The Vatapi Emperor Pulikesi laying siege to the Kanchi Fort during Mahendra Pallavar’s reign is a well-known incident in the annals of South India.
The siege lasted for about eight months despite which the ramparts of the Kanchi Fort stood majestically without any damage. Not even one soldier of the Vatapi army could enter the Kanchi Fort.
When the Vatapi forces surrounded the Kanchi Fort, they aggressively tried to attack and capture the fort in one stroke as they had done in Vyjayanthi Pattinam. Countless soldiers of the infantry simultaneously tried to swim across the moat from all four sides. Arrows that showered on these soldiers from hidden locations in the fort walls and the crocodiles in the moat sent them to Yama Loka. Those soldiers who managed to reach the opposite banks got caught in the concealed traps that were set up adjacent to the fort walls and struggled. Fierce combat ensued between the elephants that entered the moat and the crocodiles. The waters of the moat turned red.
Having failed in their first attempt, the Vatapi army tried to bridge the moat and get the elephants to collide against the fort gates. Intoxicated elephants uprooted the large trees that surrounded Kanchi and lay them across the moat. But this task was not executed smoothly. Pallava soldiers who were hiding at the upper storeys of the fort entrance rapidly flung spears at the elephants. The spears found their mark in the elephants’ eyes and other parts of their bodies. The injured elephants beat a retreat and attacked the Chalukya soldiers.
The Chalukya army put in great effort to bridge that part of the moat that led to the fort entrance. When the elephants collided against the fort gates, the outer gates gave way. But a surprise lay in store for the elephants within the outer gates. Hundreds of spear tips were embedded in the newly erected inner fort gates. The elephants which collided against these spear tips shrieked in pain, injured the Chalukya infantry that followed them and ran away. They broke down the door fitted with spear tips using massive logs of wood. There stood a sturdy inner wall constructed using granite and cement.
After having failed in all such attempts that lasted for a month, Pulikesi decided to lay siege to the fort, starve those within the fort and force them to surrender. The Vatapi army set up its camp in a large area surrounding Kanchi and hoisted its flag.
Six months after the siege began the Vatapi army faced the danger that Pulikesi expected to befall those inside the fort. They were short of food. How can food be procured for lakhs of soldiers and thousands of elephants and bullocks that were used to draw carts if they were stationed at the same place? The Vatapi forces were unable to procure food in the area that spanned the banks of the North Pennai River and Kanchi. This was because the Pallava army that had gradually retreated from the banks of the North Pennai River had polished off all food supplies and had ensured that the Vatapi army had no access to food.
Everyone had evacuated the villages that surrounded Kanchi. So the Vatapi army was unable to secure food.
For two to three months, the elephants destroyed the forests and groves around Kanchi and consumed what was available. Subsequent to this it was necessary to travel several kadu to procure food for the elephants. Even then it was difficult to spot greenery in the severe summer that year.
The Vatapi army faced a disaster that exceeded those described above during peak summer. That was a scarcity of drinking water.
That year miracles occurred in the area than spanned seven to eight kadu around Kanchi. The dams that were overflowing in Karthikai and Margazhi unexpectedly breached the embankments in Thai and Masi and flooded the surrounding areas. On account of this, there was not a drop of water during Chithirai.
The wells and ponds were filled with the flood water from the breached dams. Even if a little water was found somewhere, it was stale and stinking, rendering the water unfit for drinking.
Those days, dams were constructed across the Palar River at three locations to store water. Only a small quantity of water was let out of the dams during spring. But that year, during summer even Palar ran dry due to the breaches in the embankments that occurred earlier during the year. As the Palar was dry, the canal that connected Kanchi to the sea also ran dry. The water in the moat surrounding the Kanchi Fort turned into a marshy swamp of blood and flesh.
So wells were dug in the Palar River bed to provide water to the lakhs of soldiers, elephants, horses and bullocks in the Vatapi army.
Several elephants ran amok due to hunger and thirst and created a stampede. These elephants crushed several soldiers under their feet and dispatched them to Yama Loka.
One day during the month of Aani, Pulikesi’s war-time ministers’ council assembled in a tent atop which the Varaha flag was fluttering. The seven to eight army chiefs whom we had previously seen at the banks of the North Pennai River were seated on a carpet, while the King of Vatapi was regally seated on an ivory throne.
Pulikesi’s face was angrier and crueler than before. He told the army chiefs: “Mahendra Varman’s father’s name is Simha Vishnu and his son’s name is Narasimhan[i]. But Mahendran is like a fox. He is hiding inside the fort like a fox that hides in its hole. How long can we wait for the fox to emerge from its hole? Do any of you have ideas?”
The army chiefs kept quiet. No one dared to speak.
“Why are you all silent?! When we won successive victories, all of you were eager to offer suggestions. When we are in need of ideas, all of you keep mum. Aha! If only our bikshu were here now…?” said Pulikesi and sighed. One of those assembled asked, “Prabhu! Is there no news of the bikshu?”
“The bikshu has not sent a message for a long time. There has been no message from him since the message he sent through a Kallapal chieftain named Vajrabahu at the banks of North Pennai River. I wonder what happened to him when he went to meet the Pandya King at Madurai. If only the bikshu were here now, he wouldn’t be blinking like you. Chief of the Spies! I had asked you to trace the bikshu’s whereabouts eight months ago. Is there any news?” asked Pulikesi. The Chief of the Spies hung his head.
Then Pulikesi asked the leader of those assembled, “Commander, what do you think? Do we have to continue with the siege? How much longer do you think Mahendra Pallavan will take to surrender?”
The Vatapi commander responded, “There is no trace of fatigue or hunger amongst the Pallava soldiers stationed on the fort walls. But our soldiers get food enough to fill only half their stomachs. In another month, we will not even be able to provide the amount of food we are providing now. There is not a single grain of food in the ten kadu area surrounding the fort!”
Pulikesi boiled with anger on hearing this. “Oh yes! You always whine about the food scarcity! Is there no one here who can suggest something useful instead of complaining like this?” asked Pulikesi furiously. One of the army chiefs said, “Prabhu! The Pandya King has been waiting at the banks of the Kaveri River for six months. There was a bumper harvest in Chola Nadu last year. If we sent a message to Jayanta Varma Pandian, he may send us food”.
Hearing this, Pulikesi was immersed in deep thought for some time. He suddenly stood up, looked around at everyone and said, “I have decided what to do. If I continue being idle here, I will go mad. Commander! You retain a large part of the army and continue with the siege here. I will head south to visit the Pandya King accompanied by a lakh soldiers. Aha! Our elephants that were so well fed when they had left Vatapi are now so emaciated. Wouldn’t there be ample food for our elephants on the banks of the Kaveri River?”
The Chief of Spies said, “Prabhu! Is it right for you to go with a small force? I wonder what the Pandya King’s motives are.” Pulikesi responded, “I don’t care what the Pandya King’s motives are! He will not dare wage war with us. Even if he has treacherous motives, what can he do? There are no forts on the banks of the Kaveri River to hide. As long as our foes wage a war on the battlefield I have no fear”.