Daily Recco, November 2: Ponniyin Selvan is not just a novel. It is an emotion

Rajeshwari Ganesan
Rajeshwari GanesanNov 02, 2020 | 16:31

Daily Recco, November 2: Ponniyin Selvan is not just a novel. It is an emotion

Is there a novel (in five volumes, no less!) that can assure you of not one dull moment in any of the pages? If you think not, then grab a copy of Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy.

Not all of the great Indian epics are thousands of years old. What is widely considered to be the greatest novel ever in Tamil literature was written just 70 years ago. You could even think of it as the Game of Thrones of its day, with fans waiting with bated breath for the next part to drop. And its feverish fanhood continues to this day among Tamilians. Kalki Krishnamurthy's epic historical fiction Ponniyin Selvan is one of the historical classics that is a must-have and must-read in any Tamil household with even a remote leaning towards literature. 


The name Ponniyin Selvan means the son of Ponni (another name for the River Kaveri).

Revolving around the Chozha dynasty in 10th century Tamil Nadu, Ponniyin Selvan focuses on the royal family and the courtiers, who are staking their own claims on who should be the next king after Emperor Sundara Chozhar in the light of his frail health. The emperor has two illustrious sons and an equally eminent daughter — the elder son Aditha Karikalan is the general of the Northern Command in Kanchi, the second child of the emperor is the daughter Kundavai who lives in the royal household at Pazhayari and manages the empire from there, and the third child is the son Arulmozhi Varman, or the eponymous Ponniyin Selvan, who would go on to become famous later as Rajaraja Chozha I. He is in a battle in Lanka when the novel opens. There is politics. There is intrigue. There are twists, and turns that make a joke out of those twists. There is romance. There is betrayal. There is sacrifice. And at the end of it all, the story of ascent to power of the man who became one of the greatest emperors in the history of the Indian subcontinent. 



Each character is etched to perfection in the Kalki universe. However, there are some who outright steal your heart. The author declares Prince Arulmozhi Varman the hero of the story. But fans over the decades have instead given that title to Vandiyathevan. Read Ponniyin Selvan for yourself to decide whether you agree with the author or the fans. However, we tell you this: Vandiyathevan leads you through the plots, sub-plots, and it is through him that we meet most of the characters in the novel. 

Kalki fuels the readers' imagination with the portraiture and the plot points when the readers think that they can predict what is going to happen, a surprise jumps at you like jack out of the box. There are new revelations after every few pages and Kalki ensures he keeps you glued to it from page one of Part One to the last page of Part Five. Please take care of your nails. You might not even realise that you are biting them as Kalki's gripping narration will keep you on tenterhooks. 

The novel was serialised week after week from October 1950 to June 1954 and published in the author’s own publication — Kalki magazine. It is said that the serialised novel alone managed to lead the weekly circulation of the magazine to a whopping 71,366 copies. Imagine this number in a newly-independent country where literacy even now is considered abysmal.


Ponniyin Selvan has been up for many adaptations. The Tamil novel has been translated into English by at least five different authors — CV Karthik Narayanan, Indra Neelamegam, Varalotti Rengasamy, Sumeetha Manikandan and Pavithra Srinivasan. There is even a Sanskrit translation of the novel by Rajalakshmi Srinivasan! It is absolutely no surprise then that the plot has gripped filmmakers and TV series directors for generations. However, for all its success, Ponniyin Selvan has suffered from the same troubles and jinxes that faced JRR Tolkien's epic Lord of the Rings series. 

The first major effort to make a film of Ponniyin Selvan came in 1958 when Tamil film idol MGR bought the rights. However, he met with an accident before the shooting could begin and the film had to be shelved. Kamal Haasan is also believed to have toyed with the idea of bringing Kalki’s characters to the silver screen. That venture too did not materialise. Similarly, an attempt to turn the book into a television serial by Makkal TV was also shelved.

It took a filmmaker of the calibre of Peter Jackson to bring Lord of the Rings on the big screen. Meanwhile, it is now in the hands of no less a filmmaker than Mani Ratnam to try to turn Ponniyin Selvan into a silver screen magnum opus. The director announced in 2012 that he would be doing an adaptation of the novel. However, even that had to be shelved because of budgetary constraints and difficulty finding financiers to back the project. Not the one to give up easily, he took another brave plunge and officially restarted production in 2019 for a two-part movie, the first part slated for release in 2021. We cannot wait enough for the jinx to break and to see our most beloved characters on the silver screen.

But before the movie releases, do read the novel — in Tamil if you can read the language. Else the translations by CV Karthik Narayanan and Pavithra Srinivasan do a fairly good job. NO ONE can tell the story better than Kalki. When you open the pages and ride along with Vandiyathevan on the banks of Veeranarayanam Lake on the day of the Aadi Perukku festival, you will understand why Ponniyin Selvan is a cult success that has defied time. In Tamil households, it is not a mere novel; it is an emotion in itself.

Last updated: November 02, 2020 | 16:31
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