Chapter 27 – Court Poets
Watch out! Watch out! Here come the great poets! The best of the bards! Those who have swum the great oceans of Tamil literature! Those who have followed in the tradition of Agastya! They who have drunk the essence of Tolkappiyam and other such ancient works of the Sangam Period! They who have read great epics such as Silappadikaram, from back to front! They who know the ins and outs of Thirukural, the cannon of Tamil culture! They who know the grammar of all literature. They who know how to compose verse with originality! Think of this: The rolls and rolls of palm leaves used up by each one of them would feed millions and millions of hungry termites for years and years to come!
The whole group of the great poets came into the chamber of Emperor Sundara Chozla.
“Long life! Long life! Long live Emperor Sundara Chozla who rules all the seven worlds under one canopy. Long life to the Lord who `Brought down the fever (passion) of the Pandiya’. Long live the patron of the bards. The benevolent Lord of the poets, Long life to him. Long live the honored grandson of that great Paranthaka who loved poets!” They cheered as one man in praise of the monarch.
Sundara Chozla did not seem to appreciate the cheering or the commotion too much. Nevertheless he hid his feelings and unmindful of his ailment he tried to rise and welcome them. The Younger Lord of Pazluvoor came forward immediately, saying, “My Lord! These poets have come to greet you and honor you, they have not come here to trouble you. Please do not try to rise and trouble yourself.”
“Yes; yes! Oh King of Kings, Oh best among Emperors! We have not come here to trouble you in the least bit!” said the chief of poets, Nallavan Sattanar.
“I am happy to see you all after all these days. Please, won’t you all be seated? I shall be glad to hear some of your verses before you go!” spoke the Emperor who was fond of Tamil literature.
All of them sat down on a rich, jewelled carpet spread on the floor. Thinking it to be a good opportunity, our dauntless Vallavarayan also sat down in their midst. He did not feel like leaving before he had stated all his thoughts to the Emperor. He sat down hoping for another opportunity to be private with the monarch.
The Younger Lord of Pazluvoor noticed him. His moustache twitched. He considered throwing the fellow out. But then he decided that it was better to let the fellow remain right under his watchful eyes. Therefore, he pretended ignorance of the fellow hiding amidst the group of poets. The Commander decided to drag him out after the bards had left and find out what the fellow had been saying to the Emperor. His words “Danger! Danger!” were still reverberating in his ears.
“Dear Poets! It has been a long time since I heard some Tamil verse. My ears are hungry for Tamil poems. Have any of you brought any new poems?” asked Emperor Sundara Chozla.
One of the bards stood up, “My Lord! I come from the monastery named in your honor, Sundara Chozla Perum-palli which is in Ulaga Puram. All the buddhists in this nation commend your benevolence to a buddhist monastery though you are of the Saiva sect. The monks and abbots are concerned about your ill health and we offer prayers for your welfare and good health. I have written some verses in this connection. If permitted I would like to recite these.”
“Please! Do repeat them. I am waiting to listen.”
The bard then sang some verses beginning with the following lines:-
Oh ye good soul, who found enlightenment under the Bo tree! May you bless Sundara Chozla, monarch of growing Nandipuri,*
May he grow in prosperity, benevolence and in good looks and health, To live with fame on this good earth.
* Nandipuri was another name for Pazlayarai
After hearing the poem all the poets showed appreciation with words like “Good, good, well done!”
“It is surprising that the buddhists are so thankful about the help!” said one of the poets who was a fanatic Saiva.
“Yes, it is quite a surprising thing. My service to the monastery at Ulaga Puram was very meager. Do I deserve such praise for that?”
“Who among those who have enjoyed the benevolence and kindness of the Emperor will not praise his name? Even Indra the King of Gods, Surya the Sun and the Great Lord Shiva have enjoyed his generosity!” said another poet.
With a smile playing upon his lips Sundara Chozla asked, “How is that? The King of the Gods and the Sun God? Even Lord Shiva? Why should they be beholden to me?”
“Permit me to repeat a verse to that effect,” said the poet.
When the monarch nodded assent, he opened the leaves of the book in his hand and started reading the following poem:-
An elephant he did present for Lord Indra to mount;
Seven horses did he give, for that flame-bodied Lord, creator of the day; A palanquin for that good Lord Shiva and his gentle spouse;
Such is the benevolence of Sundara Chozla
With whom on this earth can we compare his glory?
After the poet had recited these lines everybody in the group applauded, by clapping their hands and by saying words like “Aha! Aha! Good! Good!”
With a pleased expression the Emperor asked, “Can any of you explain this poem in detail?”
Several of them rose at the same time. Seeing the chief poet Sattanar the others sat down. Nallavan Sattanar then explained the poem as follows:-
“Once upon a time, long long ago, there was a war between the King of the Devas and the Demon Vritta. In that war the great elephant named Iravatha which belonged to Lord Indra died. Indra was looking around for another elephant comparable to that great beast. Finally he came to Emperor Sundara Chozla of Pazlayarai and begged for `An elephant comparable to Iravatha.’ The monarch replied, `I do not have any elephants comparable to Iravatha but I have several better ones.’ After saying this he took Indra to his elephant stable. The Lord of the Gods saw the thousands of beasts standing there like little hillocks and was confused, `Which one shall I choose?’ Seeing his bewilderment, Sundara Chozla selected one good elephant and presented it to Indra. `How am I going to control this rogue elephant. Even my weapons the thunderbolts, may not be sufficient!’ thought Indra with fright; on seeing that, the Emperor presented him with a good ankush (elephant goad) for controlling the new elephant given to him.
“Later at one time, there was a terrible battle between the God Surya of the radiant red rays who spreads light over all the world and the Demon Raagu, who causes eclipses.
Raagu tried to swallow the creator of day and night; but he could not do so: the brilliant light of the Sun God consumed his body. However the seven colorful horses yoked to the Sun God’s chariot were killed by the poisons spilt by the demon. While the Sun stood still, wondering how he could resume his daily passage across the skies, Sundara Chozla considered his helplessness and presented him with seven new horses. `Please yoke these horses to your chariot and spread the grace of your brilliance to all living beings’ prayed the monarch. The Sun God acclaimed the earthly King who was a descendant of his clan i.e. Surya Vamsa (Sun Kings).
“Several years ago the wedding of Lord Shiva and Parvathi Devi was celebrated with pomp in the mountains of Kailasa. The friends and relatives of the bride had come with several costly presents. But they had forgotten to bring a palanquin for the wedding procession. They whispered amongst themselves `There is nothing but this bull available to carry the bride and groom in procession. What can we do now?’ Sundara Chozla heard this and ordered his servants to bring his ivory palanquin inlaid with pearls, from the carriage house. He then offered it with much devotion, as a present at the wedding of the great God Shiva.
“Who else is there in this wide world surrounded by the seas, to compare with such a benevolent, gracious monarch?”
Sundara Chozla who was listening to all this, burst out laughing. The Emperor who had been suffering with illness had not laughed like that for a long time. On hearing his laughter and seeing his mirth even the Empress Vanama Devi smiled; the maids in the palace and even the doctors in the chamber smiled.
The Commander of Tanjore, Younger Lord Pazluvoor, had been standing apart all this time. Now he came forward saying, “My Lord! I have committed a grave crime, please forgive my mistake and pardon me!”
“Is it the Commander? What crime did you commit? Why should you be forgiven? Perhaps you seized the elephant and horses that I gave to the Gods and brought them back? Did you confiscate the palanquin given to Shiva? — Because these things were not properly accounted for? Ah yes! You are quite capable of doing that!” said Sundara Chozla with a voice chocking with laughter. The poets laughed with the Emperor. Vandiya Devan laughed louder than everyone else. The Younger Lord Pazluvoor noticed his laughter and looked at him with blazing eyes.
The Commander then turned to the Emperor and said, “King of Kings! My mistake was just this: I had been preventing persons like these poets from coming to your presence all these days. I followed the orders of the palace doctors. But now I realize my mistake. These poets have made you cheerful. You have laughed loudly after listening to their poems! Smiles blossomed on the faces of the Udaya Pirati, (Queen Consort) and even the maids upon seeing your mirth. Wasn’t it my mistake to not let such people who could cause such happiness into your presence?”
“You said the right thing Commander! Do you realize it at least now? I keep telling you don’t bother about the doctors.”
The palace doctor tried to mumble some reply in a reverent manner, Sundara Chozla made a sign to stop him and then looked at the bards. “Does anyone here know who composed this exquisite verse? If anyone knows, please let me know!” said the Emperor.
Nallavan Sattanar replied, “King of Kings that is what we do not know. All of us have been trying to find out that! If we knew, we would crown that poet with the title
`Emperor of Poets’ and carry him in procession around the city. We have not been able to find that poet’s identity.”
“There is nothing surprising about that. I am sure that the great poet who can stuff that many untruths in four lines will hesitate to come forward!”
When the Emperor said these words, all the bards felt totally dejected; their faces fell as if swallowed by an eclipse! None of them knew a reply for this comment! At this point, our hero Vandiya Devan stood up boldly and said, “My Lord! We should not dismiss this verse completely as absolute untruth. When common folks utter words that are not factual, we call them lies; when people involved in the conduct of nations say such things, it is known as political shrewdness; when poets say such things, it is imagination, creativity, alliteration, prosody, meter, rhyme, lyric.”
All the poets now turned to him, saying, “Well said, Good! Good!”
The Emperor also looked at him, scrutinizing his face: “Oh! Aren’t you the messenger who brought letters from Kanchi? Clever! Well parried argument! Good rebuttal!” praised the Emperor.
He then looked at the group of poets and said, “Though it was a good poem, there is no need to find its author and crown him with titles. I know the poet who wrote this verse. He is already burdened with the weight of the jeweled crown of the Chozla Empire. Titles such as `Emperor of the Three Worlds’, `Emperor of the Good Earth and the Seven Worlds’ are already being borne by that King of Poets.”
And if this author says that the poets who heard his words drowned in the ocean of surprise and struggled — readers should not disregard it as lies. It is the author’s imagination, lyric, comparison, raphsody. You must accept it as some such grammatic convention of literature!