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      Ponniyin Selvan 1: Everything You Should Know Before You Watch The Mani Ratnam Film


      There are many of us who have already read Kalki's novel Ponniyin Selvan and are excited to watch its film adaptation on screen. There are many who haven't read and who don't want to hear anything, to avoid spoilers. There are many who are reading the books and are rushing to finish them before the film arrives.

      But there are those who don't have the time to read, nor the patience. They don't want the whole story but they want some background about the characters and this universe. And those are the ones who should read this.

      I promise to not give any spoilers that would ruin the experience of reading the story or watching the films. Most of the details presented here talk about what happened before the story begins. Notably, the novel is set in the mid-tenth century.

      Note: Some of these characters are fictional, while most characters are historical figures. I am not mentioning who is who, as that might affect your experience. Maybe after the film's release, we will give a more detailed explanation of the novel.

      The Outsiders


      Imagine a breezy, quiet beach village, on the southeastern coast of India. You see the waves of the ocean move in and out of the shore. There is a forest close to the ocean.

      You walk past the shore into the village and you see this small, cute temple, that isn't too tall. Now imagine a girl hopping down from the roof of the temple, holding a half-eaten coconut shell and looking mysterious. That's her- Poonkuzhali.


      She is from a humble family. Her father takes care of the lighthouse in the village, and her brother is a boatman. She has a vile and rude sister-in-law, and let's just say that they are not big fans of each other.

      Growing up without a care in the world, she rows alone in the ocean, she runs around in the forest, she loves animals, she can fight threatening wild creatures, and she is quite comfortable around anything that's not a human being.

      It's not that she is uncivilized. She can be very civil when she wants to be. She just enjoys being this impulsive, callous, adventurous person that is the opposite of socially acceptable.

      She is what you would call a feminist in the modern day. Someone who constantly is alert and ready to protect herself from being manipulated. So, she never trusts people until she gets to know them well. She fiercely protects her independence.

      She is not an emotionally generous person. She won't be kind and nice to you.
      She would probably watch and laugh at you as you drown yourself in the ocean if the situation was funny enough for her. But before you drown, she will probably come to her senses and give you something to hold on to and save yourself.


      It was not uncommon in those days for a dynasty to lose its grace and power and to accept the dominance of a more powerful dynasty, and actually be genuinely loyal to the holding dynasty.

      The Vaanar Clan is one such clan that had lost its prosperous days, and Vanthiyathevan belongs to that. His ancestors, however, did not yield to the Cholas (It's supposed to be Chozhas, or ideally Chozhlas, but then it's easier to go with Cholas, so forgive me). He grows up as an ordinary citizen with not much to call his own.


      He ends up joining the army and fighting his way up the ladder, because of his presence of mind and his quick wit, he manages to earn the affection of the crown prince of the Chola dynasty.

      In the story, you would see some people making fun of his heritage, and laughing at his family's current state, but he would remain mostly unmoved, as he has this dream of having a grand life, and he believes he will get there someday.

      One word cannot aptly describe his nature. He is definitely witty and goofy, and he often jokes about himself. But that doesn't make him a harmless funny guy. He can be dangerous when he chooses to, and with his friendly demeanour that is not intimidating to the eyes, he can be even more dangerous.

      He is described by the author, as a charming and pleasant individual who is probably not known for being attractive, and yet women can't resist his charm. And it goes both ways. Vanthiyathevan can't resist women either, but he knows how to look beyond what meets the eye and understand motives and intentions. He is a man of values too, and he values ethics and loyalty. This combination of traits do put him in dilemmas now and then, and he doesn't always make predictable decisions.

      While he is quite brave, and a valiant soldier, Vanthiyathevan is equally smart and he is portrayed as someone who doesn't take himself too seriously. This leads to some entertaining situations where you wouldn't normally see a stereotypical hero figure, which is what made him one of the most popular characters in Tamil literature.


      Nandhini's background is probably the trickiest to explain without spoiling the story. I will try my best. Bear with me.

      She grows up in a royal palace, although she is not sure of her origin. She is treated like a princess materially, however, she is constantly reminded that she does not belong there, and she grows up bitter and emotionally neglected.

      She hates how some people are treated better only because their parents are powerful and respected. Everywhere she goes, she is reminded that she is an outsider. She develops a natural aversion and vengeance towards anyone who is of a royal heritage, enjoying hereditary influence.


      In the story, she is introduced as the wife of a major political personality from one of the most influential clans in the Chola dynasty, probably next to the Chola clan themselves- The Elder Pazhuvettaraiyar.

      Although her husband's name earns her a certain respect, she could see that it comes from a place of pretence, and she could sense people secretly having a low opinion about her, primarily due to the age gap in their marriage and the assumption that she obviously married the guy for power and money.

      Considering how she grew up and how life took her to places, which were lofty but traumatic, it's natural that she has all her defences up constantly.

      She could easily be compared to the likes of Cersei Lannister from the Game of Thrones. I would say that Nandhini is even more charming and seductive compared to Cersei, and that makes her even more dangerous.

      In the novel, she is described as this irresistible woman, who could get any man to bend to her will, and pledge themselves to her service all without giving them any sign of dominance from her side. Rather, she would make them feel proud and dignified that for someone as gorgeous as Nandhini chose them to help her.

      The Chola Dynasty

      The Chola dynasty was reigning high during the period of Karikalan I, roughly around the first and second centuries AD. For a few generations after his reign, the dynasty was quite dominant among the southern dynasties (Chera, Chola, Pandiya, Pallava dynasties). After that, for a few centuries the Cholas were dormant, and the Pallava dynasty rose to power. Then during the reign of Vijayalaya Chola (Mid-ninth century), the Chola dynasty started getting on its feet again.

      Sundara Chola's grandfather Paranthaka the first, extended the territory of the kingdom, and the Chola kingdom was inching closer to its former glory. However, his sons did not live long. One after the other they died early , leading to a downfall of the kingdom.

      Sundara Chola came to power, succeeding his Uncle Kandaraadithan, because Kandaraadithan's own son was too young to rule. Sundara Chola or Paranthaka the second, proved his worth and regained the territories lost after the demise of his grandfather. He laid the founding stones of what was to become a massive empire post his reign.

      The story is set in a period when Sundara Chola is the King (Tenth Century AD). He is old and has many ailments. Sundara Chola has this constant dilemma of who should rightfully succeed him- his own children, or Kandaraadithan's son, Madhuranthakan.

      The Royal Siblings

      Sundara Chola has three children. The eldest is Aditha Karikalan, followed by Kundhavai, and then Arul Mozhi Varman.


      Aditha Karikalan is named after two great Chola kings, Adithan and Karikalan. Aditha Karikalan is known for his immense courage and his expertise in war-related matters. He is said to have participated in wars right from his teen years and is a fierce warrior.


      Kundhavai is an ambitious princess. She is not satisfied with being home decor for the palace. She wants to participate in political discussions and wants to have a say in the most important matters.

      Arulmozhi is the young prince of the Chola Kingdom, that grows up to become the infamous King Raja Raja Chola the first.


      Although Karikalan is the crown prince, there are many who feel that he maybe a little too brash to be a king. Karikalan is a borderline erratic individual, and one could never guess how he would react in a certain situation. Many find him intimidating and unpredictable.

      Arulmozhi's behaviour, however, has the approval of the politicians and key figures of the empire. He is polite, socially acceptable and approachable as well. He is a people person, and his goals and objectives are centered on administration and development. He has dreams that revolve around construction, architecture, commerce and culture.

      He has an immense bond with his sister and thinks the world of her. His efforts constantly go into making her proud and not disappointing her. The story maintains that while Karikalan mostly keeps to himself, Kundhavai and Arulmozhi share a strong emotional bond.

      The Major Clans Of The Chola Dynasty

      The Pazhuvur Clan

      The Pazhuvettaraiyars, the elder and the younger, hold major positions in the kingdom. Keeping the king and the prime minister Anirudha Brahmaraayar aside, the Pazhuvettaraiyar siblings are the most powerful people in Chola Kingdom.

      The elder one is responsible for the treasury and financial matters while the younger one is responsible for defence and security.

      The elder pazhuvettaraiyar faces a lot of criticism for marrying someone much younger than him, Nandhini, but nobody has the guts to mock the old man to his face. The younger pazhuvettaraiyar does not feel any affection towards his sister-in-law and keeps a constant watch on her, expecting her to do something sinister at some point.

      The Velir Clan

      The elder Velaar (the word changes into vel, or velaar, when it becomes part of a person's name) had died in a battle and his brother, the younger one reigns over the part of the kingdom that they control. The elder Velaar's daughter Vanathi, has all the affection of the younger Velaar, who works closely with Arulmozhi on a Sri Lankan expedition.

      Vanathi, Princess of Kodumbaalur, earns the trust and sympathy of Princess Kundhavai, who considers her as her most reliable companion. Seeing their rapport, Velaar leaves her to live with Kundhavai in her palace while he is away for the war in Lanka.

      The Sambuvarayar Clan

      Sambuvarayars from Kadambur are also from an important clan. Although the father holds control over the duties and territory, the son Kanthamaaran is quite influential as he is one of Aditha Karikalan's friends. He has a sister named Manimegalai. Kanthamaaran is also a good mate of Vanthiyathevan.

      The novel begins at Kadambur as Vanthiyathevan makes an entrance, on his way to Thanjavur, the capital of Chola Kingdom, acting on his friend's invite to visit him sometime at Kadambur.

      The Pandiyan Guardian Angels

      The plot of the story is what happens after Karikalan wins the war against the Pandiyas. Veerapandiyan is defeated and killed in the war, and the way Karikalan executes his nemesis creates an intense dramatic effect. It leaves the Pandiyas enraged and vengeful. Karikalan goes in history as "Veerapandiyan thalai konda..." which means the one who beheaded Veerapandiyan.

      A group of four siblings, who had sworn an oath to protect Veerapandiyan at any cost, from any threat, sulk at their failure to protect their king. They enter the Chola Kingdom to infiltrate and avenge the death of their king.

      The Setup

      When the novel begins, Arulmozhi is busy in Sri Lanka, with an expedition. It is said that the expedition is primarily to retrieve a certain Jewel, and a sword that belonged to the Pandiya Kingdom, which is being safeguarded in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka and the Pandiya Kingdom were allies during the conflict, and Arulmozhi is said to go in search of those articles. The reason cited in the story is that this retrieval would seal their victory against the Pandiyas, and give them better political control.

      Karikalan sends Vanthiyathevan as a messenger to deliver messages to his siblings and his father. And we follow Vanthiyathevan as he goes on a journey that changes his life forever. Vanthiyathevan is a good friend of Karikalan but he has never properly interacted with people of power. His experiences make for a really good story.

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