(Reading Time: 10 minutes)
Oh the headman has sent
His daughter away because he heard
That the scoundrel had escaped. The village
was afraid for all its daughters. But
the girl with ardent eyes and succulent lips
Kept looking back, wondering where he was
The scoundrel who stole her heart.
The sand floated in with the breeze and settled on her grass mattress. She brushed it aside and lay down again. Nomads like her must celebrate the luxury of any roof, she thought. It is not often that villagers invited bards into their homes. She had come a long way and needed her rest.
Ammai was barely in her twenties but people always mistook her for a much older woman. Perhaps it was the way she wore her hair, always in a tight bun, or her walk, upright and steady or even the way she dressed; loose skirts and broader breast-bands with no ornaments. She didn’t mind. Age, after all, was merely a number. But what everyone in the temple-town of Kanchipuram agreed was that they had never heard a poet like her.
The sun had risen high enough and Ammai woke up to do her morning chores. She folded the mat, placed it in a corner and put her hands together in thanks to the family who had hosted her. They bowed down in return. When the lady offered a tumbler of water, she lifted it up and drank from it, without its rim touching her lips. She then took her little bundle, which contained her worldly possessions, and bid them farewell.
Kanchipuram was a dusty, hot town and its only defining features were the hundreds of temples that dotted every street. Big or small, each one was sculpted and built to perfection. Ammai, who always looked for quiet temple courtyards on her travels, found that these places were most suited to write her poetry.
She walked through the streets until she came upon her latest find. An old temple on the verge of ruin. The entrance was closed but the walls surrounding it had crumbled. Ammai jumped over a low stretch of wall and found herself in front of the mandapam. It was an ancient temple, no doubt, and she wondered who had built it. The king who now ruled the city, Narasimhavarman, was easily the biggest patron of temples. And despite his generous grants, this temple had somehow reached its end.
Ammai settled herself in a corner and looked about her. It seemed as if the world were contained in these ruined walls. The little ratha-like enclosures that surrounded the main area were deserted, some were missing their idols while others stood incomplete, as if awaiting the sculptor’s return. She stretched her legs out and looked up. The ceiling was high, and the walls surrounding it were full of inscriptions. To one side of her, the mandapam stretched out, sunlight filtering in through the gaps.
Ammai closed her eyes and his face began to swim before her. He was the man who inspired her poems, which she sung with such passion that the world stood still and listened. He was her muse, her reason for living. And yet, Ammai had seen him but once, a very long time ago. The image had blurred since then, but what she had felt remained un-changed. She opened her eyes and surveyed her surroundings again.
The universe contained itself
In Kanna’s mouth,
And Yeshoda realised.
This land of towering temples,
Where the sand is restless with joy
And women sing as they potter about
Is contained in the eyes of its King,
Do you know?
The distant trees bow down to him
And like the flower that follows the sun,
His men follow his worthy footsteps
As he brings glory
To this land of towering temples.
The wind rustled against the wild bushes just as Ammai finished her song. She wasn’t very impressed with her composition. It lacked lustre. Maybe she should take more time. She closed her eyes again and the young warrior she had met many years ago swam before her eyes. He was on his horse, absent-mindedly twirling his moustache. She was thirteen, drawing water from the nearby lake. “Hello, young maiden. Would you spare some water for this thirsty traveller?”
Ammai obliged and he got off his horse in one swift move and knelt before her, his hands cupped to receive the water. She adjusted the pot and tilted it carefully, watching him as he drank his fill. When he was done, he drew his horse to the lake for its share. Ammai went back to fill her pot, trying hard not to give him a second look. Just as she lifted the pot to her hip and set off, he called out to her again.
“May I know your name?”
“Valliammai,” she said, blushing red.
“A name befitting your beauty,” he smiled. “Do you live around here?” he poked again.
“Yes. A short distance away,” she mumbled. “And you?”
He laughed then, and her fear melted away. There was something undeniably warm about him. She then plucked the courage to look him in the eye.
“Seeman,” he told her, “I live in Kanchipuram. I am on the way to Mammallapuram, to the port city and got lost on the way. It is a good thing though, or I would have not met you.”
She blushed again and smiled, looking at her feet. Stealing a glance at Seeman, she saw that he was tall, broad-shouldered and wore regal clothes. Ammai concluded that he was either royalty or worked in the high ranks of the palace. His face was chiselled and seemed familiar. He held out his hand and she placed hers in it. Seeman bent and kissed the tip of her fingers. “I must be on my way, Valli. But someday, I will come back for you. Will you wait for me?” His eyes were full of promise. She nodded.
For five years, Ammai waited but nobody came. Her family wanted her married off, but she refused to be tied down to another man. There was no place in her society for a single woman, and so, she chose to become a nomadic poet. She wore her loose skirts with a pallu across her shoulder, three stripes of ash on her forehead and travelled to many villages, singing praises of the lord and the kings. Her name spread far and wide.
The days were tolerable but Ammai could not be distracted at night. Finding shelter itself was tough and many nights as she tried to sleep in the choultries and temple rest houses, her body fought against her mind. She yearned for his touch, which she had so little of. Sometimes she would try to satiate herself, away from the searching eyes of the men around her. But Ammai longed and this longing converted into her poems.
Finally, after years of travel and singing, Ammai reached Kanchipuram. From the moment her legs began walking on the sand-strewn alleys of the city, her eyes searched for one person. The priest at the Kailasanathar Kovil invited her to his home after she sang at the temple that evening. They had placed a grass mat on the courtyard outside for her to sleep on and had given her dinner.
Ammai’s eyes flickered open again. But the songs refused to come to her. Something was missing. She had heard so much about this king and yet, was not inspired enough to create something powerful. Perhaps if she saw him, something would happen. She decided that she would ask for an audience with the king.
As she approached the palace gates, the guards stopped her. They were surprised to hear that she was a poet and asked her to wait outside while they sent word. The palace loomed large at a distance, its towering domes silhouetted by the sun that was starting to sink behind it. Here too, one could witness the exquisite work of the Pallava sculptors on the outer walls. From voluptuous dancing maidens to gods chiselled to perfection, Ammai was lost in admiration, when an emissary came to fetch her.
It was late afternoon when Ammai entered the gigantic hall. The king was up after a nap and had immediately asked to see the poet. He must be curious too, Ammai thought, as they all are, when they realise that I am a woman. The ceiling was so high that she could not see its end and the entire hall was draped in rich, velvety upholstery. Floor diwans were lined up to seat the king’s ministers and the throne sat at its head, glistening in gold.
Ammai stood on the carpet and awaited his entrance, while the emissary pulled the curtains down behind him. Three loud taps to the floor and the guard announced the king’s entrance. “The king of kings, the most powerful, the magnificent and gracious Narasimhavarman is here…” Decked in an armour made of gold, with a cape trailing behind, Narasimhavarman arrived and sat on his throne.
She bowed low in greeting. “Don’t flatter me so, dear woman. I am honoured to have an audience with a poet of your stature. Tell me, O gifted one, what I have done to be in your presence today?” That voice! Ammai suddenly found herself shaking. She lifted her eyes to meet his and saw Seeman. He had aged, and his head had more grey hair in it than black, but those eyes and that smile were exactly as she remembered them to be.
The king did not seem to recognise Ammai. When she realised this, her heart sank and her chest became heavier. Suddenly, she couldn’t breathe and wanted to run outside. “I have heard so much about your deeds, great king but have never had the opportunity to meet you. I have composed a poem in your honour. If Your Highness has the time, I would like to sing it to you,” she stammered, desperately looking for any recognition in his eyes. His eyes crinkled and he smiled again. “It would be my pleasure to listen to you Ammai. I have heard much of you.”
There are no shadows in your land, O King
Because in its darkness there is no comfort and truth
The sun shines throughout your borders, lighting every corner,
Constantly searching and seeking
Like a young woman looking for her lover,
In the hills and troughs of her faraway land.
Your generosity, O king
Is like that of nature,
Who envelops the earth in its motherly embrace.
And your valour
Is compared to the greatest of them all
Who rode across the lands with his head held high.
And finally, O king, your heart
is like that of the young warrior
who promised his love to a young woman.
Ammai could not sing any further. She stopped abruptly and looked at the king, who suddenly seemed to sit a little more upright. He looked at her closely.
“Who are you, young poetess?”
“Is that where you still choose to reside? In the recesses of my heart and my mind?”
“It is where I have always been, my lord.”
“Your wit is as sharp as your intellect. Tell me your name.”
“Look inside you, my lord. You are sure to find it there.”
“Is that you, Valli, after all these years?”
“Indeed. It is I.”
“I have heard of your mastery over words. Your name, Ammai, has spread across this great kingdom. But I did not know that this young bard, whose fabled words were etched in everyone’s memories, was you. You are angry with me, are you not? I have wronged you like no other. Tell me, Valli, did you come here to confront me and demand your right?”
Ammai drew in a sharp breath. Her throat was parched and hurt when she swallowed. She thought hard before answering back.
“No, my lord. I’m merely here to sing. I did not know that the young warrior who I once coveted was the heir of the Pallava throne. That he is responsible for the glorious temples and for poor poets like me to flourish. I’m very grateful for all that you have done. There is nothing to demand. Perhaps, at some point in my life, I waited tirelessly for you. But my lord, hear me. Your place is here on the golden throne of Kanchi and your destiny awaits. Let this poor girl go.”
“Ah Valli. Generous as ever. When will you learn to take what is yours?”
Like the sea does not demand
Of its waves
Like the earth does not demand from the sun
Who only gives
Like the sparrows who nest but claim no home.
Or the butterflies who flutter past
As fleetingly as their lives
So this maiden born of words
Will live by them.
She is not for or of anyone.
The king sighed.
“I see you have no wish to be here. I pined for you for many years but could never find you. I must not have given up. Look at what I did to you. You are so discordant that you no longer wish to be that note that finishes a lovely song. Valli, listen to me. I will marry you and you can live the life of a queen in my andhapuram. Why soil your feet in mud and live like a nomad? It is not becoming of a woman to live this way.”
“My lord, forgive me. While my heart sincerely wishes to fulfil your desires and mine, and be by your side till the day I die, I cannot give in to it. I realise now that the love that bursts within me is not for you but the young warrior I met many years ago…”
“But that is I, Valli”
“True. But you are no more that man. And I am no longer that girl.”