Chapter 28 – Iron Grip
When he had survived from the flood of surprise that drowned him, the court poet Nallavan Sattanar said, “My Lord! Does it mean …? The poet who wrote these verses is…”
“It is this Emperor of the earth who lies on this sick-bed without the use of his legs,” spoke the Emperor.
Several exclamations of surprise rose among the poets as they talked and whispered quietly amongst themselves. They moved their hands and heads in an agitated manner, not knowing how to express their thoughts; others sat perfectly still immobilized by the declaration they had heard!
Sundara Chozla continued to speak. “Dear poets! Long ago some poets and bards came to see me in Pazlayarai. Some of you may have been in that group. Each of them sang verses in praise of the benevolence of my clan, my forefathers. Some of them sang a few lines about me also. They praised me saying, `I gave this to that one and that to this person.’ My young daughter Kundavai, the Younger Pirati was also seated beside me. Soon the poets left after receiving gifts and awards. Kundavai kept singing their praises commenting on the excellence of their poetry. I challenged Kundavai, saying that I could compose much better verse, more imaginative and extravagant than any of those poets. And I composed those lines playfully at that time and asked Kundavai for a reward. My darling child clung to my back and pinched my cheeks saying `Here is your reward.’ I can remember that incident as if it was yesterday. But it must be more than eight or nine years now.”
“Great! Remarkable! Surprising! Astounding!” rose several voices from the group.
As soon as he heard the name Kundavai, Vandiya Devan’s whole body became attentive. He had heard much about that Princess of the Chozla clan: about her beauty, her intelligence, her ability and learning. Here is the fortunate father who gave birth to that astonishing Princess and her mother is seated close by. The Emperor speaks of his daughter with such pride! His voice quivers when he mentions her name…
Vandiya Devan’s right hand searched in his pouch hidden in his waistband. The palm leaf roll of letters that he was carrying for Kundavai, were in that pouch. His searching palm halted in startled alarm. He was appalled.
Dear me! What is this? I cannot find the letter! Where is the letter? Where could it have fallen? Could it have fallen accidentally when I took out the letter meant for the Emperor? Where would it have fallen? In the audience chamber … Perhaps it will fall in the hands of the Commander! Is there any danger if that happens? Oh! What a blunder! What a great mistake! What shall I do …
He could not remain in that place patiently after he realized that he had lost the letter meant for Kundavai. He did not hear any of the conversation in that room. Whatever he heard his mind did not comprehend.
Sundara Chozla was still talking to that astonished group of poets. “Kundavai must have repeated the verse I composed in playfulness to some one. Perhaps she recited it to her teacher, the Priest Esanya Bhattar of Pazlayarai. He has spread it all over the nation and made me the object of mockery!”
“My Lord! So what if the poem was written by you? It is a wonderful poem. There is no doubt about that! Besides being the Emperor of the Nation, you are also an Emperor among Poets!” said the court poet.
“However, if I had sung this poem now, I would have added one more line. I would not have stopped with giving an elephant to Indra, horses to Surya and a palanquin to the Great Shiva. Remember Lord Shiva kicked the Lord of Death to protect his favorite devotee Markandeya? When he was kicked, that fearsome Lord of Death escaped with a few wounds. But Death’s vehicle, the water-buffalo fell down dead right there. The Lord of Death suffered without a proper vehicle to execute his duties… Sundara Chozla of Pazlayarai saw his problem and presented Yama, the Lord of Death, with a huge water-buffalo! Yama now rides upon that beast comfortably and is fast approaching me. Even my able Commander of Tanjore cannot stop Yama riding on his buffalo from coming to me.”
When she heard these words, Vanama Devi seated next to him, looked at her lord with tears streaming down her face. Even the poets were moved, filled with a tremendous sadness. Only the Younger Lord Pazluvoor seemed unshaken. “My Sire! In your service, I shall be ready to wage war even with death!” he declared.
“I have no doubt about that, Commander! But no human being has the power to fight death. We merely have the power to pray and ask the God’s to give us the ability to not fear death. Perhaps one of you remember those verses of one of our Tamil saints who sang, `We shall not fear death.’ Does anyone know that poem?” asked the Emperor.
A poet rose up to repeat that verse:
We are bondsmen to none; nor do we fear the Lord of Death; We shall not suffer the horrors of hell;
Neither are we at all times incapable
To overcome the misfortunes of ill health.
The Emperor intervened at this line to say “Ah! Who but a great soul who has seen the vision of the Lord could sing this daring verse so fearlessly? Saint Appar had suffered with fearful consumption. But he overcame that ill health with the grace of God. That is why he sang the line about `Overcoming the misfortunes of ill health.’ My dear poets! Please stop composing verse in praise of me or my clan. Sing such poems about divine grace from now onwards. Appar, Sambanda and Sundara Murti have sung thousands of such exquisite devotional poems in sweet Tamil. How wonderful it would be if we could collect all those verses in one anthology? One lifetime will not be adequate to read and enjoy all of it!”
“King of Kings, with your permission we are ready to begin that task right away!”
“No; it is not a task that can be completed in my lifetime. After me … ” the Emperor hesitated and became immersed in his own thoughts.
The palace physician came close to the Younger Lord Pazluvoor and whispered something in his ears. Sundara Chozla seemed to recover from his contemplation as if startled from a nightmare. He looked around, his eyes searching for something. He seemed to be a man returning from a different world; as if he had glimpsed at the world of the Lord of death.
Lord Pazluvoor, the Commander, asked, “My Lord! You had expressed a wish to hear some verses composed during the Sangam Age. Can these poets leave after they recite one such poem?”
“Yes, yes. I had forgotten. Not only my body, even my mind seems to be deteriorating. Let me hear the poem.”
The Commander made a sign to the chief poet Nallavan Sattanar. Upon that sign, the poet stood up and began speaking the following words:
“My Lord! One of the most famous kings of your clan was Karikala Valava of the Sangam Age. He was the brave warrior who placed his tiger-flag on the Himalaya Mountains. During his reign, the capital of the Chozla Kingdom was Poompuhar or Kaviri-poom-pattinam. It was the port where goods and produce from various foreign nations came in ships. One of the poets of that period composed several verses in praise of that town describing its wealth and prosperity. Here are a few lines describing the various goods that came into the port of that famous town:
Horses of noble gait came by the sea; Bagsful of black pepper brought in carts;
Gemstone and gold from the northern mountains;
Fragrant sandal and myrrh, forest produce of the Kudagu hills; Pearls from the southern seas, corals of the western ocean; Wealth of the Ganga and yield of the Cauvery;
Food from Lanka and manufactured goods of Malaya…
Sundara Chozla made a sign and stopped the poet when he came to this line. The poet stopped; silent.
The Emperor looked at his commander and said with some harshness, “Commander, the poem speaks of the times of Karikala when food came to us from Lanka. You brought these poets here to tell me this. Is it not so?”
“Yes, My Lord!” the words of the Commander came faintly.
“I understand. Please send these poets away; give them appropriate gifts,” said the monarch turning his face away.
“Poets! Sirs! You can all take your leave now.” The Commander announced firmly. The whole group rose and
departed through the door. But, they did not forget to raise cheers and blessings for the Emperor as they left.
Vandiya Devan who was quite agitated at not finding the letter he had brought for Kundavai, tried to mingle with that group and escape. But, his intention did not succeed. Near the doorway a vise like grip took hold of his left hand. Vandiya Devan was quite strong. But that iron grip shook him from head to toe and made him stand still. He looked up and his eyes confirmed that the iron grip belonged to the Commander, the Younger Lord Pazluvoor.
By now, the poets had left the inner bed chamber.