Ponniyin Selvan: History versus curiosity over onscreen portrayal of mighty Cholas

While film enthusiasts are eagerly awaiting the release of the history inspired flick Ponniyin Selvan-I, a curious question has been raised on the religious signs portrayed in the movie’s teaser .

An RTI activist has demanded to know why Chola kings were shown in the movie’s teaser as sporting tilak on their forehead and not the sacred ash.

Cholas were Shaivites by faith and they should have been portrayed with the Shaivite sign, the sacred ash, the activist Selvam said in a legal notice. Seeking an explanation and demanding to know if history has been ‘hidden’ in the movie, the notice was sent to the filmmakers and actors through his lawyer.

Ponniyin Selvan is based on renowned writer Kalki Krishnamurthy’s (1899-1954) popular Tamil novel of the same name, published in 1955. The novel was inspired by the history of the imperial Cholas. Ponniyin Selvan denotes ‘Son (the Chola king) of mother Ponni’, which is another name for River Cauvery, that made the Chola land fertile.

The film, starring Vikram, Karthi, Jayam Ravi, Jayaram and Aishwarya Rai, is helmed by Mani Ratnam.

A former epigraphist with the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department and a noted scholar in history, Tamil language and literature, S Ramachandran said the practice of sporting ‘Senchandanam’ was a part of the ‘Kalamukha’ Shaivite sect’s practices.

A kumkum-like vertical mark on the forehead, the Senchandanam’s length and width is often medium.

The researcher, who has written on several historical issues, said there are literary references on Kalamukha sect’s practices.

In Tamil Nadu, Tiruvotriyur (North Chennai) and Kodumbalur (Pudukottai District) were the two principal places where Kalamukha Shaivism was practised. This was about 800 to 1,000 years before the present times. Led by Mallikarjuna, a Kalamukha monastery thrived in Kodumbalur, he said.

The Kodumbalur Irukkuvelir clan, who belonged to the Kalamukha sect were very closely related to the Cholas and there is an inscription as well to substantiate this, he said. Kalki’s novel gives importance to the Irukkuvelir people and this is noteworthy, Ramachandran said. “So, a red religious mark is not against Shaivism, the history or Kalki’s work,” he said.

Circa 10th Century AD, a Chola army general became a Kalamukha saint after a war. He established a monastery in Tiruvotriyur following a visit to Kasi where he took ‘Deeksha’ from a Kalamukha guru Niranjanar. The general’s name was Malaimandalathu Nandikara Puthur Elankumaran, and he assumed the name of Chathuranantha Pandithan after he chose the path of spirituality.

Worshippers of Goddess Kali also use the bright red mark, Ramachandran told PTI.

“When Vijayalaya Chola emerged victorious (mid 9th Century), he built a temple for Goddess Kali in Thanjavur as a thanksgiving,” he said. Rulers of the valorous Mutharaiyar dynasty have worshipped Goddess Kali.

“It is an astonishing fact that a variety of Shaivite monasteries flourished in Tamil Nadu during the Chola era.” Such monastic institutions trace their origins to various parts of the country including regions that now form part of Bengal. Eventually, the Shaivite sect of Kalamukha was assimilated by Veera Shaivism during the 12 Century AD.

“No doubt Chola emperors were ardent Shaivites. Chidambaram Lord Shiva is their family deity. Chidambaram temple Deekshitars (priests) led the coronation events of Chola kings. At the same time, we must never forget that Cholas gave due respect and importance to all faiths,” he said.

Cholas built places of worship for Sri Vaishnavism, Jainism and Buddhism. “We have an inscription in Lord Ranganatha Swamy temple in Srirangam on Rajaraja-II (12th Century AD) building a math for Sri Ramanujacharya and the monarch’s keen interest in supporting Sri Vaishnavism.” The Chola kings gave away valuable gifts and bestowed land to support all places of worship including Sri Vaishnavite shrines and they ensured religious harmony, he said.

Raja Raja Chola’s sister Kundavai Pirattiyar built a Jain temple (Kundavai Jinalaya, during 10th-11th Century AD) off Polur near Tiruvannamalai and it could be seen even today, he said.

Soolamani Varma Vihara, a Buddhist monastery was built by Raja Raja Chola-I near Nagapattinam. “We have evidence to say that Raja Raja-I, a devout Shaivite who assumed the title of Siva Pada Shekaran and took Shiva Deeksha, did not ignore Buddhism. Cholas gave due importance to Devi worship as well.” Hailed as ‘the great’, Raja Raja Chola-I (985-1014 AD) built the famed big temple in Thanjavur, now a world heritage site.

“Belief in Karma, rebirth and the importance given to following Dharma in everyday life are the basic building blocks of all religions born in India. When people appreciate such unifying aspects, it will help them comprehend their specific traditions and theology much better. Importantly, it will strengthen harmony,” Ramachandran said.

Although Shaivite and Vaishnavite marks are dissimilar, the underlying theme of Indian spirituality is the same, the scholar said.

It may be recalled that Aayirathil Oruvan, a 2009 Tamil action-adventure movie directed by Selvaraghavan was also inspired by the times (roughly, towards the end of 13th Century AD) of the Chola empire. Ramachandran guided the makers of the film on life and times during the Chola era.

Characters in the Selvaraghavan movie were portrayed as sporting the Shaivite symbol of sacred ash as Cholas were Shaivites. Mother Kali or Mahakali and Durga are distinctive manifestations of Goddess Parvathi, the divine consort of Lord Shiva, who is the Mahakal.

In the tradition of Tamil Shaivism, ‘temple’ denotes the Chidambaram shrine. It underscores the primacy accorded in Shaivism to this temple, located in Cuddalore District of Tamil Nadu. This temple has a shrine dedicated to Lord Vishnu, worshipped as Sri Govindaraja Perumal.

Tamil poet Ottakuthar hails Parantaka Chola-I (Circa 907-953 AD) as ‘…Kadhalar Ponveintha Kavalan,’ praising him for constructing a golden roof for the Chidambaram temple’s vimana out of love for the God.

(Curtesy Indian Express)

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