Thangachi’s Corner: The Horse-Faced Princess


Keerimalai Springs

Written By: Keerthana Raveendran

When Amma told me to grab my coat, that she had something incredible to show me, the last place I expected to find myself was staring at a painting in a dingy exhibition hall.

It is November, so Amma is at her most contemplative. We are surrounded by Tamil folk in this hall. I catch a glimpse of the over-arching banner on the back wall as soon as I enter: Tamil History Artwork: Be proud of your heritage! I don’t get much time to look at it before Amma immediately grabs my sleeve and hauls me over to a painting unlike any I’ve seen before.

I see the image of a woman standing at the bow of a small boat. Or at least, I think it’s a woman. She has rich, coffee complexion, with long, thick and beautiful black hair braided intricately to her knees, the staple of Tamil women back then. She is dressed in a cotton sari, but she wears it differently somehow—it changes her posture and she stands tall, more put together. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I see strength, even in the way she brandishes her staff. It’s similar the one Awaiyar carried to hold herself up in those old devotional films I watched when I was a child, except that this woman is holding her staff up, not the other way around.

Still, it isn’t these characteristics that catch my eye during those initial moments. Not the large gold studs in her ears or the round poddu at the center of her forehead, but rather, my eyes flit immediately to her face.

This woman has the face of a horse. It isn’t that she resembles a horse in her features, but rather it is as though the face of a horse has literally been transposed onto her. Her ears are vertical above her head and her mouth is elongated to that of a stallion, with muscles taut over the jaw.

Naturally, my reaction is one of loud startle.

“Whoa, what the—”


Amma glances briefly behind her shoulder in case anyone has heard me before turning and looking up at me with a chastising look, though I can see the hints of humour behind it. She’s tall, my Amma, but I’m taller, and she has the sort of grace that I’ve never been able to achieve with my too-long, clumsy limbs, even when I was younger. She wears a serene smile on her face now in opposition to my confusion, nodding towards the painting.

“Just look for a moment,” she says in Tamil.

I give a careless shrug, but I turn toward the painting anyway, noticing the first time the caption underneath, Maaruthapuraveegavalli. It is long enough for me to refrain from trying to pronounce it.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” asks Amma.

I snort. “If you say so.” I pause. “Well, I guess, a little. Who is it?”

“She is Princess Maaruthapuraveegavalli, daughter of the Chola king, King Thisaiyukkira. Do you know about her story?”


“Well, I don’t suppose they would teach you about her in school here. We only learned about her back in Ceylon. She lived in South India with her father the king. One day, she and her friends were taking a stroll through the countryside near the dwelling of an old sage. They were in the midst of some comical story and were laughing loudly when they disturbed the sage’s penance. In anger, he—theriyum thaane, sages were always angry back then—”

“—of course they were…”

“Yes,” Amma says with a smile. “In anger, he cursed the princess for the disturbance and gave her the face of a horse.”

“Why a horse?”

Amma takes a step towards the painting. She reaches a hand out towards it, but drops it at the last moment. “The sage was a clever one. They say he had once lived among animals, that he could see in every person their inner animal spirit. Perhaps he had seen the horse in Maaruthapuraveegavalli and had transcribed it onto her face for that purpose.”

“What was that supposed to accomplish?” I ask dubiously. “Was he trying to curse her or unleash her inner horse?” My voice is one of mocking amusement. Amma shakes her head and gives a slight shrug.

“Maybe both, who knows? But he told her that if she wanted her human face back, she had to travel to Jaffna, cleanse herself at the Keerimalai sacred springs and worship Lord Murugan.”

“Bit of a steep punishment, don’t you think?”

Amma peers at the painting. “I don’t know that it was a punishment,” she says. “Maaruthapuraveegavalli left for Jaffna immediately afterward. She found a boat and sailed to Ceylon’s north, facing many dangers along the way. When she finally came to the Keerimalai springs and performed the ritual, her horse face transformed into its original form as promised. But she didn’t leave after that.”

“What do you mean?”

“In gratitude, she had a temple built at the site. The very temple is still in Jaffna—the Maaviddapuram Kandaswamy temple in Tellippalai. The princess saw something different that day. She saw potential for our Jaffna. It is for this reason that she later married King Ugirasinghan, the ruler of Jaffna.”

“Oh, of course,” I say drily. “Of course she marries her prince. What a perfect ending to this fairy tale.”

Amma throws her head back and laughs. “Like Disney, no?”

When I grin in response, she pokes my cheek playfully.

Ilai, it’s not like that,” she says finally. “At least I don’t think so. I think she knew that King Ugirasinghan was going to build Jaffna into something great, and she wanted to support him in this endeavour.” Amma reaches over and adjusts my scarf, a habit she’s picked up since my earlier days. “You know,” she continues, “it’s almost as though the sage knew what the princess would find once she travelled to Jaffna. He wanted to take this spoiled princess of the Chola kingdom and show her a path to greatness.”

I look back at the painting and I can kind of see what Amma means. I am no art critic, have never been, but I suddenly notice the princess’ eyes. They are that of a horse but more purposeful somehow. I recognize these eyes; they’re familiar to me somehow.

When we leave twenty minutes later, it is pitch dark outside and the exhibit is closed. I am quiet during the walk to the car, and I briefly think that I’ve caught Amma’s contemplative behaviour.

“But I don’t get it,” I finally say when I open the door to the passenger seat. “This princess, Maaruthapura-something—she founded a temple. I mean, okay, that’s cool. But why is her picture in a big shot exhibition if all she did was travel from one country to another and take a bath?”

Amma chuckles from behind the driver’s wheel. “It’s not as simple as that, Mathura. Don’t forget, the sage gave her the face of the horse. You see, the horse is symbolic. It is the only animal that goes to war.” Amma clips on her seatbelt. “She may not have picked up arms and fought an enemy. But can’t you tell?”

I blink. “Tell what?”

Amma turns the ignition and checks her mirrors. “It’s all over her face. And I see it in yours sometimes.”

I am frustrated. “See what?”

Amma shifts gears and grins.

“She was a fighter.”

About the Author:

Keerthana Raveendran, known by her flock as Thangachi, is an aspiring author with an eye for the eccentricities of the Tamil Canadian culture. As an unemployed student with a mountain load of student debt, she is currently broke, so you will probably be able to relate to her. As a writer, she has a special kind of wit that is present on the page and absent during the awkward conversations you tend have with her in person. Thangachi is currently a Masters student studying English at York University.


Read More by Keerthana!

“Seven Steps to Acceptance”


Leave a Reply