It was some ten naazhigais, about 4 hours, after sunrise. The temperature was rising. The group of travellers who came upstream along the path, reached the place where our Koothar kuzham was waiting. They too intended to rest a while in the hot mid-morning. There were five members, three men and two women. They did not appear to be dancers, but musicians carrying a lyre, and perhaps singers. The two groups were pleased to meet each other, being artisans of similar trade. The elderly man of the new group started the conversation.
“Vanakkam! You appear to be people from Chera country? Are you coming from the capital Vanchi? We intend to go there and would much appreciate some tips and guidance.”
Koothanaar was only too happy to share their travel experiences.
“Yes, indeed we come from the land of Cheran Senguttuvan.
Everyone knows the fame of Cheran Senguttuvan, I suppose it needs no explanation. After all, hasn’t he sculpted his symbol of bow and arrow all the way in the Himalayas of the northern country? In Cheran Senguttuvan’s fertile land, all varieties of landscape can be seen, except Paalai (desert). It abounds with natural wealth, and you will come across sandal wood forests and spice plantations: turmeric, pepper, ahil grow aplenty. You will come across many lakes and ponds and rivers – the land is lush green and abundant waters are everywhere. Why, it is common to see buffalos wallowing in the waters, scattering the fish which swim out of their way hurriedly. Aha, that sweet smell of fresh toddy! How can I describe it! You will experience it when it wafts in the breeze and reaches your nostrils. The land is rich, the king generous. Senguttuvan of Vanchi liberally showered us, humble nomads, with gifts.”
“Hmm… that’s no big surprise. The Chera dynasty, the dynasty of Aattan Atthi is famous for being partial to dancers. No wonder you impressed the King with dance… but we are only singers and instrumentalists…”, said a young man in the other party, looking at the girls meaningfully.
“Oh, how can you say that? Surely, there is no dance without music and musical instruments? You too can impress the Cheran with your melodious music. Our King is known for his generosity to all the performing arts – I am sure you will be well rewarded in his court”, Koothanaar blessed them.
Then they asked for detailed directions to Vanchi.
“If you cross this Kodagu mountain and proceed south, there is Poozhi Nadu and the fort of Thondi. Further south are Kuda Nadu and Ponnai river. Subsequently you will get to the confluence of the Periyaaru river with the sea. Travel five kaadams along the banks of Periyaaru, and you will reach the Chera capital city of Vanchi.” Koothanaar paused to let the directions sink in.
He continued with questions of his own: “Aren’t you coming from Paali’s palace? We have heard he too is a great patron of music and dance and very generous to artists. What has been your experience there?”
The youth of the singers’ group started to speak with enthusiasm, wanting to make an impression on the two young girls. He was clearly smitten and couldn’t help glancing at them throughout his speech.
“Like the chieftain who gave away his chariot to support a mere mullai (jasmine) creeper, Paali, the head of this Thalai Kaveri country is also soft-hearted and generous. Why, I’m sure he would not hesitate to give the moon and the stars to your young dancers, who are not unlike the delicate mullai flowers!”
Without stopping to think, the youth continued his absurd and presumptuous praise of the other group, mainly aimed at the girls: “These beautiful damsels would defeat the graceful peacock in dance. I am sure their voices are sweeter than a cuckoo’s, their gait and carriage regal like a swans’, their laughter delicately tinkling, reminding one of mullai flowers, their soft pink feet resembling lotus blossoms…”
The girls glanced at each other mischievously from under their eye lashes and smiled.
The youth continued with his unfounded but seemingly genuine praise for the rest of the group: “Also your lyre with sweet music from its golden strings, your thunderous muzhavu, mellifluous thannumai, and above all your scholarly lyrics and songs will certainly attract the heart of this Kodagu country’s ruler.”
“Well, that is all good news! How many more kaadams do we have to go? Any dangers on the way?” Polankuzhai asked.
Now the woman from the other group replied:
“If you go one kaadam further from here you will reach the capital by this evening. There is no danger on the way. You will not be alone on the road, there are usually traders with their beasts of burden, and scattered about by the wayside are the dwellings of the hill tribes, einas and kuravas. In the unlikely event of wild elephants or snakes attacking, or a sudden thunder storm, the einas and kuravas will help you. They are incredibly generous folk, you could even shelter at their homes for the night. They will take good care of you, providing plenty of varagu rice, white paddy, sugar cane, plantain and jack fruits.”
Cheyyon, restless with all the talking, climbed a naaval (jamun) tree, competing with the monkeys, and shook a branch, collected the black fruits and gave them to his sisters. On seeing the mischievous boy, the young paanan cautioned them.
“Careful of snake holes and devices for catching pigs along the way! Be sure to announce yourselves by clapping hands and tapping with sticks. Watch out for small stones flying from catapults aimed at birds. It is probably best to hold the hands of the boy and girls while on paths along the jungle streams. Oh, also remember to stop and worship at the stone shrines of local tribal God ‘Kariyundi Kadavul’. It is considered bad form to ignore these shrines, and then you will be in trouble. The jungle paths are complicated; if you lose your way the kuravas can help.”
Panmozhi and Yaazhini ignored the young man’s talks, ostensibly looking around at the scenery. This irritated the young man.
“Look here, there are plenty of distracting sights in the jungle. If you keep watching the peacocks dancing, or the kaduvan and mandhi (male and female monkey) with their young ones climbing the trees and doing tricks, or the black bucks running, or the butterflies sucking honey from different flowers, then you will lose your path and suffer!” he cautioned them dramatically.
Yaazhini and Panmozhi glanced at each other and burst out into giggles. The youth knew when he was beaten and had the grace to look embarrassed.
Nediyon intervened and asked the young man, “Did you go beyond Paali’s country?”
“We went up to the Kaveri country of Chozha to his capital Uraiyur, to Puhaar port. We got parisil from the Chozha king after enjoying the glorious prosperity and wealth of the Marudham land.”
“We went to Pandyan’s Madurai, and also to Kanchi of Thondai Mandalam” said a paadini (singer) woman of that group. Panmozhi’s eyes shone at the sound of these magical places that she always dreamed of visiting.
It was lunchtime by now. Polankuzhai shared the tamarind mixed varagu rice and honey among all present. The sun was getting hotter, but they had to get going. Everyone stood up and took up their respective luggage and commenced their journey in their own directions. Cheyyon proceeded first with his bundle of blackberries, followed by his group.
In a narrow gap among the rocks the river came down as a water fall. Panmozhi and Yaazhini, carefree and chirpy, walked and skipped along all through the journey. Various jungle sounds combined with man-made sounds formed a constant background to their walking: monkeys chattering, birds tweeting, elephants trumpeting occasionally, mahouts calling instructions to their elephants, bangles of tribal women tinkling, the kurathis singing songs of protection for their men and fields, combined with the beat of small drums, or kuravai (lullaby) of mothers, the prattle of young children with their mouths full of sweet jackfruit … soothing and companionable.
Our group reached Paali’s place two naazhigais before sunset.
They made the acquaintance of a cowherd girl who offered for them to stay overnight at her humble dwelling, an Aayarpaadi. She made a simple meal for her guests, of white rice mixed with butter milk, and provided shelter for the night. The following morning, Koothanaar proposed to go see the king. As they were preparing to leave, they heard the sound of galloping horses outside on the street. Looking out, they saw a warrior on horseback being escorted by four other soldiers riding on horses. The rumour on the streets was that the warrior at the centre of the horsemen, was the emissary of Chozha King Perunar Killi.