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We lived in Maruvur District, the seaport side of Poom-Puhar. The city itself lay on the northern banks of the Kaveri River. To the west of Maruvur was Pattinam, the City District with the sprawling palace, royal courts, and residences of nobility and luminaries. The physicians, astrologers, artists, and courtesans lived in Pattinam. Vast well-manicured gardens dotted with luxuriant trees, flourishing flowering plants, and ponds filled with thriving fish and exotic waterfowl separated the City and Maruvur districts. The king held great festivals and spectacular games in these gardens, which also served as venues for the daily markets that stretched into the night.

The merchants maintained their primary residences in Maruvur District in proximity to the jetties and warehouses. The place teemed with yavanas—foreigners—from Seenam, the Middle Kingdom in the east, the Araby deserts of the shifting sands, and the Grecian islands dotting the turquoise seas in the west. There was a network of noisy alleys crammed with shops and sheds where artisans worked on leather, cotton, timber, and various metals. Physicians dabbled in herbs; perfumers concocted perfumes; and behind barred doors, skilled craftsmen bent over tables and cut, polished, and set precious stones.

There were whispers of houses of ill-repute but I was ignorant what it meant. To my young mind only people acquired ill-reputations, not houses. When I asked, Chinnamma said something vague regarding dancing girls and alcoholic drinks. These houses of pleasure—this was another term she used—sold palm wine, and entertained guests with music and dance of the baser varieties. And they offered maidens and boys.

‘Offered? What do you mean by offered?’ I asked.

But Chinnamma suffered her usual affliction, one which took hold whenever she did not wish to answer my questions: she became deaf. I never want to grow old, for I wish not to become deaf.

Puhar also boasted numerous temples along packed streets. All one had to do was to look up and there would be a gopuram, the monumental and ornate tower heralding a temple entrance, puncturing the clean blue skies.

Standing apart from this noisy, confusing labyrinth of never-ending alleys, lecherous street vendors, and—I too whispered though I do not know why—houses of ill-repute, was a serene enclave marked out by thick trees. Within these confines resided the tall mansions of the wealthiest merchants of Puhar. Soft sand covered the streets. Elegant statues of divine beauties, holding lamps lit by fragrant oils, stood in every street corner.

This was where we lived—Kovalan and I. But at my age, Father’s wealth made no impression on me. And even as an adult, I did not care for such ostentatious living.

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2018

Song of the Ankle Rings, an adaptation of Silappatikaram

Continued on Monday: Mother, Mistress of the House