The movie Ponniyin Selvan #PS1 is right around the corner, and what better time than now to talk about the epic novel that it is based upon. As a Tamilian, I knew of this book’s existence, but I never attempted to read it because my Tamil reading skills were not on par to keep up with this literary gem. I did not want to read the English translations as I wanted to experience it through the original language written in the author’s own words.
Ponniyin Selvan [Series] – Audiobook (Review)
It was a dream of mine to read the novel someday. I procrastinated for a long time until I realized the movie’s release was almost here. I could not put it off any longer and decided to make a go of it before the film hit the theatres. I did not have the luxury of time to sit and go through almost 2000 pages, and thankfully I did not have to. I came across the Ponniyin Selvan (transl. Son of Ponni) Tamil audiobook on Storytel and decided to give it a go.
Audiobook Listening Experience
The audiobook production by C.K. Venkatraman and Bombay Kannan is a six-part extravaganza (The fifth part was split into two), with no less than 10 hours of listening time for each part. The audiobook had a host of voice actors, one for each character, including the narrator. At first, it wasn’t easy to follow the different voices and the characters they represented. After some time, I got accustomed to it and could differentiate between the characters based on the voice alone. It did not just stop at that; other things such as background music, sounds, and songs were added to enhance the listening experience for the users.
For example, whenever a scene shows a person or people riding horses, there would be sounds of horses galloping in the background. Background music was added to amplify scenes. There would be joyful music playing in the background during a happy scene. Not just that, we get treated to songs and instrumental music when the characters start singing or playing musical instruments. The only thing missing from this audiobook series was visuals; everything apart from that was taken care of. Imagine the amount of work that must have gone into making this audiobook production! My only gripe with it was that I felt some voice actors were not suited for the characters they were depicting, but that’s just a minor grievance, and I got used to it after a while. You can sign-up for a trial on Audible 🎧 or Storytel for this.
Introduction To The Man Behind Ponniyin Selvan
As I mentioned before, I knew about the Ponniyin Selvan book before its cinematic debut made it common knowledge. This is true not just for me but also for other Tamilians out there.
Kalki Krishnamurthy, the author of this magnum opus, started publishing the story as weekly serials in a magazine called Kalki in the early 1950s. He then managed to acquire a huge fan base at an age when social media was not even a thing. The series grew in popularity, leading to its novelization in the mid-1950s. The almost seventy years since its inception, the novel has continued to rule the hearts of Tamilians and everyone who has read it. Its popularity also led to the fact that it was translated into many languages, including English and Malayalam.
This is a historical fiction novel and tells the story of the beginning of the Chola Kingdom’s golden period and the early life of Prince Arulmozhivarman, the titular Ponniyin Selvan, who would go on to become the greatest Cholan Emperor, Raja Raja Chola I. The author Kalki did a masterful blending of both actual historical events and imagination to produce this masterpiece. This novel is a culmination of all his life’s research and findings which took him to many places, including Sri Lanka, to gather material to support his work. He has written three historical novel series, including Sivagamiyin Sabatham and Parthiban Kanavu, Ponniyin Selvan being the last (and, in my biased opinion, the best).
This is a novel of epic proportions, and a small introduction or preface is required to understand the world in which the novel’s events are set. Based on my observations from the book, I will give a brief outline of the saga to aid people who plan to watch the movie without reading the novel.
The History Of Ponniyin Selvan
Ponniyin Selvan, aka The Son of Ponni, is written about the early life of Prince Arulmozhivarman before he ascended the throne and became the great Cholan Emperor Raja Raja Chola I. But before Ponniyin Selvan, we need to learn about his ancestors, starting with Vijayalaya Chola. With the reign of Vijayalaya Chola in the 9th century, the ancient Chola lineage began a new period where the clan would become one of the longest-ruling dynasties in India. Vijayalaya Chola’s grandson Paranthaka Chola I had three sons Rajaditya, Gandaraditya, and Arinjaya. Unfortunately, the three brothers died in close proximity to each other, and only the last brother Arinjaya Chola had a son old enough to be made crown prince, Paranthaka Chola II. Before his death, Gandaraditya Chola, the ruler at that time, declared that his nephew Paranthaka Chola II and his heirs would be the next in line to the throne, as his son was still a baby.
At the time of this story, Paranthaka Chola II (popularly known as Sundara Chola because of his beautiful face) is still the ruler, though he is now old and disabled. His weakened state has given rise to conspiracies inside and outside the empire. Sundara Chola has three children, Adhitha Karikalan, Kundhavai Devi, and Arulmozhivarman. Gandaraditya’s son Maduranthaka Chola is now a grown man and a rival to Sundara Chola’s heirs. Despite Gandaraditya’s wishes, factions within the empire want Maduranthaka to ascend the throne instead of Sundara Chola’s heirs, as they believe he has more rights to the throne. The realm is divided into two, with some people loyal to Sundara Chola and his children and others to Maduranthaka Chola. This division within the empire is where the story starts, and a political drama filled with conspiracy, betrayal, espionage, love, and war commences.
Inter empire conspiracies notwithstanding, external forces are trying to make harm befall the Chola Empire. How the Cholans bypass all these obstacles and head towards the beginning of their glorious period forms the crux of the story.
Who’s Who In Ponniyin Selvan?
The Ponniyin Selvan is not a short novel; it spans a length of five parts and has over 2000 pages. New characters are introduced at every corner; some characters disappear for a long time only to reappear after their presence has been forgotten. Keeping track of every character and their importance in the storyline takes some time. As it is a semi-fictional story based on real-life events, there is a mix of real-life and fictional characters. Unlike Wikipedia, I will delve into the who’s who in the Ponniyin Selvan universe, with a summary for each character sans spoilers.
The Royal Family
Sundara Chola, aka Paranthaka Chola I – The reigning Emperor of the Chola empire. During his reign, the empire flourished, so he and his heirs were the people’s favorites. At the novel’s beginning, the great Emperor is in a weakened state, his body wracked with illness and old age. This leads enemies and conspirators against the empire to come out of the woodwork. He is also afflicted with haunting visions from a tragic event in his past that perpetually render him in a state of distress. The readers are introduced to him in the Thanjavur Fort, where he remains for most of the story.
Vanavan Mahadevi – The Empress of the Chola empire and wife of Sundara Chola. She is a kind and caring person who is devoted to her husband and takes care of him selflessly during his illness. She deeply loves all her children and has a good sense of duty. She is introduced alongside her husband at the Thanjavur Fort but does not feature much in the novel.
Aditha Karikalan – The crown prince of the Chola empire. He is a brave and fierce warrior who started going to war at a very young age. He is also very hot-headed, stubborn, and impetuous. He loves his family a lot and has a close relationship with his maternal grandfather Thirukovalur Malaiyaman who is also his mentor. A dark incident in his past has caused him to move away from Thanjavur to Kanchipuram. At the story’s beginning, he is in Kanchipuram, busy with the construction of the golden palace.
Kundhavai Devi – She is the only daughter of the Emperor and is his favorite child. She is considered one of the most beautiful women in the Chola empire. A common belief in the realm is that no one can match her intelligence and wit; hence she is fondly called Ilaya Piraatiyar by everyone. She is a woman of strong character and is always aware of everything happening around her and within the empire. She has a kind heart and is philanthropic as well. She acts as a mentor to her younger brother Arulmozhivarman who holds her in great respect. Her introduction takes place in Kudanthai (present-day Kumbakonam)
Arulmozhivarman – The youngest son of the Emperor and a great favorite of the people. In his childhood, he almost drowned in the Ponni river (another name for the Cauvery river) but was saved by a woman. Many people considered this woman to be a personification of the Ponni river; hence, he was given the name Ponniyin Selvan aka Son of Ponni. He is a very charming and straightforward young man with a benevolent heart. He also has a great interest in art, architecture, and culture. He can charm the hearts of everyone he comes across, so there is no doubt that there is a huge support for him in the empire. He is in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the novel.
Chembiyan Maadevi (aka Periya Piraatiyar) – The wife of Gandaraditya Chola and mother of Maduranthaka Chola. She is a woman of great wisdom and a huge devotee of Lord Shiva. In keeping with her husband’s orders, she is not in favor of her son ascending the Chola throne and wants the heirs of Sundara Chola to be the future emperors of the dynasty. A mystery in her past will have the power to change the storyline if/when it comes to light.
Maduranthaka Chola – He is the son of Gandaraditya Chola and Chembiyan Maadevi. He was brought up as a Shiva devotee by his mother from a young age, so he would have no interest in the throne when he grew older. But there are factions in the empire who want to see him placed on the throne, as they consider him to be the true successor of the Chola Dynasty. His supporters form the first wave of conspirators against the Chola Empire.
Friends And Supporters Of The Royal Family
Vallavaraiyan Vandhiyathevan – Friend of Aditha Karikalan and the first character introduced in the novel. Most of the characters and events taking place in the story are introduced to the readers via him. He is a brave warrior from the old Vaanar clan. He has a can-do attitude and is very adventurous, quick-witted, tenacious, and charming. He always has a way of finding himself in troubling situations. These situations are amusing or nail-biting, but they are always entertaining. He is also a character who makes life-long friends or enemies wherever he goes. The story starts with him on his way to fulfilling a couple of tasks given to him by Aditha Karikalan. The things he comes across while completing his mission serve as the catalyst to unfurl the novel’s plot.
Azhwarkadiyan Nambi – A Vaishnavite spy in a heartland of Shiva devotees. He is the all-knowing spy whose duty is to collect information on the goings on in the empire for his masters, and fighting with every Shaivites he comes across is a bonus. He has an almost ubiquitous presence in the novel and pops up everywhere, especially when one least expects his company. He and Vandhiyadhevan aid each other in their mutual endeavors and offer some much-needed comic respite in this novel with their playful banters.
Anbil Aniruddha Brahmarayar – The prime minister of Sundara Chola who has an almost omniscient understanding of everything that goes on in the empire. He is very loyal to the Emperor and his family. He is a somewhat enigmatic character whose motives are not understood by those near him. He commands a great degree of respect and devotion from the people. He is not introduced until the novel’s second part, though his name is mentioned a few times in the first part.
Thirukovalur Malaiyaman – He is the father of Vanavan Mahadevi and the maternal grandfather of Aditha Karikalan, Kundhavai Devi, and Arulmozhivarman. He acts as a mentor to his eldest grandson, tries to temper his rage, and molds him to be an ideal emperor. He is old but knowledgeable and wise. He greatly understands everything taking place in his son-in-law’s empire, his weakened state notwithstanding. He stays with his eldest grandson in Kanchipuram.
Boothi Vikramakesari – He is Vaanathi’s uncle and the ruler of the small kingdom of Kodumbalur. He is in support of the heirs of Sundara Chola ascending the throne. Especially the youngest son Arunmozhivarman, as he has a vested interest in it which will reveal as the story progresses.
Vaanathi – She is the princess of Kodumbalur and a bosom friend of Princess Kundhavai. She showcases major damsel in distress vibes throughout the book’s first half. She is dainty, timid, and can faint at the drop of a hat. She is being groomed by Kundhavai, who has taken a special interest in her, to become more bold and brave. It is left to be seen if her character arc takes a significant turn.
Parthibendra Pallava – He is a friend of Aditha Karikalan and a supporter of the Cholan Empire. He is a man of deep jealousy and pride and has a one-sided rivalry against Vandhiyathevan. Many of his antics impact the storyline, some favorable, some not favorable.
Poonguzhali – She is a boatwoman and one of this novel’s many strong female characters. She is an intriguing young woman whose sense of bravery and courage knows no bounds. She is described as being very strong physically and mentally. She always feels at home in the sea and hence the name Samudrakumari (Princess of the Ocean). Her heroic feats have helped to sway the storyline numerous times.
Senthan Amuthan – He is a flower seller in the Thanjavur Fort and a huge devotee of Lord Shiva. He is a good and steadfast friend to his near and dear. Like most of the characters in this book, he has a mysterious past that can change the tide of the Chola empire if revealed.
Mandakini Devi – She is a deaf and mute woman who acts as a guardian angel to prince Arulmozhivarman. Despite her disabilities, she uses her other senses to help the Royal family and their friends many times throughout this book. The reason behind this older woman’s acts of protection is another one of this book’s numerous mysteries.
Nandhini – The story’s main antagonist and a delightful one at that. She is mysterious, intelligent, cunning, and charming. She is said to be one of the most beautiful women in the story. Her beauty is so hypnotic that it has the power to seduce anyone who has the fortune(misfortune?) to come across her. She wields her beauty like a weapon and makes everyone under its influence her slave and puppet. Her background is tinted with mystery and tragedy, shaping her into her current persona.
Periya Pazhuvettarayar – He is considered to be the second in power after the Emperor. At the start of this novel, he is the treasurer and chancellor of the empire. In his heyday, he was one of the most fierce warriors of the Chola empire. His battle valours, and the sixty-four scars he had received on the battlefront, are mentioned constantly throughout the book as the marks of a great warrior. His fame and glory are such that esteemed warriors consider it their life’s mission to meet him at least once. After his marriage to the beautiful Nandhini, he sided with the faction supporting Maduranthaka Chola to ascend the throne after Sundara Chola’s death.
Chinna Pazhuvettarayar – He is the chief in charge of the Thanjavur Fort. No one can access the Emperor without his permission, not even his children! He is the younger brother of Periya Pazhuvettarayar and is very devoted to his brother. He is a very shrewd man and is Maduranthaka Chola’s father-in-law, which cinches his allegiance towards making the latter the next in line to the throne.
Sambuvarayar – He is the ruler of the small Kingdom of Kadambur, which falls under the reign of the Chola empire. At his palace, the conspirators all get together and take an oath that will attempt to change the history of the Chola empire forever.
Kandamaaran – A bosom friend of Vandhiyathevan, and the son of Sambuvarayar. It is through him that Vandhiyathevan gets entry to the Kadamboor palace on the fateful event of the meeting between the conspirators. He also plays a crucial role in the events of the book towards the latter half.
These were a group of supporters of a rival kingdom working towards the downfall of the Chola empire. They held meetings at out-of-the-way spots such as forests or dilapidated buildings to plot their evil plans. Every time they congregate at these spots, someone from the good side is always present at hand to overhear their evil plans.
This was used as a device to move the plot forward many times throughout the novel. Some called themselves wizards, and some acted as spies within the Chola empire. The novel’s plot revolves around whether they will succeed in making their evil plan a reality. There are more characters in this novel, but these are the ones who have more bearing on the storyline, and it is necessary to get an idea of these characters before watching the movie, especially without reading the novel.
The Writing Style
I want to start by saying that attempting to review the writing of the great Kalki Krishnamurthy is way out of my league. His storytelling skills are beyond compare. He has a way with words that helps bring the scene he describes to life. The beginning chapter of this novel starts with recounting the beauty of the Cauvery river, and the festivities surrounding an auspicious day that was taking place on the banks of the river is something that will forever remain in my mind. This is the moment of Vandhiyathevan ‘s introduction to the readers.
The author dedicates entire chapters to providing descriptions and backstories, immersing the readers into the story and its characters. The voice actors in the audiobook have gone to great lengths to do justice to Kalki’s words. He writes the characters as well-rounded, multi-faceted individuals whose behavior keeps changing and evolving throughout the book; they are not just one-sided caricatures. The author has a knack for bringing out the vulnerability and soft side of the characters, especially the antagonists, making the readers empathize with them. He also does not shy away from showing the less-than-desirable side of the protagonists. In fact, he devotes a whole chapter to describing the fickle nature of humans and how their moods and actions change according to time and different situations.
He spends a lot of time building a scene and setting up character exposition. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when he describes the meeting scene between Kundhavai and Nandhini. He subtly brings out the contrast in the beauty of both these women as a foreshadowing of events that will take place later in the novel. This scene is just one example; there are many more scenes like this throughout the book. His writing can take the readers back 1000 years to the era in which the book is set. I felt I was fully immersed in the book, living it instead of listening to it.
This book takes the readers on a journey throughout the locations that were a part of the 10th-century Cholan empire. With the advent of Vandhiyathevan, we are introduced to the glorious Ponni river and witness daily life near the banks of the river. From there, he makes his way to the Kadambur Palace, situated in the present-day Cuddalore district. There, after learning the secrets that will set the plot moving, he embarks towards Thanjavur Fort to fulfill one-half of the duty entrusted to him.
After his foibles at Thanjavur Fort, he makes a brief stop at Kudanthai before escaping to Pazhayarai, located near the present-day Kumbakonam district. Here he fulfills the second half of his duty and embarks on a new mission that will change the course of his life forever. A brief interlude in the story takes the readers to Kanchipuram, where prince Aditha Karikalan, his grandfather Malaiyaman and friend Parthibendra Pallava are plotting their next move.
The story moves back to Vandhiyathevan, whose next journey leads him to Kodikkarai (Point Calimere in present-day Nagapattinam), where he meets new people who will aid and hinder his mission. From there, he goes by boat to Sri Lanka, where he makes a life-altering friendship and faces new threats and near-death experiences. From this point on, his travels to new locations end, and he goes back and forth between previously traveled places. Other prominent locations in this book are the Choodamani Viharam in Nagapattinam, Thirupurambyam Forest, Bootha Theevu, Thiruvaiyaru, and so on.
List Of Ponniyin Selvan Books To Read In Order
- Pudhu Vellam (New Floods)
- Suzharkaatru (Whirlwinds)
- Kolai Vaal (Sword of Slaughter)
- Manimagudam (The Crown)
- Thiyaga Sigaram (The Pinnacle of Sacrifice)
The first two parts, Pudhu Vellam (New Floods) and Suzharkaatru (Whirlwinds) act as introductions to the characters and the story’s central conflict. The friction lines are subtly shown in the first two parts before increasing the pace with each successive part. By the time of the third book Kolai Vaal (Sword of Slaughter), the atmosphere of unease and doom is well and truly set. Slowly the readers begin to get an idea about the end goal of the conspirators and the apparent danger that is about to befall those in the royal family. The fourth book Manimagudam (The Crown), speeds along the action. All the pieces are brought into place, and now we wait for the inevitable.
The fifth book Thiyaga Sigaram (The Pinnacle of Sacrifice), is slightly longer than its predecessors and is sometimes split into two (as was the case with the audiobook). The first half deals with the culmination of everything mentioned in the previous books, and the second half sets about dealing with wrapping the story neatly. That does not mean all the book’s mysteries are solved; some are still left with no definite answers to this day. Over the past seven decades, people have made their own conclusions about open-ended mysteries, and I believe this will continue to be the case for many years to come.
I can genuinely say that I have never enjoyed a Tamil book more than this one. I believe everyone should read this novel at least once in their lifetime. For those who cannot read Tamil but know how to speak it, audiobooks are available on many audiobook apps, including Storytel, Audible, and Spotify. You can sign-up for a trial on Audible 🎧 or Storytel for this. For non-Tamil speakers, numerous English translations and a series of comic books released by Nila Publications are available. After my reading experience, I am very excited to see how this epic has been translated onto the big screen and if Mani Ratnam’s vision does justice to Kalki’s vision. Here’s to finding out the truth on September 30th!
An architect who loves to write. Her favorite past-time fluctuates between reading books and writing about what she reads. Her favorite habitats are libraries, bookstores, and old buildings, in that order. She dreams of becoming an author one day, provided she gets over a pesky affliction called procrastination.
The movie Ponniyin Selvan #PS1 is right around the corner, and what better time than now to talk about the epic novel that it is based upon. As a Tamilian, I knew of this book's existence, but I never attempted to read it because my Tamil reading skills were not on par to keep up with this literary gem. I did not want to read the English translations as I wanted to experience it through the original language written in the author’s own words.