The Padmanabhaswamy temple is a Hindu temple, located in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram where the presiding deity is Vishnu. The idol is enshrined in the “Anantha Shayana'' posture, the eternal yogic sleep on the infinite serpent Adi Shesha. Padmanabhaswamy is the tutelary deity of the royal family of Travancore. The 18 feet long idol is covered with gold and invaluable stones and Anantha with silver plates. The temple, with an estimated value of monumental items, close to a trillion US dollars is the wealthiest place of worship in the world. This abode of Vishnu is built in an intricate fusion of the Chera style and the Dravidian style of architecture, featuring high walls, and a 16th-century gopura. While the Ananthapura temple in Kumbla is considered the original seat of the deity ("Moolasthanam''), architecturally to some extent, the temple is a replica of the Adikesava Perumal temple in Thiruvattar. The temple is one of the 108 principal Divya Desams ("Holy Abodes")in Vaishnavism and is glorified in the Divya Prabhandam. The name of the city of Thiruvananthapuram in Malayalam translates to "The City of Lord Ananta", (City of the Divine Serpent) referring to the deity of the Padmanabhaswamy temple. Although records for this shrine date back to the 10th century, the temple was wholly rebuilt at the orders of Marthanda Varma. The cult of this form of Vishnu was central to the Travancore kings, and the monument continues to be managed by a descendant of the royal family. This figure still leads the procession during the Arat festival in March-April, when the image of Padmanabha is carried to Shanmuga beach, to be ritually bathed in the ocean.
The origin of the Temple of Sree Padmanabhaswamy is lost in antiquity. It is not possible to determine with any exactitude, from any reliable historical documents or other sources as to when and by whom the original idol of Sree Padmanabhaswamy was consecrated. The Temple has references in Epics and Puranas. Srimad Bhagavatha says that Balarama visited this Temple, bathed in Padmatheertham and made several offerings. Nammalwar, a 9th-century poet and one among the 12 Vaishnavite saints of the Alvar tradition, has composed ten hymns in praise of Lord Padmanabha. Some well-known scholars, writers and historians, like the late Dr L.A.Ravi Varma of Travancore, have expressed the view that this Temple was established on the first day of Kali Yuga (which is over 5000 years ago).
The temple legend as narrated in the Ananthasayana Mahatmya
Divakara Muni was a great Vishnu Bhaktha. While at ‘Aanarthadesa’, he performed deep tapas. One day Maha Vishnu appeared before the sage as a lovely child. The charming child attracted the attention of the sage. He requested the God-child to stay with him. The child made his stay conditional. Accordingly, the Sanyasi should treat him with respect. On failing to do so, he would vanish at once. This was accepted and the child stayed with him. The hermit gave him great care and tolerated the childish pranks. One day, when the sanyasi was in deep meditation at his prayers, the child took the 'salagram’ which the sanyasi was using for worship and put it into his mouth and made such a nuisance of himself that Divakara Muni was greatly angered and could tolerate it no further. He thereupon chastised the child. Under the earlier agreement, immediately the child ran away and disappeared from the spot. While going he said, "If you wish to see me again, you will find me again in Ananthankadu”. It was only then that Divakara Muni realized who his erstwhile child guest had been. The hermit was stricken with inconsolable grief and for many days followed the route taken by the child foregoing food, rest and sleep in the process. Finally, he reached a wooded area near the sea coast, caught a glimpse of the child disappearing into a huge 'Ilappa’ tree. Immediately the tree fell into the ground and it assumed the form of Sree Maha Vishnu. The divine form had its head at ‘Thiruvallam’(a place about 3 miles from East Fort at where the Temple of Sree Padmanabha Swamy is located) and its feet at ‘Trippapur’ (5 miles away towards the north). Overawed by the majesty and the size of the divine form, which manifested before him, the Sanyasi prayed to the Lord to condense Himself in size so that he could behold Him. Thereupon the image of the Lord shrank to size, three times the length of the Sanyasy’s Yoga Dand. His prayers had been granted. He immediately offered a raw mango in a coconut shell(still this offering continues). The Lord ordained that poojas to Him should be conducted by Tulu Brahmins. To this day half the number of poojaris(priests) in this Temple represent the Tulu region.
Another generally accepted version about the origin of the Temple relates it to the famous Namboothiri sanyasi Vilvamangalathu Swamiyar, whose name is linked with the histories of several temples in Southern India. This Swamiyar was also a Vishnu bhakta. The legend is almost identical to that of Divakara Muni referred to above. It is said that, when Sree Maha Vishnu presented himself in the Ananthasayana rupa (in the form of reclining on Anantha) before the sage at Ananthankadu, the latter had nothing worthwhile to offer Him. From a mango tree standing nearby, he plucked a few unripe mangoes and placed them in a coconut shell lying there and in all humility offered it as 'nivedyam’ to the Lord. Even today salted mango forms a major offering.
The original coconut shell has been encased in gold. It has also been the practice in the Temple for the past several centuries that the morning ‘pushpanjali’ is to be performed by a Namboothiri Brahmin sanyasi (designated Pushpanjaly Swamiyar) specially commissioned for this purpose. These traditional customs coupled with the fact that the Pushpanjali Swamiyar holds a position of importance in the ‘Ettara Yogam’ (a committee which, at one time in the distant past, was the governing body of the Temple but has, over the years, become a ceremonial and advisory panel) lend substance and some measures of credence to the theory that this Temple was founded by Vilvamangalathu Swamiyar. Besides being represented in the 'Yogam’, the Namboothiri Brahmins also have a position of eminence in the rituals and ceremonies of the Temple. The Tantries(high priests) have always been from the Tharananalloor family belonging to this community. It is also believed that the small Sree Krishna Swamy Temple, located near the Western Swamiyar Madam (residence of one of the two Pushpanjali Swamiyar of the Temple) has been built over the Samadhi of Vilvamangalathu Swamiyar.
Some historians and researchers hold the view that the Thiruvambadi shrine of Sree Krishna Swamy is older than the shrine of Sree Padmanabhaswamy. According to legend, the Sree Narasimhaswamy and Sree Sastha shrines were established after the installation of the idol of Lord Sree Padmanabhaswamy. There is mention in the ‘Bhagavata Purana’ (canto 10, chapter 79) that Sree Balarama visited “Syanandoorapuram” or “Ananthasayanam” (Thiruvananthapuram) in the course of His pilgrimage. Similarly in the ‘Brahmanda Purana’ also there is a reference to “Syanandoorapura”. These references show that this Temple is of great antiquity and has been held in veneration over the centuries as an important seat of Sree Maha Vishnu. The compositions of Nammalvar, the great Vaishnavite saint, in praise of Sree Maha Vishnu of this city, prove beyond doubt that this Temple existed in the ninth century of this era. In the year 1050A.D.(225ME), the Temple was reconstructed and the management re-organized by the then ruler.
Renovation under Travancore Rulers
The next important recorded events relate to the period between 1335 A.D. and 1384 A.D. when Venad was ruled by a powerful and wise king named Veera Marthanda Varma. He gradually established his authority completely over the management and administration of the Temple. There are records to indicate that in the year 1375 A.D. The Alpasi Utsavam (ten days festival held in October-November) was conducted in the Temple. Some of the important events relating to the Temple which took place after the demise of this ruler until 1729 A.D. are given below.
Between 1459 A.D. and 1460 A.D. The idol of Sree Padmanabhaswamy was removed to a ‘Balalaya' for re-construction of the roof of the sanctum sanctorum. In 1461 A.D., the idol was reinstalled and an Ottakkal Mandapam (Single granite stone slab abutting the sanctum sanctorum) was put up. In 1566 A.D. The foundation was laid for the Gopuram (pagoda) over the main eastern entrance. In 1686 A.D. The Temple was almost fully destroyed in a major fire accident. Work on the reconstruction of the Temple was started only in 1724. In 1728 A.D. propitiatory ceremonies, connected with the serious fire of 1686, were conducted. It was in the year 1729 that the great ruler Marthanda Varma became the king of Travancore. He took the steps to renovate the Temple. In 1730 the idol was again moved to ‘Balalaya' before the renovation and reconstruction of the sanctum sanctorum. It took two years for completion. The old wooden idol was replaced by the one that we see today. Made of a highly complex amalgam known as Katusa Karayogam, it contains 12008 Salagrams within. Most of what is seen today within the walls of the temple were constructed. It is recorded that 4000 sculptors, 6000 labourers and 100 elephants worked for 6 months to finish the construction of the sreebalippura (the oblong corridor). This magnificent rectangular corridor built of solid stones protects the Deities during seeveli on rainy days. The gopuram for which the foundation had been laid in 1566, was built during this period. Similarly, the flag-staff in front of the main shrine was also erected at this time. Teak wood of the required size was brought from the forest for this purpose and transported to the Temple in such a way that no part of the wood touched the ground. The pole was then covered completely with gold sheets. The renovation of the Temple tank, the Padmatheertham, including the flight steps and its completion in the form we see today was also undertaken during this great ruler’s time.
The Padmanabhaswamy Temple is laid out as a vast square, with entrances in the middle of each side. Gates on three sides have tiled gabled roofs in the typical Kerala style. But the east gate, the largest, is a Tamil styled gopura, with two tiers of granite walls topped by a squatly proportioned pyramidal tower. This consists of four diminishing storeys roofed with a long barrel vault; gilded pot finials line the ridge. The gopura is approached through a long colonnade, close to which is a large tank.
The mandapa immediately inside (only Hindus admitted) has columns with portrait sculptures, one supposedly depicting the architect. The corridors to the north and south form part of a free-standing colonnade that runs around four sides of the temple enclosure. Its piers are enlivened with female devotees bearing lamps. Mandapas with 16 columns are located in each corner of the colonnade. In total, there are 11 mandapas within the temple complex and a few at the Padmatheertham pond. In the 960th Kali year, King Kotha Marthandan built the Abhisravana Mandapam near the Ottakkal Mandapam where poojas are held during festivals. An additional mandapa in front (east) of the entrance to the inner enclosure has lofty piers with three-dimensional carvings of Shiva dancing, Bhairava, Krishna, and the Pandava heroes. A greater array of sculpted divinities appear in the Kulasekhara Mandapam to the south, where each figure is framed by a miniature pavilion with cut-out colonnades. Also known as Ayiramkal Mandapam or Sapthaswara Mandapam, the Kulashekhara Mandapam is supported by 28 balustrades. The pillars of the mandapa; adorned with crafted figures produce musical notes when tapped. Ottakal Mandapam; a platform made of a single stone, in front of the sanctum sanctorum, is used to perform Abhishekam to the deity. Its stone pillars are covered with gold.
A Krishna shrine, near the northwest corner of the colonnade, stands in a small compound. The inner enclosure of the Padmanabhaswamy temple is contained with a double line of masonry walls and timber screens. The main shrine accommodates a large icon of reclining Vishnu, fashioned out of brightly painted plasterwork. The head, navel and feet of the god are viewed through a row of three doorways. The outer walls of the shrine have pilastered projections covered with murals depicting different aspects of Vishnu and his consorts. Tiers of wooden gables covered with copper sheets rise above. A large wooden hall in front shelters devotees; its ceiling has square lotus panels with miniature celestials and nagas serving as brackets.
The Padmatheertham pond, to the eastern side of the temple, is deemed to be sacred. Several features of interest are seen near the approach road that leads to the east gate of the Padmanabhaswamy temple. The Kuchira Malika is a traditional wooden residence with a polished floor and sloping tiled roofs. The Mettanmani nearby is a curious tower, with a mechanical clock. Various structures that once formed part of the 18th century Royal Palace are located southwest of the temple. The combination of Neo-Classical features with indigenous tiled roofs is characteristic. Portions of the laterite walls of the fort laid out by Martanda Varma can still be seen to the west.