A Peek Into A Timeless Tamil Epic: An Excerpt from Sivakami’s Vow: Book 1 Translated By Nandini Vijayaraghavan

There was a large moat encircling the walls of the fort. It was about a hundred feet wide and quite deep. The water in the moat was blue-green.


The highway down which our travellers came forked into two near the moat. One branch of the highway turned right and the other ran adjacent to the moat. Travellers and carts which came down the highway turned either left or right and continued their journey. The narrow wooden bridge across the moat led to the gates of the fort. The bikshu gestured to Paranjyothi to follow him as he walked across the bridge. Paranjyothi complied.


‘Why is the bridge so narrow? How will vehicles enter the fort?’ asked Paranjyothi.


‘They cannot enter through this gate. The bridges to the northern and eastern gates are wide. Even elephants can walk across those bridges,’ said the bikshu. They crossed the bridge and reached the entrance of the fort. A gong was suspended there, with a stick beside it. The bikshu hit the gong with the stick.


Don’t say that, Marudappa. One never knows what the future holds, even for emperors. But why do we need to discuss these things. How is your son?’ asked the bikshu.


A man looked out from the higher storey of the fort and asked, ‘Who’s that?’


As it was dark, one could not recognize his face. ‘It’s me, Marudappa,’ said the bikshu.


‘Is that you, adigal! I will come right away,’ said the man and disappeared.


Sometime later, the clicking sound of bolts was heard and the fort door opened wide enough to let just one person in. The bikshu entered the fort and then pulled Paranjyothi inside. The door was then shut.


Paranjyothi looked towards the city as soon as he stepped in. Kanchi was illuminated by bright lamps. The din of thousands of people talking could be heard. As Paranjyothi had never been in a big city until now, he was astounded.


The bikshu asked the guard who opened the door, ‘Marudappa, why does the city seem subdued? Why were the fort gates shut so early? Is there any news?’


‘I do not know the exact reason. The city was quite festive this morning…’


As Marudappan was talking, the bikshu interrupted to ask, ‘Why?’


‘Don’t you know? Today Sivakami’s Bharatanatyam arangetram was to be held at the emperor’s court. So, people were exuberant.’


‘Which Sivakami are you referring to?’ asked the bikshu.


‘Aayanar’s daughter, Sivakami.’


Paranjyothi, who had not been attentive thus far asked, ‘Who? Aayanar, the sculptor?’ 


The sounds of children crying, women screaming, doors of houses being hurriedly shut, cows mooing and carts hurriedly moving caused indescribable confusion.


‘Yes,’ responded the guard, looking at Paranjyothi intently. 


‘Adigal, who is this boy?’ he asked the bikshu.


‘He is my disciple; you tell me further.’


‘As the arangetram was underway, emissaries came with some important news. The chakravarthy left the court immediately. He did not return. The kumara chakravarthy and ministers also left. The arangetram ended abruptly. I received orders to seal the fort gates at sunset. What can it be, aiyya? Will there be a war soon? But who on earth is strong enough to wage a war against the chakravarthy of Kanchi?’ said Marudappan.


‘Don’t say that, Marudappa. One never knows what the future holds, even for emperors. But why do we need to discuss these things. How is your son?’ asked the bikshu.


‘He is fine by your grace, swami,’ said Marudappan.


Marudappan’s son had once been bitten by a snake. The chances of his survival were slim, but the bikshu had saved him by administering medicines. This was the reason for Maruddapan’s gratitude and devotion to the bikshu.


‘It is not because of me, Marudappa. It is by Lord Buddha’s grace… I shall leave now,’ said the bikshu and moved on. Paranjyothi followed him.


‘Adigal, how did he let you enter, despite orders to seal the fort gates?’ Paranjyothi asked.


‘It is due to the ochre robes I’m wearing,’ said the bikshu.


‘I didn’t know that bikshus were honored in the Pallava kingdom. But why do the Jains…?’


‘Jains interfered with the affairs of the state. We do not get involved in politics. In fact, we do not even meet people from the ruling dynasty. Anyway, what are your plans? Do you want to come with me to the viharam?’


Paranjyothi knew the consequences of attacking a mad elephant.


‘No, swami. I am headed to Navukkarasar’s monastery. My mother insisted that I stay nowhere but there.’


‘In that case, we have to part ways here.’


‘Swami, do you know where Navukkarasar’s monastery is? How do I get there?’ Paranjyothi asked.


‘It is close to the Ekambareshwar temple. Look at the temple tower there.’


Paranjyothi looked around. Several temple towers dotted the landscape of this large city. During the time of this story, almost one thousand three hundred and twenty years ago, the towers of temples in Tamil Nadu were not as high as they are now. Towers were constructed above the temple’s sanctum sanctorum. Moreover, temple towers, turrets of Jain schools and palace roofs were all similar.


‘There are towers everywhere. Which one are you referring to?’ asked Paranjyothi.


‘It is difficult to point out from here. You go down this street and then enquire. Navukkarasar’s monastery is close to the temple’s sanctum. Careful, my boy. These are dangerous times.’ So saying, the bikshu went down another road.


The young traveller walked in the direction shown by the bikshu. In those times, Kanchi was amongst the most prominent cities in Dakshina Bharata. Every street in the city was wide enough for chariots to pass. Houses were large. Stone pillars were erected across the city. Large earthen lamps placed on these pillars burned brightly. The marketplace was filled with produce from Kashi to Kanyakumari. Shops selling fruits, flowers, confectionery, grains and precious gems were in the marketplace. 


Paranjyothi was filled with boundless amazement as he walked down these streets. He heard people discussing the abrupt end of Sivakami’s arangetram and the fort being sealed. Periodically, he asked a passer-by, ‘Where is the Ekambareshwarar temple?’ They guided him. But he took time to reach the temple as he was immersed in the novel sights and sounds of the city and was in no hurry.


As he was strolling down the streets, he suddenly heard a lot of noise and commotion. People frantically dispersed in all directions. ‘The temple elephant is running amok. Flee! Flee!’ they warned. The sounds of children crying, women screaming, doors of houses being hurriedly shut, cows mooing and carts hurriedly moving caused indescribable confusion. 


Paranjyothi was stunned for a moment. He was unable to decide whether he should also run and, if so, in which direction. He observed the incidents unfolding before him. Ahead of him, there was a palanquin. A stunningly beautiful young woman and an old man who seemed to be her father were seated in the palanquin. The palanquin bearers, hearing the commotion behind them, set the palanquin down on the road and fled. Simultaneously, he could hear from behind the mad elephant running towards him at a speed that caused the ground to vibrate.


‘What was the purpose of my visit? Why did I get involved in this adventure?…’


Paranjyothi stood indecisively for a moment. The next moment he opened his bundle quickly and resolutely. He took out the tip of a spear from inside and attached it to the staff he was carrying. By the time he held the spear in his right hand, the elephant had come close.


Paranjyothi hurled the spear at the elephant with all his might. The spear hit the elephant near the left eye, piercing its thick hide as it struck deep. It let out a terrible cry, removed the spear with its trunk and stamped it under its foot. Then it turned towards the youth who had flung the spear.


Paranjyothi knew the consequences of attacking a mad elephant. So, he started running quickly in the direction opposite to where the palanquin was. By the time the elephant moved its gigantic body around, he had covered a long distance. As he was running, he turned around and looked.


The elephant was chasing him. Immediately, he ran down a by-lane without looking back. He again reached a wide road and saw five to six elephants manned by mahouts approaching the spot rapidly. He stood at the corner of the street. He guessed that these elephants were being sent to tame the mad elephant and started walking slowly.


Paranjyothi became conscious of his body only then. His heart was beating rapidly. He was drenched in sweat. As he had been walking the whole day, he was already tired and the running made him even more exhausted. His feet slackened. His body shivered due to the excitement. He felt incapable of walking further and wanted to sit down to relax for some time. He sat on a stone platform erected on the roadside.


The full moon was glowing brightly in the sky. The gentle breeze that was blowing helped him relax. As he recovered, he started thinking, ‘What was the purpose of my visit? Why did I get involved in this adventure? What motivated me to hurl the spear at the mad elephant? What would have been the consequences had the elephant caught up with me? I would have never again seen my mother, who loves me more dearly than her own life, again.’


Paranjyothi recollected the faces of the young woman and the old man seated in the palanquin. He resolved that he had hurled the spear at the mad elephant to protect them. ‘Who could they have been? Was she Sivakami, whose arangetram people said ended midway? Was the elderly gentleman Aayanar?’ Paranjyothi, thinking thus, lay down on the stone platform. His eyelids closed involuntarily. Nitra Devi embraced him gently in her soft arms.


Excerpted with permission from Sivakami’s Vow: Book 1 – Paranjyothi’s Journey by Kalki, translated by Nandini Vijayaraghavan


Publishing/ Penguin Random House India (2023)


You can buy your copy here.



Born and raised in Chennai, Nandini Vijayaraghavan is a director and head of research at the Singapore office of Korea Development Bank. She holds master’s degrees in economics and finance from Tufts University and London Business School, respectively, and is a CFA charter holder. Unfinished Business is Nandini’s first India-centric business book. Her columns on finance and economy have appeared in BusinessLineThe HinduEconomic & Political Weekly and Financial Express. Nandini’s blog address is www.litintrans.com.