Monday, April 28, 2014

Fascination - Anantha Padmanabhaswamy Temple

Courtesy -
Two years ago I got a ‘writing’ request that took me by surprise. I was asked to give a write up on the Anantha Padmanabhaswamy temple for a community website. I was of course pleased to accede. I’m not sure if people liked what I wrote though – it was the time when the temple had grabbed the attention of every Indian. The revelation of spectacular treasures in the belly of the temple played out like India’s own version of Templar riches. But to me, the gold and whatnot were a non-story; my focus was more on the sheer timelessness of this temple, and all the stories associated with it. That, to me, is the real treasure.   At the outset, I’d like to acknowledge two websites that I referred to – they gave me wonderful details -

1) - this has a reproduction of a wonderful article by Princess Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi
2) - this has a detailed description of the Katu Sarkara yogam process.

Ancient temples fascinate me. Many great dynasties evolved their own individualistic architecture styles – for example, the Puri Jagannatha temple by the Ganga dynasty is so distinct from the Chola architecture of the Brihadishvara temple down south in Thanjavur. But even more than the structure itself, the genealogy associated with some of these temples is mind boggling. It feels like looking into a long, long tunnel, only to see a speck of light far, far away. I mean yes, there are ancient structures all over the world. They are all accurately dated – and in most cases, we know who built the structure. In India, some of these structures are so ancient, that their origins merge with ‘mythology’. There is a reason why I put the word mythology in quotes...because barring the hyperboles in the many stories, one thing stands out – almost every important character can be traced back to several generations...and even lifetimes! Such accurate documentation of family trees that spreads across eons is not possible if you are writing fiction. Also, the wealth of information in the collective Hindu mythology is not written by one single author. This makes me conclude that several important ‘mythology’ names that we know of actually existed in some form or the other.

Let me digress a bit...and give you an example. We know that in Hinduism we believe that ‘Manu’ is the initiator of humankind. Manu is not the name of a person – it is more of a position. Just as ‘Indra’ is more of a position. ‘Manavantara’ is the lifetime of a Manu. Each such lifetime runs into three hundred odd million years. So each Manavantara runs in a cycle – mankind is initiated, dynasties are formed, there is good and evil, and finally everything winds down and the Creation is destroyed....only for the cycle to start again.

Our Vedic literature identifies fourteen such Manavantaras – complete with the list of the ‘Manu’ for that age and the family branches. We are currently in the 7th one. The Vishnu avataras we refer to all took place in this Manavantara. The Manu of this age was King Satyavrata, also known as Vaivasvata. Remember the Matsya avatara...the first avarata of Vishnu? Vaivasvata was informed of a ‘great deluge’ that would swallow mankind, and the Lord instructed him to build a boat, and fill it with seeds, and various animal species to repopulate the earth after the deluge. Sounds familiar? Noah’s ark anyone? Vishnu then assumed the form of a giant fish – in my mind it is a swordfish. Adisesha took the form of a rope. The boat was tethered to the fish’s ‘horn’, and was steered to safety when the pralaya hit the earth.
We are also called ‘mAnavas’ – because we are decendents of Manu. If you dig in a little, you can trace all the descendents of Vaivasvata – including the famous Ikshvaku (or Suryavamsha) dynasty – the most revered descendent being Rama himself. And you can trace the ascendents of Vaivasvata all the way to Brahma. Which is why I firmly believe these are not ‘mythologies’ but historical records.

Coming to the Padmanabhaswamy temple, it can be traced all the way back to Treta Yuga (and beyond?), when the sixth incarnation of Mahavishnu in the form of Parashurama took place. We are talking of hundreds of thousands of years...and I can’t get my head around it. Legend has it that Parashurama himself directed 12 Namboothiri clans of that region to conduct the spiritual affairs of the temple estate. There is a fascinating political history when it comes to the clans, and their association with the Padmanabhaswamy temple. But the important point here is - right back in the Avataara of Shri Parashurama, the temple was in existence. The temple finds mentions in our puranas – Skanda Purana and Padma Purana, and in Nammazhvar Tiruvoimozhi (3085-3095). Some parts of the temple are new – as new as 18th century. But buried under those sands of time, I am sure there are portions of the temple which are as ancient as the mountains itself. Like the presiding deity, the temple itself seems to be ‘Anantha’ – timeless - it was always there, and it will always be there.

The timeless temple premises have been considered a Mahakshetra for thousands and thousands of years. There are 108 Divya Deshams, and Anantha Padmanabhaswamy temple is the 59th. But more interestingly, when does a ‘temple’ become a Muktishal or a Mahakshetra? It is not just by the size of the temple premises, or the patronage it enjoys. There are 10 principle factors that have to come together for a temple to become a Muktisthal. It is believed that perhaps Shri Padmanabha Swamy temple is one of the few which has all the ten divine characteristics.
  1. Antiquity – Indeed the origins of this temple are wrapped so deep in time; that one cannot even comprehend the length of so many years
  2. Presence of records – It is said that the temple is in possession of over 30 lakh records – written on scrolls, embossed on copper plates and stone tablets etc. It is believed that when it comes to possession of vast amount of historic literature, the temple could well be the topmost in the world.
  3. Origin in forest – The temple is said to have its origin in the surrounding Ananthan Kaatu (forest).
  4. Royal connections – Right from the earliest mentions in the scriptures, it is evident that the temple has been the seat of royal patronage.
  5. Proximity to ocean – Close to Arabian sea.
  6. Historical importance – indeed the temple has been the seat of power, charting out the history of Malaya Nadu (Kerala). In fact Vaivasvata Manu himself ruled over ‘Dravidadesham’.
  7. Situation at an elevation – the temple is not on a hill, but it seems it is on an elevated land. Perhaps now it is not perceptible. Perhaps eons ago, the temple was indeed situated at a height.
  8. Artistic grandeur – the temple is majestic and royal with outstanding sculptures. It is said that Vishnu is ‘Alankarapriyan’; and thus, this abode befits Him.
  9. Grandeur of festivals – the temple is most famous for Alpasi, Painkuni utsavas, Lakshadweepam, Murajapam etc. It attracts thousands of devotees who come to pay respects to the Lord during these festivities.
  10. Mention in Ancient literature – The temple finds a mention in our sacred Puranas as well as the sacred Divya Prabandham.
The splendour and the divine enigma of Padmanabha Swamy temple does not end there. The centrifugal force of this place is undoubtedly the presiding deity. The imposing moola vigraha is a massive 18 feet in length. The Lord is seen reclining on the three coils of Anantha, in a Yoga Nidra posture (hence the name Anantha-Shayana). His Right Palm extends over a Shiva Linga in chin mudra. Brahma is seated on a Lotus (Padma) that arises from the Lord’s navel (nabhi) (hence the name Padmanabha). It is believed that Maharashi Agasthya is in Maha-Samadhi under the Lord’s feet. It is very rare to find the Tri-Shaktis in one place – Maha Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma; but then Shri Padmanabha Swamy temple is all about rarities.

Talking of rarities, the Vigraha has been fashioned from a method that is unique to Kerala. The method is known as Katu Sarkara Yogam. This is an extremely complicated process, and is very different from sculpting. Firstly, under the process of Katu Sarkara, the Vigraha has to be fashioned at the spot where it will be installed. It cannot be made elsewhere, and transported elsewhere. The Vigraha is fashioned as per the rules and guidelines given in Thantric texts. Six essential steps are elaborated in preparing the Katu Sarkara Bimba (or vigraha). Each step resembles the formation of a human body – starting with fashioning the support frame (skeleton), to adding tones and structure (flesh) and wrapping the structure with ‘silk’ (skin). Needless to say, the process is lengthy, allows for no mistakes and has to be done only by a supreme craftsman. It is said that the Padmanabha Swamy was crafted by Balaramaykonidevan.

Specifically in this case, when the support frame for the moola vigraha was prepared, it was lined with 12008 Saligramas, brought on elephant back from the Gandaki river in Nepal. As the outer body covering, parts of the vigraha are in wood, parts of it are in solid gold. All this is masked by the katu sarkara paste, preserving the vigraha from the onslaught of time and organisms (including greedy human kind). But definitely, the heart of this Moola Vigraha are the 12008 Saligramas.

It is said that even an ordinary householder’s home emits divine vibrations when a Saligrama is worshipped every day. When 12 Saligramas are worshipped in one place over a significant period of time, the place assumes the powerful vibrations of a Muktisthal or a Mahakshetra. Such being the case, what could be the effect of 12,008 Saligrams being worshipped in one place – all embedded in the Lord’s body? Indeed, the power of a transmitter can be felt only through a good receiver. Similarly, only the highly attuned can receive and withstand the cosmic explosions of 12,008 Saligramas.

If you, unlike me, can withstand crowds...the next time you visit Padmanabhaswamy temple (or any ancient temple for that matter), try to find your connection through time and through history. 

© Sumana Khan - 2014


  1. I do remember that blogpost, I was confused if you were reposting that...

    this one is really 'intriguing' to say the least (you can definitely write the Indian version of Da Vinci Code :P)

    I would really like to have discussion on this if and when we meet next :)

    1. I'll leave that plot to Last Man Standing :) Of course we'll meet again...hopefully for some good coffee and kodubaLe. We can ask the Standing man to arrange a good place.

  2. That's an interesting & informative read, Sumana. Thank you. I think the second website you had referred to is no longer in use. Maybe you want to check. I understand that even "Shiva" is a position which is currently occupied by Rudra (or maybe the other way round) and so is "Brahma", though I am unable to find the reference for you. Ancient structures & the stories that go with them always fascinate me, more so when they are associated with Indian history/mythology. :)

    1. I just looks like the website has been removed :( I'll see if the content has moved elsewhere and give an update.

      I did not know about Shiva and Brahma - I'll look up too. We have a lot of common interests :)

    2. Am pleased that we share all these interests :) I remembered that I had heard about these Brahma, Rudra and other positions in one of the discourses of Sri Bannanje Govindacharya. He explains in great detail about these positions, manvantaras, timelines. You might find it interesting. Let me check which discourse it is and I will message you here when I have it nailed. In fact, I enjoy listening to his discourses especially on Srimad Bhagavatam & the Gita. :)