Friday, 27 April 2012

The Queen Of Hearts- Part 10

With Mangamma entrenched in a whirlpool of personal issues, Shaji, the King of Thanjavur and his soldiers attacked Tiruchirapuram and occupied the villages on the Cauvery’s embankments. The absence of Queen Mangamma who was on a pilgrimage to Palani emboldened the Thanjai King further. His soldiers pilfered the villages at nights and sent them to Thanjavur by day. Heaps of gold, tonnes of rice, livestock, women- the Thanjavur soldiers were unstoppable. When Mangamma got word of the looting and plundering, she was enraged. Revenge would be sweet if she launched an attack on the Thanjavur Palace, she thought. 

This was the right time to attack King Shaji at his homeland. She ordered Dalavoy Narasappaiah to lead the attack on Thanjavur. And what a victory it was! Shaji and his forces were fully concentrated on looting Tiruchirapuram, that they forgot their riches and gold lying unguarded at the Thanjai Palace. Narasappaiah and the forces struck the gold in Thanjavur, looting every penny in the Palace, including the gold idols that Shaji used for his worship. By the time Shaji got the news of the attack, the Palace was left with only doors and windows to adorn it! Shocked and wounded, the Thanjavur forces retreated from Tiruchirapuram.

Chikkadevaraya could not believe Kumaraiyya left the Tiruchirapuram Palace untouched. A woman ruler, that too a widowed Queen with an adolescent to care for, had remained unfazed by their onslaught. He hatched a plan to strike both the Tiruchirapuram and Thanjavur royals. He would now step on their lifeline, the river Cauvery! He ordered the construction of a huge dam across Cauvery near the foothills of Sathyamangalam that would curb the flow of water to both Tiruchirapuram and Thanjavur. That would bring them both under check, thought Chikkadevaraya. Perennial Cauvery dried up, with Tiruchirapuram receiving little water and Thanjavur delta all caked up in the sun. King Shaji was a worried man, with farmers revolting against the King, demanding water. He received news about the new dam across Cauvery built by Chikkadevaraya and now knew he needed the help of Mangamma. He directed his minister Paloji to meet Queen Mangamma with tolas of gold and seek her help for a war against Mysore’s King.

When Paloji sought audience with Queen Mangamma, she guessed the reason for it and was ready for the meeting. Narasappaiah and the Queen met Paloji and taunted him for looting the people of  Tiruchirapuram. Paloji had no choice but to remain silent, all through the discussion. Finally it was agreed upon that the forces of Tiruchirapuram and Thanjavur would assemble and proceed on a war against Mysore. As the forces were getting ready, rain god heard their prayers! It rained cats and dogs in the catchment areas of Cauvery days together and the newly built dam grew weak and shifted away, the sluices damaged by incessant rain. Without the need for a war, water flowed copiously into the Cauvery. As Mangamma was busy arranging the war against Mysore, aligning with the Thanjavur forces, Sethupathy and the Marava soldiers had occupied Madurai by stealth. Mangamma had at times borrowed help from Delhi’s Mughals, buying their loyalty with treasures from Madurai Palace. Earlier guerrilla attacks by Sethupathy’s forces were retaliated with help from Zulfikhar Khan’s army which was bought with immense wealth, from Madurai Palace and Meenakshiamman temple. This time around, Zulfikhar Khan was in Delhi and the Mughal forces were feeble to launch an attack. The Ramnad King had planned his attack so well and timed it strategically.
Queen Mangamma's statue in Madurai Meenakshiamman Temple
Mangamma wanted her grandson to rule an empire that was vast and huge. Losing Madurai was a mistake that she could never forgive herself for. Summoning Narasappaiah, she discussed the plan with Paloji and Shaji. They had to teach a lesson to the Maravas, safeguarding their own lands. Shaji understood the risk of having Sethupathy a neighbour. Mangamma was more amicable than Sethupathy and his guerrilla army. He agreed to attack Madurai and Sethupathy aligning with Tiruchirapuram. Narasappaiah lead the attack from the forefront. Aged and confused, he was not ready for the guerrilla attacks of the Marava army. Sethupathy knew the route by which the forces would arrive and his army was ready for them at vantage points. When the Tiruchirapuram army reached Dindigul Fort, Narasappaiah planned to pitch tents inside the fort. What he missed to note was that the entire vicinity of the fort was empty. As the gates of the fort were opened and Narasappaiah entered the fort, an array of arrows welcomed him. As he fell on the ground bleeding profusely, his only wish was granted, he had laid down his life for Madurai Kingdom, safeguarding her and fighting for the woman of his dreams- Queen Mangamma.

The news of Narasappaiah’s death reached Mangamma two days later and she was devastated. Her dream of a vast empire for her grandson to rule, bit dust and she lost her best friend, confidante and well-wisher Narasappaiah, now. She could not show her shock and grief at Narasappaiah’s death, that would send the wrong signals and fuel the already dying fire of gossip in the Palace. She did not want another round of gossip doing the rounds. All she needed now was some peace and quiet. She resigned to her fate. With Narasappaiah dead, the armies of Thanjavur and Tiruchirapuram fled, Thanjavur army retreating through Aranthangi and Tiruchirapuram forces ran to Tiruchirapuram. As the army returned with the ashes of  Narasappaiah, Mangamma knew she would never set foot in Madurai in her lifetime. Meenakshiamman should help her visit the temple once, before her last breath, she thought to herself. She furtively hoped her grandson would one day trot the streets of Madurai. Vijayarenga was by that time well grown to understand the affairs of the Kingdom, but he was more than happy plucking guavas and mangoes in his summer palace. He knew he was ready to rule, but he hated the high handedness of his grandmother.

Unaware of what was going on in the mind of her grandson, Mangamma now wanted him to take part in the proceedings of the Royal Court and sent for him. He arrived two days later and refused to even glance in her direction. She was filled with grief when she asked meekly- “ Will you not even look at me, Vijayarenga?” His answer was stoic silence. She went on saying how she wanted him to attend the Court when he remained rooted to the spot. He had his eyes on only one thing- The Royal Throne. Though he was crowned King when he was three months old, his grandmother never gave him the chance to decide on simple matters of the state. Even now she wanted him to remain a mute spectator to the events in the Royal Court. His friends were right. They had warned him, she would never relinquish the Royal duties to him. And if he had to take it by force, he sure would. His friends stayed with him day in and day out, fuelling the fire that threatened to scorch the Tiruchirapuram Throne. When Mangamma came to know of the poison his friends were inducing, she tried to keep his friends at bay. She appointed spies to check on who was damaging their relationship and by the time she got news of what was wrong, it was too late for damage control. Vijayarenga got news that guards were spying on him and bought their loyalties by threatening them. They knew he would be the ruler soon and did not want to invite his wrath.

One morning when Queen Mangamma woke up and tried to open her chamber’s door, it was locked from outside. It must be some mistake, she thought. Some guard had locked it unknowingly and they would soon open it, she thought and waited patiently. As the sun’s rays pierced through the curtains, she knew it was too late and banged on the door. There was silence everywhere. It slowly dawned on her that she had been kept a prisoner in her own chamber, with nothing to drink or eat. Wallowing in self-pity, she knew her end was near. Prayer kept her alive and memories of a distant past made her happy. What made her sad was that she was not able to see her favourite deity Meenakshiamman once before the end. She had always known her end would be in the hands of her grandson and she welcomed it. It still hurt her that he failed to understand that all she did was for the benefit of the Kingdom. 

At the end of the day, she had no regrets. She had held the reins of the Kingdom well, built more temples and roads than any King could do in the entire Naik dynasty other than Thirumalai Naik and she was happy. If only Vijayarenga could have understood her motives…if only he had trusted her…if only he had loved her so much as she did…Queen Mangamma spent forty days in her chamber, locked up with no food but survived on water. When her end came, she was more than ready for it. The Queen of Hearts died a peaceful death in sleep, famished by her own grandson who was more eager for the Throne than his loving grandmother. If only he had loved her and trusted her…the Naiks would have left behind a wealthy and vast empire. If only the Queen of Hearts was alive…
 The End.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Queen Of Hearts- Part 9

The nightmare had its own after effects. As trusted by people, the early morning dream petrified Mangamma. She knew someday, her end would be in the hands of her grandson. But that did not stop her from being ambitious and politically active. She was angered beyond words by Sethupathi of Ramanathapuram who had announced autonomy from Madurai, refusing to pay tribute to the Madurai Naiks. Mangamma wanted to teach a lesson to the old Marava and sent a written caution through her trusted company of soldiers to pay the tribute. Sethupathi never wrote back to her, but sent word through the soldiers that he would visit the Queen soon at Madurai. Trusting the cunning Sethupathi, Mangamma waited for him in her capital, anxious for the money.

When he did turn up a month later, Sethupathi showed no notice of getting message. At best he tried to ignore it. He happily ate and slept at the Tamukkam Palace with his aides, visited temples in and around the temple town, yet skirted around the issue. When Mangamma chided him gently that he was getting old and forgetting things, his reply was more diplomatic. “I remember I am old, only when young people like you remind me of my age, Queen,” he said. Mangamma understood his ploy of taking a dig at her inexperience and she fumed inwards. He was after all a guest now and she could not insult him or confront him in the Palace. After enjoying the Madurai hospitality for over a full month, Sethupathi left for Ramanathapuram, loaded with gifts from the Queen- a remembrance of her kind hospitality even to the gravest enemies.
Ravi Varma faulted again with his tributes and Mangamma was in dire need of money. Money for all her development works in the Kingdom. She had to revamp the road from Madurai to Tiruchirapuram, build a few bridges across Coleroon in the Cauvery delta region to help agriculture. And canals- she needed many canals to draw water from perennial Cauvery. For all these works, she needed tribute from Ravi Varma. She sought General Veerappa Naik and ordered him to take a force to Travancore to collect the tributes due to Madurai. The army of soldiers, elephants and horses left for Travancore. This was a repeat every year- the forces were lethargic and tired. There was no opposing to the army that entered freely the gates of Kalkulam, the entry point to Travancore Palace. When King Ravi Varma himself welcomed Veerappa Naik with folded arms, the army was totally baffled. With nil resistance, the forces pitched tents within the Kalkulam Fort and were pampered silly by the Travancore forces.

When Ravi Varma sought a private audience with Veerappa Naik, he was confused. Yet, he planned to play along and met the King. Ravi Varma had known fully well that he was forsaken by his Generals last time. Now all he wanted was to quell the domestic struggle for power between his generals. A small favour in return for the tribute that would be paid regularly from now on. Also, he promised half the Kingdom to Madurai, if he got help to crush the revolt. That made Veerappa Naik sit back and think. He did not have time to send message to Mangamma in Madurai and wait for her reply. He had to decide now- what was better for the Kingdom. Greedy that he was, Veerappa Naik accepted the offer. He wanted to go down in history as a great man responsible for annexing half the Travancore Kingdom with Madurai. Swiftly, he organised an elite company of stealth warriors who invaded the homes of every general in the middle of the night with help from the Travancore forces. 

With a few men left to guard the Madurai forces camp in Kalkulam, the left were happily chopping off heads of revolting generals in Travancore. What they did not know in the thick of the night was that this was a ploy of Ravi Varma to split the army and attack the separated groups. When the team led by Veerappa Naik returned after attacking the separatists, they found their camp run over and annihilated. Furious, Veerappa Naik and his small team of elite forces thundered into the open gates of Travancore Palace, again a mistake. The Travancore forces that were readily awaiting them with cannons and guns, charred the unsuspecting brigade to death, including Veerappa Naik.

Only a few soldiers remained who ran for their dear life. The horses and elephants were captured by the Travancore King and the eloping soldiers were more than happy to be alive. When Mangamma got word of the betrayal by Ravi Varma, she went red with rage. Summoning Narasappaiah, she ordered the forces leave at once to Travancore and capture Ravi Varma, dead or alive. Additional forces from Tiruchirapuram were called and the Naik army in full strength invaded Travancore. Ravi Varma was more than happy now- with his revolting generals dead and gone, Madurai forces driven away, he vacationed in his summer retreat with minimal forces. He never expected a forceful retaliation from the Queen of Madurai- a widowed woman with only a chit of a grandson. He forgot the mighty army that already had the cannons and brave hearts like Narasappaiah. All Narasappaiah wanted was a revenge- a bitter revenge for the death of their elite forces, including Veerappa Naik, who was married to Narasappaiah’s sister Meenamma who now stood a widow. Cornered in his summer retreat with almost an extinct group of soldiers, Ravi Varma had no choice, but fall on Narasappaiah’s feet. This time again, the Madurai army plundered every home of Travancore, carrying back loads of gold and jewellery, hoisted atop their own horses and elephants.

When the victorious army reached Madurai, they had shocking news awaiting them, Kumaraiyya and his forces from Mysore had pitched tents near Tiruchirapuram, planning to attack the city. He had conquered the palayams of Coimbatore and Erode enroute Tiruchirapuram by sheer stealth, the Kings of those areas had by themselves paid tributes to the Mysore King Chikka Devaraya. They had travelled split as small groups, feigning a pilgrimage to Rameswaram from Mysore. This was a failure of Madurai spies, they had failed to notify the Queen in advance of the onslaught by the Mysore King. Kumaraiyya had regrouped the forces at the gates of Tiruchirapuram fort and they were getting ready to attack. The forces of Tiruchirapuram were on their way from Travancore to Madurai when they got news of Kumaraiyya’s onslaught. They travelled with lightning speed and by the time they reached Tiruchirapuram, Chikka Devaraya’s forces had been summoned back to Mysore to fight the Marathas who had occupied Mysore. Lady luck was smiling at Mangamma- Travancore had been bought, Chikka Devaraya turned away for the moment, busy confronting the Marathas and Sethupathi tried to feign friendship. She expected no trouble for a few years now, but trouble started from the most unexpected quarter- her own people.

The Palace was abuzz with rumours doing the rounds that the Queen was in love with Dalavoy Narasappaiah. Fanned by her own aides, the rumour did its rounds in the streets of Madurai and when she herself was privy to the news, Mangamma was devastated. She carefully avoided Narasappaiah in the private confines of the Palace. He too got wind of the rumours and tried to steer away from her. Though devastated beyond words, Mangamma pulled herself together. She had no time for the gossip mills that worked overtime. She chose to ignore them, ignoring might probably put an end to them, she thought- though in vain. The tongue is sharper than the sword, that she knew. She spent more time in Meenakshiamman temple, adoring the deity and overseeing the free noon meals that was provided at the temple with donations from the Royal Treasury of Madurai. She spent her evenings listening to recitals of Kambaramayana, Devaram and Thiruvasagam. She avoided speaking to her aides other than her trusted Alarmelamma.

But little Vijayarenga who had no inkling of the happenings, he longed for his horse riding and sword fighting lessons with the Raja Guru- Narasappaiah. He was the only male permitted beyond the Palace Courtyard and Vijayarenga wished he could spend more time with him. As he grew up, Vijayarenga hated spending more time in the Womens’ Only areas of the palace, he never interacted with men. And he wished he had more friends. Mangamma tried to keep him more company, but felt the little one was moving farther away from her. She then summoned few ministers and generals who had sons the age of Vijayarenga and constructed a summer retreat for the little King in an orchard. 

Tamukkam Palace of Queen Mangamma, presently hosts the Gandhi Museum, Madurai
Mangoes from Salem and Erode, guavas from Krishnankovil, jackfruits from Travancore, bananas from Tiruchirapuram- she had all the choicest trees planted in the orchard and was extremely happy when young Vijayarenga took instant liking to the secluded retreat in the orchard brimming with trees and teeming with lives of birds and crickets. The group of passionate young men who visited Vijayarenga often brought him immense happiness. Did Mangamma know this innocuous band of friends would one day conspire against her? 

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Queen Of Hearts- Part 8

The birth of the little Prince Vijayarengakrishna brought immense pleasure and happiness to the battered souls of Madurai, especially the Royals. Mangamma was elated and donated gold worth millions to the Meenakshiamman Temple. A golden crown encrusted with diamonds, rubies and emeralds adorning the principal deity, a golden chariot for Kallazhagar, innumerable tanks and ponds dotting the Madurai landscape…her thirst for service and devotion remained unquenched.  In the midst of all such hectic activity, there was a soul that remained detached from this hullabaloo, distant and silent. Mangamma failed to note the frail and diminishing health of Chinnamuthamma. How much ever people tried to pacify her over Rengakrishna’s death, she remained melancholic and sad. On the thirtieth day, the infant was named Vijayarenga Krishna Naik and prayers offered in the temples throughout the Kingdom. The very day he was named, Vijayarengan took his toll- the life of his mother!

Chinnamuthamma who was left unattended during the naming ceremony of the infant, had consumed rose water- a huge quantity of it and slept through the night. The next morning when her aides tried to wake her up, she was running high temperature. Slowly she lost consciousness. The efforts of the Palace doctors to revive her were in vain. Murmuring Rengakrishna’s name and with a dream to be united with him in death, Chinnamuthamma breathed her last in a week. As Mangamma held the orphaned infant in her hands, fighting back her tears, her mind remained strangely blank. Unaware of his mother’s death, the infant wailed in hunger and Mangamma was struck with remorse. Rengakrishna and Chinnamuthamma. Her son who loved his wife so deeply and her daughter in law who could not live without the love of her life…Even in the adverse circimstances, she could not but admire the love the young pair had for each other. A pair in the Madurai Naik dynasty that was so much in love- she could not help but look at Narasappaiah and shake her head. Destiny…now she believed in that.

It took just two hours of deliberation in the Royal Council to decide the next course of action. Without much ado, the Royal Court approved Queen Mangamma as Queen Regent of Madurai and the three month old infant Vijayarengakrishna as the King of Madurai! Yawning and stretching his hands the little King lay on the throne of Madurai, as the crown was symbolically placed on his forehead before being placed on Queen Mangamma’s head. Long arduous years were ahead, Mangamma thought in hurtful silence, as the little one kicked his arms and smiled at his grandmother. A grandmother at forty, who had the responsibility of holding the reins of the most volatile Kingdom, warding off advances of Marathas, Maravas and revolts from Travancore, she mused. What a cruel twist of fate! When all she wanted was to retire gracefully and spend her last few years in visiting temples down South and up North, all she had got now was a wailing infant to feed, guide and rule a Kingdom…

When summoned to the Palace training grounds by the Queen, Narasappaiah had run and re-run his speech in his mind a hundred times. He knew what Mangamma was going through and he wanted to comfort the poor soul. She had always maintained a decent distance with him, he was the Guru of her son, a Teacher, someone who taught her the nuances of politics and public service. It had been ages since he had heard her laugh and months since he saw her smile. This Mangamma was a ghost of the past. As she sat on the arena, watching the horses trot in circles, kicking up dust, she was reminded of a sword fight-  the duel between a hooded Mangamma and King Chokkanatha.

Where is that courage and determination now? Dear God, please help me, guide me in these tough times and let me keep the Naik flag flying high, she thought. Seeing Narasappaiah in the distance, steadily gliding towards her, she felt half her strength return. What would she do without this man? The man who was destined to be with her life long, not as a partner, but a Guru. Would she fail him? Would she fail the Naiks? Would she show herself a weakling confronting the warring factions? The invaders? The Mughals? Marathas? Facing the Dalavoy, she felt all her doubts leave, all her inhibitions fade and all her problems evaporate in thin air. What if she lost Chokkanatha? Rengakrishna? God had blessed her immensely with this man- her pillar of strength, her shoulder to lean on, in distress.

Wishing her, he stood wondering what was going through her mind- a battered soul who never found true happiness all her life. He was reminded of her happy, carefree childhood, when she used to run over fields and meadows, hunting honey, wild flowers, chasing butterflies and fireflies. The worry lines on her forehead spoke volumes of how life had been cruel to her. Mangamma regarded him for a split second before speaking out- “ Dalavoy, Ravi Varma had refused to pay our tribute this year. The Generals who had been sent to collect the dues have been badly mauled and sent back. He had said he wouldn’t pay tribute to a land where there is no King. I would not tolerate such revolts easily, Dalavoy. I want you to gather the army and head to Travancore, collect what is due and teach the Raja a lesson, a lesson he would not forget all his life. I wish I would lead the army, sadly, I have my own bundle of worries to take care of. Vijayarenga needs me now. The army must move in two days.” With this, she waited for his answer. Narasappaiah was moved by her love for her homeland. Her love for her grandson. “ I promise to bring what is due to us and even more, Queen. Raja Ravi Verma needs a lesson on respect, and I shall teach him. I hope the little King is well,” he replied. “Oh, he is just adorable!”, she smiled. For the first time, he saw her genuine smile which was indeed infectious. For this smile, he would fight anyone- the devil himself, he thought with a smile and left. Would he fight death himself?

It took Narasappaiah and the Naik army a fortnight to reach Travancore and when a caution was sent to Ravi Varma, he laughed. A caution messge from Dalavoy Narasappaiah- a warrior for a land with no King. Narasappaiah had his game plan ready. It took him few tolas of gold and a few promises to disgruntled generals of Ravi Varma, to collect the tribute. And what a collection it was…The Travancore Palace lost every ounce of gold it had, every piece of jewel it possessed to the brave Dalavoy Narasappaiah. The army carried cart loads of loot from Travancore to Madurai, with Narasappaiah leading the way. He had a special gift for the Queen, all cannons of the famed Travancore King. They were mounted successfully on the forts of Madurai and Tiruchirapuram.

Few years later…
Little Vijayarenga loved to travel. He liked to explore the unexplored, discover the undiscovered. As he ran tiny capers along the Courtyard of the temple, Mangamma trailed behind, lost in thought. “Look, amma…temple tank! I want to go on a boat ride now……” he yelled in his shrill voice. With a staunch refusal, Mangamma and Alarmelamma pulled him and he ambled along pouring his childish heart out. When they reached the gopuram ( a monumental tower in all temples), he wanted to climb on top of it. “Let us go this once, amma…”, he pleaded with tears in his eyes. Her grandson, the only hold for her in the world and he wanted to climb the gopuram. How could a loving grandmother refuse? Holding his hands, she climbed the steps one by one and finally the duo reached the open terrace of the temple, a few floors above. As she stood near the parapet wall admiring the streets below, Vijayarenga followed her doggedly. Then, both his tiny hands placed on her back, with a mighty shove, he pushed her down. With limbs flailing and head reeling, Mangamma was swiftly falling to death from the high rise temple….

With a loud shriek, the Queen woke from her bed, with rivulets of perspiration running along her temple and a cold shiver running down her spine.


Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Queen Of Hearts- Part 7

Victory does some strange things to a man. Success climbs to one's head, brings down empires and ultimately leads to destruction. What made Mangamma send her son to Ramanathapuram, nobody knows. May be she was happy at the outcome of Rengakrishna's meeting with Zulfikhar Khan, may be she wanted to show her might to the Marava King who remained a thorn in her eye. Summoning Rengakrishna, Mangamma asked him to fight Kizhavan Sethupathy, the Marava ruler who had been planting hatred among the people of Madurai based on religion. Sethupathi, a devout Hindu, marginalised the newly converted Christians .They were denied jobs in the Government, shunned from the community wells and tanks, segregated from the villages and hamlets. 

Sethupathi was intolerant of Christian Missionaries who were successful in converting a sizeable chunk of the populace to Christianity. Sethupathi ordered the beheading of Kumarappa Chettiar who was a Chieftain in his own Court once he discovered he had embraced Christianity. Sethupathi's sister was married off as second wife to Kumarappa Chettiar. Once he was baptised by John De Britto, Kumarappa sent his second wife back, as he was a devout Catholic who wanted to follow monogamy. Seeing his sister back at home angered Sethupathi so much that he ordered the beheading of his own brother-in-law. And as to the man who converted an entire village to Christianity, including Kumarappa, he was named a traitor and death sentence passed. John De Britto was captured, tortured and killed at the behest of Sethupathi. The sands of Oriyur where Saint John De Britto's blood was shed is a deep red, even today. A relic in almost every Catholic's home in our area...
The murder of Kumarappa Chettiyar and St. John De Britto kindled the fire in Rengakrishna and Mangamma. Someone should teach Sethupathi a lesson. Who would be a better choice than Rengakrishna who sent back the Mughal army empty handed? That was when he decided to embark on a dangerous journey into Marava heartland. When he was welcomed at the gates of Ramanathapuram Fort, Rengakrishna was baffled. He had come waging a war and the warm welcome Sethupathi gave him confused the young King. And when Sethupathi announced brightly in his Durbar that the ' young Naik King had come on a pilgrimage to Rameswaram via Ramanathapuram', Rengakrishna was almost writhing in his seat. Sethupathi acted as though Rengakrishna was a small kid, pampered him with food and showered him with gifts. By that time, Rengakrishna was confused if he should raise his sword against the Maravas or retreat back. 

The ploy of Sethupathi worked well, when Mangamma sent a message to Rengakrishna that if he couldn't face the Marava King, he return to Tiruchirapuram, all Rengakrishna could do was beat a hasty retreat to Naik land. No sword was drawn, not a drop of blood was lost, yet Sethupathi won his battle in the Court rooms. Mangamma consoled Rengakrishna saying- " You had to witness the political diplomacy of Sethupathi, Renga. The old lion excels in planning and executing heists. Hope my grandson would win one day, against him". 

Few years later...

It was Chithirai Festival in Madurai. Mangamma was filled with joy, Chinnamuthamma was now pregnant. A grandson is what Mangamma had been praying for and when she learnt Chinnamuthu was pregnant, she was elated. So was Rengakrishna. The fruit of their love in her womb, Chinnamuthu radiated with happiness. When Kallazhagar entered the river that year, as a bad omen, the idol slipped and fell into the flowing Vaigai. Too stunned by what happened, the Royal family returned to the Palace. Two days later, Rengakrishna contracted a fever and within hours, his body and face became stricken with small pox. A pregnant Chinnamuthamma was deplored from nearing Rengakrishna for fear of contracting the disease, whereas Mangamma spent every moment awake with him. Rengakrishna's condition worsened further and he slipped in and out of consciousness, battling death.

Those were the days when there was no treatment for small pox, except the remedy of neem leaves and turmeric applied on the wounds. Lying on a nimble banana leaf, struggling to live, wanting to see his unborn infant, Rengakrishna battled death, in vain. A week later, Madurai lost its King. Mangamma was devastated. Chinnamuthamma, almost dead. Disasters came in a regular pattern in Mangamma's life. Just when she thought she had made a good King in her son, death snatched him away from her. Narasappaiah paled as death himself, ordered the last rites. Every look at her son's lifeless body, brought Mangamma memories of her son- the beloved son for whom she had lived the life of an unwanted, unloved wife. When the body was taken to the graveyard for cremation in a long procession, Chinnamuthamma followed in staggering steps. 

When the funeral pyre was lit, Chinnamuthamma tried to jump into it, pushing the guards aside. Mangamma had not given enough thought on these lines, as she had defied Sati herself. Racing to hold her daughter-in-law, she roared orders for her palanquins to be ready. A struggling Chinnamuthamma was sedated, brought back to the Palace and laid on her bed. Shedding silent tears, Mangamma sat beside, gently smoothing the hairs of the young lady. Rengakrishna had died at 22 years and Chinnamuthamma was a widow at 17. Such a cruel twist of fate, she thought. When Chinnamuthamma woke up, she had to face straight into the anxious face of Mangamma. 

"What you did is something i can never forgive, Chinnamuthu. You tried to kill not your own self but the innocent unborn in your womb. That little Rengakrishna who would remind us of his father. Or may be a little Mangamma who would one day rule Madurai with an iron hand. Promise me Chinnamuthu, promise me that you won't harm the little one", she pleaded with a red eyed Chinnamuthamma. Astounded by the Queen who herself was pleading with her, Chinnamuthu held her hand for a moment and plunged slowly into a slumber. Mangamma made sure that the widowed Princess was never left unattended. She ordered Court jesters and courtesans perform before her, tried to keep her happy and never showed once her real feelings to her- her heart was indeed bleeding. She had pinned so much hopes on her little son Rengakrishna and God had snatched him away from her so early.

It was a cold night and Mangamma could not sleep. Chinnamuthamma had gone into labor that evening and Mangamma had just now returned from her chamber, finding not much progress in the child birth. Leaving the Royal doctors and nursing aides by her side, she slid slowly into the night and reached her chamber. The child would definitely take its own sweet time, probably arrive the next morning. She could not remember when she slept but woke with a start when she sensed fumes. Smoke rose from the foot of her bed, the lamp by the bedside had tumbled on the bed and  the curtains and sheets billowed in smoke. She raised an alarm and her aides pounced inside the room in no time and the fire was doused. 

Mangamma was still perplexed and worried when Alarmelamma rushed in with the news- a baby boy was born to Chinnamuthamma. The fire in her room, was it a bad omen, she tried to reason out. Yet, her longing to hold her grandson pulled her like a magnet  to Chinnamuthamma's chamber. One look at the sleeping angel, Mangamma was moved. She felt awash with joy, Rengakrishna was reborn! The fire that broke in her room would soon engulf her very being, threatening her very existence...

The Queen Of Hearts- Part 6

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 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...

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Queen Of Hearts- Part 5

Was it an illusion? A mirage in the desert? Mangamma could not say. She had indeed seen Achaiya among the crowd. And she did want to see him, just for once and ask the question that has been gnawing at her heart. Why did he run away? From her? Their fairy tale romance? Blissfully unaware of her dilemma, Chokkanatha spent every living moment of the day in the temple. Rengamma was worried about her son and the fall of Tiruchirapuram ( modern day Tiruchirapalli) to the Nawab of Mysore and the furtive land grabbing in the east by Kizhavan Sethupathi of Marava Kingdom. She had to see someone active on the reins, not her melancholic son. She waited eagerly for the unborn grandchild that would save the Naiks. 

Mangamma spent the last few days of her pregnancy, thrilled to the core. She wanted a male child- a son who would rule over the Naik Kingdom. A son who would make Chokkanatha realize his mistake. A son who would rule Madurai with immense power and bring her laurels. And when indeed a son was born, Mangamma felt her true power as the Queen. Named Rengakrisha, the first look at her infant brought tears to her eyes. His son- the gift from her to the Madurai Naiks....Her heart filled with pride. Chokkanatha received message that a son was born to him and he was thrilled, despite his grieving heart.

When he raced to Mangamma's chamber to have first look at his son- the heir to Madurai Throne, Chokkanatha was totally unaware of what the future held in store for him. There was no welcoming smile, happiness or pride when Mangamma faced him. He saw fresh pain, anger and nonchalance in her eyes. Her face a mask devoid of all expressions, she moved away from the bassinet that held the little one. Chokkanatha was taken aback by her attitude, yet he longed to touch his son. With fatherly pride, he tried to pick up the infant when Mangamma's voice boomed from behind the curtains- " Don't you touch him, O King!" As he turned slowly and faced her- " He is my son and my son alone. You have forsaken me for someone else and my love for you is dead and gone. All i have now is my son and i pray, you never come near him."

Her every word echoed in the chamber, in Chokkanatha's heart and he knew that Annam, his beloved was not this Queen Mangamma. She stood her ground like a wounded tigress and he left her to tend to her own wounds. Mangamma heard from Alarmelamma that the King had left for Tiruchirapuram and then to Thanjavur to quell the troubles from Marathas who had advanced into Tiruchirapuram. Left with an infant and a wounded heart and pride, Mangamma resolved to bring up her son as an efficient and intelligent ruler. He would be a future King with no misgivings like his father. He would marry one woman and devote his life to her. Bringing up a son all alone with the help of few Generals available in Madurai and Ministers, Mangamma had little time to remind her of her failed love. 

Few years later...

Rengakrishna was intensely mischievous, curious and an obedient child. He loved his mother for all she was- an epitome of bravery, intelligence and kindness. Mangamma spent huge amounts from the Royal Treasury for developing infrastructure in the Naik Kingdom. She donated huge sums of money for " Annadana Chathirams" ( mandaps that gave free meals in temples) in every temple. Roads were laid, tanks dug for water and she was quickly gaining popularity as Powerful Queen of Madurai. Rengakrishna was proud of her, when men saluted her and rained lavish praises on her. She was undoubtedly the Centre of Power in Madurai. On the other side, Chokkanatha was facing defeat after defeat as Marathas and Nawabs of Mysore pushed back his army from Thanjavur and Thiruchirapuram. 

Mangamma stood watching a twelve year old Rengakrishna dueling with his Guru and felt a pang of regret. The boy had grown entirely among women and was missing his father. That was when her aide announced the arrival of new tutor of political science and guerilla warfare to Rengakrishna. Maravas lead by Sethupathy were doyens in guerilla warfare and Mangamma wanted Rengakrishna to be well versed with the new warfare. As the tutor came nearby, Mangamma broke into a sweat. With swift strides, Achaiya neared the Queen and bowed before her. When Chief Minister Sundaram Naik suggested the name Dalavoy Narsappaiah as Principal Tutor of little Prince Rengakrishna, little did she suspect it would be the very same man who ran away from her, breaking her heart...
Summoning him to her private discussion hall, she walked with determined steps, followed by Achaiya. Once in private, she turned towards him, her eyes sparkling fire. Achaiya was taken aback by her anger. " I find this funny Dalavoy Narasappaiah. A coward who forsake the woman he loved for his own selfish being, now training the future King..." Achaiya broke into a smile. And started laughing. He laughed so hard that tears were streaming down his cheeks. Queen Mangamma stood unfazed and distant. " You have shaped up so well, Queen. Had i not ran away from you, we both would not be alive today. Don't you understand that? Did I or you  have the power to question the King? Or fight against the Kingdom? We both would have been branded traitors of our Motherland, with soldiers hunting us down like dogs. 

Your destiny is not to be a lowly commoner bequeathing children to a tutor, O Queen! You and I, we both are destined to save this Kingdom, the Land that gave us everything. Together we shall bring up Rengakrishna. We shall teach him everything befitting an Emperor. Together we shall build up the Naik Kingdom stone by stone, step by step. We were not destined to live a mortal life, Queen Mangamma. But together we shall create history. We shall create a mighty Empire that the Mughals, Nawabs, Maravas and the whole world will take notice of. Your courage, might, political wisdom coupled with my diplomatic skill, we shall regain the past glory of King Tirumalai Naik. If you still hold me responsible for your state today, kindly punish me, as you deem fit." With these words and folded hands, Narasappaiah glanced at the Queen. Her hardened features had softened remarkably and he could see her eyes glistening with dreams- the dreams of rebuilding a devasted Empire back to its old glory. Will Rengakrishna bring back the lost glory to Madurai?


The Queen Of Hearts- Part 4

Full moon after full moon came and went unnoticed and Mangamma was in a spell. The spell of love that Chokkanatha showered on her in abundance. By the time she could remember that she was to be crowned the Queen, it was too late. Chokkanatha had dutifully tried to forget the Thanjavur Princess after Vijayaraghava Naik refused to give her hand. He felt he was in love with Annam, God help him, he truly was. But there was something amiss in their courtship and he couldn't put his finger on it. How much ever he was near Annam, he felt she was somewhere in a land far away from him, wrapped in her own dreams. What baffled him was her indifference even when he had promised her the Crown of Queen. She seemed to have forgotten the promise totally and that irked Chokkanatha. He decided to wait.

That was when his General Muthu Naik brought him a handwritten note and a portrait from Thanjavur. As Chokkanatha read the note, his expression changed from clear boredom to ecstasy. And he almost swooned seeing the portrait...the portrait of Malarkodi. All his life, Chokkanatha had never seen such a beauty and the handwritten note- it was a note from Malarkodi. Muthu Naik said he himself met the Princess and the note was written by her- her love note to Chokkanatha and the portrait was a self portrait drawn by her. Chokkanatha stood stunned looking at the picture- perfect beauty and lost his heart a second time! 
He tried to gather more information from Muthu Naik about the Princess and was happy he had asked. Muthu Naik waxed eloquent about her sword fighting abilities, her dancing skills and her musical expertise. Chokkanatha fell head over heels in love with Malarkodi. He was now sure that Malarkodi would be the Queen of Madurai, Vijayaraghava Naik would pay the price for refusing her hand to him.

He remained in his Chamber that night, peering at the portrait of Malarkodi and dreaming about the beautiful and intelligent Princess. Annam awaited the King in her chamber with bated breath, she had to convey a confidential message. He did not turn up. She waited the next day, there was no sign of him. She tried to convince herself that he was busy with the Tiruchirapuram onslaught of Mughals and Nawabs, but was worried when he refused to meet her, when she sent word through Alarmelamma. It was almost midnight and Annam could not just sleep. She was feeling awful these days, tired and sick all the time. Unable to bear Chokkanatha's indifference, she walked slowly to his chamber, mesmerised by the full moon and its various shades of gray, black and white. 

The moment she entered his chamber, her eyes rested on the painting atop the easel, the most beautiful woman drawn with inept perfection. And she saw Chokkanatha lovingly tracing his fingers along the lithe and slender body of the maiden in the painting. The whole world spun around her and she fell unconscious as a heap on the floor. Chokkanatha turned with a start and paled when he saw her limp form on the floor. Alarmelamma came running in, Royal doctor was summoned in the middle of the night and when he announced Annam was bearing the fruit of Madurai's Throne, Chokkanatha stood in stoic silence. 
As Annam slowly regained consciousness, she became aware that she had lost both the men in her life- Achaiya and now Chokkanatha. His brooding look and hardened features spoke of his betrayal and Annam mustered all her strength and staggered out of his room without a word. She wallowed in self pity, but was happy for the life inside her. She spent her time reading, visiting temples and listening to music. She carefully avoided Chokkanatha, though she intently listened to all information Alarmelamma could give of his movements. And when Chokkanatha proclaimed war on Thanjavur and assembled his army, Annam decided to confront the King directly.

 And she regretted that she did meet him. Chokkanatha made it clear that he indeed was going for Malarkodi, he wanted her in Madurai at the earliest. Annam could continue living in Madurai Palace or if she needed seclusion, she would be granted stay at a rest house in Tiruchirapuram. Annam was devastated, but after careful thinking and planning, she decided to wait for the outcome of war. Dalavoy ( General) Veerappa Naik was summoned to her chamber, who promised to send intricate details of the war to her. With a heavy heart, she watched Chokkanatha leave the Palace garbed in his armor. 

Two months later...

Mangamma was now in her second trimester, her movements were restricted to her chamber itself. Shamed by the actions of her husband, the King, she refused to step out. However, the Council of Ministers began trusting her with their problems and were more than happy with her knowledge and wisdom. Slowly, Mangamma found a footing and knew the direction she should choose. Madurai needed her, her child needed her. She was not going down without a fight. 

It was Chitra Pournami ( full moon day of Chitra month) and Annam was seated on the terrace of the sprawling palace staring at the bright night sky. Entire city of Madurai was by the Vaigai river, celebrating. A messenger sought to see her urgently and she waved him to come close. He had brought a note from Veerappa Naik. Her pulse kicked up as she read the note. Chokkanatha had entered Thanjavur Palace, but in a fit of rage over losing the battle, Vijayaraghava Naik had pushed his beautiful daughter Malarkodi and her aides into a room filled with gun powder and blew the room. All Chokkanatha could see of Malarkodi was ashes and tangled limbs. Venting his ire, Chokkanatha had hunted Vijayaraghava down and beheaded him. Thanjavur had fallen to Madurai Naiks! 

Mangamma felt sorry for the Princess, but could not hide her smile at the turn of events. Now was her time to play! And play, she will, with all her pawns. Chokkanatha now had to crown her as Queen, the Council of Ministers had owed their allegiance to her in his absence. And the offspring in her belly was her trump card. Chokkanatha took two months to return to Madurai and was a completely different person. He refused to attend the Durbar, spent almost all his time in Meenakshiamman Temple, where his beloved Malarkodi's ashes were strewn. That was when Mangamma approached ailing Queen Mother Rengamma, mother of Chokkanatha. The frail woman was immensely happy at the prospect of crowning a very much pregnant Mangamma Queen of Madurai. On an auspicious Vaikasi Visakam day, with all fanfare and pomp, Mangamma was crowned the Principal Queen of Madurai by Rengamma and Chokkanatha. In all the crowd, Mangamma's eyes did not fail to notice the knowing smile and wink of Achaiya- her Achaiya!


Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Queen Of Hearts- Part 3

Chokkanatha's eyes roved lazily on the damsel standing by the window, her back to him. This woman can drive me crazy, he mused. Annam stood still, her face devoid of any expressions, lips tightly pursed and hands trembling. Chokkanatha climbed down his bed and came near her. She seemed lost in her thoughts. He gently held her shoulders and turned her toward him. She turned with such a speed that Chokkanatha was startled. Her eyes a fiery red and face writ with anger, she hissed- " Don't you lay your hands on me!" Chokkanatha stood awestruck a moment and broke into laughter. Ah! This was a ploy to get to him, wasn't it, he thought. He tried again to hug her and only then did he feel the cool blade of her short knife on his chest. A tiny droplet of blood trickled where the knife was pressed and his temper flared. Twisting her hand behind her, he overpowered her and the knife fell to the floor with a metallic clang. He looked at her face- the face of a wounded tigress.

And suddenly, hot tears started pouring from her eyes. That woman, that spitfire was wailing her heart out. Chokkanatha could not understand what was happening to her, to them. All he could gather was, he had married Annam against her wish. Was she forced, coerced? He had to know. But for now, he couldn't bear the hiccups. " Listen, Annam. I don't know what makes you unhappy. Your father Lingama accepted the alliance immediately and i thought you gave your consent free. I know, it takes time to adjust to the Palace and the culture here. And i wouldn't force myself on a fragile woman. Go to sleep now. And be assured, Chokkanatha never forces women. Trust me, i can wait." With that, he turned his heel and left the room in long, confident strides, befitting a King. Tired and confused, Annam lay on the bed and closed her eyes warily. When would Achaiya come and save her from this hell? 

Mangamma spent her days in the Meenakshi Amman temple, praying and watching the Royal Durbar proceedings everyday religiously. She was astounded by the wisdom and intelligence of Chokkanatha Naik. Her evenings were spent in the Royal garden amid the deer and tamed lions, tigers. She loved playing her harp, sadness pouring out as soul stirring music. Both  Chokkanatha and Annam enjoyed a companionable silence during the daytime, listening to the Tamil poems recited by poets, took part in religious discussions and at times, she surprised herself by offering to help ailing poets and scholars. Chokkanatha was amazed by her knowledge of language and her love for religion. At times, Annam caught him staring at her, his eyes definitely speaking volumes of his love for her. And that was really unnerving her. He never came again to her Chamber at nights, nor did he go to any of his women in the harem. He seemed besotted with her and was sure a man of his word, waiting for her to give up. Annam was losing hope that Achaiya might turn up one day. Her aides gathered news that he had left the city gates the day her wedding was announced and has never returned. As days grew to months, Annam was losing hope...And Chokkanatha was growing impatient too.

Annam was stunned to learn the King had ordered all the women of his harem be sent back to their homes with gold and silver, being asked to abstain from the Palace forever. He had converted his harem to a huge 'madapalli' ( community kitchen) where the poor were fed free everyday. And Annam received gifts everyday from the King- temple jewelry, silk wraps from visiting travelers and surprisingly, arranged for her a secluded courtyard to practice sword fighting. It was those rigorous fights that provided her a relief. His furtive glances, longing in his eyes and the gifts he sent her religiously every morning moved her. She knew he was trying to woo her and God help her, she was falling for him, hard. 

It was a humid and hot afternoon that the emissary from Thajavur returned with message from King Vijayaraghava Naik. Chokkanatha glanced sideways at Annam who showed no expression and sat stone faced and slowly it dawned on him why she refused him. He had foolishly believed her pride was hurt as she wasn't asked consent for the wedding. But one look at her now, told him the whole story. He had hurt her deeply, by saying he was waiting for Malarkodi to marry him. Chokkanatha was worried sick. He did not want the emissary to break the news in Annam's presence. Or even better, he did not want the hand of Malarkodi, however strategic the alliance might be- the two Naik Kings of Madurai and Thanjavur united against the Mysore Nawab and Mughal Empire. As he waited with bated breath for the news to unravel, Annam looked down at him from the Royal Womens' Arena. He could read the pain and anguish in her eyes and he felt sick for her...Only when the emissary read out aloud that Vijayaraghava refused to offer his daughter's hand to Chokkanatha due to his 'lowly' Naik roots, did he let out his breath. Though the tone of Vijayaraghava's message angered him, sense did prevail. He was now free- to woo Annam, to make her the Principal and perhaps the Only Queen of Madurai.

It had been almost a year since she came to this Chamber as one of Chokkanatha's women, a wry smile escaped Annam's lips. And Chokkanatha was a man of his word, he had never returned to this Chamber again. Few days back, he had announced in his beaming voice that Mangamma was the Queen of Madurai and she would be crowned the coming Pournami. ( Full moon day). As Annam splashed water from the small but elegant bathing pool adjacent to the Palace and bathed in the tranquil moonlight, her heart was brimming with love for Chokkanatha Naik, the King of Madurai. Of course, he had fulfilled her every wish, her every dream and was still waiting...She summoned Alarmelamma, her trusted aide and sent word that she wanted to meet the King, in the Queen's Chamber. When Chokkanatha arrived, his eyes were riveted on what he saw, Annam, waiting for him...fully clad in the best clothes and bedecked with the finest jewelry and he knew he would come here to her...every night till his death. He had finally conquered her heart- The Heart of His Queen. The night bells of Meenakshiamman temple chimed by and the lamps glowed, spreading their light and warmth around the Chamber, as the King and Queen of Madurai were lost in a hot embrace...Will Mangamma be crowned as Queen???


The Queen Of Hearts- Part 2

Achaiya woke up with a start, the lamp glowing by his side and the pitch darkness outside baffled him. He broke into a cold sweat remembering this dream, a very bad dream. Annam, his Annam was crouched in the corner of a dark room. Her face was all wrinkled, body shriveled and eyes mere hollows. Her parched lips were uttering "water", "water" in a feeble voice. That was when Achaiya woke. He paced the room with swift steps, suck by a whirlwind of emotions. Something was not right. Only God knew what was to befall him and Annam...

Royal Courtyard- Thirumalai Naik Mahal, Madurai
Chokkanatha Naik was conducting his Royal Court in his grandfather Thirumalai Naik's Grand Durbar Hall, seated in his exquisite throne and garbed in silk and pearls. His eyes though, were dreamy...The image that kept playing in his mind- the image of a slender woman charging at him with a sword mounted on a black stallion. As he caught a glimpse of Achaiya among the Courtesans, he waved his hands- " disperse". Achaiya was summoned to the Grand Durbar today and he was blissfully unaware of Chokkanatha's dreams. He had seen Chokkanatha daydreaming throughout the entire proceedings today and was wondering why. Only when the two were alone in the Durbar Hall did he get a chance to confront his friend. " What is the matter with you, Chokka? You look all starry eyed and dreamy! Who is the damsel this time?", he asked with a wink. Chokkanatha eased himself on the throne, staring at the motifs on the ceiling and replied with a boyish grin- " Should i tell you how much i am in love with her? You know me better, Achaiya. I just can't get my mind away from her. Sadly, i don't know who she is or what her name is. All i know is, i cannot live without her!" 

Achaiya was wondering whom Chokkanatha was fancying. His Harem already boasted of a dozen women and each of his affair started the same way, same precision! "May i know who she is, Chokka?" probed Achaiya with a crooked grin. " Ah! That spitfire who raised her sword against me! Achaiya, do you know who she is? I would die without her", Chokkanatha went on rambling, unfazed by the expressions in Achaiya's face. Achaiya felt the world spinning, his world...His dream had probably meant this, after all. Taking few long breaths, steadying himself, Achaiya cleared his throat to cut short the rambling of the King. " But Chokka, i don't find her interesting. What woman can that be, that raises her sword against the Naik King? We should not trust her", he replied. Chokkanatha let out a short laugh and said- " That deftness in swordfight is what is needed of my women" he thundered. 

His conviction was frightening Achaiya and worry took over his being. " I hear she is the daughter of General Tupakula Lingama Naik, Chokka. I wonder if your Royal Family will approve of marrying a commoner", he said in a feeble voice. Chokkanatha's face broke into a wide grin. " Is she Lingama Naik's daughter? What is her name? Tell me all that you know of her, friend", he asked questions with unwavering steadfastness. Achaiya stammered and said- " She is Annam..Annamuthamma, Chokka. I have heard she is well versed in sword fight, intelligent and very pious". Without hesitation, Chokkanatha summoned the Royal Guards and sent word that he wanted to meet Lingama Naik- immediately. That gave Achaiya some time to assess the situation, which was turning from bad to worse. 

It turned a disaster when Lingama Naik turned up immediately with a salute to the King. What happened then around Achaiya was a nightmare come true. The  General was more than happy that his daughter's hand was being asked by the King himself. Grinning from ear to ear and carrying a huge bounty laden with pearls, sapphires and diamond jewels for his daughter from the King, Lingama left the Durbar Hall. Achaiya could not remember what he told Chokka later and moved away as swiftly his legs could carry him. He had to think, fast. And act, faster. 

As his horse took him to his through the streets of Madurai, Achaiya kept thinking. How could he fight against the King for Annam? And if she did marry Achaiya, a local chieftain, what kind of life lay in store for her. And if she married the King and lived as a Queen...Ah...his Annam, the Queen...Shaking his head, Achaiya was again lost in deep thought. When it grew pitch dark, he had come to a decision, a strong one. He checked the reins of his horse and started in a gallop, whizzing past the gates of Madurai Fort.

At the same time, Annam was waiting for Achaiya in their favorite haunt. Tears welling up in her jet black eyes, she expected to see Achaiya and fly into his arms the moment he came in sight. Her father Lingama had made it very clear- she HAD to marry the King or the whole family would be shamed. "You know how Chokkanatha takes failures, don't you?", he had asked her. She too knew well his antics. If she refused to marry him, Chokkanatha Naik knew how to tag her along, using her father as his pawn. Floored...she thought with disdain. Achaiya was nowhere to be seen. She grew impatient as the night grew darker. She had to return home. Collecting tiny pebbles along the pond, she threw them one by one in the moonlit waters, watching them make patterns on the water surface. No, she would not marry the King...Achaiya would sure find a way to pull her out of all the trouble. 

Few days later...

The Madurai Palace was wearing a festive look with yellow marigold garlands being hung on doorways and jasmine flowers adorning the archways. Chokkanatha Naik, all dressed up and beaming, was wedded to the doe-eyed Annam who was renamed Mangamma by the Royal Purohit and Ministers. There were festivities in the whole city, people drinking and chatting away merrily. Chokkanatha was all eyes for his new capture- Mangamma. Annam still hoped Achaiya would come one day and haul her up his horse and alone they would run away to a far off land. All empty dreams...When Chokkanatha came to her chamber that night, Annam felt her fate was sealed. She was dumbfounded when he proclaimed happily- " I have sent an emissary asking for Princess Malarkodi's hand in marriage to Thanjavur's King. Till then, you can feel yourself free in this Chamber of Queens". Mangamma felt the earth slipping by under her feet.