Ponniyin Selvan (Ponni's Son) dealt with the fortunes of the Chola empire during the 10th century. It was serialised in the Tamil periodical Kalki. The serialisation went on for three and a half years and every week its publication was awaited with great interest.
Vijayalaya Cholan (848-871 CE) was the founder of the later Chola dynasty. He conquered the country from a vassal chief of the Pallavas, and established Thanjavur as the capital of the dynasty. His son and successor Aditya I conquered the Pallavas and the Kongu country. Later, under the leadership of his son Parantaka I (c 907-955 CE), the cholas acquired a dominion which foreshadowed the greater empire of Rajaraja and Kulothunga Chola I. Parantaka I won victories over the Banas, the Gangas, the Pandya and the King of Ceylon.
This fact and the extent of his conquest are known from his inscriptions. Towards the end of his reign, or before his death, the Rashtrakutas under Krishna III invaded the Tamil Country, killed the Chola prince Rajaditya at Takkolam (near Arakkonam) in c. 948 CE , and seized Tondainadu which they seemed to have ruled for about a quarter of a century, confining the sway of the Cholas to their ancestral dominion comprising the modern day Tanjavur and Thiruchirapalli districts.
The names of the next five kings after Rajaditya are known, but little is on record regarding their life history. They were Gandaraditya, Arinjaya Chola, Parantaka Chola II, Aditya Karikalan or Aditya II and Madurantaka. Aditya Karikalan II appears to have re-conquered Tondainadu a few years later. On Aditya's death, or on the death of Parantaka II, whichever was the later, the succession was probably disputed. Most of the nobles and subjects preferred that Arulmozhivarman (Rajaraja) ascend the throne, but he himself was in favour of his uncle, Madurantaka Uththama Chola becoming the king. Eventually, Arulmozhivarman was appointed heir-apparent. Rajarajan became the king in 985 CE. His reign was the starting point of a period of unexampled prosperity.
Ponniyin Selvan was the sobriquet given to Raja Raja Chola. The original title of Arulmozhivarman was Rajakesari Varman or Mummudi-Sola-Deva. He was the second son of the Parantaka Chola II alias Sundara Chola and Vaanamaadevi. Raja Raja Cholan had an elder sister, Kundavai and an elder brother, Aditya Karikalan. He had a high regard for his sister, who spent her later life in Thanjavur with her younger brother, and named his first daughter after her.
Kalki’s other sources were stone inscriptions, copper-plates and other books. There is a stone tablet in the great temple of Thanjavur which has the following inscription: “The revered elder sister of Raja Raja Cholar, the consort of Vandiyadevan, Azwar Paranthakar Kundavaiyar”.. The book History of Later Cholas has a five line reference to Vandiyathevan, a Bana prince, a real historical character, who became the hero of this novel. The names of the conspirators also came from a stone inscription.
A lot of the information about the activities of various kings came from inscriptions like these as well as copper plates like the one found at Anbil. The Thiruvalangadu copper-plates state, "The Chola people were very keen that after Sundara Chola, Arulmozhivarman should ascend the throne and rule their country. But Arulmozhivarman respected the right of his Uncle Uttama Chola, the son of his grandfather’s older brother, Gandaraditya, to the throne and crowned him King".
Parantaka Chola was succeeded by his second son Gandaraditya as the first son Rajaditya had died in a battle. At the time of Gandaraditya's death, his son Maduranthaka was a child and hence Gandaraditya’s brother Arinjaya ascended the throne. After Arinjaya’s death, his son Parantaka II, Sundara Chola was coronated. He had two sons, Aditya Karikalan and Arulmozhi Varman and a daughter Kundavai.
When the story starts, the emperor Sundara Chola is ill and bedridden. Aditya Karikalan is the general of the Northern Command and lived in Kanchi and Arulmozhivarman (who would be famous later as Raja Raja Chola I) is in Sri Lanka in battle and their sister Kundavai Piratti lived in Chola royal household at Pazhayarai.
The story is set in motion, when rumor starts that there is a conspiracy against Sundara Chola and his sons. One person who gets a glimpse of the Pandya conspirators is a warrior of the Vana clan Vallavarayan Vandiyathevan. Even though the book is titled Ponniyin Selvan, the hero of the book is Vandiyathevan, a friend of Aditya Karikalan.
It is through Vandiyathevan that we meet most of the characters in the novel such as Arulmozhivarman, the prince whom all the people loved and Periya Pazhavetturayar, the chancellor who married Nandini when he was sixty. During his youth Aditya Karikalan had fallen in love with Nandini, but she turned vengeful after Aditya Karikalan killed Veerapandyan (who was probably her lover) and vowed to destroy the Chola dynasty. We also meet Kundavai Devi, who after hearing the news of the conspiracy sends Vandiyathevan to Sri Lanka to give a message to Arulmozhivarman to come back immediately.
Besides these, there are other characters like Maduranthaka Thevar(the man whom the conspirators want to crown king), the son of Gandaraditya and Anirudha Brahmarayar, Sundara Cholar’s Prime Minister and the man who has eyes and ears everywhere. But the most wonderful character in the book is Brahmarayar’s spy Azhwarkadiyan Nambi, a Vaishnavite, who roams around the country challenging Saivaites for debates. He collects information for the Prime Minister and is always around Vandiyathevan, rescuing him during trouble.
There are some lovely women too, like Vanathi, the Kodumbalur princess who is in love with Arulmozhi; Poonkuzhali, the boat woman who rows the future king to Lanka; Mandakini, the deaf and dumb step mother and Rakkammal, the wife of a boatman who supports the Pandya conspirators. Most memorable among these is Nandini, whose beauty is said to have the power to influence any man.
With Poonkuzhali's help, Vandiyathevan reaches Sri Lanka and meets Arulmozhivarman and becomes his close friend. In Lanka, Arulmozhivarman realizes that his father had spent some time in an island near Lanka and had been with a girl born deaf and dumb. He meets her and realizes from her drawing that she and his father have had two children. Who are those children and do they have the right to the throne? Later one day in Thirupurambayam forest Vandiyathevan sees Nandini and the Pandya conspirators place a small boy on a throne and take a vow in front of him. Who is this boy and what right does he have to the throne? This is the kind of suspense that is maintained throughout the novel.
While coming back from Lanka, Arulmozhivarman is caught in a cyclone and goes missing. Rumor spreads that he is dead, but he survives and stays at Choodamani Viharam, a Buddhist monastery in Nagapattinam. Then slowly the dispersed family starts assembling. The conspirators meanwhile choose one day in which both the king and both of his sons would be assassinated.
Will the conspirators succeed in killing Sundara Chola and crowning Madhuranthaka as the king or will Arulmozhivarman get crowned the king? That is one of the major question upon which the story revolves.And it ends in a dramatic climax in the fifth part of the book where the truth about Maduranthaka Chola is revealed. This story has everything to make a wonderful novel of all time.
After nationalisation of the works of Kalki Krishnamurthy, the copyright of Ponniyin Selvan ceased to exist. Many publishers now print the same book free of royalty charges.