This Malayalam novel is a vast family saga set amid the mysteries of the forest

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A land where countless secrets lie dormant within the vast stone structures and deep caves left behind by Stone Age humans. It will become Wayanad later, but its old name is “Bayalnad” – land of rice fields. A land marked by steep hills, steep cliffs, wide valleys and dangerous rock formations.

Iravivarman’s soldiers stand guard at Thirumarathoor market. He is surrounded by silence. The hustle and bustle of the day – the disputes and negotiations in a potpourri of foreign languages, and the belligerent cries of the changatham, personal soldiers of the rich and powerful are but a memory.

The scent of marigolds envelops the nursing home as Unniyachi lies on Iravivarman’s silken bed. Her golden body shimmers in the moonlight as he slowly, languidly releases her from her clothes. She is a breeze from unknown lands, briefly passing through there to go somewhere else. She teaches him new tricks, magic he’s never experienced before, and he begs her more and more. He would worship him until the feast of Ashtami Day in the month of Kumbham, after which he should resume his duties as ruler of the country.

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

“It’s for you,” he said, tying it around his neck. ‘In memory of those intoxicating nights…’

As she dances on stage, Unniyachi notices a man with bright, twinkling eyes in the audience. He is short, with honey-colored skin and shoulder-length hair, and his piercing gaze follows his movements. Have you forgotten me, he seems to ask. Who is he? His feet follow the accelerated beats of his 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 ancient abandoned Jain temple in Puthanangadi. The jungle recovered the structure. A vaka tree blooms red at its entrance. He casts his eyes over the carvings of Tirthankara on the pillars of the temple and pulls out his tools. Her chisel sings, and as enchanting postures emerge from the silver dance of her thousand strokes, night becomes day, day becomes night.

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

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

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

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

She leaves, quietly, carefully avoiding the sovereign and his soldiers. No more need to hide, even if she is punished. A wood owl calls from the top of a tree and cicadas wail in the undergrowth. Watching Unniyachi’s arrival, the elephants turn off their track and descend down the other side of the hill into the rice fields below.

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

A handful of fresh marigolds…

A pearl necklace…

A handful of complaints…

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

The sovereign wakes up and the soldiers bring her back handcuffed. She throws the ruby ​​necklace, her gift, on the ground. The sword shines in the fire that blazes in his eyes. Eighteen rubies roll in eighteen directions as blood flows like the Kabani, and from each of these rubies eighteen rivers gush forth forming eighteen islets between them. Where the water touches the land along the edges of these islets, life springs up like memories – diverse, fruitful, evergreen. Someone names the islets Kuruvadweep. From the highest branch of a mighty tree, which spreads its canopy over the forest streams holding back the waters of wisdom, Unniyachi soars into the skies above.

There are no more devadasis, dancing concubines of the gods, in Thirumarathoor. Unniyachi, the primal goddess, the aboriginal mother, lives in every girl born in the village.

Excerpted with permission from ValleySheela Tomy, translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil, HarperCollins India.

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