Volume 3 Chapter 46: Vatapi

 

Most of the Vatapi forces marched in theNorth West direction towards Vatapi from the banks of the North Pennai River. As Sivakami travelled with that army too, she was witness to incidents that were more horrific than the atrocities perpetrated in the villages of Thondai Mandalam. She saw houses and hay stacks being set on fire, war elephants destroying verdant groves, crops being obliterated, innocent villagers being murdered, sturdy youths and young women being imprisoned and infants who were separated from their mothers shrieking.

 An inferno was ablaze in Sivakami’s heart. She was desirous of meeting the Vatapi Emperor again and requesting him not to engage in such atrocities. She tried to meet him several times. She requested her guards to take her to Pulikesi. It seemed that those guards did not heed her. Every night when she slept, she heard a sound that resembled a ghost laughing. She used to wake up with a start. It appeared that the Vatapi Emperor was walking with his back towards her at a distance. By the time she sat up that figure would disappear. She used to think that she was hallucinating. 

When Pulikesi was young he was tortured by his chithappa, Mangalesan. On account of this he had become hard-hearted and cruel. Ever since he ascended the Vatapi throne with Naganandi’s assistance, he spent all his time decimating his foes within the country and waging wars with external adversaries. It was uncharacteristic of Pulikesi to empathise with others’ sorrows. There were two reasons for Pulikesi becoming ten times crueler than he used to be before.

Firstly, he was furious that his invasion of South India had ended in failure because of Mahendra Pallavar’s ruses. Secondly, he was envious that Naganandi, who had thus far thought only about the glory of theVatapi Kingdom and his welfare, had now fallen for the charms of a girl from Pallava Nadu. Emperor Pulikesi gave vent to his fury by torturing the innocent citizens on his way back to Vatapi. He also wondered how he could take revenge on Sivakami. Sivakami, who was unaware of all this, was optimistic of convincing the Vatapi Emperor to command his forces not to commit atrocities should she have an opportunity to meet him face to face again. However, her desire to meet him was not fulfilled till they reached Vatapi.

Sivakami was taken to a large and beautiful palace in Vatapi. Two ladies in waiting were appointed to act as her escorts and to serve her. They spoke a dialect that was a combination of Prakrit and Tamil. Sivakami was able to easily comprehend what the ladies in waiting said. They informed Sivakami that the Emperor had commanded that Sivakami be housed in the palace and that they ought to ensure that she was comfortable. This was what she had expected. So Sivakami decided that Emperor Pulikesi would soon visit the palace to meet her. She incessantly thought about how she ought to behave and what she ought to say when he visited her.

Sivakami held two contradictory opinions about the Emperor. Sometimes, she felt furious recollecting the atrocities perpetrated by his army. She also felt proud that a helpless girl like her could wield so much influence on such a cruel king. Sivakami was frequently reminded of Sita, whom Ravanan had abducted and had imprisoned at Ashoka Vanam[i]. Her situation was akin to Sita’s. Rama had defeated Ravanan, had freed Sita and taken her along with him. Similarly, Mamallar would come one day and rescue her from that barbarian, Pulikesi!

Sivakami, who believed that Mamallar would come to her rescue, also pondered on the difference between her and Sita. Ravanan was captivated by Sita’s beauty and had abducted her. But Pulikesi was impressed with her dancing prowess and had imprisoned her (Sivakami’s view was shaped by the firm belief that Pulikesi was the bikshu in disguise). So Sita did not possess the kind of clout she did with Pulikesi. Her art will give her the power to make Pulikesi dance to her tune. “Ah! I am not going to spare that wicked bikshu! He would have to come to me anyway!”

 Sivakami’s desire was fulfilled on the eighth day of her arrival to Vatapi. The Emperor visited her palace. When the lady in waiting rushed in and announced the Emperor’s arrival, Sivakami hurried to welcome him and attack him with her sharp glances and speech. When the Emperor entered the palace, surveyed her from top to bottom and laughed in a ghastly manner as he had in her dream, her intentions vanished into thin air. She felt an indescribable fear that rocked her body and soul. She felt tongue-tied.

When Pulikesi enquired, “Sculptor’s daughter! Queen of Dancing! The artistic treasure of Mahendra Pallavan! Are you well? Do you like your stay at Vatapi?” Sivakami trembled. Was this the same bikshu who was ecstatic seeing her perform the most prosaic pieces? Was this the same Naganandi was so overcome by emotion that he struggled to speak every time he approached her? He had not behaved in this manner when she had beseeched him to free the womenfolk of Thondai Nadu on the banks of the Ponnmugil River. Has his return to Vatapi transformed him?

As Sivakami’s heart was in turmoil, she was unable to respond to Pulikesi. Observing this Pulikesi said, “Lady! Why are you silent? Do you think it’s beneath you to speak to Pulikesi, who is incapable of appreciating arts? I don’t completely lack artistic sensibility. If it were so, would I have housed you whom I had imprisoned in this palace? Doesn’t this beautiful palace befit the peerless Queen of Dancing from Pallava Nadu? Are you comfortable here? Do the ladies in waiting serve you well? If you find anything lacking, say so!”

Though Sivakami found Pulikesi’s speech repulsive, she decided that she ought not to keep quiet. She strengthened her resolve and said, “Prabhu! I am comfortable here. I have no complaints. Thank you very much!”  “Aha! It’s you who spoke! Thank God! Seeing you stand silently, I was wondering if I had imprisoned a living being or a stone statue your father had sculpted. I am very happy that you spoke. If you truly want to demonstrate the gratitude you just expressed, there is an opportunity…” Pulikesi hesitated to speak further.

Sivakami remained speechless fearing what he would say next. “Lady! The foolish Mahendra Pallavan said that I was incapable of appreciating arts; you believed him. The difference between Mahendra Pallavan’s and my ability to appreciate arts is as stark as the difference between a jackal and a tiger; the difference between a pond and an ocean and the difference between the miniscule Thondai Mandalam and the expansive Chalukya Kingdom. You will soon realize this. Queen of Arts! Listen to me! The Emperor of Persia has sent emissaries to my Court. The Persian Emperor has sent tribute and gifts and has sought my friendship in return. A large assembly will congregate at the Coronation Hall tomorrow to welcome the Persian emissaries to accept their tribute. You must dance in that assembly.”

Sivakami, who was scared and confused till then, gained uncharacteristic courage when she heard the word ‘dance’. She looked at Pulikesi directly in the eye, without a trace of fear or hesitation, and said in a firm tone “I will not dance”. Pulikesi glowered angrily for an instant. Pulikesi gritted his teeth to suppress his uncontrollable anger and said, “Lady! Why do you stubbornly refuse to dance? I will give you three days to think about this!”

“There is no need to think, Prabhu! You will make me dance in your Court and then trumpet to the world that you have defeated Mahendra Pallavar. You will point out to me and state, ‘She is a slave from Pallava Nadu!’ Ah! I understood your intention. You may be able to imprison me and enslave my mortal body. You may also control my soul; but you cannot enslave my art. I will not dance in subservience to your authority and fearing your command! I will never dance” said Sivakami.

When Sivakami uttered these words in an angry tone, Pulikesi’s eyes reddened and emitted sparks of anger. When Sivakami finished talking, Pulikesi laughed in a ghastly manner as he had before. “Lady! Be patient! Why do you get so agitated? I have no intention to enchain your body or your art. You don’t have to dance if you so desire. Don’t think that you have been imprisoned in this palace. You may leave the palace whenever you wish. You may stroll around Vatapi and return. Though Vatapi is not as picturesque as Kanchi, there are interesting places to visit. The sentries stationed at the entrance of this palace are not here to detain you in this palace. They are here to serve you. They will fetch a palanquin for you whenever you desire. If you wish to see me again, you may send me a message through them. Sculptor’s daughter! You don’t have to live in constant fear of my authority. You can live as you please independently and comfortably!”

Once Emperor Pulikesi finished talking, he observed Sivakami keenly. Sivakami failed to observe the intense hatred and vengeance in Pulikesi’s eyes. The helpless girl was staring at the ground. She was gloating that she had vanquished Pulikesi of Vatapi, who was renowned for his cruel and torturous ways. That evening Sivakami told the guards of her palace that she wished to look around Vatapi and asked them to fetch a palanquin. Pulikesi telling her that she was not a prisoner and that she may stroll around outside the palace was etched in her memory. She sat in the palanquin and ventured out to ascertain if she was truly free.            

 


[i] Vanam –Forest in Sanskrit

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