Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The dark age of Ponniyin Selvan | Article published in the Times of India

The article can be accessed online at on Page 6

The dark age of Ponniyin Selvan

by M.D.Muthukumaraswamy

       There is a spine-chilling scene in Aru Ramanathan’s historical novel Veerapandian Manaivi (serialized in the magazine Kadhal from 1953 to 1959 and published as a novel in three parts in February 2012) which presented an artistic challenge to the pomp and glory of the Chola period (10th to 13th century) envisioned in Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan. Set in the year 1180, Veerapandian Manaivi opens in the streets of Madurai with the description that among the heaps of corpses the Chola army had established its pillar of victory in the Pandiya kingdom. One of the hidden reasons of the war, we discover, was the Chola king Kulothunga Chola’s desire to capture Pandiya king Veerapandian’s second wife who was believed to be the most beautiful woman on earth. In a cruel campaign led by the Chola army Madurai was captured and the search was on to capture Veerapandian’s wife. The Chola army captured the fourteen-year-old son of Veerapandian and brought him to the open trial court. In a chapter peppered with the descriptions of intrigues, sycophancy, and competitions to claim laurels the Chola courtiers and army officers try the innocent boy to know the whereabouts of Veerapandian and his wife. The open trial is presided by the Chola stooge Vikrama Pandian, and when Jananathan, the Chola army general and the most mysterious character of the novel, insinuates the boy with references to the beauty of his stepmother, the boy spits on the face of Jananathan.   After allowing the boy to spit on his face for seven times, Jananathan makes a fiery speech in the court saying that the boy was not spitting on his face but on the tiger emblem of the Chola kingdom, and on the face of Kulothunga Chola himself. Infuriated by the speech a stooge army chieftain beheads the boy in the open court. The people riot and protest the killing of the boy, but the Chola courtiers flee and disappear into safety. (Page 208)

      The mass protests against the atrocities of the army officers and tax collectors were common during the Chola period and several historical inscriptions record such atrocities and protests. In an illuminating scholarly essay, “ Struggles for Rights during Later Chola Period” published in Social Scientist in 1974 M.D.Rajukumar details the mass protests against the Chola consolidation of caste hierarchy and agrarian taxes. Reading through all the stone inscriptions of the Chola period M.D.Rajukumar indisputably proves that the Cholas shifted the land owning to Brahmins,  Vellalas, temples, and devadasis and created a huge populace of landless labourers. The mass protests against the Brahmin-Vellala hegemony and the exorbitant taxes led to the collapse of the Chola Empire. Many Marxist scholars in Tamil have always maintained that the landless labourers of the Chola period were enslaved to construct the monumental temples and they stand today as testimony to the slavery of the Chola dark ages in Tamil history.

      Reading through the works of Nilakanda Sastry, and Sadasiva Pandarathar the same historians Kalki Krishnamurthy also read Aru Ramanathan was able to interpret the Chola period differently and debunk the Chola glory as false. In the chapter 104 of the novel Aru Ramanathan speaks through the character of Jananathan and justifies his interpretation of the Chola period. Jananathan says that the imperialist war campaigns of the Cholas were undertaken not for the expansion of the kingdom but for plundering the wealth of the neighboring states and bring women to enslave them as Devadasis in the temples. After war victories, Aru Ramanathan reasons, the Cholas never ruled the lands and instead brought the plundered wealth and women to the Tamil country. Even for the claim that that the Chola kings were the patrons of great poets like Kampan Aru Ramanathan says that Cholas brought Bihar Brahmins as temple priests and shunned Tamil from the precincts of the temples. Noted Tamil scholar A.S.Gnanasambandam in his book Periyapurana Araichi expresses a similar view that Sanskrit and Brahminical rituals were imposed upon the Tamil temples during the Chola period.

      Incidentally Aru Ramanathan uses passages from Kampan’s Ramayana as a kind of epitaph on every chapter of the novel to provide an ironic reading to the unfolding events of the novel.  Ramayana and Veerapandian Manaivi share similar plot structures in the sense that if in Ramayana Ravana abducts Rama’s wife Sita, in Veerapandian Manaivi Kulothunga Chola wages war against the Pandiya kingdom to imprison Veerapandian’s wife. Aru Ramanathan’s layering of the texts of his novel and Kampan’s Ramayana reveal the functions of an epic in building the polity of an imperialist nation state. If at all if we were to stage a play or make a film on the Chola period we should do that not with Ponniyin Selvan but with Veerapandian Manaivi. After all history reaches us as a heap of broken images and what we need are critiques and not glorifications.

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