Sivakami felt as though she was gradually resurfacing from the dark depths of the deep sea. She could perceive sparks of light emerge and revolve around her in the pitch darkness. Amidst the complete silence, she could hear an indecipherable sound. Initially it was soft. The sound became progressive louder and soon resembled an uproarious ocean. Amidst that uproarious din, she could her certain sounds. Those sounds soon transformed into the sound of human conversation. Ah! The sound of two voices alternately speaking was heard. Sivakami thought one of the voices sounded familiar. But whose voice was that?
Sivakami realized that her eyelids were still shut. Exercising great effort, she opened her eyes slightly. The sight that then met her eyes simultaneously aroused surprise, pity, agitation and horror in her. She also wondered if this was a dream or if her dazed mind was hallucinating. She comprehended that she was lying on the floor of a viharam that was carved out of rocks. The uneven rocky terrain had a chilling impact on her body. A man lay on the ground a short distance from her. A majestic looking man, who resembled Samara Rudra Murthy, stood close to him holding his sword aloft. Several soldiers wielding swords and spears stood further away. Shock, anger and respect were evident in their facial expressions. The fire sparks and smoke that emanated from the torches a few soldiers were holding had transformed that cave mandapam into a scene from Yama Loka.
The massive statue of Buddha Bhagavan seated in a meditative posture had a beatific expression. Sivakami closed her eyes once again and opened them to confirm if the sight in front of her was a dream, a hallucination or reality. She realized that what was unfolding in her presence was reality. Gradually she regained clarity of thought and the ability to think. She observed that the man who lay on the floor was Naganandi Bikshu. She surmised that the man standing majestically next to him holding a sword aloft was Commander Paranjyothi.
“The soldiers who surrounded the two men and stood scattered in the cave must be Pallava soldiers. But how did they reach here? How did I come here?” The indecipherable sounds of human conversation soon became clear. Naganandi was saying, “Appane, Paranjyothi! May you lead a happy life! You are very virtuous and grateful! It was this hand that saved you from a cobra. It was this hand that freed you from the Pallavan’s prison. It was this hand that saved the life of the sculptor Aayanar, whom you regard as your achariar. This hand also saved his daughter from being killed by a kabalikiai some time ago. You have amputated that very right hand! Ah! You are such a grateful boy!”
Paranjyothi interrupted then and said: “Ah! You fake bikshu! Why did you stop relating the exploits of your sacred hands mid-way? Wasn’t this the hand that wielded the poisoned dagger at Mahendra Pallavar? Weren’t these the hands that enabled you to carry Aayanar’s daughter and run down the tunnel? When you realized that there was no escape route, wasn’t your hand about to stab the Devi with the poisoned dagger?”
“Yes, appane! Yes! All what you say is true. But why did I try to take away Aayanar’s daughter? Do you know why? Ah! Paranjyothi! You believe that you are far more affectionate, devoted and concerned about Aayanar’s daughter than I am. Your master, the foolish Mamallan, believes that his love for her exceeds mine! Appane! Do you understand the meaning of love? Paranjyothi! The reason behind Vatapi being set ablaze and falling into ruin is me. I sacrificed my own brother for Sivakami’s sake. I sacrificed the great Chalukya Kingdom that caused Harshavardhana to tremble at the altar of my love. Ah! How would you folks understand the meaning of love and affection?”
“Adigal, you’re stating the truth. I understood the meaning of affection only some time ago. We demonstrate our affection to someone by stabbing the person with a poisoned dagger, isn’t it? I came to know of this only a short while ago. You deceitful bikshu! I don’t have the time to converse with you. Had you not discarded your disguise and had continued wearing a king’s robes, I would have despatched you to your death by now. I am unable to bring myself to kill an ochre robe clad bikshu. I will spare you on one condition. Ten years ago, Aayanar had sent me to learn the secret of the Ajantha paints. I too promised that I will do so. You must be aware of the secret of the Ajantha paints. If you divulge the secret, I will spare your life. If not, pray to the God closest to your heart…If a barbarian like you does believe in the existence of a God, pray to that God!”
“Appane! I thank you for your mercy. I pray to only one God. That is Sivakami. I will pray to her. I was desirous of taking Aayanar and his daughter to Ajantha and demonstrate the secret of the indelible dyes in person. I am not fortunate enough to complete that task. Neither are they fortunate. You have determined that the price of my life is that wonderful secret that cannot be deciphered by anyone in this world! Bless you! I will tell you the secret. Ordinary dyes are made by extracting and boiling the juices of leaves, roots, vegetables and seeds of plants. These raw materials do dry up and disintegrate. Hence the paints made out of them also fade away and get completely erased ultimately. But there are certain rocks in the mountains that are naturally coloured. These colours remain unaffected by sunshine, rain and wind. So, the paints made by powdering the coloured rocks and converting the powder into liquid form are indelible. The paintings at Ajantha have been painted using such paints. Paranjyothi! I have disclosed to you the secret that no one but the bikshus of the Ajantha Sangramam knew of during the last five hundred years. Now, may I leave?”
“Adigal! Leave immediately. I may change my mind the next instant. You may leave by the secret tunnel through which you had planned to abduct Sivakami Devi. Be quick!” Naganandi exercised great effort to stand up. He picked up his amputated right hand with his left hand. “Paranjyothi! You are a good boy. You are sparing my life. It would have been good if you had beheaded me instead of amputating my arm. But as I’m still desirous of living, I beseeched you to spare me alive. You too complied. I understand that you wish me to leave before Mamallan’s arrival. Here I go. But I have one more request. Sivakami will regain consciousness in some time. You must inform her of one thing. You must tell her that I attempted to kill her by stabbing her with a poisoned dagger! That was my final gift to her as a testimony of my love for her!” Speaking thus, Naganandi turned to the direction where Sivakami lay. He observed that Sivakami had regained consciousness and was standing motionless like a statue, leaning against the rock pillar.
“Ah! Sivakami! Have you woken up? Did you hear what I told Aayanar’s disciple, Paranjyothi? Yes! I tried to kill you by wielding a dagger. I acted thus pitying you for what the future has in store for you. The Pallava Commander came in my way and preventing me from doing good to you. Sivakami! In the future…No, don’t think about the future. Forget this sinner! Forget this fake bikshu who placed his body, soul and possessions at your feet. Be as happy as you possibly can! But I will not forget you. Neither will I forget Paranjyothi and Mamallan! Farewell, Sivakami! Farewell! May Buddha Bhagavan protect you!” Speaking thus, Naganandi Bikshu faltered as he walked towards Buddha Bhagavan’s statue and disappeared behind the statue.
Everyone stood watching Naganandi escape through the tunnel. As everyone was aware that the Commander had consented to spare Naganandi, no one stopped him. Sivakami continued staring at Naganandi without batting an eyelid till he disappeared from her sight. When he had saved her from the kabalikai a short while ago, Sivakami wondered if he was Emperor Pulikesi or Naganandi Bikshu. Now she wondered if he was a human being, a demon in human form, a man driven to lunacy on account of a great sorrow or a merciless murderer.
Meanwhile, Commander Paranjyothi said, “Shatrugna! You came at the right time! Please check if there is a route to exit this underground Buddha Viharam! It would be difficult for all of us to exit through the tunnel, which leads to the well, through which we came! There must be a main entrance somewhere that has been sealed. Please identify that soon!” Shatrugnan said, “Commander! I have already found out where the main entrance is. Please command us to break open that entrance!”
The Commander suddenly remembered and asked, “Shatrugna! Where is Gundodharan?” “Ah! Commander! The dearest of my dear disciples was the target of the kabalikai’s dagger. As the demoness was not in the cave, we were looking for her in the tunnel. Did you see that barbaric woman?” asked Shatrugnan. “I did, Shatrugna! Kannan and the kabalikai lay dead next to each other. I don’t know how Kannan died. We have to return to that place and find out,” said Paranjyothi.
Paranjyothi, while speaking in this manner, walked towards Sivakami, who was leaning against the pillar, and respectfully bowed to her. “Ammani! You saw and heard all what transpired. By Ekambarar’s grace, all danger has blown over us. We are able to see you alive after nine years. Please sit down for some time and relax! Once the entrance to this cave is identified, we will leave. Your father and the Chakravarthy are waiting outside the fort!” he said.
Sorrow choked Sivakami. She stammered, “Commander! I want to see Kamali’s husband before leaving. Please take me to that house.” At the same time, the Pallava soldiers were breaking down the sealed main entrance to the viharam.