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Ponniyin Selvan – A Tamil Cultural Phenomenon

On 30th September 2022, Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan 1 was released all over the country. With the movie released with pan – India aspirations, moviegoers flocked to witness the performance of the stellar star cast consisting of Chiyaan Vikram as Aditha Karikalan, Karthi as Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Nandini, Trisha as Kundavai and Jayam Ravi as the titular character of Ponniyin Selvan (Arulmozhivarman). The movie so far has garnered immense praise from the critics and is running successfully with the current box office collection inching toward the 450-crore mark. The music and the background score by AR Rahman have added to the phenomenon that is currently swiping across the country for enthusiastic cinephiles. As Diwali approaches, the phenomenon still lingers in Tamil Nadu, with many Tamilians dubbing the movie as the “pride of Tamil Cinema.” The movie, adapted from Kalki Krishnamurthy’s serialised novel is a depiction of the succession crises and conspiracies that follows as the ageing King, Sundara Chola sits on the most coveted throne of South India.


The Plot 


 The first instalment of the Ponniyin Selvan movie introduces us to Prince Vallavariayan Vandiyadevan (played by Karthi), a member of the Vaanar Clan. He's chosen by Chola Crown Prince Aditha Karikalan (played by Vikram) to uncover political plots. Karikalan suspects a Pandiyan threat and a plan within the Chola clan to challenge his succession. Vandiyadevan is also given the task of sharing this news with his sister Kundavi and father, King Sundara Chola.


As Vandiyadevan travels, he stumbles upon a group in Kadamboor opposing Karikalan's ascent. They support Karikalan's uncle, Madurantaka Chola. Amid his journey, Vandiyadevan becomes entangled in Nandini's (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) political games. She's Periya Paruvettaraiyar's wife and the mastermind behind installing Madurantaka Chola. As the story unfolds, we learn about a failed romance between Karikalan and Nandini.

Vandiyadevan informs Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) and Kundavi (Trisha) about the plots he uncovered. They ask him to pass the message to Prince Arulmozhivarman (Jayam Ravi), who's fighting in Lanka. He's known as Ponniyin Selvan. Vandiyadevan is also tasked with bringing Arulmozhivarman back to Tanjore to counter the internal threat. However, Karikalan refuses as his past with Nandini haunts him.

In Lanka, Vandiyadevan meets Arulmozhivarman, and they head to Tanjore. They're attacked by Pandiyan forces but are saved by a mysterious woman named Oomai Rani. To avoid assassination attempts, Arulmozhivarman disguises Vandiyadevan as himself. A storm ensues during a fight, and Tanjore is informed that Arulmozhivarman is dead. The story ends with Oomai Rani rescuing Arulmozhivarman from the sea. Her true identity, like Nandini's, remains unknown.


The Book


Kalki Krishnamurthy wrote Ponniyin Selvan as historical fiction. It was originally serialised in a magazine before being compiled into a five-volume book. The weekly serialisation gained a cult following throughout Tamil Nadu with copies being sold as soon as they would be released. With the craze that followed, Mangala Nollagam released the novel in a book format in 1955. Krishnamurthy is said to have consulted with historians, and also to have been inspired by stone inscriptions to ensure accuracy. The style of the novel showcases Vandiyadevan as the main protagonist in contrast to the titular character of Arulmozhivarman himself. Today, the book has been translated into several languages. 


The Chola History


According to historian Nilakanta Sastri’s “A History of South India,” Parantaka I ascended as the Chola King in 907 AD. He ruled for peacefully 48 years but after 955 AD his son Gandaraditya who succeeded him, brought the empire into a period of instability as he was more religious than political. After his passing, Gandaraditya’s brother Arinjaya ruled for a year and then he was succeeded by Sundara Chola Parantaka II. 


Aditha Karikalan or Aditha II, the firstborn son of Sundara Chola was made the crown Prince. Upon defeating Vira Pandya, Karikalan began conquests to expand the Chola Empire. His conquests brought prosperity to the kingdom during Sundara Chola’s reign. 


The last few years of Sundara Chola’s reign were marked with tragedy. Uttama Chola the son of Gandaraditya compelled Sundara Chola to recognise him as the heir apparent. It is widely believed that upon Sundara Chola's refusal to do so, he ordered the assassination of Karikalan before usurping the throne.


Eventually, from 971 AD to 980 AD, Uttama Chola ruled the Chola Empire. He was later succeeded by Rajaraja Chola I.


What Ponniyin Selvan means for the Tamil Identity


With a lot of importance given to mostly North Indian history like the Gupta Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate, South Indian history is often overshadowed. The Tamil Kingdoms have been left untouched by northern conquerors, not only due to their secure geographical location but also because of the excellent competence possessed by South Indian rulers to safeguard their kingdoms. Whilst geographical isolation had resulted in South Indian history being overlooked and forgotten, many temples and stone inscriptions still stand today to mark these prosperous times. 


To the Tamil people all over the world, Ponniyin Selvan is not only a celebration of Tamil literature but also a means of building and displaying recognition to the world. With many Tamilians still practising their ancient customs that have stood the test of time since 500 BC, Ponniyin Selvan brings value to the Tamil religious and cultural identity. Krishnamurthy and Ratnam’s contribution to Tamil Arts bring hope to the 88 million Tamil diaspora around the world that their traditions and artistic contributions to the world will continue to be timeless. 



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