The boatwoman of ‘Ponniyin Selvan: 1’

How our geographies have dramatically shifted in the thousand years since the Cholas

October 13, 2022 02:42 pm | Updated October 18, 2022 04:27 pm IST

Aishwarya Lekshmi who portrays boatwoman Poonguzhali in ‘Ponniyin Selvan-1’.

Aishwarya Lekshmi who portrays boatwoman Poonguzhali in ‘Ponniyin Selvan-1’.

Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan-1, or PS-1, is billed as a pan-India movie. The story, based on Kalki Krishnamurthy’s historical fiction by the same name, unfolds in the early years of the Chola dynasty of 10th century CE. Speaking at a promotional event in Mumbai, Vikram, a lead actor in the film, told an engaged audience, “Think about our culture, how advanced we were. We need to be proud of this. This has nothing to do with North India, South India, East India, West India. We are Indians. We need to feel proud about that.” ‘Pan-India’, thus, denotes much more than the release of the film in five languages.

ALSO READ Ponniyin Selvan-1 could’ve helped remove anti-Chola perception among sections of Sinhalese: writer

Regardless of how we view our past, we must acknowledge that a lot has changed in the thousand years between us and the Cholas of PS-1. Think of Poonguzhali, the pretty and powerful fisherwoman who transports key figures in the story across the Palk Strait, between Chozha Nadu and Eelam. While the character is fictional, her character-defining act is not. At the time, the stretch of sea that separates these two geographies formed a porous border: people, goods, and culture flowed freely between their shores. Sailing or rowing across the strait took an entire night for Poonguzhali. With motorised boats, the same journey — from Kodiyakarai in southeast Tamil Nadu to the isles that surround northwestern Jaffna — should take little more than an hour. Yet, the two coastlines are further apart today than at any point in history. What was an everyday act for Poonguzhali is criminal today. What was then open is now shut.

The Pamban bridge over Palk Strait.

The Pamban bridge over Palk Strait. | Photo Credit: Mike Prince

Strait lines

In one scene in the film, Sri Lanka’s chief Buddhist prelate invites Prince Arulmozhi Varman, who would later rule as Rajaraja Chola, to accept the island’s throne. During the conversation, the prelate routinely switches between Sinhalese and Tamil. As a Tamil native of Sri Lanka, this struck me as odd. Because in the origin story that the modern nation state of Sri Lanka tells of itself, Buddhism is the sole preserve of the Sinhalese. Today, the state’s archaeological department interprets any sign of the presence of Buddhism in Sri Lanka’s Tamil speaking northeast as evidence of Sinhalese settlements. This dominant discourse outright ignores what is a rather basic fact of history to the contrary: Tamil Buddhists, including clergy, existed in large numbers both in Sri Lanka and in Tamil Nadu.

We Tamils, from either side of the strait, too, remain largely ignorant of the rich diversity that permeates the histories of our lands. Y. Subbarayalu, in A Concise History of South India, notes that inscriptional evidence suggests that Buddhism and Jainism predate Brahmanical traditions in the region. Buddhist and Jain monks made significant contributions to Tamil literature, jointly accounting for all of the Aimperum Kappiyangal, the five great epics. In the early years of the medieval Chola dynasty, when PS-1 is set, Buddhists dominated the urban centres of the kingdom. At the time, the northern city of Kancheepuram, if not a Buddhist majority town, had a sizeable Buddhist population. In Tamil: a Biography, David Shulman writes that the main Chola trading port of Nagapattinam on the Coromandel Coast was not merely multi-religious but also polyglot with deep links to Southeast Asia.

When everything was pure

What once was, is now lost. But, this loss does not feature in any of the popular ‘restoring our idyllic past’ projects of today. Because, in the genesis narrative that the ruling BJP constructs for India — or, more correctly, Bharat, the Hindu Rashtra — before the evil influence of colonisers, everything was pure and everyone was Hindu. To acknowledge the existence of divergent strands of Brahmanical traditions, namely Shaivism and Vaishnavism, is blasphemous. In questioning the portrayal of Rajaraja Chola as a Hindu king, the film director Vetrimaaran highlighted a messy point of discontinuity in the Hindu Rashtra origin story.

Uncritically projecting our present self-awareness into the past, as Vikram did in the press meet, is problematic. When Aditha Karikalan, the Chola prince Vikram enacted on screen, looked northwest from the imperial halls of Thanjavur, he did not see the States of Karnataka and Maharashtra with strictly fixed borders, posing no existential threat to him. Instead, he saw the Rashtrakuta kingdom which had defeated the Cholas in the Battle of Takkolam and whose warriors had killed his grandfather’s brother, Rajaditya, in 949 CE.

Painting of the boatwoman by artist Maniam.

Painting of the boatwoman by artist Maniam. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Similarly, people move through and with language; people and language are not identical. Tamil, the language, flourished under the Cholas but not all Chola subjects were Tamils in an ethnic or racial sense. Did the Cholas or their subjects retain any notion of a unified Tamil ethnicity or race? After all, their principal enemies were the Pandyas who were also ‘Tamils’. Poonguzhali viewed herself as a subject of the Chola throne. Did she see herself as Indian? Certainly not in the modern, post-British Empire sense of nationality. How did she view Eelam? It was not a land that was foreign to her. She was intimately familiar with its northern coastline and surrounding isles. How did she view the people she encountered there? We can be sure that she did not see them as Sri Lankan. Certainly not in the modern, post-British Empire sense of nationality.

When we recognise that there is no neat and continuous line between our present and our ancestors, when we recognise that their social, religious, and physical geographies were vastly different to ours, we will realise that our ancestors were vastly different to us. When we learn the fact that there is nothing eternal about nations, we will avoid retrofitting caricatures of our complex histories to our present nation-making agendas.

The writer is an engineer interested in Tamil culture and politics, either side of the Palk Strait.

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