Land: Treading as an elephant

Wherever possible, Kalki tries to capture the landscapes as perfectly as possible, be it the fields of Thanjavur or the marshes and swamps of Kodiakkarai or the hillocks of Lanka.

Kalki has used land to capture the culture and society of ancient times in the same measure that he uses it to develop the story. For instance, he describes the history of some of the popular battlefields like Takkolam, Thirupurambiyam, and Sevur, aadhoora salai, the hospital-like medical centres run by Kundavai, which was unheard of during that time, and prominent temples and Buddha vihara found in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

It was in Thirupurambiyam pallippadai (a temple built in memory of a king who died in a war at particular place) that Vanthiya Devan came to know about an important secret of Nandhini, once a love interest of Aditha Karikalan and later the wife of Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar.

When Arulmozhi Varman is asked to come to Kanchi by Vanthiya Devan, to Thanjavur by Parthibendra Pallavan and to remain in Sri Lanka by the wise minister Aniruddha Brahmmarayar, Ponniyin Selvan replies to them that he’d like to tread as an elephant so that his one leg would be in Kanchi, one in Thanjavur, one in Eelam and one in Uraiyur.

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