The Pallava Messengers
Uraiyur was one Kada away from the dock. Fourteen hundred years ago, this was a considerable distance. At the time, royalty rode horses, elephants or chariots; commoners by carts or on foot. Huge highways, or Rajapattais, were cleared from city to city, and that was the major route of transportation.
During Parthiban’s time, the Chola lands were a fraction of what they had once been. To one side, the Pandiyans threatened them and to the other the Pallavas were rising swiftly. Between them, they penned the Cholas in securely. But the Kaveri kept the kingdom lush.
The road Ponnan and Valli traveled by was edged on one side by the vast, furious flow of the Kaveri. On the other side lay verdant fields bordered by gracious palms and waving thickets of sugarcane and bananas. The land, right up to the horizon, was a carpet of greens. Water gurgled gleefully through the irrigation canals, cranes fishing in them, a white contrast to the green.
This was the peaceful fertile country that was to be shattered by war.
By the time they reached the fortress of Uraiyur, the shadows were lengthening and the sun had lost its footing and slipped beneath the horizon. When they neared the outer gates of Uraiyur, the inner gates crashed open and a small group of horsemen trotted out, clinical and deadly-looking. The leader held in his hands a Lion Flag. When the two saw them, they knew they were the soldiers who had crossed their home that afternoon. The Pallava messengers were returning. Instinctively, they both flattened themselves against the walls. As the horses crossed the outer gates, they sprang into a blurring gallop, going as fast as the wind. Ponnan and Valli watched the dust swirling behind them until they vanished into the dusk and the distance.
The rambling streets of Uraiyur were filled with clusters of people speaking with excited voices. Ponnan and Valli joined one of the groups. A man in the middle of the circle was speaking.
“Ah! How shall I find words to describe that sight! The King sat upon his throne. You could have heard a pin drop in the entire Palace. Then he said, ‘Send the messengers in!’ What vigour, what majesty rang in his voice then! The envoy entered the throne room. Their leader came to the front and saluted the King.
“ ‘What message do you bring, messenger?’ asked the King. The man replied, ‘We are the emissaries of the Emperor of Kanchi. Since the time of your grandfather, we have collected tribute from your kingdom. You have paid no taxes now for six years. The Chakravarti has sent me to enquire why.’
“Ah! If only I could describe how the King looked then! When he said, ‘O messenger! Tell your Emperor that I shall deliver the tribute upon the battlefield!’ my hair stood on end. The emissary was visibly taken aback. He said after a pause, ‘Then I am to say that His Majesty wishes you to prepare for war. The Pallava regiments will have already left Kanchi while I speak to you. His Majesty says that the Chola King shall decide the place and day of battle and inform him.’ To this, our King gave reply, ‘The day of the full moon of the month of Purattasi, upon the banks of the river Vennar, we shall stand ready.’ When they heard this, the people in the court all shouted cries of Viravel! Vettrivel! ...”
Ponnan and Valli followed the roads further into the town. By this time, night had fallen completely. The moon shone dully through huge banks of soft, grey-white clouds. Lamps were being lit at street corners, the wicks sending a slim spiral of smoke towards the sky.
And then, from some high tower, a reverberating drumbeat thundered into the night. And then another. And yet another. Dhammmmmm. Dhuummmmmmm. Dhammmmmmm. Dhuummmmmmm. From every high place, the drums, which were struck on festivals and royal celebrations, were crashed by unseen hands. The message they sent today was no festival rhythm or celebratory march. Tonight, it was a summons to fight. Single beats, evenly spaced, were heard in the night. From every tower and tall building in Uraiyur, the drums pealed out into every direction, forbidding, prophetic notes. The echoes rang through the squares and streets. Adhammmm. Adhammmmmm. The echoes overlapped; the drums slammed into the ears of all those who heard it. After a few moments, the sound of the drums that piled over each other from various towers began to sound as if it were saying yuddham. Yuddham. Yuddham. War. War is coming. War. War.
“Those are war drums. The summons has gone out.” Ponnan’s voice was so strange that Valli was startled anew.
“What has happened to you?” she cried.
“Nothing, Valli!” said Ponnan sharply. “Nothing is wrong with me!” after a short pause, he said, “I shall go to the war, Valli. I must!”