As The Legend of Ponnivala opens, a group of aboriginal artisans and merchants controls a cluster of trade routes that pass through a marginal area known as Ponnivala. Soon a colonial power from the East sends in farmers to cut down the trees and begin tilling the rich local soil. Those farmers squabble amongst themselves but basically manage to hold on to their newly acquired lands until the third generation. The twin grandsons of the original pioneers don’t really want to be farmers, even if wealthy ones. Preferring a more glorious life full of adventure, they overthrow their distant ruler after a dispute about tribute, thereby gaining political independence. But these would-be warrior heroes forget that they now have no outside backer to support and protect them in times of strife. Meanwhile, a simmering resentment has been building against their family, an anger based on their intrusive presence in the area and obvious prosperity. As a consequence, the local tradesmen ally themselves with a group of fierce forest hunters who live in the mountains surrounding the Ponnivala plain. Both these contending groups feel marginalized and powerless. They are not comfortable with the growing new-style agricultural economy that has surrounded them. Together leaders from these two communities plan a rebellion that will challenge the pioneer farmers’ hegemony. At first they send a huge wild boar to disrupt and destroy these immigrants’ finest local crops. Soon an all-out war breaks out. Neither side wins. The farmers feel shame when they hear of the wholesale death of their dependent worker-fighters. So instead of returning to empty villages full of grieving widows, these two men commit suicide on their own swords, thereby leaving their lives behind while becoming local heroes. The story also celebrates several strong women who overtly support their male kinsmen, but also exhibit their own magical powers and reveal that they have their own end-games to play.
The Legend of Ponnivala begins in a time when there is no organized agriculture. In this original social space the world is dominated by near-pristine forests and inhabited solely by aboriginal hunters and their trading partners, groups of skilled craftsmen. Indeed, we do not even see the tribal peoples at first. They live a hidden life deep in the area’s verdant hills. Then a group of farmers suddenly arrive on the scene in Ponnivala. They have been sent by a distant monarch and instructed to colonize the area and bring it under the plough. They are to bring tribute to this overlord, at the earliest possible moment, helping to solidify his political dominance in the area. Conflict arises almost instantaneously. The skilled tradesmen control several key trade routes that criss-cross the area. They do not want to cede this territorial control to outsiders. However, they are soon forced to submit and to become paid-in-kind workers. A new kind of local economy is created, one based on farmer control of the land. But resentment simmers.
At first the distant monarch, a South Indian Chola king, is supportive and benevolent. In his eagerness, this gentle king unintentionally favours the eldest of the immigrants (Kolatta), originally a group of nine farmer brothers. Disputes between the descendents of this first set of brothers inevitably arise. In addition to sibling jealousy, Kolatta has an age-old problem: he and his wife have no natural born children. Eventually they adopt a beautiful baby found under some stones in their back field. But the two are now old and soon die a natural death, leaving the young boy helpless against the designs of his many “uncles,” who want the deceased hero’s fine land for themselves. This new hero, Kolatta’s “son,” is exiled so that his uncles can grab the lands he is too young to manage and defend alone. This next generation hero, Kunnutaiya, suffers a lot but somehow manages to surmount all obstacles. He is a very brave and creative boy. The story now follows him through his marriage and eventual return to his old family lands. Despite his clansmen’s mean tricks, Kunnutaiya scrapes a first harvest from the soil in the one rocky, dry field he is offered. Kunnutaiya and his wife celebrate their first success as farmers. Significantly, Kunnutaiya remembers to pay tribute to the king who gave his father this land, thereby winning the couple this powerful monarch’s endorsement. A fine ceremony ensues in which Kunnutaiya is publicly declared an ally of the area’s original royal Chola “colonizer.”
But the resentment of the artisans—secret allies of the still-hidden forest dwelling hunters—now boils up again. Remembering how their control of the local economy was unjustly usurped in an earlier generation, these men plot to kill Kunnutaiya and his wife using a big temple ceremony as their pretext. The craftsmen-traders fail to regain control at this challenge point and fade into the underbrush again. Now they await a fresh opportunity to challenge these colonizing heroes, their farmer-foes. Next the Ponnivala Legend diverts to follow a delightful sub-story. Due to the misfortunes of fate, the heroic couple is barren in this generation too. So Tamarai, the wife of Kunnutaiya, determines that she will ask the great Lord Shiva himself to grant her a child. Now the epic features Tamarai’s heroism and her amazing efforts, all focused on ensuring a future for her family’s farming kingdom. There are many spectacular adventures described during this fanciful interlude. Importantly, the female half of this wedded partnership always triumphs, while her husband lives in her shadow. Finally, after twenty one years of super-human effort, Tamarai achieves her goal when Lord Shiva immaculately plants the spirits of three children in her womb. The heroine returns to earth with triplets in her womb, each a magically god-fathered child. Significantly, she also brings back with her a powerful pot of magic water that, when sprinkled on her kingdom, shares her fertility and prosperity with all.
The second half of the Ponnivala legend begins with the birth of magical triplets, a set of heroic twin brothers plus an all-seeing magical sister named Tangal. But due to threats, the family goddess hides the two infant boys under her temple. This leads lineage rivals to once again kick Kunnutaiya and Tamarai off their lands, claiming they have no sons. They walk into the forest looking for refuge carrying only their baby daughter. Now the forest hunters make their debut. The couple soon encounter a tribal king whom they insult by refusing his offer of food. Despite this rebuff, this tribal ruler is kind. He offers the wandering couple and their one child an uncomfortable refuge in his empty animal shed. Eventually, Tamarai and Kunnutaiya’s twin boys are returned by the goddess. Now five years old, the three children are deemed able to withstand the taunts of relatives. The family exits the forest and returns to Ponnivala to claim control of their ancestral lands once again. The twin boys learn several of the finer points of warfare from the family’s local goddess and practice the art of horsemanship on their family lands. They mature to the adult age of sixteen and the stage is set for a major farmer / aboriginal confrontation over land control, the core theme that underlies this entire epic tale.
The trigger for this concluding conflict comes from the young heroes’ sister. She is lonely because her brothers are always away pursuing their war-inspired adventures. Tangal asks for a parrot to keep her company during these periods she spends alone. Her twin brothers agree to bring one back from the nearby forest, ignoring the fact that this area belongs to the hunters. A female parrot is captured and that, with all its symbolic overtones, is answered by the hunters’ act of revenge: an attempt to carry off the twins’ own sister. They hope for this major “trophy prize,” but manage only to capture a palace maid. In a counter move the twins’ key strongman uses his own guile to quickly repossess this trophy. Now the hunters become truly incensed and they up the ante. They are joined by the artisan-traders and together they try to cause as much trouble as they can. To make matters worse, the forest dwellers’ own magical sister, Viratangal (a female that clearly mirrors the heroes’ own helpmate Tangal), send her wild “pet”—a forest boar—to attack and ruin the farmer-heroes’ carefully planted crops. That huge monster succeeds in his mission of destruction. Komban, the “tusked one,” then tops-up his insulting act of devastation by sending an out-and-out declaration of war to the heroes’ palace, using their humble gardener as an intermediary. The twin brothers respond to his provocative message as predicted by refurbishing their huge battle drum. The twin heroes’ same powerful assistant then beats out the frightening “tum tum” rhythm that announces an impending conflict. That sound penetrates each and every settlement in Ponnivala.
The final war begins when the heroes hunt down the boar that ruined their fields. He is eventually cornered and killed with the help of Tangal’s own pet, a tiny female dog. But soon after its spearing and division into portions for a sacrificial meal, the head of this great boar is guilefully taken away by Lord Vishnu. The heroes recognize an unmistakable omen: they cannot win the crucial confrontation that lies ahead. Nonetheless, war ensues. There are significant Mahabharata-epic overtones to be noticed in the final battle scene. The violent confrontation ends in a kind of stalemate. The entire land of Ponnivala is destroyed. The heroic twins die by falling on their own swords, are briefly resurrected by their loving sister, and then all three ascend to a life of honour in the afterworld. As the story ends the lands of Ponnivala undergo renewal. There are only forests and simple settlements left. The painful cycle of farmer / hunter conflict is now poised to start again.