The setting sun painted hues of red, orange, yellow and pink framing the eastern horizon. Mangamma watched the dusk from her window, herself a painting of melancholic grace. Something was not right, today. She had the feeling right from the moment she woke up today. Chokkanatha was still in Tiruchirapuram, fragile and sick. Her heart went out to him, but she kept reminding herself of his betrayal. He never ever saw her, except at the Durbar Hall where political issues were discussed. She had maintained a cool diplomacy with him, evincing keen interest in the proceedings, questioning, discussing and suggesting. In the confines of the Palace, she carefully avoided him. Unable to bear her distancing herself from him, Chokkanatha tried to remain away from the Palace, away from her and away from his son.
When Alarmelamma dashed inside the chamber breathless, Mangamma knew a catastrophe had struck. Alarmelamma stammered- " The King..he..he...is dead". By the time she finished her sentence, Mangamma slouched slowly on the divan. Though she nursed nothing but hatred for Chokkanatha, she could not control herself as a tiny tear drop rolled down her eye. It traced its path along her cheeks and fell on her lap. It was in this same chamber they had spoken stories, held hands, slept together and woke up together. A short span fairy tale that came to an abrupt end. Mangamma let out a long breath and braced herself for the last rites. She had no time to grieve. Sethupathy of Ramanathapuram was awaiting a chance to pounce on Madurai and Chokkanatha had already lost the Cauvery Delta and Thanjavur to Marathas. She had to save the Throne of Madurai. Mustering all the courage she could, she sent for Rengakrishna who was embroiled in a mock sword fight with Dalavoy Narasappaiah.
The Naik Queens had the peculiar habit of committing Sati ( widowed wife jumping into funeral pyre) along with the bodies of their husbands. Chokkanatha's own mother had committed Sati and he was brought up by his foster mother- Queen Mother Rengamma. As it was the tradition, the whole of Madurai Kingdom plunged into grief over the death of Chokkanatha and the possible Sati of Mangamma. The Queen herself was confused when Narasappaiah sought audience with her in private. Grief stricken and unusually quiet, Mangamma faced him. " I am expected to commit Sati, Dalavoy. I am not worried about me, but i fear for Rengakrishna. He is barely 15 and he needs able guidance. I hope you would remain close to him as always and guide him."
Narasappaiah looked at the perplexed Queen and asked- " Do you really want to commit Sati? End your life and send Madurai to its own grave?" Her silence was proof enough that she wanted to live. " Nobody can influence your decisions, O Queen. As the Queen of Madurai, you have the right to choose what is right for the Kingdom- to live or die, to fight or surrender, to win or lose- the choice is yours. But don't think Rengakrishna can rule all by himself. He needs our support and help. Dying is not the only way to prove your affection for the King. You can profess your love for him by making Rengakrishna the unparalleled Emperor of Madurai and eventually South India." Mangamma silently left the room, without a word. She spent an hour closeted in her room, before she emerged from her room and marched to Rengakrishna's chamber. The Palace aides were too stunned to see her grit and determination. She ordered Rengakrishna and his aides to start to Tiruchirapuram, where they would cremate Chokkanatha's body.
Queen Mangamma defied age old custom of Sati. She cremated her husband Chokkanatha who barely lived more than a few months with her. Paying tribute to the Mysore Nawabs, she was able to pay her final rites to the embalmed body of Chokkanatha. When Rengakrishna lit the funeral pyre, Mangamma stood unmoved, solid as a rock. Madurai needed her. Rengakrishna needed her, she repeatedly said to herself. When they were back to Madurai, Rengakrishna aged 15, was crowned the King of Madurai on an auspicious day. Despite the sorrow over her husband's death, Mangamma's joy knew no bounds watching her dear son conducting Royal Court as the King of Madurai. His slender shoulders were no match for vultures circling the Kingdom and she knew she had to fight with all her might to see Rengakrishna succeed.
Few years later...
Rengakrishna was an intelligent and brave King and his subjects loved him for his youthful attitude and diplomacy. Rengakrishna had seen the devastation his father's lust had brought upon his mother and had vowed to remain loyal to one woman. Unlike his father and forefathers whose harem boasted of dozens of women, he maintained a careful distance with every woman in sight- including the Courtesans. Yet he had lost his heart to Chinnamuthamma! After Chokkanatha's demise, the Queen and Rengakrishna traveled often between Madurai and Tiruchirapuram trying to do justice to both the areas. Then came the Chithirai Festival of Koodal Azhagar temple in Madurai where the King had to accept the Honors. Mangamma and Rengakrishna visited the temple and were elated to watch the festivities. The entire city was brimming with happiness and joy.
On his return from the temple, there was bad news awaiting the King. The Royal Spies had brought news about the procession of Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb's army. The procession of Aurangazeb's worn out shoe hoisted atop an elephant was nearing Dindigul and was on its way to Madurai. The Kings and public had to bow before the elephant holding the Emperor's shoe and pay tribute of gold, diamonds and other precious stones as ordered by the Mughal army. Rengakrishna's blood boiled and his eyes blazed with anger when the spy narrated how nondescript Kings had prostrated before the Emperor's shoe. Drawing his sword, he jumped up from his throne.
Mangamma who listened to every word, watched her son and a knowing smile curved on her lips. Dalavoy Narasappaiah too was smiling at Rengakrishna. Baffled at his mother's and Guru's smiles, Rengakrishna quirked an eyebrow at his mother. " Renga, this is not the way we face the enemies and make them worse. I can understand your feelings. Anger should not be vented so soon and easily. It had to be built up inside and spent on the right time at the right direction. Your sword is no match to the mighty Mughal Army. Put it down!" With that, she turned towards the spy and enquired- " What is the Mughal army's might that follows the procession? Horses? Elephants? Men on foot?" " There may be hundreds of men, horses and elephants. But the animals are too tired after their expedition for such long distances. Zulfikhar Khan leads the army and i have secret insider news that he is planning to get back to Delhi after visiting Madurai", said the spy.
That made Mangamma sit up and think. Lost in thought for a few minutes, she rose and ordered the spies out. Dalavoy Narasappaiah had understood what she had planned, one look at her and said," I shall make arrangements for us to start immediately, Queen". With that he left a confused Rengakrishna confront his mother. " Son! Let us start immediately to Tiruchirapuram. We shall split as tiny units and move. By the time the Mughals reach Madurai, the Palace ought to be empty. I shall ask Ministerial council to give them a warm welcome, feed them to their hearts fill and rest. That can buy us some time and we shall be ready for them when they recover!" Rengakrishna's expression cleared, he now understood what his mother had been planning. He could not but admire her political diplomacy, even in that urgency.
When the Mughal army entered Madurai with Emperor's shoe procession, an empty throne welcomed them. They were fed well with sweet rice, savories and plenty of local brew. Happy and content, Zulfikhar Khan committed the biggest mistake of his life- sent back the army to Delhi, keeping a bare minimum of hundred soldiers alone. Horses and elephants too were on their way back to Delhi. The procession then started towards Tiruchirapuram where they hoped to meet the King of Madurai, threaten him to submission, collect the tribute and the head to Delhi. " Yah' Allah! With this i can indeed rest for few months in Delhi", said Zulfikhar Khan to himself. Little did he know that he was going to nurse a real bad wound and earn the Emperor's wrath when back in Delhi.
Mangamma knew Rengakrishna had a soft corner for Chinnamuthamma, one of her consorts. Daughter of General Govindappa Naik, Chinnamuthamma had spent all of her childhood as companion and friend of Rengakrishna. Ascending the throne of Madurai, Rengakrishna had secretly hoped to marry her someday. Yet he decided to wait and see what Mangamma had in store for him. A marriage of alliance that would do the Kingdom immense help was what Rengakrishna had been dreading about. Yet he was taken aback on a sweet surprise when Mangamma announced on return to Tiruchirapuram, that he would be married to Chinnamuthamma. Not only that, the wedding was to happen immediately. The bride to be was already in Tiruchirapuram Palace and Mangamma sent word to Madurai on a war-footing that the King would be married in a week's time. Celebrating, the armies from Madurai, Thanjavur and Tiruchirapuram had gathered in the Tiruchirapuram Fort in no time.
The wedding of a King is no ordinary function and the entire city was in euphoria. Feasts and festivities everywhere, food and liquor flooding the streets of Tiruchirapuram, happiness cloaked the city. Rengakrishna, though initially surprised by his mother's sudden wedding announcement, was extremely happy. He was going to marry the woman of his dreams, Chinnamuthu whom he had promised furtively to wed! He remembered their last meeting- when he met her in the flower garden of the palace, before leaving for Madurai. A stunning beauty with the heart of an angel- Chinnamuthu adored the King. " Would you ever get the courage to face the Queen and tell about us?" Chinnamuthu queried, half lying on his broad chest with her innocent eyes trained on his well sculpted face. " Why not? I shall find the right time and tell her about us, Chinnamuthu. Don't you worry. I am not like my father. I have vowed monogamy and you shall remain the one and only love of my life", he replied. He only wished to keep up the promise despite any adverse situation all his life. On an auspicious day, they were made man and wife by the Queen in the famed Thayumanaswamy Temple, Tiruchirapuram. The gathered armies and people embarked on a month long festive spree.
Arriving in Tiruchirapuram few weeks later, Zulfikhar Khan faced King Rengakrishna who thundered at the sight of the worn out shoe of Aurangazeb. " We are a small Kingdom, indeed, when compared to the Mughal Empire. Yet we live with dignity. Tribute to the Emperor? We very well wish to give. But respects to the shoe placed on a platter before me? Never!" Zulfikhar's face reddened in anger and he answered- " Don't forget whom you are revolting against, King!" Rengakrishna laughed- a hearty laughter, climbed down the throne and picking up the single shoe from the golden plate, wore it in his right leg. " Poor Emperor, what would he do with his left shoe alone? Send that too to the poor King of Madurai. Let me wear that too", he said. Angered beyond words, Zulfikhar roared- " You have admonished the Mughal Empire and you will pay the price for it, King! I shall see to it that you pay for this dearly." " Don't you dare raise your voice against me, Zulfikhar Khan! Do whatever you can, I refuse to bow to this shoe and now may i ask you to leave the Palace and Tiruchirapuram too?", Rengakrishna boomed.
Zulfikhar spun his heels and marched out. He was helpless against the fort that was positioned carefully with soldiers, canons raised and ready. His small army of hundred men were no match for the huge army that had assembled for the wedding of the King! Zulfikhar and his army left for Delhi, unable to do anything against the newly wed King. Rengakrishna marveled at the intelligence of his mother who had successfully sent back the Mughal Army and conducted his wedding as well, in a single swift move. As the newly weds entered their chamber for the night, Mangamma silently watched from the terrace. She started dreaming of her grandson- she was sure, God would gift Rengakrishna with a son. A grandson who would continue the legacy of Naiks. Little did she know that her grandson would sound the death knell for her...
TO BE CONTINUED...