CHENNAI: As Mani Ratnam’s film adaptation of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan continues to break records at the box office, conversations around this period of Tamil history or by extension, South Indian history have become part of popular discourse yet again. Taking this slice of heritage ahead, a walk was conducted to take the participants through some of the galleries at Egmore Museum by Storytrails in partnership with the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC), examining artefacts relevant to the period in which Kalki’s novel is set. It brought home the actual historical context of the times and the points where fact and fiction diverge.
Kalki’s book covers the period between Aditya I reviving the Chola kingdom after four centuries of subjugation under the Pallavas and Raja Raja Cholan taking over the throne, which is when the Cholas affirm themselves as the superpowers of the South. Little is known about who the first Chola king was, said Vijay Prabhat Kamalakara, managing director of Storytrails, who conducted the walk. “The earliest historical reference we can find about the Cholas goes back to the third century BCE in the Asokan edicts of the time, where they are mentioned alongside Cheras and Pandyas as friendly kingdoms, and the Sangam literature of the time. Greek and Roman writing of this period also makes mention of these kingdoms,” he said.
As far as historical evidence goes, much of southern India changed hands between the Cheras, Cholas, Pandyas and Pallavas between the third century BCE right down to the 13th century CE, before the Vijayanagara empire took over. In total, the south saw 1,500 years of rule uninterrupted by external invasions, and this accounts for much of the cultural and linguistic uniqueness of these regions, Vijay emphasised.
Of the many exhibits featured during the walk, two assumed particular significance in relation to the novel. One of them was an extensive collection of copper plates in the museum. “Copper was widely used for record-keeping owing to its durability. Here you have records of land grants given by Chola kings to temples and other institutions. The oldest in the collection here are from the third century CE,” Vijay remarked and pointed to one of them a record of a Pallava king Sivaskanda Varman gifting a village for the construction of a temple dedicated to Shiva.
The many collections of copper plates are significant in their connection to a murder mystery, which is widely covered in Ponniyin Selvan. Vijay pointed to a set of copper plates issued by Uttama Chola, also known as Madhurantaka.
When Madhurantaka’s father Gandaraditya Chola dies, the throne goes to Arinjaya, Gandaraditya’s brother, since Madhurantaka is only a child. Then Arinjaya dies and Madhurantaka, not of age yet, is denied the throne as Arinjaya’s son Sundara Chola or Parantaka II, a central figure in Kalki’s narrative, takes over. Parantaka II then makes Aditya II or Aditya Karikalan his co-regent, meaning Madhurantaka would be denied the throne a third time.
But things change when Aditya Karikalan defeats a Pandya king in battle, beheads him and puts up the head on display. A little after that, Aditya II is murdered in broad daylight. “Scholars and historians are still divided over the question of who murdered him and why. Apart from an inscription that names the three perpetrators, little is known about at whose behest they were acting,” Vijay added. This episode is depicted in Kalki’s novel with a lot of fictional characters and situations woven in, like the character of Nandhini. As for the murder, Kalki leaves it rather tantalisingly open-ended.
The walk now proceeded into the gallery of bronze sculptures, the art form that flourished under the Cholas. “It was under the Cholas that bronze sculpting attained new heights, and it’s thanks to one person — Sembiyan Mahadevi — who figures prominently in Ponniyin Selvan,” Vijay mentioned. Occupying prime position in the gallery was a bronze cast of Natesan, also referred to as Nataraja. The earliest depictions of Shiva in the Nataraja pose can be traced back to the Gupta period, but the early Cholas were largely indifferent to this avatar until Sembiyan arrived at the scene.
“Sembiyan Mahadevi, known to be a very pious woman, was also a staunch Shaivite. She wanted her son Uttama Chola aka Madhurantaka to not take the throne and dedicate his life to Shiva instead. As the wife of Gandaraditya Chola, she built many temples dedicated to Shiva and was a great patron of the arts. Until then, only one temple in Chidambaram was dedicated to Shiva as Nataraja. She commissioned workshops for the production of Natesan bronzes and the artisans eventually mastered the art of bronze sculpting. Today, the best bronzes come largely from the Chola period,” Vijay added.
The Chola dynasty came to an end around 1279 CE when they were defeated by the Pandyas. While much of Ponniyin Selvan is based on actual historical figures and events, Kalki weaves a whole narrative interweaving fact and fiction quite imaginatively. It’s a work full of intrigue, romance, and suspense, but set in a historical context that makes it a much more intriguing read, added Vijay, who expressed hope that the walk, much like the film, would spur interest in the novel.