Sivakami: At the time the story opens, she is a 18-year-old girl, deeply and madly in love with Narasihmavarman, the Pallava prince and childhood playmate. She is impetuous and capable of great feeling. She is an extremely talented dancer. Kalki gives us one or two detailed descriptions of her dance, but besides, we have to rely on the testimony of the other characters. Kalki spends more time in discussing her inner life and feelings than those of anybody else. She is clearly the star and the central personality of the story. She is the daughter of one of the premier sculptors of the time, Aayanar. Having lost her mother at an early age and being brought up by her aunt, who cannot hear or speak and her father, an artist with his head in the clouds, she is a pretty lonely person. During most of the story, she hardly gets to meet her lover Narasimhavarman, and has no other friends, having to stay with her father in his house in the middle of the forest, where he lives in order to have some peace and quiet for his work. Her only companions are Rathi, a pet deer and Sukha Brahma Rishi, a pet parrot. We get to know most of her thoughts and feelings through monologues to these two pets.
Narasimhavarman/Mamallan – The Pallava prince. He is brave, hot-headed and a traditional Indian hero. He is obedient to his father and attached to his mother. He will marry for the sake of his family. He is also as loyal to his friends and followers as his circumstances allow him to be. We see his character developed slowly, but Kalki takes great pain to keep his character consistent. He is also shown to have certain very mid-20th Century Tamil traits, but that could be Kalki projecting. More about that later.
Mahendravarman – The Pallava emperor. Kalki gives free rein to his development of the character of a benevolent monarch. He is historically attested to be scholarly. He wrote a Sanskrit play called ‘Matta Vilasa Prahasana’, which, curiously enough, is a comedy about the drunken antics of a Kapalika. He is artistically inclined – evidenced from his title – ‘Chitrakar Puli’ or tiger among painters. Kalki depicts him as also being a great strategist and statesman. He is also a past master in espionage and expert in disguise. His main concerns are the preservation of the Pallava dynasty and the welfare of the people. He also has a great interest in sculpture and is interested in making Mamallapuram a sculptural record of the achievements of the Pallava empire. Kalki also shows him as a far-sighted thinker and idealist. He dreams of establishing a tripartite alliance between himself, Harsha and Pulakeshin. This, according to him, would result in a Pax Indica of sorts and the end of war in his generation. He also claims to have converted to the Shaivite religion partially for political reasons. According to him, the Shaivite religion provides the greatest leeway in following practices and tolerance of other religions. Through him, Kalki offers an interesting explanation for the 5 cave temples at Mamallapuram. They are popularly thought to represent the 5 chariots of the Pandavas and there is a sixth with a Goddess statue, which is presumed be dedicated to Draupadi. Mahendravarman says that he has designed 6 rock temples, one each for the prevailing religions of the time, Devi, Siva, Vishnu, Mahavira and Buddha. The sixth one is planned for a new religion that Mahendravarman has heard of – about a prophet of peace – and he would dedicate it to this new God, as soon as he found out more!
For Narasimhavarman, he is obviously a tough act to follow and many of the leaders of later time seek guidance by asking themselves – What would Mahendra Pallavar do?
Aside: It would be interesting if someone analysed the parallels between Mahendra and Narasimha Pallavas and the other great father-son duo of Tamil history – Rajaraja and Rajendra Cholas.
Pulakesin II – The ambitious Chalukyan warlord. He is credited as being the Chalukyan ruler under whose reign the empire reached its greatest peak. He has stopped the advance of Harsha’s armies at the Narmada. His brother ruled the fertile Vengi region. The entire Deccan was under his direct control and the Eastern Ganga dynasty of Kalinga (modern Orissa) was restrained from expansion. At first, he is shown to be a fierce warrior with his focus only on territorial conquest. But, as the story progresses, he acquires more dimensions as a patron of the arts and a wise ruler who begins put in place the administrative structure of an empire.
Naganandhi – A Buddhist monk and the villain of the story. He is Pulakesin’s evil twin, Nilakesi, who is elder to Pulakesi by a few moments. The throne of Vatapi (Badami) is his by right, but he takes to the ochre robe of the monk and makes way for his brother. In Kalki’s view, he is the evil mirror image of Mahendravarman. He is a connoisseur of arts, master strategist, expert at disguise and espionage. He develops a love for Sivakami which spirals into a mad obsession. He has developed enormous physical strength, through secret occult practices. He has made himself immune to poison through regular ingestion of poisonous herbs and the smell of his sweat is supposed to drive away snakes! He has a secret trove of weapons – poisonous daggers and a nail on one of his little fingers which could kill a man with a single scratch or render a person permanently disfigured.
Paranjyothi – Narasimhavarman’s general. The early part of the story is narrated through his eyes, but he recedes to the background after the first book. He is brave and loyal to Narasimhavarman, and proves it through his courage and his frequent role as the voice of reason to balance Mamallan’s volatile temper. He is not above twinges of jealousy when the king develops a friendship with the Prince of Sri Lanka. When the story starts, he is a young man who is sent from his village in the Chola country to acquire learning at the school established by the saint Appar at Kanchi. This never comes to be, as he ends up saving Sivakami from a rogue elephant on his first day at Kanchi. He later comes under the tutelage of Naganandhi, for a while, before being taken under the Pallava royal family’s wing. He rises rapidly to become the commander of the Pallava forces in battle, after the death of General Kalipahaiyar. In later life, he achieved everlasting fame as Siruthondar, one of the 63 Nayanmars of Shaivism.
The character of Paranjyothi, a commoner, provides a nice foil to the great historical events unfolding. Kalki would later use this technique to greater effect through the character of Vandiyathevan in his magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan.
Aayanar – Sivakami’s father, who is present through the book, but whose character is, however, not very well-developed. He is a master sculptor and a doting father. His great dream is to discover the secrets of the paintings at Ajantha, which are painted with dyes that never fade. Over time, this dream becomes an obsession, with terrible consequences.
Shatrugnan and Gundodharan – Shatrugnan is the head of Mahendravarman’s and later, Narasimhavarman’s secret service. His apprentice is the master spy, Gundodharan, who is supposed to be a brilliant spy under his cloak of a common country yokel. He frequently surprises all who know him with his sudden flashes of brilliance. Again, this is the type of character which Kalki uses to better effect in Ponniyin Selvan. Many of the characteristics of Azhwarkadiyan Nambi are seen in Gundodharan in a rudimentary form.
Kamali and Kannan – Kannan is Narasimhavarman’s charioteer and his wife is Kamali, Sivakami’s best friend. They are a young couple who fell in love and got married. Kannan is the go-between for Narasimhavarman and Sivakami’s romance. They are simple people who have a great affection for the two lovers. Kannan’s wise-cracks and his domestic life with Kamali provide most of the comic relief in the story. Kalki’s introduction of this type of humour was quite novel for a Tamil writer of the time, since serious writers would never dilute the content of their writing with humour.