A land where countless secrets sleep in the vast stone structures and deep caves left behind by Stone Age humans. It would become Wayanad later, but its old name is “Bayalnad” – land of the paddy fields. A land marked by steep hills, sheer cliffs, vast valleys and treacherous rock formations.

Iravivarman’s soldiers stand guard at the Thirumarathoor market. It is shrouded in silence. The bustle of the day – the arguments and negotiations in a medley of foreign tongues, and the belligerent cries of the changatham, personal soldiers of the rich and the powerful is only a memory.

The fragrance of marigolds envelops the rest house as Unniyachi lies on Iravivarman’s silken bed. Her golden body shimmers in the moonlight as he liberates her slowly, languidly, from her clothes. She is a breeze from unknown lands, passing briefly through on its way elsewhere. She teaches him new tricks, magic that he has never experienced before, and he begs her for more, and more. He would worship her until the festival on the day of Ashtami in the month of Kumbham, after which he would have to return to his duties as the ruler of the land.

On the festival day, as Unniyachi ties her anklets in preparation for the performance of Dasiyattam, Iravivarman comes to her with a necklace studded with eighteen rubies.

‘This is for you,’ he says, fastening it around her neck. ‘In memory of those intoxicating nights…’

As she dances on the stage, Unniyachi notices a man with brilliant, twinkling eyes in the audience. He is short of stature, with honey-hued skin and shoulder-length hair, and his piercing gaze follows her movements. Have you forgotten me, he seems to ask. Who is he? Her feet follow the quickening beats of her heart, and the singers and accompanists struggle to keep up.

When the dance is over and the doors are closed, the man takes refuge in an old, abandoned Jain temple in Puthanangadi. The jungle has reclaimed the structure. A vaka tree blooms red at its entrance. He casts his eyes over the Tirthankara sculptures on the temple pillars and takes out his tools. His chisel sings, and as enchanting postures emerge from the silver dance of its thousand cuts, night becomes day, day becomes night.

A herd of elephants emerges from the forest to stand guard outside the abandoned structure.

Anklets tinkle as the stone tells stories. In each of its chimes, the chisel calls: ‘Unniyachi, my heart, my woman…’ But she is imprisoned, her desires confined by locked doors and heartless guards.

Dance postures done, the sculptor’s chisel carves out scenes of lovemaking. The languorous night is musical, and in the rising peals of pleasure, elephants make love in the embrace of the forest. She will come to him, he hopes, when he has carved the last of the stones. How can she not…

When, on the ninth night, the chisel falls silent, Unniyachi is sleepless in her bed.

She leaves, quietly, carefully avoiding the ruler and his soldiers. No more hiding, even if she is punished. A wood owl screeches from the top of a tree and cicadas wail in the undergrowth. Watching Unniyachi’s arrival, the elephants turn away from their trail and walk down the far side of the hill into the paddy fields below.

Accompanied by the night, Unniyachi enters the temple. In the flickering light of a lamp on a low stool, dancing figures move lasciviously on the stone pillars. On the floor, a discarded chisel, and beside it, a small box covered in intricate designs, the one she had absent-mindedly left in the palanquin that had brought her from Salem, over Thovarimala and through Veliyambam. Memories rush in, as though from a previous birth, and she opens the box.

A handful of fresh marigolds…

A string of pearls…

A fistful of reproaches…

A stone pillar in a forgotten corner of a trader’s road in Bayalnad beckons, one that has stood waiting, all alone, in the wind and in the rain, in the sun and in the mist.

The ruler awakes, and the soldiers bring her back, manacled. She flings the ruby necklace, his gift, on the floor. The sword flashes in the fire that blazes in his eyes. Eighteen rubies roll away in eighteen directions as blood flows like the Kabani, and from each of those rubies, eighteen rivers burst forth forming eighteen islets between them. Where the water touches the land along the edges of those islets, life spurts like memories – diverse, fecund, evergreen. Someone names the islets Kuruvadweep. From the topmost branch of a mighty tree, which spreads its canopy over forest streams holding the water of wisdom, Unniyachi flies away into the heavens above.

There are no more devadasis, dancing concubines of the gods, in Thirumarathoor. Unniyachi, the primal goddess, the aboriginal mother, lives on in each female child born in the village.


Excerpted with permission from Valli, Sheela Tomy, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil, HarperCollins India.