Chapter 2 – Azlvar-adiyan Nambi
Vallavarayan Vandiya Devan rode down the embankment and turned his horse towards the southern path; his heart danced with joy: like those sailboats skipping across the waves. The excitement buried deep in his heart seemed to erupt outward. His intuition said that he was going to meet adventures experienced by none in one lifetime.
What joyous delight even as I approach the Chozla Kingdom! What wonders will the fertile, bountiful land beyond Kollidam hold? How would the men and women of that country behave? How many rivers? How many reservoirs? How many clear streams? How wondrous would be the river Ponni (Cauvery) praised in song and epic? How enchanting would be the flower laden punnai, konnai and kadamba trees on its banks? Would not the wink of the lily and the blue-lotus or the blossoming welcome of a red-lotus be a pleasant sight? How magnificent would be the spectacular temples erected by these devout Chozlas along both banks of the Cauvery? Aha! Pazlayarai! Capital city of Chozlas! Pazlayarai that turned Poompuhar and Uraiyoor into small country towns! What of its palaces, towering columns, armaments, guard houses, busy markets, Shiva temples of granite and towering Vishnu temples?
Vandiya Devan had heard about the captivating devotional poems – Thevaram & Thiru-vaaimozli – sung by music experts in those temples. He was soon to have the fortune of hearing them. That was not just it — he was soon to attain favors beyond his wildest dreams. He was to personally meet Emperor Paranthaka Sundara Chozla, who was comparable to the God Velan in valor; who was as handsome as Manmatha the God of Love. Furthermore, he was soon to meet the Emperor’s beloved daughter, an incomparable jewel among women, the Younger Pirati Kundavai!
Hopefully there would be no interruptions along the way. So what if there are obstacles? I have a spear in hand, a sword at my waist, armor on my chest and courage in my heart. But the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, my Prince, are strict: do not enter into any skirmish until the assigned task is completed. It is pretty trying to obey that order! I have followed it thus far in my travels. A mere two-day journey remains. I must be patient until then.
Travelling with the intention of reaching Kadamboor Fort before sunset, Vandiya Devan soon reached the Vaishnava temple in the town of Veera-narayana-puram. Since it was the day of the Aadi Festival, a large crowd of people had gathered in the woods and glades around the temple.
Vendors selling jack-fruit, banana, sugar-cane and various other edibles had set up shops. Others sold flowers such as lotus buds for worship of the Gods as well as blooms to decorate the braids of women. Mounds of tender coconuts, myrrh, candy, jaggery, betel leaves, pressed rice and puffed grain were on display for sale. Fun-games and other amusements were in progress here and there. Astrologers, expert palm readers, soothsayers and magicians who cured
poison-bites: of these there was no dearth. Amidst all this Vandiya Devan noticed a large gathering standing on one side and he heard loud noises of argument among people in its middle. An immense urge rose in him to find out what the argument was about. He could not control it! Stopping his horse by the roadside near the crowd, he dismounted. Signaling the horse to wait, he parted the crowd and walked right in.
It surprised him to find only three persons involved in the debate. Even though they were merely three men, the crowd around them periodically cheered their chosen favorites rather loudly. Vandiya Devan realized the cause for this commotion and watched to find out the reason for the argument.
One of the debaters seemed to be an exceptional follower of the Vaishnava faith: he wore the sandal-paste namam markings of the sect all over his body; he had styled his hair into a topknot on his forehead. A short staff was in his hand; his short, squat frame seemed quite strong.
The other was a follower of Shiva, wearing broad ashen marks on his devout body.
The third wore ocher robes and had completely shaved all the hair off his head. He was neither a Vaishnava nor a Saiva: he seemed to be an Advaita philosopher beyond any sect.
The Saiva devotee was saying, “Oh you Azlvar-adiyan Nambi! Give me an answer to this! Did not Brahma try to find Shiva’s head and Vishnu search for His feet? Unable to see neither head nor foot did not both seek the sanctuary of Lord Shiva’s auspicious feet? That being so, how can your Thirumal Vishnu be a greater God than Lord Shiva?”
Hearing this Azlvar-adiyan pounded his staff saying, “Well fella! You fanatic Saiva dust-worshiping priest! Stop your nonsense. Recall that your Shiva gave boons to the ten-headed Ravana, King of Lanka. Did not all those boons turn to sawdust when confronted by Sri Rama, an incarnation of our Thirumal Vishnu? When that is so, how can your Shiva be a greater God than our Thirumal?”
At this the ocher-clad monk who believed in the One-supreme Being, intervened to say, “Why do you both argue wastefully? There is no end to your arguments about Shiva being a bigger God or Vishnu being greater. Only while you are involved in these pagan rituals of devotion will you quarrel about Shiva and Vishnu. The path of Knowledge is greater than devotion. Then there is the state of Absolute Knowing, beyond even Knowledge. When you reach that state there is no Shiva and no Vishnu. All existence is the Supreme Being. Do you know what Sri Sankara the Teacher says in his dissertation on the scriptures ….”
At this point Azlvar-adiyan Nambi interrupted, “Stop it you fellow! Do you know what your Sankara who wrote
all those explanations for the Upanishads, the Bhagavat Gita and other scriptures finally say?
Sing of Govinda, Sing of Govinda,
Sing of Govinda, Oh foolish mind!
He said it three times! It is to dumbheads like you that he refers when he mentions foolish minds.” The crowd responded to this with thunderous clapping, mocking laughter and loud cheers of “Aha, oho”.
The monk did not stay quiet. “Hey you with the topknot on the forehead! It is correct that you refer to me as a foolish mind. You hold an ordinary wood-staff in your hands; you are surely a wood-brained wastrel. It is surely because of my foolish mind that I have come to talk with a wastrel like you.”
“Oh Sir! This is not an ordinary wood-staff. If need be it has the power to break open your shaven head,” and saying this Nambi raised his staff as the crowd cheered him.
The Philosopher interrupted. “Dear fellow! Stop it! Keep the staff in your own hands. I shall not be angry even if you hit me with your stick. Neither will I dispute with you. That which hits is Supreme! That which is hit is also Supreme! If you lay hands upon me it is like hitting your own self!”
Upon hearing this Nambi announced, “All of you watch! The Supreme is going to serve the Supreme a hallowed-hit. I am going to hit myself with this staff,” swirling his staff he moved towards the monk.
Watching all this, Vandiya Devan wondered if he should grab the staff from the fellow with the topknot on his forehead and serve him a few smacks from it. However the monk seemed to have suddenly disappeared. He mingled into the crowd and vanished! At this the Vaishnava supporters in the crowd cheered even louder.
Azlvar-adiyan turned towards the Saiva devotee, “You foot-dust worshipper, what do you say? Will you continue this debate or would you too run away like the monk?” he said.
“Me? I shall never run away like that philosopher spouting mere words. Did you think of me also as your Kannan (Krishna)? Is not your Krishna the same fellow who received beatings from the butter-churn because he stole butter from the homes of milkmaids? …” Before the Shiva worshipper could finish, Nambi interrupted.
“Why sir? Did not your Shiva carry loads of dirt for the sake of dry pudding and get beaten on his back? Have you forgotten that?” Swirling his staff he approached closer.
Azlvar-adiyan was a stocky, well-built brute. The Shiva devotee was an emaciated man. The cheering supporters in
the crowd were ready to enter the tussle. Vallavarayan Vandiya Devan felt that he must stop this absurd rumpus.
He came forward and said, “Sirs why are you arguing? Do you have nothing better to do? If you itch for a fight, why not go to Lanka? There is a big war going on there.”
Saying, “Who is this fellow trying to make peace?” Nambi quickly turned towards him. Some people in the crowd liked Vandiya Devan’s fearless mein and charismatic face.
“Thambi! You tell them.” They cheered, “Tell these quarrel mongers the truth. We will support you.”
“I will tell the facts I know. There seems to be no quarrel between Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu-Narayana. Those two seem to be quite friendly and pleasant towards each other. Then why are these two men arguing?” Hearing these words of Vallavarayan Vandiya Devan the people snickered.
The Shiva devotee commented “This boy seems to be intelligent. But jovial words cannot end the argument. Let him answer this question: is Lord Shiva a greater God than Vishnu or is he not?”
“Shiva is a great God. So is Thirumal Vishnu. Both are equal. Worship whomever you want. Why quarrel?” said Vallavarayan.
“How can you say that? Where is the proof that Shiva and Vishnu are equal?” chided Azlvar-adiyan.
“Proof? I will give you proof. Last night I had been to Vaikunta, the abode of Vishnu. At the same time Shiva came visiting. Both were seated on equal thrones. They seemed to be of equal height. Still, to avoid any doubt, I measured their height with my arm …”
“Young man! Are you mocking me?” roared Azlvar-adiyan.
“Yes, Thambi yes. Tell us more!” applauded the crowd.
“Upon measuring them, I found both to be of exactly the same height. Without stopping at that I asked both Shiva and Thirumal directly. Do you know what they said? `Hari and Shiva are one and the same. Those who don’t know this should have their mouths filled with dirt!’ Saying it they gave me this fistful of dirt to throw in the mouths of the idiots who quarrel about it.” Vandiya Devan opened his fist to show a handful of dirt. He then threw it among them. Upon this all hell broke loose. The men in the exited crowd started picking up dirt and rubble and began throwing it at each other. Azlvar-adiyan also entered the fracas with shouts of “Idiots! Unbelievers!” and used his staff. A great disturbance and commotion was about to erupt. Luckily, a stentorian announcement thwarting all this, was heard nearby.
“Best of warriors, bravest of the brave, he who destroyed the very roots of the Pandiya army by attacking furiously, he of the victorious spear, he who engaged in twenty-four combats and wears sixty-four battle-wounds on his sacred body, the Chozla Secretary for Finance and Food, the lord who can levy taxes, The Elder Lord of Pazluvoor, is announced. Make way! Make way!” A thundering voice made the announcement.
The heralds who made these announcements came first. Then came the drummers. Behind them came men carrying the palmtree-flag. Next marched several smart footmen bearing lances and spears. Behind all these men came a dark, well-built man seated on a finely decorated elephant. The sight of the warrior on the elephant looked like a dark cloud resting atop a mountain peak. People stood on both sides of the roadway and watched. Vandiya Devan guessed that the man seated on the elephant was Lord Pazluvoor.
Behind the elephant came a palanquin with silken drapes pulled close. Before he could wonder who could be inside, Vallavarayan saw a fair hand full of bracelets and bangles come out and slightly part the curtains. The dazzling face of a girl could be seen inside the palanquin: like the moon shining forth from behind a shifting cloud cover.
Though he was a connoisseur of the beauty of womankind, though her captivating face seemed like the radiating full moon, for some reason, Vandiya Devan was not happy to see that face. An irrational fear and disgust took hold of him. At the same time the woman’s eyes focussed on something near Vandiya Devan. The next instant the horrified sound of a girl’s scream was heard. The screens pulled shut once again!
Vallavarayan looked around him. His intuition said that the lady had screamed upon sighting something nearby. He searched around again. Azlvar-adiyan was leaning back on a tamarind tree just behind him. He saw that the fanatic Vaishnava’s face had turned undescribably horrible and ugly. His heart filled with irrational surprise and revolt.