(The story alternates between the Chola and Lankan sides. Here’s what’s going on on the other end of Sri Lanka. Picture is of the Temple Tank beside Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur.)
Sri Lanka, Chola conquest
1029 A.D. -Year of the Buddha 1573
Stray sunbeams tore angrily through the curtain of clouds, illuminating the ominous shapes of powerful Chola ships on the horizon. They were pulling into ever-shallower water as they moved through the waves, the brawny arms of the oarsmen driving them forwards.
The men on the shore at the harbor quickly readied the area for the seamen to disembark. More ships were anchored here in deep water off the rocky islands off Manthotam. Masts and sails stuck out, a warning sign as potent as the quills of a porcupine. The stone walls of a fortress towered over even them, an orange banner emblazoned with a pouncing tiger fighting against the wind and signaling the oncoming task force forwards into safe waters.
The coastguards patrolling the mouth of the bay set off to guide the approaching ships into the harbor.
Their relatively smaller boats flanked the vast hulk of the leading battle cruiser as they signaled to the men aboard.
Dock workers piled out, as did a number of elephants, ready for any heavy lifting. The beasts were still nervous despite the presence of mahouts on their backs. These men steered the elephants with expert skill from their posts on the backs of the creatures.
“Keep them steady!” A man on horseback raced forward. Four more men flanked him, but he stuck out from the rest. Even one of the elephants almost bucked, releasing a startled bellow at the sight of the leader. His horse, for one, was an enormous animal, flowing black mane glowing in the sunlight. Its jet-black flanks were hewn with muscle and bathed in sweat. A terrifying flame blazed in its eyes, and even the mahout grew unsettled as the creature neighed and reared up suddenly.
“Whoa Kalki! Calm down, brother, calm down”-the horseman lovingly patted the monstrous horse’s neck as it paced menacingly-“and you, mahout! If that lump of fat does anything to my horse, I’ll make sure to separate your head from your body.”
One of the other men drew up, raising a cloud of dust behind him. “Sir, would you like a report? I just got”-
“Later, Harihar, later. First, we need to welcome that fool Balaram properly. He calls himself a man of high standards, so he does. Bah! Just between ourselves, lieutenant, I’ve never really like the navy. I don’t like long voyages either. Why else do you think I put out from Rameshwaram when the lot of you came here from Arikamedu? The distance was much shorter, and anyway it’s my birthplace. I have every reason to go there whenever I like. Sure, our old friend Raman blew his top when I refused to obey his orders. But I got my way in the end. I always do. But tell me Harihar, are all roads to Jananatha cleared and ready for the new troops to pass? I don’t particularly like the governor, but still…”
“You never liked anyone, SenathipathyBrahmarajan. It’s not news to me.”
The lieutenant was younger and leaner than the broad-shouldered Senathipathy. A wispy beard covered his cheeks, but his eyes were still puffy from lack of sleep. A large vein traced itself across his bicep as he gripped his horse’s reins even tighter. Harihar looked uncertainly at his commanding officer as his hair was whipped by a sudden gust of wind. The stormy eyes of his commander echoed the approaching storm that Lord Indra was about to unleash.
His mount shifted its weight uncomfortably as he glanced out to sea. “I think we should take shelter. And hope that the ships can all weigh anchor here.”
“It’s my job to worry about that, Harihar.” He steered Kalki effortlessly to his right and halted. “Harbormaster, are the stores ready?”
“Yes they are my friend,” answered the old harbormaster with a knowing smile. His hand went up to the commander’s back as he continued, “We can get through this, Narasimha, we can and we will. I never asked for a war like this. I do believe that this is the toughest resistance I’ve ever seen from any of our colonies overseas. Vikramabahu is king of a mere sliver of this island but he fights with the inner fire and determination of a true, all-powerful Chakravarthy. I admire the man for that, but I also fear him.”
One of the larger supplies ships had pulled into port and the dock workers and deckhands hauled out luggage of all sorts, carting it off to the stores.
Very few of the elephants were needed in the end, but those that were required, carried immensely heavy chests filled with weapons and armor.
Someone shouted, “Harbormaster! Sir! There appears to be an excess of spears, and we have severely under-stocked when it comes to swords and shields. We have just enough maces to last us for a while though.” He ran up to the officer, panting, as he held out a scroll on which he’d written down the details of the store capacity.
His handwriting was atrocious and the old man strained his eyes crossly as he attempted to make out the scrawled Tamil.
The harbormaster grumbled and spurred his horse into a quick gallop as he raced away from his companions. Sacks of dry rations were hefted up onto the backs of some of the stronger men and even a few of the biggest oarsmen kindly assisted the workers. Narasimha and Harihar themselves galloped off to where the new ships had been docked. The battleships guarding the supply vessels were now jostling for a good spot to moor themselves. A few other ships already at Manthotam had to move away slowly, making room for the approaching vessels. After all, they were on an island. There were plenty of ports about.
Narasimha, still astride Kalki, skirted around as boats were put out from the largest battleship in the squad.
He whispered to the harbormaster, “Allow that ship into the harbor. No sense for Balaram to stay out in the bay.” In reality, the battleship was not far from shore, virtually within stone’s throw. The harbormaster raised a grey eyebrow quizzically as he watched the boat coming ashore, the rowers raising their oars up as three men made walked up the harbor steps. Their leader breathed deeply as he looked around.
His eyes caught a glimpse of a metal-grey sky above him.
They blinked rapidly when a long, stray hair escaped from under his polished helmet.
They also caught sight of the large, broad man astride a huge horse, black as night itself, with a strong and square-jawed face and curled mustache, as well as a small white mark, the traditional mark, which struggled to stay still against the rive of sweat on his large forehead.
The sizeable dimple at the end of his chin flexed into shape as easily as his powerful arms did when he smiled at the lead man who walked up the steps.
“I see you’re just as joyous as ever my dear friend!” He warmly put his hands together, dismounting when the three visitors reached the top. Scores of men, all determined soldiers still in civvies for ease of travel during the voyage, appeared as more boats were put out of some of the ships that had been anchored further out.
“Just explain something to me, Balaram,” continued Narasimha, “I suppose you have your own professional reasons for dumping yourselves here? We have enough warriors as it is, but I do hope that there are enough cooks and doctors in your ships. There’s a shortage of those as it is, and we have had a few losses out here. What’s surprising”-he put his arm across his friend’s back-“is the number of defeats here in the north. Granted, our last siege was a complete disaster, but we have had plenty of successes too.”
Balaram sighed with a shake of his head. He looked Narasimha directly in the eye, but his expression was unreadable for a while. A vein appeared gently pushed his friend’s arm away. “You won’t like Raman’s newest decision, that’s for sure. You’re already one of his best commanders but are also a huge thorn in his side as he so eloquently and unapologetically puts it. He believes that your methods are, well, off the record and that you’re too much of a risk taker.”
A mask of bitterness strapped onto Narasimha’s face as he beckoned the harbormaster and his lieutenant.
“So he doesn’t agree with me? I could say the same”-his tone grew venomous as he handed Kalki’s reins to one of the stable boys-“although I will not do what he wants. Well, you know I have my ways, don’t you? I’m going to the lavatory. Plus I’ve got a few more appointments with some top officials. Go to the harbormaster’s office Harihar. Take Balaram with you.”