The Thumpuran


Author Note:

I began writing The Thumpuran a few years back as a result of trying to find the roots of the Nair community to which I belong. I found the journey into the origins of the Nair community both intriguing and exciting, especially since there were so many different viewpoints of how the Nairs came to Kerala. Some believe that the Nairs were an offshoot of the Naga’s and were some of the original Naga’s that accompanied Lord Ram on his journey south and then remained there.

That however is the base of another to-be written novel somewhere in the near future.

The Thumpuran however is a historical novel set during one of the most tumultuous period in Kerala’s history during the last period of the Chola-Chera wars that led to the formation of what is today modern Kerala. This novel is currently a work-in-progress and I hope to finish it by 2019 hopefully. How the story will unfold is something that I am still yet to discover as a novelist.

I hope you will enjoy the first chapter in this novel. As always would love to have your comments and feedback in the comment box below.

Now go ahead and read !

Rajesh Menon

Chapter 1

Mahodayapuram! The city rose above them as they crested the small hill, its magnificent walls rising above the Choorni Nadi.  Reigning in his horse, Villavar Cheva paused to look upon the city he had often dreamt and heard of from his father but never seen. Far below them lay the vast Choorni Nadi finally meandering its way into the Arabian ocean. Mahodayapuram as he had been told was built on the bank of one of the three branches of the river. After snaking its way through the country starting from the distant eastern mountains that bordered the Chola Kingdom, the river finally ended here at Mahodayapuram.

In its marriage to the ocean, the river had opened its mouth into three large distributaries, each of which snaked its way around the city before finally falling into the Ocean. Mahodayapuram, he knew was literally at the alimukam or mouth of the river.

His father had told him that the river system was deep enough to allow ships to sail through the harbor into the city itself. He had not believed any water could be so deep or wide enough to allow this, but looking at the small flotilla of ships that were dotting the river on either bank of the two branches that were visible from the small hilltop they were on, Villavar realized that his father had been right. The ships were too far off for him to recognize their nationality.

He had learnt from stories told by those who had ventured to Mahodayapuram that ships from as far off as Arabia, Africa and China often visited the port capital. Often his father had regaled him with stories of strange people coming from strange countries far off beyond the vast Ocean to trade. His spirits lifted as the thought came to him that with his father too busy to watch over him, he might find the opportunity to slip away and visit the harbor and see these foreign ships.

A quick look at his father who had moved ahead of him killed that hope. His father had pulled up his horse and was on the point of turning back. Villavar knew that if his father so much as turned his horse, he would be whipped. Turning his eyes away from the river, Villavar spurned his horse and caught up with the older man.

“Don’t stop unless you have to.” His father spoke sternly,” because of you they had to stop too.”

The they in his father’s words were meant to convey the small retinue of slaves and lower caste helpers that were accompanying their caravan to the capital city. Villavar’s father was a strict believer in the system that recognized the superiority of his caste over others. Accordingly, the slaves brought up the rear of the caravan and were maintaining a distance of at least 80 feet away from Villavar and his father.

“Sorry,” Villavar muttered and edged his horse forward. Without another glance his father spurred the horse and cantered downhill towards the river and city below them.

As the caravan drew closer, there began the distinct changes in the countryside. The rough road they had been on since the past few days had merged into a larger well proportioned one. That the road itself had been fashioned over the ages by multiple travelers coming to the capital city was obvious from the fact that its contours had taken the very shape of the various caravans that had passed this way for ages before them.

On either side of them there was the deep trough created by the elephants. In the center was a well-proportioned seasoned rut that bore the wheel marks of caravans much like his own that that passed the same way. On this trip, his father had favored using his horses and caravans rather than the elephants and the broad road offered plenty of space for the ten hooded carts that followed them from the rear.

His father’s retinue consisted of over fifteen slaves and twenty soldiers. The slaves walked as they always did, some sixty feet around the retinue keeping their distance from their overlords as was the custom. They would also form the first line of defense in case of any attack. The ten hooded carts drawn by bullocks were carefully lined on both sides, five to each side providing an instant protection should they be attacked by robbers or soldiers. His father’s own soldiers lined the inside of the carts providing the last line of defense , the senior of them rode on mounted horses while others walked beside the mounted soldiers.. In the middle rode his father riding a magnificent white Arabian horse, a gift from an Arabian trader his father did business with. Bringing up the rear was a small group of housekeepers that his father had brought along to attend to the daily requirements of the large group.

Privately, Villavar wondered why anyone would have the temerity to attack such a large force, although he had heard stories of wayfarers being attacked on the long trip to the Capital. He had been on the road now for over ten days and during this time, the only other travelers they had accosted on the way were traders on their way back from Mahodayapuram. Each time, their paths had crossed with such travelers, he had noticed his father pause and spend some time in deep conversation with them along with his soldiers.

The questions his father had poised to ask each time had invariably been the same. ‘What was the news from the Capital?’. ‘Was the king safe?’ ‘What news of the young regent?’. The travelers had been wary of the questions coming as it did from a group of grim soldiers and their answers had been vague. After each such interaction, Villavar’s father would grunt in exasperation, mount his horse and signal the group to move on.

The rumors that surrounded their departure to the capital city had been indeed grim and worrying. Villavar had overheard conversation at the soldier’s barracks that the king had died in battle and that his son Bhaskar Ravi Varma was to ascend the throne. The old king had apparently died in mysterious circumstances.. There were rumors that he had apparently been assassinated while other rumors put his death down to a losing battle fought somewhere in the western part of the country. A few days after the rumors started floating, his father had announced the trip to the capital city.

Although it was too early in the day for travelers to be on their way, he could still spot a few eager ones trudging their way uphill traveling outwards from the walled city. They appeared to be slaves for the minute they spied the large caravan approaching the city, the men dutifully stepped away from the road and caste their eyes down in a mark of respect. Villavar noticed that the men were careful to maintain the rigorous eighty feet distance that they were required to keep in front of his father. In some cases, especially where the road went over a bridge, he noticed that the men had stepped onto the dirty water.

Ignoring the slaves, Villavar turned his eyes towards the city itself. He had never seen a city this large in his entire ten years of existence.

The city seemed to rise above the river cradling both branches of the river that flowed through it on its left and right side, providing a natural defensive barrier. On both sides the river was deep enough to allow for boats to ply inland carrying their trade to other parts of the kingdom. Two bridges crossed the river on both ends. Anyone attacking the city would therefore need to split the forces to occupy and march across both bridges or else risk the chance of being attacked themselves from the rear by the king’s army from one of the bridges.

His young eyes trained as they were from a young age to spot defensive and offensive tactics by his father’s general and his uncle, Villavar noticed the both bridges were held afloat with the help of pontoons. His eyes lazily traced the dark black thick rope that held the center pontoon back to the city walls where it disappeared into a dark hole. There was no doubt a center wheel beyond that hole that could be turned in an instant by a battery of soldiers pulling apart the central pontoon from the bridge and allowing it to collapse under the weight of any attacking army.

Lined up against the massive city walls that surrounded Mahodayapuram were squarely cut holes in distance five feet apart through which jutted what looked like an immense arrow. Villavar estimated that wall had nothing less than three hundred arrows – all ready to fly in an instant should the city be attacked via the river. No doubt most of these large arrows carried bales of straw which could be lit with fire rendering any ship coming too close to the wall a fire wreck within minutes.

Mahodayapuram was impregnable. Its defenses astounding. Until now he had idly thought that his uncle who had explained the city’s defenses to him had possibly stretched his imagination a bit. He realized however that in reality his uncle had failed to capture the sheer impregnability of the city in his description. Little wonder that in his four hundred year history of the war with the Chola kings, Mahodayapuram had never been successfully attacked.

They had reached the bridge by now joining the multitude of people coming out of the city. Most of them were traders on their way to adjoining villages to ply their trade in silk and cotton in exchange for spices. He had been expecting to hear loud excited voices but the morning traffic was quietly subdued. Most people simply looked at his father’s large caravan surrounded by soldiers and quickly moved out of the way, eyes downcast and worried. The bridge itself had small alcoves built into it that allowed the slaves to quickly stand aside when someone of a higher caste passed by.  His father’s soldiers now moved ahead clearing the path on the bridge for his father’s horse to pass through un-hindered.

Ahead the massive walls loomed over them. Villavar raised his head to marvel at the stone wall as it rose slowly ahead of them. He spotted a few soldiers on the ramparts peering down at them. One of them spotted him looking up and raised his arm in greeting. Villavar smiled and shyly waved back.

The bridge itself Villavar now noticed had a curious mechanism that allowed ships to ply to and fro. Every time a ship approached the bridge, Villavar noticed sentries on both sides of the bridge halt the passing traffic and raise a flag. A red flag he noticed signaled the approach of a ship either making its way from the port inland or a ship making its way from the inland to the port.

Each time the red flag was raised, the traffic came to a halt and a center part of the bridge was raised up, no doubt by slaves turning hard on a wheel somewhere inside the walled city. Like a draw bridge, a part of the bridge rose up straight until there lay an open gap between the bridge, allowing the ship to move through the gap and cross over. Once the ship crossed, a green flag was raised and the draw bridge slowly made its way down until the traffic once again resumed it un-interrupted flow.

As they drew closer to the center of the bridge, Villavar noticed the red flag go up yet once again. Eagerly he looked towards the inland side and saw a small flotilla of ships slowly making their way up stream. The king’s royal banner flew high on the lead ship which was leading three other ships helping them navigate the waters. As the ships drew near, Villavar noticed the bridge draw up yet once again towering above the heads of the tradesmen that had managed to cross before the flag had gone up.

He didn’t recognize the banner that flew from the three ships. They were small but brightly painted with colors of green and gold. The ship in front he recognized was a small warship built light for speed and maneuverability. The ship in the center seemed the biggest and the most colorful, its crest resting deep within the waters. He could make out the slave galley with its bunch of rows methodically dipping themselves into the waters of the Choorni Nadi.

On the deck was a brightly colored building built of wood with a large awning in front of it. On the deck were a few people who were curiously looking at the bridge and the people on it. Villavar noticed that the men were light skinned and wore bright white garments and all of them had a head gear and each had a scabbard nothing like he had seen before.

Beside him, his uncle’s second in command who had drawn up next to him swore  spat on the ground as the second ship passed ahead of them. “Bloody Moslems. The jackals have started coming smelling blood.” he muttered.

Ahead of him, Villavar saw his father sit ramrod on his horse. He knew his father shared the sense of hatred that others felt at the rise of the Moslem followers the court had gathered over the past few years. Even he had heard rumors that among the Moslems in the court was a person who had held great influence over the royal family.

His thoughts were brushed aside as he saw his father raise his hand to motion the retinue forward. Slowly the trudged towards the massive wooden gates that were now lying open. They crossed the gate and entered into the city and instantly Villavar nose was assailed by a strong stench of rotting odor. He screwed his nose in disgust. The soldier who had sworn laughed and slapped him playfully on his back.

“Relax boy. Welcome to the smell of a city. You’ll get used to it in a couple of hours.”

Villavar nodded and controlled the bile that was rising up his throat and engrossed himself to observing the city itself. The road that were travelling had widened considerably now that they were inside the city. There was space enough for 4 carts to travel comfortably and the road stretched out into the distance where the royal house lay.

Around them was the town itself, rows of houses tightly bunched together with narrow lanes leading into them. The road itself narrowed he noticed in the distance allowing not more than 1 cart to pass through offering yet another defensive line. Should the city ever were to be invaded, the invaders would pour into the broad road in large numbers and then be caught in a embrace unable to move forward allowing for archers on top of the houses on each side of the road rain arrows on the army below.

Villavar shivered in excitement at the thought of the how carefully the town had been built, when his eye caught a movement at the end of the road where it narrowed. A lone man was sitting on a white Arabic horse not unlike his fathers. Villavar recognized him at once as the man who had met his father a few weeks ago, which had resulted in his father’s galvanizing everyone in his house to set forth to the capital.

To his surprise, his father had told him that he would accompany him to the capital.

“It’s time you began to keep yourself useful.” was all his father had said announcing his decision.

The day before the announcement, Villavar had been idly practicing throwing sharpened sticks at his handmade target, a straw puppet he had fashioned all on his own from old discarded clothes and coconut straw. The sticks themselves had been made out of bamboo sharpened finely until they were sharp enough to cut through the cloth and coconut straw. He often imagined that the sticks were in reality sharp spears and the misshapen target some grim enemy bent on striking him down dead.

In his own head, each encounter conjured up images of violent battles in which he invariably ended up vanquishing all his enemies one by one. It never questioned his young mind as to why his enemies did not attack him all at once. In his never wavering story, they always merely threatened him before he struck them down with his spear thrown unwavering at their chest striking them down in a single stroke.

He had just about finished striking down his sixth enemy when he had noticed the single man standing at the corner of the field beside the wall that led to the house silently watching him.  Dressed in the typical clothes that spoke of a high caste, the man was standing beside his horse. He had noticed the sweat running off the horse and sensed that the man had rode the horse hard to reach their house. The man himself seemed imperious to the sweat that rolled down his body and seemed engrossed watching him practicing. Feeling suddenly self conscious and realizing how stupid he would appear to a stranger throwing sticks at a puppet, Villavar had gathered his sticks and run towards the house. The man had smiled at this and slowly led his horse on the path Villavar had taken to the house.

Before Villavar reached the gate to his house, others had appeared having noticed the stranger and taken charge of the man’s horse. From the manner, they obsequiously led the stranger into the house; Villavar guessed that the man must be someone important. Letting himself into the house through the back door, Villavar ran through the long courtyard, past the kitchen area carefully avoiding the group of slaves that were gathered near the washing area cleaning up the dishes after the morning meal. Inside the house, he took the shorter route through the small armory room.

There was a hidden door inside the room that led straight up to his parents room, a fail safe exit or quick retrieval of arms should the house ever be attacked from the outside. The door was cleverly hidden behind a stack of boxes on the far side of the room. Crossing the room, Villavar felt for the hidden latch and opened the secret door. A flight of wooden steps led straight up, the exit a trapdoor under his parents bed. Pushing the trapdoor, he crawled out from under the bed. Thankfully at this hour of the day, the room was empty.

Opening the bedroom door slightly, Villavar peeped out making sure that the passage outside was empty. It would not serve his purpose if anyone saw him upstairs at this hour. He was supposed to be outside. The passage overlooked the courtyard within the house. He heard soft voices below. On his knees, he peered over the small wall that ran through the passage.

Below, in the courtyard, some of slaves were administering water to the stranger who was busying washing the dust and dirt from his body. As was the practice, the slaves kept their distance, their eyes downcast not daring to look at the stranger. The water system in the house was drawn from the well through an intricate system of storage devices that ensured safe flow of clean water into the house without the need for any of the lower caste slaves touching the water. Villavar knew that it was considered unclean if any of the slaves touched the water meant for the family. Their own well lay some hundred yards away from the main house.

The stranger having washed himself braided his hair once more in the fashion of the upper caste houses that Villavar belonged to and strode purposely into the house. Stooped low, Villavar ran along the passage way and slipped into a small alcove that sometimes served as a store area for spices when and if the granary below was overstocked. At this time of the year, the alcove was already half full with sacks of tightly bound pepper seeds and the rich aroma assailed his nose as he parted the sacks and moved into the back of the alcove.

The alcove was directly over the room his father usually used to receive guests of importance and Villavar guessed that this would be the place, his father and the stranger would meet. The wooden floor hid a small crack which Villavar had discovered a few years ago by accident while he had been playing inside it. The crack gave an excellent view of the room below and by most importantly allowed him complete privacy to see and hear what went on below.

Lying flat on the floor, his legs propped up on a pair of pepper sacks, Villavar peered through the crack in time to see his father greet the stranger. The two men hugged each other and sat down.

“You look tired Vasu”, his father said, his voice betraying just the slight annoyance that showed his disturbance.

“It was a tiring journey Thumpuran’ the stranger whom his father had addressed as Vasu replied using the honorific title that his father carried. “ I rode as soon as I confirmed the news.

“Is it true?”

“Yes Thumpuran. I am afraid so. The King is dead.”

Villavar bit hard on his tongue to avoid crying out. His father stood up suddenly agitated beyond words. The stranger too stood up in respect and watched silently as his father paced the large room. Finally realizing that he was displaying too much emotion, his father had calmed down and taken his seat again.

“Tell me everything Vasu. How bad is it?”

“Quite bad Thumpuran if the news and rumors are to be believed. The King apparently died of an accident while hunting in the Pamba forest but rumor has it that he was apparently killed by an arrow in his back. The body has just arrived back at Mahodayapuram and apparently it’s badly mauled ostensibly by a pack of leopards.”

“Two of the king’s personal guard’s have also been apparently killed mauled by the same leopard while the captain is unfit to be moved and is supposedly recuperating from his wounds and therefore is not back in Mahodayapuram to confirm the episode.”

“Did no one question the other guards?” his father demanded angrily. “And what off the Chingapuram Thumpuran? Did he not attempt to save the king while all this was happening?”

“The body came back through the Thumpuran’s own soldiers and not the King’s bodyguards. The Thumpuran sent message to the court that he had ordered all the bodyguards killed for failing to protect the King”

Villavar noticed the man pause and stop, hesitating to go on further. A quick nod from his father prompted him to begin.

“It is almost certain that the King was ambushed in the forest and his guard’s killed. The mauled bodies of those that came back were probably an after effect to throw off suspicion.

“But that would preclude the certainty that the Chingaram Thumpuran was involved in the ambush!” his father said shaking his head at the messenger. “I don’t think the Thumpuran would involve himself to anything so direct as to ambush his own king in his own Tali.”

“Maybe it was an accident Vasu……..maybe the King did die of an attack by leopards and the guard’s were killed by the Thamburan. God knows …if this actually happened and they failed to protect their king, they deserved to die. I would have done so myself!”

Villavar noticed the stranger shake his head sadly at the disagreement.

“I beg your forgiveness Thumpuran for disagreeing with your assessment. I have a friend in the court…a Vaidya who had the fortune of examining the two dead soldier’s body. One of the soldier body was badly mauled by the leopard, so much so that the soldier’s chest was ripped open. He found that the heart had a clear slash which could only have been done by a sword.”

“The second soldier was much easier to read. Whoever did this, forgot to remove the shaft of the arrow from his back. The doctor found it buried inside the body.”

Ende Ammo!” Villavar heard his father groan at the news

Thumpuran.’ He heard the other man admonish gently,’ we cannot afford to let our emotions take over at this stage. Rumor has it that Rajendra Chola has begun mobilizing his army after hearing the news of the King’s death.”

“What off the other Thumpurans. Where do they stand?”

“We all know where the Chingaram Thampuran stands. Ever since his lands were curtailed. He is currently advising the Prince and seems to have taken hold of the court. Unfortunately the young Prince is still a novice and the fact that he is married to the Chingaram Thampuratti daughter is perhaps a good measure of the strength he has over the Prince.”

‘And the others?” Villavar heard his father ask insistently.

“I am not sure. I have sent messenger to the others asking them to come to the palace immediately. But I wanted to come and meet you myself. I am afraid we are going to see some difficult times very very soon.”

His father snorted.” The prince is a fool. He will be a puppet in the hands of Chingaram. And what’s left after that, the Moslem and Jewish bastards will take their share.”

“Our hope lies in Rama Varma. The boy is smart although he seems un-duly influenced by the Moslem teacher that his father has appointed. Our hope for a united Keral lies in him. Of that I have no doubt”

“Agreed.’ he heard his father say,’ We must do everything in our hands to ensure that the boy is kept safe until he is of age

‘I have a plan Thumpuran,’ the stranger replied. The stranger lowered his voice and Villavar could hear no more. He waited until he heard the chairs scrap indicating that the two men below him had got up. Quickly he made his way out of the secret alcove and ran down to the courtyard below.

He had just picked up his dummy spear when he noticed his father and the stranger walk out. The stranger looked at him and smiled and Villavar sensed a hidden meaning in the smile. He watched the stranger stride towards his horse, mount it and gallop away. As the dust settled behind the horse, he sensed that his father had come to where he was.

Anxiously, he turned towards his father questioning him. His father looked down at him with more sadness than he had ever seen and said “We leave for the capital tomorrow

End of Chapter 1

Authors Note:

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