One thousand three hundred years ago, Vatapi was the capital of one of the three kingdoms that flourished in Bharata Kandam. Like Kanyakubhaj and Kanchi, Vatapi’s fame had spread far and wide and even overseas. Every time Pulikesi’s army returned from a military campaign, it brought back enormous wealth from the nations it had defeated. Hence Vatapi was prosperous those days. Trade flourished in that city. Traders of precious gems from far flung countries used to visit Vatapi.
As famous Jain temples and Buddhist monasteries were situated in Vatapi, travellers from several countries used to visit the city. Therefore Vatapi used to be perpetually vibrant. This was particularly true when the Emperor was in the capital city. Vassals used to come bearing tribute to gain an audience with the Emperor. Ambassadors from far-off countries likeChinaandPersiaused to visit. The streets of Vatapi flanked by mansions and temple towers were always teeming with people and were reminiscent of a temple fair. The sounds of carts and chariots were incessantly heard.
Sivakami observed the sights and sounds of Vatapi while she was carried around in a palanquin. She mentally compared Kanchi and Vatapi. She very well understood the difference between a city whose affluence and culture grew from ancient times and a new citythat was suddenly endowed with wealth. The clothes and ornaments worn by the affluent men and women of Kanchi were subdued. Their dressing was aesthetic. The citizens of Vatapi were flashily dressed.
The people of Kanchi greeted each other with affection and respect when they met. The citizens of Vatapi laughed loudly and created a commotion when they met. At Kanchi, when masters commanded their servants, they did so with affection and consideration. The masters in Vatapi ordered their servants around harshly and used foul language. Sivakami observed another difference between Kanchi and Vatapi.
Bikshus, Digambar monks, orthodox sanyasis[i], mendicants, kabalikas and beggars flocked the streets of Kanchi and troubled the passers-by. It seemed as though those who sought alms were found aplenty in a place inhabited by philanthropists. Not many bikshus and mendicants were seen in the streets of Vatapi. As the population was not charitable, not many beggars were there! As Sivakami passed by the streets of Vatapi pondering about these issues and in awe of the city’s wealth, she saw a sight she had not hitherto witnessed at a street junction.
A group of men and women stood there. Their hands were chained together. They stood with their heads lowered. They were surrounded by ruffians, who looked like Yama’s messengers, holding long whips. Sivakami was distressed seeing this sight. As the men and women who were thus imprisoned seemed to hail from Tamizhagam, her sorrow increased multi-fold.
Sivakami wondered for a moment if she should stop the palanquin and enquire about them. But she was unable to muster the courage to do so. Her palanquin went ahead. After the palanquin had moved some distance away from the street junction, Sivakami looked around unable to suppress her curiosity. It seemed to her that some of the prisoners were pointing out to her palanquin and that they were looking towards her with tear-filled eyes. Sivakami immediately looked away and commanded the palanquin bearers to take her home.
When Sivakami returned home, she narrated the sight she saw to the lady in waiting and asked her if she knew anything regarding this. As the lady in waiting claimed ignorance, Sivakami asked her to enquire into the matter. The lady in waiting complied. She returned with news that caused Sivakami unbearable horror and sorrow. The lady in waiting brought the following news. Emperor Pulikesi had imprisoned several men and women in Pallava Nadu and had brought them to Vatapi. Some of them had tried to escape. Some others refused to engage in slave labour. Certain others were obstinate and refused to eat. Emperor Pulikesi had commanded such mischief-mongers be taken to the street junction and be publicly whipped as punishment. The whipping incident had begun that day only. It was to continue for two months. Every evening the citizens of Vatapi would be entertained in this manner.
Sleep evaded Sivakami that night. She felt a sorrow that was far more intense than what she had experienced in her grief-stricken and unhappy life till then. She felt as though someone was whipping her often. She recollected pleading with Pulikesi on the banks of Ponnmugaliaaru and securing the release of the women who had accompanied her. It seemed that those who were freed that day were only a fraction of the people the Chalukyas had imprisoned. The larger contingent of the army that had left ahead of Pulikesi’s contingent must have imprisoned many more people.
Sivakami now understood why the Chakravarthy had spoken to her that morning and had asked her to look around Vatapi. That tyrant had acted in this manner to make Sivakami fall at his feet and beg him. But his desire was not going to be fulfilled. She decided that she will not plead with Pulikesi under any circumstance. She would never do so! That barbarian was trying to seek revenge in this manner! Sivakami regretted her decision to look around Vatapi. She struggled all night unable to sleep.
The following day dawned; the sun rose. As the sun traversed across the sky, Sivakami’s distress intensified. As the sun continued to travel westwards, her body and soul trembled. By then the men and women from Pallava Nadu must have been produced at the street junction! Their hands must have been chained to their backs. The demonic guards must be standing behind them holding long whips. They would soon start whipping the prisoners. The resolution Sivakami had made the previous night vanished. She hurriedly commanded the guards stationed at the entrance to fetch a palanquin. As soon as the palanquin was brought, she hurriedly sat in it and commanded the bearers to take her to the street junction they had crossed the previous day.
When Sivakami’s palanquin neared the street junction, the prisoners’ faces exuded a joy not hitherto seen. They spoke amongst themselves. Several of them beseeched Sivakami, “Amma! Thaye! Please rescue us!” Sivakami was disconcerted by this unanticipated call for help. She wished that she indeed had the power to save these people. She asked the bearers to lower the palanquin, stepped out and approached the crowd. Once again the prisoners cried out, “Amma! Thaye! Please rescue us!”
Sivakami neared the prisoners. Some of them bore marks of whip lash. She observed blood oozing out of their wounds and staining the ground at several places. Sivakami felt dizzy; her stomach churned; she felt faint. She overcame these emotions and regained composure. She then asked one of the female prisoners, “Amma! Why do you ask me to save you? I too am a helpless woman like you! I too have been imprisoned by the Chalukyas. I don’t have the power to rescue you!” The lady responded, “You do possess the power to save us, thaye! The demon standing there told us so”.
Sivakami approached the chief of the warriors who resembled a demon. She spoke in the mixed dialect spoken in Vatapi. She said, “Aiyya! Why do you torture these people by whipping them? Please refrain from doing so! Stop this sinful act!” The chief of the warriors laughed heartily. He then paused to think and said, “We are powerless, thaye! It’s the Emperor’s orders!” “In that case, please wait for some time. I will intercede on their behalf to your Emperor. Till then…” That warrior interrupted Sivakami saying, “Not necessary, amma! You don’t have to approach the Emperor. You have the authority to prevent them from being whipped. We will stop if you say so; but on one condition!”
Sivakami, who was surprised and disbelieving as the soldier spoke, became alert when she heard the word ‘condition’. Sensing there must be some treachery in this, she asked, “What’s the condition?” The barbarian said, “You must dance at this very place in front of all of us. We will not whip them. If you continue dancing until sunset, all of us will watch you dance. You may return to your house at sunset. We will take them back to the prison. If you wish that they not be whipped tomorrow, you may dance here tomorrow too.”
Sivakami’s heart at that moment was akin to a volcano emitting molten lava and black smoke. Aha! Is this what that tyrant had planned for her? Is he trying to seek revenge? Was this the reason for him pretending to appreciate my art when he was disguised as a bikshu? But that treacherous man’s desire will never ever be fulfilled. I will never ever dance at the street junction of Vatapi under any circumstance.
Sivakami stood rooted to the spot with fury writ large on her face and eyes. The chief of the warriors asked, “What is your decision, thaye? Are you going to dance? Or may I ask them to proceed with their duty?” That question’s impact was akin to a heated spear being pierced into Sivakami’s ears. She resolutely looked at the soldier and said, “Aha! Are you asking me dance at this street junction? No; I will never ever do that!” The chief of warriors smilingly told the men holding the whips, “Fine, you may carry out your orders!”
[i] Sanyasi – Hindu monk