Chapter 22 – Velaikara Battalion Of Velirs
First, the outer screens emblazoned with the palmtree symbol parted; next the silken inner curtains were pushed aside. The golden hand seen by Vallavarayan once before, the hand which had stunned him, could be seen once again. Thinking that it was no longer polite to be seated on his horse, Vandiya Devan climbed down.
He ran up to the palanquin saying “Prince! Prince! Your bearers …” and looked inside. He looked again; he blinked his eyelids and looked once again! His eyes were dazzled! His tongue tied itself into knots! Suddenly his throat felt parched. “No. No! Princess! Princess of Pazluvoor! …
Your Ladyship, Princess of Pazluvoor! … Your bearers and their horses dashed against my palanquin …” came the flustered blabberings.
All this happened within the blink of an eyelid! By now the guards carrying the long spears ran up and surrounded Vandiya Devan. He realized that the men were around him; his hand automatically reached for his sword. But he could not take his eyes off the dazzling face of that enchantress behind the curtains!
Yes; unlike his expectations, this time he unquestionably saw the beautiful figure of a young girl seated inside the palanquin! Girl means what a girl! Vandiya Devan hadn’t known that such beauty, which could madden those who beheld it, could exist in this world.
Fortunately, some nerve in his brain became active at that moment. An amazing idea rose in his mind. He decided to make use of that idea. He made a tremendous effort and cleared his throat, bringing back speech to his tongue. “I beg pardon! My Lady, aren’t you the Young-Queen of Pazluvoor? I came this far to make thy acquaintance!” spoke his tongue.
A smile blossomed on the gentle face of the Young-Queen of Pazluvoor. A lotus bud, which was closed shut till that moment, opened slightly to reveal a string of tiny pearls. The radiance of that smile mesmerized our young warrior and absolutely bewildered him.
The footmen surrounding him seemed to wait for the commands of their mistress. The Lady made a sign with her finger; they moved away a little and stood apart. Two men caught hold of the horse and waited.
That jewel among women, seated in the palanquin, looked at Vandiya Devan. Two sharp spear-points pierced his heart!
“Yes! I am the Young-Queen of Pazluvoor,” said that Lady. What is that intoxicating stuff mixed into her voice? Why is my head spinning with such dizziness upon hearing her speak?
“What did you say just now? You appealed to me about something? About my bearers?”
Can the softness of Benaras silk, the intoxication of country liquor, the sweetness of forest honey and the flash of monsoon lightning blend like this into the voice of a young maid? It seems quite possible here…
“You said they dashed my palanquin against your horse?”
The mocking smile playing upon her coral red lips indicated that she was enjoying the joke. Vandiya Devan gained some courage because of it.
“Yes. Great Queen! These men did that; my horse was petrified.”
“You also look petrified! Go to the priest at the temple of Goddess Durga and ask him to exorcise you! You will overcome this terror!”
By now, Vandiya Devan had overcome his fear and even laughter came back! The Pazluvoor Queen’s expression had now changed: a smiling full-moon turned into blazing anger!
“Stop jesting. Tell the truth. Why did you push your horse against my palanquin and stop me?”
He had to give a plausible answer. If not… Luckily he had already concocted a story. In a soft voice, a deliberately soft voice, he spoke as if he did not wish others to hear his words: “My Lady! Madam Nandini Devi! He… Mr. Azlvar-adiyan, that is … Mr. Thirumalai, he … he asked me to meet you! That is why I connived this strategy. Please forgive me. I beg pardon!”
As he said the words he examined her face carefully. He waited anxiously, to see the effect of his reply. It was like throwing a stone at a fruit tree. Will a ripe fruit fall? Or, would it be raw? Or, will the stone fall back on him? Or, will some unexpected thunder descend?
The dark brows of the Pazluvoor Queen shot up — surprise and fear filled her intoxicating eyes. The next instant, she seemed to have come to some decision.
“Fine! It is not safe to stop in the middle of a road and talk. Come to my palace tomorrow. You can explain everything there.”
Vandiya Devan’s heart filled with bliss. His intentions were about to be fulfilled, but there was no use in leaping across three fourths of an open well! He must leap across the remaining quarter.
“Madam! My Lady! They will not let me come inside the fortress! Neither will they let me enter the palace! What shall I do?” he asked with some agitation.
The Young-Queen of Pazluvoor instantly turned aside and picked up a silken purse lying next to her. She opened the bag and took out an ivory signet ring. Saying, “If you show this they will let you into the fort and permit you to enter my palace,” she gave him the ring. Vandiya Devan received it eagerly. For a second, he glanced at the ring with the sign of the palm tree. Then, he looked up to thank the lady. But, the screens were pulled shut once again.
Ah! An eclipse swallows the full-moon slowly, bit by bit. But these silken screens have covered that eloquent radiance in one moment!
“Do not follow me anymore. It may be dangerous. Wait and come later,” said that silken voice from inside the drapes.
The palanquin moved on. The guards walked ahead, around it like before. Vandiya Devan stood by the roadside, holding the reins of his horse. His eyes noted that the Pazluvoor footman who had stopped to talk to him looked back several times; the message reached his inner brain. His outer brain revolved around the enchanting face of the Young-Queen of Pazluvoor. Did all this truly happen? Was everything a pleasing dream? Can there be such beauty, such a ravishing form on this earth?
Myth and fable talk of divine maidens — heavenly beauties called Ramba, Urvasi and Menaka. There are tales about how those beautiful maidens disturbed the penance of ascetics who foreswore all worldly pleasures. But in reality! … There must be truth in the rumor about the Elder Lord Pazluvoor being a bonded slave to this ravishing lady. There is no surprise if it is true. What contrast between Lord Pazluvoor — old and grey, with a body disfigured by scars of several battle wounds — and this soft, gentle, dazzling maiden? What deeds will that old man perform, to obtain one smile from her?
He waited for a long time by the roadside, mulling over such thoughts. Finally, he mounted his horse and slowly rode towards the gates of Tanjore.
By sunset, he neared the main entrance to the city fort. The city extended for some distance before the fortress walls and gates. Market streets offering several kinds of goods for sale, residential streets of people engaged in various trades — these successively surrounded the outer boundaries of the fort. All the streets were busy with the hustle and bustle of a large town: people going hither and thither, merchants haggling over the price of goods they sold, carts and wagons drawn by hefty, well fed bullocks, horse drawn chariots, palanquins and litters filled the streets.
Vandiya Devan was eager to enter those streets and experience the sights and sounds of the new capital of the Chozlas; he wished to make the acquaintance of these city folk and become familiar with their ways. But, there was no time for all that now. He must first complete the assignment on which he had journeyed so far. Sightseeing must wait. With this determination he neared the main gates of Tanjore.
The massive doors of the main gateway were closed shut at that time. The guards and gatekeepers outside were trying to maneuver the people making them stand in an orderly fashion on both sides of the street. The people complied and stood aside. Yes; instead of going about their own business they stood by the roadside as if in anticipation of some procession or parade. Men, Women, children and elderly — everybody waited.
For a short distance the street in front of the gateway was empty. The guards stood near the doorway. Vandiya Devan wished to find out what was happening. He did not wish to entangle himself with the gatekeepers when everyone else stood aside. Unnecessary dispute and trouble might come of it. The job on hand was more important than a joust. It was not the time to pick an unwanted quarrel.
Therefore, he stood to one side at a spot where he could keep an eye on the gateway. The heady fragrance of flowers rose by his side. He looked around. A youth, wearing the symbols of a Saiva devotee, such as rudraksha beads around his neck and ashen marks on his forehead, stood by his side carrying two large baskets of flowers in both his hands.
“Thambi, why has everybody moved to one side of the road? Is some procession or something coming this way?” asked Vandiya Devan.
“Are you not from these parts, Sir?”
“No. I come from the Thondai Territories.”
“That’s why you asked! It may be better if you also dismount and stand aside.”
Vandiya Devan jumped off his horse, thinking it would be easier to converse with that youth. “Thambi why did you ask me to dismount?”
“All these people are standing aside because the Velaikara Battalion of Velirs is about to emerge from the fort after presenting arms to the Emperor.”
“Just to watch?”
“Why shouldn’t I watch while sitting upon my horse?”
“You can. But, it is dangerous if the men of the Velaikara Battalion see you.”
“What danger? Will they abduct my horse?”
“They will abduct the horse; even carry away men! Wicked fellows!”
“Will they be allowed to carry away horse or man?”
“What can one do but allow it? The word of those men of the Velaikara Battalion is law in this city. There is none to question them. Even the men of Pazluvoor do not interfere in the affairs of the Velaikara Battalion of Velirs.”
At that time, a loud commotion and noise could be heard inside the fort. The sound of kettle-drums, blowing conches, pipes being played, horns being blown and marching drums being beaten mingled with loud, cheering, shouts raised by hundreds of men.
Vandiya Devan had heard much about the brave warriors of the Velaikara Battalion. It was an important organization in the ancient Tamil nations, particularly in Chozla dominions. `Velaikaras’ were the personal bodyguards of the ruling monarch. But there was an important difference between them and ordinary bodyguards. The men of this battalion had taken individual oaths to “Personally guard the life and person of the king, giving up their own life if the need arises.” If something untoward happened to the king or his life, because of their carelessness or in spite of their guard, they had sworn to cut off their heads with their own sword and offer themselves as a sacrifice to the Goddess Durga. It was natural that such men, who had sworn such terrible oaths, were given ceratin privileges.
The two large doors of the gateway opened with a loud noise. Two horsemen emerged first. In their right hands they held aloft two narrow pennants flying high. They were curious in design. The red cloth of the banner was painted with a leaping tiger and a shining crown below it; underneath the crown was a sacrificial alter with a severed head on it and a huge sacrificial sword lay next to it. The pennant was quite terrifying to behold.
A huge bull, carrying two immense war-drums followed behind the horsemen. Two men walking by its sides beat the reverberating drums. About fifty men in formation followed the bull; they carried small and large kettle-drums, cymbals, bells and chimes — beating them and banging then loudly.
Fifty others followed them, blowing “Boom, boom, boam” upon long curved horns and pipes. About a thousand
soldiers followed these men. They raised the following cries and cheers as they marched out:
“Long live Emperor Paranthaka of the blessed earth.” “Praise to him! Long life! Long life!”
“Long live Sundara Chozla!” “Long life! Long life!”
“Long life to the Rooster King!” “Long life! Long life!”
“Lord of Tanjore!” “Long life! Long life!”
“Long life to the Lord who vanquished Veera-pandiya!” “Long life! Long life!”
“Long life to the Monarch who took Madurai, Lanka and Thondai!”
“Long life! Long life!”
“May the clan of Karikala Valava live long with fame!” “Long life! Long life!”
“Victory to Goddess Durga, the Greatest, the all powerful!”
“Let the brave tiger-flag fly worldwide and win!” “Victory! Victory!”
“Victory to our spears!” “Victory to the brave spears!”
The loud cheers raised by hundreds of strong voices, hypnotized those who heard them. While the shouts rose near the fortress gateway, they echoed and thundered in all directions. Many of the people standing on both sides of the road joined the cheering.
Thus, everything was one big commotion while the men of the Velaikara Battalion of Velirs emerged from the gateway, marched past the long street and disappeared in the distance.