Forever Ponniyin Selvan

An epic tale: Ponniyin Selvan Illustration by Artist A.Murugesan. Photo:S.Siva Saravanan   | Photo Credit: S.Siva Saravanan

In the early hours of the evening, a young warrior rode on horseback along the banks of the Veeranarayana Lake. The horse was tired, the cavalier didn't push it too hard. He rode at ease, enchanted by the beauty of the lake. He was called Vallavarayan Vandhiya Dhevan… Thus begins one of the most celebrated historical novels ever written in Tamil – Ponniyin Selvan.

The Kalki Krishnamurthy novel won more hearts than MGR and Sivaji Ganesan back then, they say. Readers in the 1950s were addicted to it. Even now, 60-odd years after it was written, the novel is hugely popular. Walk into any lending library today and ask for Ponniyin Selvan, and you are likely to be told, “Sorry, all copies are in circulation.” You need to give them a few days' notice if you want to borrow that book.


Ponniyin Selvan set the trend for historical novels in Tamil. Says R. Shanthi, librarian at Choose and Read lending library, Trichy Road, “There are readers who have read Ponniyin Selvan over 150 times. We have people taking up membership just to read Kalki and Sandilyan.” At the Central Library, historical novels account for 20 per cent of the library's daily readership, says librarian M. Rama.

What is it that makes this novel so special that people read it over and over again? “I just love Ponniyin Selvan,” declares 64-year-old N. Ranganayaki. “True, it's a page-turner, fast-paced and all that. But, the reason I reread it is that no matter what goes wrong, you know help will arrive. You know the battle will be won, peace will be restored. It's a good feeling,” she smiles.

Fond memories

In the 1950s, when the story was serialised in Kalki, readers waited impatiently, for the magazine to be slipped under their doors, recalls 77-year-old S. Janaki. “The minute it came, we pounced on it,” she laughs. “I stitched the weekly episodes together and made my own copies.” Janaki has every character, every turn of phrase of Ponniyin Selvan at her fingertips.

She says she can identify the characters by the height of their kondais (the wonderful illustrations are by Maniam)! “My favourite character is Periya Pazhuvettarayar. He is the king's commandant. He bears countless scars from battles. I nicknamed my son Periya Pazhuvettarayar as he often fell, hurt himself and always had scars on him,” she laughs.

Advocate K.S. Buvanendran says he has read the historical tale more than 20 times. And he is never bored. “I enjoy it. Besides, I do not always read the entire novel. I reread only my favourite chapters.”

Buvanendran says reading historical novels has also influenced the way he works. “I've learned to approach my cases from various angles.” The 60-year-old recalls how the entire family would gather for a reading of Kadal Pura, which was serialised in the magazine Kumudam in the 1960s. “Seated at a writing table, my sister would read aloud the week's episode. My mother, grandmother, brothers and I would huddle around her, all ears,” he smiles.

Some readers are inspired to write after they have read Kalki and Sandilyan. M. Mohana Krishnan, for example, has read some of these novels over a hundred times and has himself written two novels and is working on his next one. “I enjoy Kalki's writing style. He gets straight to the plot without any frills. Sandilyan is good at descriptions of people and places,” he says. Says writer R.Karpagam, “I was so fascinated by Ponniyin Selvan and Raja Raja Chola that I wrote an abridged version of the story for children.” The book is published by Vijaya Pathipagam with wonderful illustrations by artist A.Murugesan. In order to write the story, she pored over history books by K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, V.D.Mahajan and T.V. Sadasiva Pandarathar from the Government Arts College library. She says, “I wanted to find out how Raja Raja Chola was in real life.”

Ponniyin Selvan holds an irresistible attraction even to those not well versed in Tamil. Suchitra Ramachandran, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University, is one such. “When I first heard of the exploits of Arulmozhi Varman and Vandhiya Dhevan from my grandmother, I was hooked. The most Tamil I could manage was reading bus boards. But I stumbled my way through the first part for six months. The going got easier after that, because the plot was exciting,” she says.

Classic characters

“Kundhavai Naacchiyar, Vaanadhi, Chethan Amudhan, Poonkuzhali, Madhurandhagar… the names of the characters in Ponniyin Selvan are such classics,” says K. Vimala Devi. “The story of Raja Raja Chola and his kith and kin, the heroic women, the secrets within the castle walls, the valour and tales of adventure and love are lessons in history in their own way,” she adds.

When another fan of Ponniyin Selvan, A. Daisy, first visited Thanjavur, she was overwhelmed. “I was thrilled to be standing where Raja Raja Chola and his people lived over 1,000 years ago. I wish I could have been there, seen them.”

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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 8:27:10 AM |

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