The peaks and valleys of the Western Ghats woke up from their slumber with the steady drone of the waterfalls, sweet musical chirps of the morning birds, the first stirrings of life at dawn. Though the high peak in the east tried to hide the sun, the silvery light rays pierced through in all directions, all over the sky and earth. A battery of monkeys started their day among the tree-tops with their raucous chattering and screeching.
In a ravine surrounded by mountains, a river was hastening down, sometimes playful, falling in silvery cascades, and sometimes lazy, meandering aimlessly under the green blankets.
Along the banks of that river, on a footpath of the jungle some shadowy forms were moving. They appeared to be following the flow of the river.
After a while the red-tinted sky in the east transformed into bright blue. The Sun God Sooryadeva peeped out from behind the peak with his light rays shining like the sharp edges of spears of the Chera King. Enjoying the sport of his spears, the green-clad peaks smiled.
The moving forms along the river bank were clearer now: a small group of people. Judging from the things they were carrying along, it appeared to be a group of singers and dancers, a “koothar kuzham”. A boy of about eleven carrying a travel bag skipped along at the front of the group, chasing the butterflies that flitted about the path. He fancied himself a self-appointed guide to the group. He would stop a while, allowing the rest to catch up with him, and then run ahead. Next came two teenage girls walking in a carefree manner, singing softly to themselves, also enjoying the game, chasing after the boy. A middle-aged woman followed them, carrying her luggage on her head, then an elderly man. Another man followed him, carrying a pot-like drum on his shoulder. A middle-aged man, a paanan carrying his yaazh (lyre) and some small luggage brought up the rear.
After walking for a while, the group stopped under the shade of a Kadhamba tree. There were exposed rocks in the river here, making the waters turbulent. The water flowed in swirls and eddies, foaming and seething as it dashed over the rocks, turning silvery in the morning light. It was time to unpack the food bundle that the middle-aged lady was carrying. The girls fetched water from the river in their earthenware pots. They ate a simple meal of sour varagu (a cereal) with honey and some fruits, drank water and rested a while.
“Yendhai! Look down there in the distance, it looks like a town! Shall we go there?”, asked one of the girls, pointing downstream, addressing her father.
“Yes, Panmozhi!”, said the elderly man, who we will now introduce as Paandaram Koothanaar. He was the head of the family, and of the group as well. The name Paandaram originates from a masculine dance performed by Lord Shiva, the King of Dance. Koothanaar just literally means “dancer”. Paandaram Koothanaar was acclaimed as a versatile dancer. In keeping with his musical tradition, he had named his daughter Panmozhi, meaning one whose speech is like music.
“Do you think we will reach there by noon?” asked the other girl.
“We have to walk another kaadam, my dear!”, said the Koothanaar.
“Oh! It looks so close… still one kaadam to go?” she asked, disappointed.
This was Yaazhini, the daughter of Koothanaar’s sister. Panmozhi and Yaazhini were the expert dancers, Viraliar of that group.
The mountain breeze sweeping through the bamboo bushes raised a whistling musical sound. The boy noticed this and remarked, “Akka! Akka! Do you hear the sound of a giant Pullanguzhal (flute)?”, clapping his hands in excitement. The boy was called Cheyyon and he was the younger brother of Yaazhini. He was named so after Cheyyon-Murugan, the God of this mountainous landscape, kurinji.
“It looks as if Cheyyon – Murugan is also playing the flute, just like you!”, said the middle-aged lady with a laugh. Her name was Polankuzhai, and she was the younger sister of Koothanaar and mother of Yaazhini and Cheyyon.
“Look there in the distance! It seems some travellers are coming up the path”, said the middle-aged Paanan, who was the husband of Polankuzhai, and father of Yaazhini and Cheyyon. Being tall and thin, his name Nediyon, meaning long fellow, was well-suited to his figure.
Coming to the last person in the group we are yet to introduce: this was a short, sturdy, young man with a pot-like head. He was appropriately called Muzhavu Thalaiyan, meaning the pot-headed one. Fittingly, he played the muzhavu, which is a spherical drum, not unlike the shape of his head! Not only did his head resemble a muzhavu, but his voice was also as loud. Besides the muzhavu, he played the thannumai, a sort of cylindrical drum which you beat on both sides. He was the son of Koothanaar’s friend and was his disciple.
Our group have already been travelling for several days, and finally within reach of what looks like a town. As we can gather from their meagre belongings in ragged bundles, they are working class folk: artists, poor and semi-nomadic.
Muzhavu Thalaiyan now said, “Ayya! We should start now if we want to reach that town before sundown.”
“Let us wait for the people who are coming up this path. Perhaps they are Pulavar (scholars) or Koothar (dancers). If they are people like us, who depend for their livelihood on Parisil, (gifts from rich donors), they might be able to guide us. Let us stay a while and converse with them first,” said Koothanaar.
Cheyyon who was examining the bamboo stems for their suitability to make flutes out of, asked “Uncle! Aren’t we still in Chera country?”
“No. This is Pali’s Kodagu Nadu, and I believe the town you see down there is his capital Arayam”, said Koothanaar.
“Oh! But our country is Chera country, isn’t it?”
“From today it is Kodagu Nadu!”, Panmozhi said and laughed.
“How is that?” questioned the boy.
“Whoever gives us parisil, that is our country. We will hail that country, sing and dance!” said Yaazhini simply.
Koothanaar intervened and said, “Cheyya! A poet called Kanian Poongunranar has sung like this:
“Yaadum oorey, Yaavarum Kelir
Theedum nanrum pirar thara vaaraa …”
He concluded with the explanation: “We are like a boat bobbing along on a river. We move with the current and touch various ports-of-call. But we will not sing the praise of someone simply because he is wealthy. We consider only their good heart as praise-worthy. For us Chera Nadu as well as Kodagu Nadu are equally important.”
Koothanaar stood up and slowly climbed on a big rock nearby. Then he called to the others. He pointed out towards the north-western direction and said,
“This hill is Brahmagiri. You can see Thalai Kaveri from here clearly.”
The others climbed on the rock to take a look.
“Oh, there! That small source of water bubbles out and slides into the tank. Is that really the Thalai Kaveri?”, asked Panmozhi.
“From that small tank she overflows to the bigger one and flows out.” Polankuzhai personified the river as a Goddess and reverently folded her hands in prayer, the others following suit.
“If we travel along the course of Kaveri, we can reach Chozha country,” said Koothanaar.
Panmozhi’s face blossomed. She enthusiastically said, “Yendhai! Let us go to Chozha country. I would love to see the Vangakkadal (Bay of Bengal), and the famous cities of Uraiyur and Kaveri Poompattinam.”
Meanwhile, the sound of footsteps was heard nearby. Koothanaar and his group prepared to greet the other party, eager to receive information from them.