Sree Anantha Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala is dedicated to Sri Anantha, an avatar of Sri Vishnu. Thiruvananthapuram literally means “The land of Sri Anantha” (Thiru Anantha Puram. Padmanabhaswamy Temple is among the 108 holy temples of Sri Vishnu known as Divya Desams, and it is one of the wealthiest temples in the world.
Legend about Padmanabhaswamy Temple
The date of the original construction of the temple is unknown. But as per popular beliefs, it was established about 5000 years ago. The palm leaf records at the temple mention that sage Divakara Muni Vilwamangalam founded it. He performed rituals at Padmanabhaswamy Temple Kasaragod, also known as Ananthapura Lake Temple, which is said to be the original seat (moolasthanam) of Anantha Padmanabhaswamy.
As per the legends, Sri Vishnu appeared before sage Vilwamangalam as an orphan kid. Vilwamangalam soon realized that the boy was Sri Vishnu himself. The boy then disappeared into a mahua tree. The tree fell and took the shape of Sri Vishnu lying on the thousand hooded serpent – Adi Shesha. The size of Sri Vishnu in this Ananthasayanam posture was very expansive and sage Vilwamangalam requested him to condense to a smaller size. Bhagavan shrank, but still, the sage couldn’t see him completely. Trees obstructed his view, and he could see Sri Anantha in three parts – the face, the stomach area and the feet.
The doors of Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) show the large 18 feet vigraha of the principal deity lying on Adi Shesha, in the Ananthasayanam posture, in the same way as the sage saw the Bhagavan.
The Bhagavata Purana says that Balarama visited Phalgunam (more commonly known as Thiruvananthapuram), took bath in Panchapsaras (temple pond known as Padmateertham) and made a gift of ten thousand cows to holy men. The southwest part of the Chuttambalam (outer structure within the temple walls) was constructed at the holy spot where Balarama is believed to have donated cows to holy men. This portion is also known known as Mahabharatakonam.
It is believed that Parasurama purified and venerated the vigraha of Sree Padmanabhaswamy in Dvapara Yuga. King Adithya Vikrama of Vanchi (Venad) was directed by Parasurama to do ‘Paripalanam’ (Protection) of the Temple. Parasurama gave the Tantram of the Temple to Tharananallur Namboothiripad. This legend is narrated in detail in the Kerala Mahathmyam which forms part of the Brahmanda Puranam.
History of the temple
Although the exact date of the temple construction isn’t known, the earliest mention of the temple dates to the 9th century. Many extant pieces of Sangam Tamil literature and poetry (500 BC to 300 AD ) as well as later works of the 8th century CE of Tamil poet–saints like Nammalwar refer to the temple and the city as having walls of pure gold.
The Divya Prabandha glorifies this shrine as being among the 13 Divya Desam in Malai Nadu (corresponding to present-day Kerala with Kanyakumari District).
Later, during the 15th century, the roof of sanctum sanctorum was repaired, as mentioned in the palm leaf records. The Ottakkal Mandapam in the premises was built about the same time. And around the mid-17th century, during the period of King Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma major renovations were done in the temple. Immediately after Anizham Thirunal’s accession to the throne the vigraha was reconsecrated in 1731 CE and the old vigraha was replaced by a statue made of 12,008 shaligram stones and various herbs, collectively called katu-sharkara. By 1739, the work on the statue was completed. The king also built the stone corridor, the gate and the flagstaff. On 17 January 1750, Anizham Thirunal surrendered the Kingdom of Travancore to Padmanabhaswamy, the main deity at the temple, and pledged that he and his descendants would be vassals or agents of the deity who would serve the kingdom as Padmanabha Dasa. Since then, the name of every Travancore king was preceded by the title ‘Sree Padmanabha Dasa’; the female members of the royal family were called ‘Sree Padmanabha Sevinis’ both meaning the servant to Padmanabhaswamy.
It was during the time of King Marthanda Varma (1706-1758) that this temple saw a major renovation. What we see today is the result of the meticulous renovation work on the ancient temple. The devout King Marthanda Varma took it upon himself and the royal family to look after the temple and the people of the state/kingdom. This was followed by the tradition of Thripadidanam, the donation to the temple and its deity.
In 1758, the pillared outdoor hall – Karthika Mandapam, was built by king Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma. And in 1820, during the time of queen Gowri Parvathi Bayi, the large Anantha Shyana mural was drawn.
Another major event in Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple history was recorded on 12th November,1936, during the reign of Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma, who outlined the Kshethra Praveshan Vilambram (or Temple Entry Proclamation) to allow every Hindu caste and creed in the temple.
The last Maharaja of Travancore Maharaja Sree Padmanabha Dasa Sree Chithira Thirunal Bala Rama Varma, in 1965, formed the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple Trust to continue religious offerings and donations.
Architecture of Padmanabhaswamy Temple
Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple Trivandrum stands out for the detailed work in stone and bronze. The architecture is a fusion of Dravidian architectural style and Kerala style, and the temple resembles Adi Kesava Perumal temple of Thiruvattar (Kanyakumari District, Tamilnadu). Even the deities look similar, lying in a reclining posture. The temple features a 100-feet tall gopuram (ornate entrance gate) carved with elaborate designs located at the main entrance. The large corridor inside is supported by beautifully carved stone pillars and sculptures of various Hindu deities. Beautiful murals also adorn the walls and ceilings in various parts of the temple.
Inside the sanctum, Sri Padmanabha reclines on Adi Shesha whose hoods form an umbrella over his head. The sanctum has three doors from which the devotees can look at the reclining 18-feet vigraha of Sri Padmanabha.
The temple has a corridor the extends from the eastern side into the sanctum sanctorum with 365 and one-quarter sculptured granite-stone pillars with elaborate carvings which stands out to be an ultimate testimonial for the Vishvakarma sthapathis who sculpted this architectural masterpiece. An 80-feet (24 m) dhwajasthambham (flagstaff) stands in front of the main entrance from the prakaram (closed precincts of a temple). The ground floor under the gopuram (main entrance in the eastern side) is known as the ‘Nataka Sala’ where the famous temple art Kathakali is staged in the night during the ten-day uthsavam (festival) conducted twice a year, during the Malayalam months of Meenam and Thulam.
Around 1425 AD a “granta-pura” (record-room) was constructed within the temple compound by the then Venad King Veera Iravi Varma, to store the “Mathilakam” (within-the-walls) records, as the then existing temple records were known. A major portion of those records (over 3000 ‘Cadjan’ leaf-records) from the Mathikalam had been donated later to the Archives Department in 1867. Despite their cultural value, only a minuscule portion of these grantas (bundles) of cadjan leaf records, written mostly in ancient scripts of proto-Tamil and archaic-Malayalam, have been deciphered. The translations of this section of manuscripts by some scholars serve as a rare though very inadequate primary source material on the temple and its rich traditions.
From a very early period in recorded history the temple had employed two kinds of ‘record writers’. One group was to record the proceedings and transactions of the Ettarayogam, a council of temple administrators, that included the then king. The other was to write and preserve the records of the day-to-day functioning of the temple, maintain correct accounts of the temple-treasury, and of temple-revenue-collections and temple-expenditure and as well as to note down all the other records, connected with the functioning of the temple.
Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple Treasure
The Padmanabhaswamy Temple trust, headed by the royal family of Travancore, looks after the assets. The treasure is a collection of valuable objects accumulated over several thousands of years. It includes coins, statues, ornaments and many other precious artefacts, donated by rulers and traders from around the world. The list of donors includes kings from South Indian kingdoms like the Cheras, the Pandyas, the Travancore Royal Family, the Kolathiris, the Pallavas, and the Cholas, Rulers and traders from Greece, Jerusalem, Rome , Mesopotamia, Jerusalem, and later, the various colonial powers from Europe, and other countries as well.
The palm leaves records tell a lot about Padmanabhaswamy Temple treasure, and the gold and precious stones donated to the temple. Gold has been mined in and around Trivandrum for thousands of years. And the area has also been a centre of trade. So, the gold came to the temple as offerings from the devotees.
During the reign of queen Gowri Lakshmi Bayi, many temples in Kerala were bought under the royal governance. And the ornaments and other valuables of those temples were stored in the vaults of Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The Kingdom of Travancore also provided refuge to many rulers who then donated their valuables to Sri Padmanabha.
Most of the records are yet to be studied, and out of the six known vaults (Vaults A, B, C, D, E &F), one still (vault B) hasn’t been opened.
One of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple secret doors secures the mysterious vault B. The priests and scholars believe that mythological beings reside in this chamber, and the Ugra Narsimha avatar of Sri Vishnu protects this vault. Also, the serpent image on the door of the vault indicates danger.
The authorities tried to open it under court orders but couldn’t go beyond the ante-chamber. The untimely death of the petitioner and the death of another observer’s mother strengthened the belief in the myth. In 2014, the Supreme Court had deferred the opening of this vault until the enumeration of other vaults was completed by the committee. Authorities also discovered two vaults later (named as G and H), both unexplored. A public interest petition was filed in the Supreme Court of India for proper assessment of the wealth and maybe a change of management. However, on 13th July, 2020, the royal family won the fight and they remain the sole authority over the management of the temple and everything that comes with it.
Gold had been panned from rivers as well as mined in Thiruvananthapuram, Kannur, Wayanad, Kollam, Palakkad and Malappuram districts for thousands of years. The Malabar region had several centers of trade and commerce since the Sumerian period ranging from Vizhinjam in the south to Mangalore in the north.
In the Travancore Kingdom, a distinction was always made between the Government (State) Treasury (Karuvelam), the Royal Family Treasury (Chellam), and the Temple Treasury (Thiruvara Bhandaram or Sri Bhandaram), which is unique and the core of good governance worth emulating.
Shrines inside Padmanabhaswamy Temple
Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple Thiruvananthapuram is regarded as a Maha-kshetram (Great Temple) because of its architectural magnificence, historical importance and spiritual significance. The Temple has nine doorways, demonstrating the nine openings of the human body. The main vigraha is made up of 12,008 shaligrams, and can be viewed through the three doors of the sanctum.
Through the first door, one can see the face and upper body of the deity. The right-hand rests over a Shiva Lingam. The vigraha is surrounded by Lakshmi Devi (the Goddess of Prosperity) and Bhu Devi (the Goddess of Earth). Apart from the Shiva Lingam in the sanctum sanctorum one can find images of Sri Shiva adorning the walls in many other parts of the temple.
The second door of the shrine provides a glimpse of Sri Brahma, on a lotus flower, emerging from the navel of the deity. And from the third door, one can see the feet of Sri Padmanabha.
The deity of Padmanabha is covered with, “Katusarkara yogam”, a special ayurvedic mix which is made of 108 natural materials collected from all over India and forms a coat-like protection that keeps the deity clean.
Gold abhisheka moorthies of Padmanabha, Sridevi and Bhudevi, and silver utsava moorthi of Padmanabha cane be seen through the second door; the deity’s feet, and Bhudevi and Markandeya Muni in Katusarkara can be seen through the third door. The vigrahas of two goddesses holding chamaram, Garuda, Narada, Tumburu, the divine forms of the six weapons of Vishnu ( Kaumodaki the mace, Sudarshana Chakra, Sharanga the bow, Nandaka the sword, Narayanastra, Vaishnavastra arrows) Surya, Chandra, the Saptarshi, demons Madhu, and Kaitabha are also in the Sanctum.
Along with the shrine of Sri Padmanabha the temple complex has shrines for several other deities. There is a shrine dedicated to Narasimha (Thekkodom), a part-lion and a part-man avatar of Vishnu. Another important shrine is built in the honour of Parthasarathi – Sri Krishna (Thiruvambadi) in the role of a charioteer.
The Thiruvambadi shrine Sri Krishna enjoys an independent status. Thiruvambadi has its own namaskara mandapam, bali stones and dhwajasthambham (flagmast). The two-armed granite vigraha, with one hand holding the whip and the other resting on the left thigh holding the conch close to it, is in standing posture. On Ekadashi days, the deity is dressed and decorated as Mohini.
There are also shrines for Rama accompanied by his consort Sita, brother Lakshmana and Hanuman, Vishvaksena (the Nirmalyadhari of Vishnu and Remover of Obstacles), Vyasa and Ashwatthama the Chiranjivis, Ganapati, Sasta, and Kshetrapala (who guards the temple). Grand vigrahas of Garuda and Hanuman stand with folded hands in the Valiya balikkal (principal bali-peeta) area. The thevara vigrahas of Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma and Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma are housed in the south east part of the Temple.
Ottakkal Mandapam: It is a single stone platform in front of the sanctum sanctorum of Sri Padmanabha. It is a twenty square feet platform built with granite, which is two-and-a-half feet thick. One must ascend the platform to have a darshan of the Sri Padmanabha Swamy. Ottakkal Mandapam is also used to perform Abhishekams (bathing ceremony) to Sri Padmanabhaswamy.
Abhisravana Mandapam: Abhisravana Mandapam is in front of Ottakkal Mandapam, and it is used during special poojas in various festivals in the temple. Devotees also use this mandapam to meditate and pray to the Bhagavan.
Kulasekhara Mandapam: Kulasekhara Mandapam is another architectural marvel built with stone. The structure is supported by 28 pillars, each adorned with carved figures. The pillars produce distinct musical notes when one taps them. This mandapam is also known as Aayiramkaal Mandapam or Sapthaswara Mandapam.
Padmanabhaswamy Temple pond: Padmatheertham is a sacred pond on the eastern side of the temple. It is one of the many sacred water bodies in the state and among the oldest ponds in the city. Eight of the mandapams within the temple complex are in the Padmatheertham pond.
Sreebalippura: Sreebalippura is a magnificent rectangular corridor built of stone. As per the records, 4000 artisans, 6000 labourers and 100 elephants worked tirelessly to build this stone corridor which surrounds the main shrines of the temple. It is supported by 365 and a quarter monolith pillars. It is through Sreebalippura that the special Sreebali procession is taken through, during the Alpasi and Painkuni festivals.
Mural paintings: The temple walls, including the outer walls of the shrines of Sree Padmanabha and Sree Krishna, have many murals. The Ananthasayanam mural on the backside of the main sanctum is said to be the largest among the temple murals in Kerala. It is 18 feet long.
Padmanabhaswamy Temple Festivals
Padmanabhaswamy Temple celebrates two major festivals – Painkuni (in March/April) and Alpasi (in October/November). Each of these festivals lasts for 10 days. The other festivals celebrated in the temple include- Thiruvonam, Chingam 1 st, Ganesh Chathurthi, Ashtami Rohini (Krishna Janmashtami), Navaratri Pooja, Maha Shivaratri, Rama Navami, Niraputhari and Murajapam a 56 day festival that concludes with Lakshadeepam.
One can reach Trivandrum where the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy temple is located by road, train and air as the city, being the capital of Kerala State is well connected.