Revisiting Kalki’s magnum opus Sivakamiyin Sabatham

Published : Jan 25, 2024 11:00 IST - 11 MINS READ

Kalki Krishnamurthy (1889-1954).

Kalki Krishnamurthy (1889-1954). | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Eighty years after its publication, the question about the possibility of keeping religion out of politics continues to trouble us.

Often, one tends to feel a little ashamed, if not apologetic, about one’s early readings and the fondness for certain books that seemed to have held the mind in thrall in one’s growing-up years. Coming under conscious intellection in our supposed state of maturity, we may sometimes even reject a work as not worthy of critical attention. Reading and appreciation are, when all is said and done, related to taste and sensibility, no matter what place the latter have in theorising and critiquing.

I recently went back to Kalki’s voluminous novel Sivakamiyin Sabatham (Sivakami’s Vow, first serialised in the magazine Kalki from January 1944 onwards) in the original. It gripped me as it had decades ago. Its effortless narration; its free-flowing language, a happy mix of lovely Tamil and familiar Sanskritised expressions; its unerring hold on the storyline; its interspersing of profound Tamil padikams (hymnal literature); its sensitivity to dance and music; its amazing range in the creation of speaking persons, great and small; its irrepressible wit and humour; and above all its deep sense of cultural nationalism—all still held an appeal to me. It is a connoisseur’s delight.

The poignancy of the asymmetrical relationship between the Pallava heir-apparent Mamallan (later Emperor Narasimha) and the dancer nonpareil Sivakami leading to a profoundly sublime ending of the tale when Sivakami dances, for the third time in the novel, to Tirunavukkarasar’s deeply moving hymn “Munnam avanudaya naamam kettaal” but in a mood of utter consecration of the human soul to the Divine has never failed to fill me with an inexpressible sense of surrender albeit touched with sadness for what could have been.

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The sheer spell Kalki casts chapter after chapter keeps one on the edge of the seat, especially during the keen contest of wit and strategem between King Mahendra and the Buddhist monk Naganandi. Who won and who lost in this war of adroit statecraft is hard to resolve. The omniscient narrator takes the reader on a fascinating historical tour of peninsular south India as it was in the 7th century.

Fiction as history

That brings me to the way Kalki has handled the genre of the historical novel. Since the author deals with a well-known period and dynasties that were formidable foes in south Indian history, he takes care to maintain “fidelity” to recorded information as obtained through epigraphic sources. One of the surprises I experienced when I recently started reading the novel again was the long and appreciative introduction by a professor of history of yore, K.V. Rangaswamy Iyengar. It was written and published in the 1951 edition of the novel.

“In his introduction to the 1951 edition of Sivakamiyin Sabatham, Prof. K.V. Rangaswamy Iyengar stresses that fiction traverses through the terrain of “historical probabilities” and is hence as true as history.”

My surprise stemmed from the recognition of how close Iyengar’s understanding of history came to late 20th century positions on the topic. There was a time when history was thought of as an inviolable record of objective “facts”. However, theorising history and historical writing has been problematised in our times since Hayden White reiterated in the late 20th century that history itself is a kind of narrative and uses rhetorical devices as literature does to make an impact. The claim of objectivity to “truth” and “fact” has been superseded by an acknowledgement that there could be a large element of subjectivity in historical records. Hence history and fiction share a common grey space.

This is the point Iyengar reiterates in his superb introduction. He argues valiantly and even chivalrously for recognising/acknowledging fiction’s claim to represent reality. He goes one step further and stresses that fiction traverses through the terrain of “historical probabilities” and is hence as true as history. The admirable part of the professor’s essay is the way he examines features of the historical novel/romance as a genre and compliments Kalki for excelling in it and giving us a classic that is insuperable.

Partisan outlook

Kalki obviously writes from a partisan point of view, anchoring himself in the fortunes of the Pallava dynasty. But he draws sufficiently from recorded history to juxtapose the glory of the two great dynasties of early medieval India, the Chalukya and the Pallava. Kalki is aware that recorded history cannot escape the subjectivity of the recording agency. That is why Chalukyan epigraphic records claim that Pulikesin II made a grand assault on the South, had a successful campaign in as much as he kept King Mahendra Pallava holed up in Kanchi Fort and, what is more, affirmed his military might over the Vengi and Pandya kingdoms.

Maniam’s illustration for Sivakamiyin Sabatham.

Maniam’s illustration for Sivakamiyin Sabatham. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The Pallava records claim that King Mahendra defeated Pulikesin’s army and later his son Narasimha wrought vengeance on the Chalukyas by invading the kingdom and burning down their fabled capital, Vatapi. There is a revealing passage in the novel when the disguised duo, Mamalla and the Pallava general Paranjoti, see the jayastambam (pillar of victory) in Vatapi proclaiming the utter rout of the Pallavas during Pulikesin’s campaign south of the North Pennar river. They swear that it is a lie and resolve to return and avenge this act and set the record right.

Pulikesin himself is dejected after his return from the year-long campaign where he could not achieve what he wanted. Naganandi, his twin, tells him his version of what happened during the year of military action, which stuns even the emperor. Naganandi says that how one proclaims something becomes what one did! So, who won, who was defeated? We are on the shifting sands of history.

Kalki does not fight shy of presenting his protagonist Mahendra Pallava from the point of view of his sworn enemies. The Pallava ruler is repeatedly described by his opponents as a cunning fox retreating into holes. Kalki also does not trivialise the Chalukya emperor and his political ambitions. He even cites the Chinese traveller Yuwan Chwang’s appreciative account of the military might and splendour of the Chalukya kingdom and the greatness of its arts and sculpture, which includes the legendary Ajanta caves. Kalki thus creates a dialogic space for the clash of titans, making his novel almost epic in scale, proportion, and execution.

  • Kalki Krishnamurthy’s historical novel, Sivakamiyin Sabatham (Sivakami’s Vow), set in the 7th century, is notable for its historical accuracy, maintaining fidelity to recorded history.
  • In the Introduction to the 1951 edition, Professor K.V. Rangaswamy Iyengar asserts that fiction, exploring “historical probabilities,” holds a truth parallel to conventional history.
  • Written during India’s freedom struggle, Sivakamiyin Sabatham may have been influenced by Kalki’s fascination with the nation’s emerging cultural nationalism during that epoch.

Fascination with cultural nationalism

Do we read history only in terms of the pastness of the past? I had a lurking feeling when I read Sivakamiyin Sabatham that the author looks at the past from the present. Stationed as he was during India’s freedom struggle epoch, writing his magnum opus during the years when India forged ahead towards proclaiming its freedom as a nation, Kalki could have been propelled by his fascination with the nation’s emerging cultural nationalism. India has never been one at any time of history. During the period this novel spans, three great monarchs dominate the terrain of the subcontinent: King Harshavardhana to the north of the Narmada, Pulikesin II to the south of the Narmada up to the North Pennar, and Mahendra Pallava south of the Pennar up to the Cauvery delta.

“Do we read history only in terms of the pastness of the past? I had a lurking feeling when I read Sivakamiyin Sabatham that the author Kalki looks at the past from the present.”

Mahendra Pallava often yearns for the three to coexist and rule according to the highest ideals of mutual respect and care for ordinary subjects (one is reminded of Jawaharlal Nehru and his idealistic philosophy of Panchsheel). He is convinced that the continuum of love and respect for arts and sculpture makes it possible to dream of a cultural nationalism. War was not the only means of achieving sovereignty. Cultural awareness could secure it much more peacefully.

The novel makes me think of Mahatma Gandhi and like-minded freedom fighters who thought of the welfare of the country in terms of affirming faith in the cultural fibre in which it was rooted and who longed for an alternative to force by pitching his faith in pacifism. The novel has allusions to Emperor Asoka turning to peace after war and massacre, and King Mahendra wistfully hopes to emulate him. But he is forced to turn from peace to war when Pulikesin’s retreating army inflicts barbarities on his subjects, enslaving women, children, and artisans. This fills Mahendra with disillusionment and bitterness and forces him to confront the enemy’s army in order to save his subjects.

Gandhiji, too, followed peace and abjured violence but became a mute witness to barbarity of an unimaginable scale during and after Partition. King Mahendra’s philosophy and aesthetics of nation-building stand out as impressive ideals for historians and ideologues to ponder.

Iyengar says, in this context, that in ancient India there was the prevailing Rajyadharma (law of the land) according to which a kingdom regarded its immediate neighbours as foes and sought friendship with those lying beyond. Further, conquest creates dominance over the conquered, creating perpetual discontent and distrust and foments rebellion or revolt when occasions turn favourable. Sivakamiyin Sabatham illustrates well these dynamics of politics and power in the relationship between the mighty Pallavas and the subdued Cholas and Pandyas.

More subtle than ‘Ponniyin Selvan’

Kalki, who dealt with Tamil nationalism in his more popular novel Ponniyin Selvan, achieves a much greater subtlety in this historical novel. Pallava rule is not equated with imperialism as much as Chola rule is in the other novel. There is a keener sense of a much larger India of which the Pallava kingdom is a part. The novel is also set not in the traditional Cauvery delta or Vaigai terrain and covers a more vast cartographic entity that is sacralised as Bharat. Within this, Pallava culture is affirmed as quintessentially Tamil and Indian as iconised in the art capital and port city of Mahabalipuram.

Greater prominence is given to the linguistic variety that constituted India’s polity, covering Prakrit, Pali, proto-Dravidian dialects, Tamil, and Sanskrit, depending on the demographic and territorial and intellectual contexts in the novel. Poetry, dance, music, drama, sculpture, and painting, not to speak of martial arts, constitute various points in the cultural grid Kalki creates across the Indian land mass up to at least the Vindhyas.

“Artists do not recognise the boundaries of religion and politics. Āyanar resents war but does not mind befriending a Pallava enemy to learn the secrets of the Ajanta paintings.”

The matrix on which such an efflorescence of arts and knowledge exploded in early medieval India was, of course, another dynamic site, namely religion.

The novel makes for interesting reading in the way it foregrounds the alliance of religion and politics then (as now) while depicting the running feud between the heterodoxical faiths of Buddhism and Jainism and the resurgent Hinduism. All of them vie with each other to appropriate the arts and all seek to influence the ruling dynasties.

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On the one hand, a Buddhist bhikshu (monk) like Naganandi from the Chalukya region could freely roam in Tamil country (although indulging in espionage and sowing seeds of civil war and revolt against the Pallavas). On the other, the author himself admits at one point that during that period the Samanas (Jains) and Buddhists were not very welcome in the Tamil country. But King Mahendra, although a multiple convert (from Vaishnavism to Jainism to Saivism), would like to keep a wise distance from all religions as a pragmatic politician, an ideal espoused by his mentor, the Saivite savant Tirunavukkarasar.

The question whether it is possible to keep religion out of politics and governance is a troubling one and the novel boldly raises it. The agenda of the ordinary subject would be at sharp variance from that of the rulers, as illustrated by the insatiable thirst of the sculptor Āyanar, the pride of the Pallavas, to know the secrets of the Ajanta paintings and their unfading effulgence. Artists do not recognise the boundaries of religion and politics. Āyanar resents war but does not mind befriending a Pallava enemy to learn the secrets of the Ajanta paintings. This does not seem to him to constitute treason. Nor does his magnanimous patron Mahendra Pallava view it as such. Negotiating these intricate knots of art, religion, and politics was what King Mahendra aimed at and what makes him such a fascinating person. The novel poses the problematic but does not pretend to offer any solution. 

C. T. Indra is retired professor and head, Department of English, University of Madras.

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