IT can be truly said that Tiruvananthapurarn (Tiru AnanthaPuram), the capital of Kerala owes not only its name, but its importance to the principal deity of the place, Sri Padmanabhan familiar to millions of Hindus by His posture of 'Anantha Shayanam' (Eternal repose).
Of great antiquity, the temple of Sri Padmanabha Swamy, one of the 108 shrines sacred to Vaishnavas, is held in high veneration.There is a tradition that the God of the temple is believed to have been worshipped by Chandra and Indra. Nammalwar, who flourished in the 9th century, has sung eleven verses in praise of this place and Lord Padmanabha.
Different versions are in vogue about the origin of the temple which stands in an area formerly known as 'Ananthankadu'. One account has it that a Pulaya (backward class) woman was weeding a field when she heard the piercing cry of a baby. She found the infant and fed it. After she went back to her work, a five headed cobra is said to have removed the child to a hole in a tree and sheltered it from the sun with its hood. The news reached the then ruler, who ordered a temple to be constructed at that place.
Another version traces the origin of the temple to the renowned sage, Vilvamangalam Swamiyar, who became annoyed with an invisible child, which was constantly disturbing his penance and meditation. He threw the child aside rudely but the child left the sage telling him that it could be again found only at Ananthankadu. The grief stricken Swamiyar went in search of Ananthankadu, guided only by the tinkling of the bells of the waist-belt of the invisible child. When he reached Ananthankadu, a huge illuppa tree (bassia longifolia) came down with a loud crash and Lord Vishnu appeared before reclining on Adishesha with His four arms, extending from Thiruvallam to Thiruppapur, a distance of about eight miles.
The God then forgave the Swamiyar and assumed a smaller form. Later a temple was constructed at the place. Even today, a successor of the Swamy performs daily worship at the temple. A small idol made of a portion of the original idol carved from the iluppa tree is also kept in the temple. It is said that the coconut shell in which the Swamiyar offered rice oblation to the deity is now represented by a golden bowl of the same shape in which rice offering is made daily to Sri Padmanabha Swamy.
Inscriptions in the temple reveal that King Bala Marthanda Varma caused it to be rebuilt from the vimana down to the bottom (Dipasala) and installed the Othakkal Mandapam (a five-foot high monolithic structure) as well as the images of Padmanabha, Lakshmi Devi, Bhumidevi and the serpent couch. The work commenced in 1729 A.D., and took four years to be completed. The daily services in the temple consist of prayers and offerings three times a day (Trikala puja). The morning puja begins at about 4 a.m., the forenoon puja at 11 a.m., and the evening puja at 6 p.m. The idol is decorated with jewels, sandal paste and flowers. The inner shrine is very well lighted and devotees stream in hundreds for the puja when a plate of burning camphor is waved in front of the God to the accompaniment of 'manthras', music of pipe and ringing of innumerable bells. Worshippers perambulate the innermost enclosure and sing verses in praise of the diety. The 'Tirtham' is after 'Abhisheka' and flowers are distributed to the devotees. The 'Neivedyam' offering to the deity consists of fried rice, sweetened beaten rice, aravannai (rice, ghee and sugar boiled together), appam (sweet cake), honey, plantains and betel leaves.
Every day, both in the evening and at night, the idols of the Gods are taken in procession around the Siveli Mandapam with display of various musical instruments, silver and gold umbrellas, elephants, horse and bull. This procession is known as 'Siveli'. At night, the procession is very picturesque because there is the additional attraction of the temple being illuminated with torches and cloth wicks in the notches of the walls of which there are thousands of these. The Maharaja walks in front, before the procession in temple costumes. Many prominent Hindu officials take part in this procession.
The Padmanabha Swamy temple is a treasure house of ancient works of art, such as sculpture in stone and bronze, mural paintings and wood carvings. The mural paintings which represent incidents from the Puranas are remarkable for their lustre, colour and antique dignity. Precious yelics of a 14th century painting belonging to the reign of Aditya Varma Sarvanganatha, a king of Travancore, are found in the temple. Many others have been copied and exhibited in the Chitralayam Art Gallery, together with wonderful examples of Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese paintings.
Numerous devotees come from far and near to take part in the two festivals, conducted annually at the temple, one of them during Thula month (October)and the other in the Meenam Month (March). The Maharaja of Travancore himself, leads the procession twice daily during the ten-day celebrations. The celebrations conclude with 'Palli Vettai' (symbolic of a wild animal hunt) on the ninth day and the 'Arat' (holy bath at the Sankumugham beach, two miles from the temple) on the tenth day. An attraction of the Meenam Uthsavam is the 'Velakali' which depicts the Kurukshetra war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
Besides these, there are the 'Bhadradipams' of seven day duration celebrated twice a year. At the end of twelve such Bhadradipams, that is every sixth year, there is a major celebration called the 'Murajapam' (chanting of Manthras}. The Travancore of Maharaja, Marthanda Varma, had conducted many wars against petty principalities, which were scattered. The first such Murajapam was held in 1750 A.D., to expiate the sins of war and annexation of territory. The 'Laksha Deepam' (festival of lights) around the temple, marks the conclusion of the celebrations.
The rulers of Travancore functioned as 'Padmanabha Dasas' (as servants of the Lord), from the days of Marthanda Varma, who after annexing several principalities, dedicated the entire State to Padmanabha by placing his 'Undaval' (sword) at the feet of the deity in December 1749 A.D. Since that time, the people of Travancore have had a devotional attachment to and sacred regard for the Royal House. The King thus, tactfully combined politics and religion. Elaborate rituals are conducted in the temple, because of the twelve thousand sacred 'salagramas' which constitute the idol.
Quite a few gorgeous processional 'vahanas' in the temple were designed and dedicated by Maharaja Swati Tirunal. The entire codification of the details of rituals and ceremonies observed in the temple and during the nine days festival of Navarathri, reveal his touch. Raja Swati Tirunal, the great composer, whose 150th birthday was celebrated all over India in 1965, has composed many songs in praise of Padmanabha. An exquisite piece of stone work is the Kulasekhara Mandapam (Ayirankal Mandapam). Padmanabha Swamy temple is the only major specimen of the Dravidian style of architecture to be found not only in Tiruvananthapuram district, but the whole of Kerala State. The entrance tower of the temple is a fine example of South Indian architecture. It is about 35 metres in height and has seven storeys. The foundation of the present tower was laid in 1566 A.D., and the structure was completed in 1604 A.D. The flag post (Dhwaja stambha) in front of the temple was erected in 1565 A.D. Later, it was covered with gold plated copper sheets.
The 'Bali Peetha Mandapam' and 'Mukha Mandapam' with excellent sculptures of several deities in the Hindu pantheon and the 'Navagraha Mandapa', the ceiling of..which displays nine planets in front of the Krishna shrine are other notable parts of the temple. The Siveti Mandapam, the tower and the outer pathways bear the imprint of master sculptors. An example of their fine craftsmanship is seen in a piece of carving which has the figure of an elephant on one side and that of a bull on the other. Their forms are so expertly blended that the horns of the bull appear as the tusks of the elephant when viewed from the other side and the rolledup trunk of the elephant serves as the hump for the bull.