The Real Story Behind ‘Ponniyin Selvan’

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Mani Ratnam’s movie Ponniyin Selvan, or PS1, is breaking all sorts of box-office records as it takes a glorious chapter in the history of Tamil Nadu to a non-Tamil audience, including the global diaspora. The movie revolves around the battle of succession in the great Chola dynasty in the 10th century CE. But as the film’s dramatic plot, its over-the-top sets and the superlative performances of its lead cast corner all the attention, we take a look at the man who wrote the book on which the film is based, and his brilliant work of historical fiction.

Ponniyin Selvan novel by Ramaswamy 'Kalki' Krishnamurthy | Wikimedia Commons
Ponniyin Selvan novel by Ramaswamy 'Kalki' Krishnamurthy | Wikimedia Commons

The plot is based on a five-volume novel titled Ponniyin Selvan, written by Ramaswamy ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy, between 1950 and 1954. It has maintained its cult-classic status in Tamil Nadu for the last seven decades.

Ramaswamy 'Kalki' Krishnamurthy | Wikimedia Commons
Ramaswamy 'Kalki' Krishnamurthy | Wikimedia Commons

Ramaswamy Krishnamurthy (1899-1954), better known by his pen name ‘Kalki’, was a journalist and a freedom fighter. During the course of his four-decade-long career as a journalist, Kalki Krishnamurthy wrote more than 120 short stories, 10 novellas, 5 novels, 3 historical romances, and hundreds of editorial and political articles.

In 1941, he launched a weekly magazine, also called Kalki. It was in this magazine that he published the story of Ponniyin Selvan (‘Beloved son of Ponniyin’), chapter by chapter, from 29th October 1950 to 16th May 1954.

Statue of Rajaraja Chola | Wikimedia Commons
Statue of Rajaraja Chola | Wikimedia Commons

Ponniyin Selvan traces the story of the early days of the great Chola King, Raja Raja Chola I (947 – 1014 CE), as the young prince ‘Arulmozhi Varman’. Kalki Krishnamurthy was greatly influenced by the works of noted Tamil historian K Nilkantha Sastri, on the early history of Tamil Nadu.

The Cholas (1935) by Nilakantha Sastri | Wikimedia Commons
The Cholas (1935) by Nilakantha Sastri | Wikimedia Commons

It was K Nilkantha Sastri’s iconic work Cholas (1935), on the history of the Chola dynasty, that Kalki Krishnamurthy used as the main source material to develop the plot of his Ponniyin Selvan.

PS1: The Plot

The story of Ponniyin Selvan is set in the late 10th century, during the reign of Parataka Chola II (r. 962-980 CE), popularly known as ‘Sundara’ Chola due to his good looks. It is based on quasi-historical events that took place at the end of Sundara Chola’s reign, when a war of succession broke out between two factions of the court.

Mural painting of Aditya Karikalan | Wikimedia Commons
Mural painting of Aditya Karikalan | Wikimedia Commons

The first faction comprised the three children of Sundara Chola – Prince Aditya Karikalan (942-971 CE), Prince Arulmozhi Varman (947-1014 CE) and their sister Princess Kundavai. The rival faction was led by Uttama Chola (r. 980-985 CE), the son of the revered Chola Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi. This faction was supported by feudatories in the Chola court.

Statue of Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan | Wikimedia Commons
Statue of Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan | Wikimedia Commons

Several quasi-historical characters appear in the novel, most notably Vandiya Devan, the spy-friend of Aditya Karikalan and one of the leading protagonists. His character is loosely based on Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan, a famous General of Raja Raja Chola, and the husband of Princess Kundavai, who played an important role in the Sri Lankan campaigns of the Cholas.

Another historic event around which the story of Ponniyin Selvan revolves is the defeat and beheading of Pandya King Veeranarayana Pandya by Chola Prince Aditya Karikalan in the Battle of Chevur, in 966 CE. A number of contemporary Chola inscriptions found in temples across Tamil Nadu proudly extol Aditya Karikalan as ‘Virapandiyan Thalai Konda Koparakesari Varman Karikalan’ – ‘Karikalan who beheaded Virapandian’.

Why The Novel Struck A Chord

Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan became an instant hit since it was first published in 1950. These were the early years of independent India and there was a growing demand for linguistic states. Across India, a wave of literature and films was unleashed, revolving around historic figures. The idea was to consolidate regional identities through these works. The story of Ponniyin Selvan strongly appealed to the emerging Tamil identity and soon gathered a cult following.

Even today, there are Ponniyin Selvan fan clubs in cities across Tamil Nadu and Ponniyin Selvan trails, where people visit the places mentioned in the novel.

A scene from the novel, Ponniyin Selvan | Wikimedia Commons
A scene from the novel, Ponniyin Selvan | Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps no other work of Indian literature enjoys such popularity. And through the new Mani Ratnam movie, the story of Ponniyin Selvan has reached the non-Tamil audience. It is truly a tribute to the lure of history and the power of storytelling that the iconic work remains popular almost seven decades after it was written.

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