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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 Ponniyin Selvan the movie follows the journey of Vaanar Clan Prince Vallavariayan Vandiyadevan (played by Karthi) as he is assigned by Chola Crown Prince Aditha Karikalan (played by Vikram) to investigate political conspiracies that are afoot. Prince Karikalan had heard of whispers of Pandiyan threat, along with an internal plot within the Chola clan to challenge Karikalan’s succession. Thus, Vandiyadevan is also tasked by the crown Prince to convey the same news to his sister Kundavi and his father, King Sundara Chola.  


Vandiyadevan travels through the Chola lands where he stumbles upon a conversation in Kadamboor, where many aristocrats headed by one of the Chola Chieftains Periya Paruvettaraiyar wish to stop Prince Karikalan from ascending the throne. They instead back the Prince’s uncle Madurantaka Chola (also called Uttama Chola). 


As Vandiyadevan’s journey continues, he becomes embedded in Nandini’s (Played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) political antics as well. Nandini is the wife of Periya Paruvettaraiyar. As the story progresses, it is revealed that Nandini is the key conspirator behind the ploy to install Madurantaka Chola. A backstory revealing Karikalan and Nandini's failed romance surfaces. 


After learning about the conspiracies afoot, Vandiyadevan races along to inform his findings to Sundara Chola (played by Prakash Raj) and Kundavi (played by Trisha). They in return, request Vandiyadevan to deliver to news to Prince Arulmozhivarman (Played by Jayam Ravi), the younger son of Sundara Chola and the brother of Princess Kundavi and Prince Karikalan. Prince Arulmozhivarman was at that time fighting a war against Raja Mahinda in Lanka. Vandiyadevan is also tasked to bring Arulmozhivarman back into the Chola Capital of Tanjore to curb the internal threat. A message is also sent to Karikalan who refuses to step into Tanjore due to his personal differences with Nandini. 


In Lanka, Vandiyadevan meets Arulmozhivarman, who goes by the title of Ponniyin Selvan (Son of Ponni). After relaying the messages passed by the King and Princess Kundavi, Vandiyadevan and Arulmozhivarman head towards Tanjore when they are attacked by Pandiyans, but are saved by Oomai Rani (a mysterious woman whose identity is unknown).


Anticipating further assassination attempts, Arulmozhivarman makes Vandiyadevan disguise as himself and sends him with a convoy to sail towards Tanjore. Upon discovering later that Vandiyadevan’s convoy has been ambushed, Arulmozhivarman heads to rescue him, and a fight ensues. A storm sinks the ship during the fight and word is sent to Tanjore to inform King Sundara Chola that Prince Arulmozhivarman is dead. The last scene shows Oomai Rani swimming in the sea where Arulmozhivarman is presumed to have drowned, to rescue him. It is revealed that Oomai Rani is the doppelganger of Nandini, her identity, yet 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, but upon refusing to do so, he ordered the assassination of Karikalan. 


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 500BC, Ponniyin Selvan brings value to the Tamil religious and cultural identity. Krishnamurthy and Ratnam’s contribution to Tamil Arts brings 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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