Udaiyar Book Review: A Fascinating Journey into Chola Dynasty History

It’s been almost a year since I began reading the six-part series “Udaiyar” by Writer Balakumaran. This literary journey allowed me to escape into the Chola era, where I immersed myself in the intriguing account of the construction of the Big Temple at Thanjavur. Today, as I closed the sixth book, I cannot help but marvel at the intense research of several years that Balakumaran must have done to write this.

A Sequel to Ponniyin Selvan The story kicks off with Raja Raji, a Devadaasi from Kanchipuram, bringing the blueprint for the Big Temple. The story is fast-paced, punctuated with vivid descriptions about the social life of the Cholas. If you have read Ponniyin Selvan, we can say this is a sequel, as all the main characters from PS appear here too. Sembiyan Madevi is portrayed as a scheming old woman unlike PS and she joins hands with Aditha Karikalan’s murderers, Ravi Dasan and Samban. Vandhiyadevan, now a mature leader in his fifties, lives in a separate palace in Thanjavur with Kundavai. He gives sane advice to Raja Raja and also takes care of community uprisings and administration. Vanathi is portrayed as Vanmadevi, one of the queens of Raja Raja, as well as Rajendra’s mother. However, the heroine is Panchavan Madevi, a dancer from the Pazhuvetaraiyar clan, whom Raja Raja falls in love with and eventually marries. She plays a crucial role in the political arena and even accompanies Raja Raja in a war against the Chalukyas.

Adhikarichigal – Women in Administration The book delves into the skills of the Adhigarichi. There are many young widows of soldiers in the Chola kingdom, and Raja Raja encourages them to take part in the administration by appointing them as officers. They are called Adhikarichigal. They dress well, are modern in outlook, and perform their assigned tasks with great skill. They also wield a lot of power, to the extent that a Pandya prisoner marvels at these smart women, comparing them with the sorry state of women in his Pandya country.

 Communal Strifes and Their Resolution Balakumaran also discusses the dominance of Brahmins residing in Thanjavur who refuse to participate in the clerical and accounting jobs  for the big temple. Raja Raja employs Brahmins from Thondai Naadu to handle the accounting and other tasks. The ironsmiths, known as Karumaargal, fight for more rights and social importance since they play a crucial role in supplying weapons for wars. Rajendra supports this clan, and Raja Raja eventually grants them the right to wear the Poonool, just like Brahmins, and allow them to build houses with thinnai and vaasal. Before this, they slept in the open and were not allowed to build houses.

 The Masterminds Behind the Big Temple Kunjara Mallan Perun Thachan, the chief sculptor, ably assisted by his students, takes center stage as the brains behind the Big Temple. A miniature model is created first before execution in stone. Thalichery women or Devadasi women brought in from various places work as models for the sculptures and help the soldiers, sculptors, and royalty relax after a long, hard day with their songs and dances. Numerous houses are built for these women, sculptors, artists, administrators, and provisions for food and clothing are also arranged. Many spies work for the Officer in Chief, Brahmarayar, and under Queen Panchavan Madevi, as well as Prince Rajendra Chola. Many people from various places come to Thanjavur and ask to be given tasks in the construction of the temple. Karuvur Thevar and Esaana Siva Pandithar play the roles of Gurus for Raja Raja and offer sound advice. Stones are brought from Naarthamalai and other places in Pudukottai district like Kudumiyaanmalai. The rocks are cut by inserting small wooden planks into little holes, and water is poured in to expand the holes. Then the rocks are cut into slabs and classified into different types for use accordingly in intricate sculptures, walls, or flooring.

 Busting Myths Raja Raja, numerous times in this book, talks about the temple that will stand the test of time, living on till the sun and the moon live, long after the Chola tribe perishes. The Vimana, the tall tower above the main idol, is built following the interlocking stone style of architecture without any material to bind the stones. A heavy stone is placed on top, the kalasam, to ensure the structure remained strong. Detailed descriptions in the book describe how the stones would remain upright without toppling. A ramp around the vimana is constructed, strong enough for elephants to carry stones. The sculptors climb the ramp and built the tall vimana little by little. The Kalasam, as well as the huge Shiva lingam, are not of a single stone but assembled in parts. This book dispels the myth that the Kalasam was rolled in place from a nearby village and also busts the myth that the lingam was installed first, and then the Vimana was built.

Overcoming Challenges Many issues arise before the temple is completed, but all are addressed exceedingly well. Every single laborer is taken care of, and the prisoners of war are given a choice to return to their homes or stay to help build the temple. Ninety percent of the people from far-off lands choose to stay and contribute. People from various places come to Thanjavur and start donating for the temple. Raja Raja instructs that all donations, regardless of size, should be sculpted on the wall with the donors’ names.

 The Legacy and Unfinished 108 Karanas The space above the huge Brahadeswarar sports paintings as well as 81 Bharathnatyam karanas. The rest remain currently as blank, unfinished walls. The live model for these Karanas was Queen Panchavan Madevi herself.

An Assassination Attempt and a Heroine’s Sacrifice An assassination attempt is made on the king just when the temple is nearing completion. Panchavan Madevi intervenes and takes the iron chakra laced with deadly poison into her chest. She survives for a few more years but is too sick to model for the Karanas, leaving them unfinished. The mob lynches Parasu the murderer, and the place where he dies now stands the Varaahi Amman sannidhi.

 Reading this book provides insights into the fine qualities of Raja Raja and the prosperity of the Chola kingdom. There are lots of historical facts and important nuggets of information for the history enthusiasts. For a few  it may be a tedious read but no doubt captivating.

After reading, you will undoubtedly want to revisit the temple, run your hands over the inscriptions, and stand before the towering vimana contemplating the thoughts Raja Raja must have had in his mind while he stood at that same spot.

Click to read my blog on My visit to the big temple

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