Article by Dr. M.G. Sasibhooshan, published in SURRENDER – Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple Renovation Souvenir 2002.
The Sree Padmanabha Swami Temple is not only one of the most sacred shrines of India, but also a veritable treasure-house of art and architecture. Splendid stone sculptures and murals complement the majestic splendour of the temple architecture which is a fusion of Dravidian and indigenous styles. In spite of the temple’s architectural exuberance, there’s nothing flamboyant about the structural edifice, but it is one which invokes awe and humility in the beholder.
The deity of Sree Padmanabha reposes in ‘yoga nidra’ or yogic trance eyes partially closed and the fingers of the outstretched right hand forming a ‘chinmudra’. (Sri. Ranganathan, the deity of Sri. Rangam temple near Thiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu is one that reposes in ‘Bhoganidra’.) The sight of this reposing deity has the power of instilling in the devotee, who comes before him, an indescribable peace of the Infinite.
Sree Padmanabha, the tutelary deity of the erstwhile Travancore dynasty also became the ruler of the realm from the time of Maharaja Marthanda Varma, when he proffered his kingdom to the Lord in 1750 through the historic Trippadidanam relegating his own status to that of a mere Padmanabha Dasa. Thence forth the Kings of Travancore ruled their State in the name of their God, as Padmanabha Dasas.
The temple-complex is certainly extensive contained as it is within an area of seven acres. A broad flight of long stone-flagged steps lead to the eastern entrance which is crowned with a seven tiered gopuram explicitly decorated with sculptures and reliefs. The gopuram rises to a height of nearly one hundred feet and is certainly taller than the gold-covered flag staff which is only eighty feet in height. According to temple records, the foundation of this gopuram was laid in 1566 AD, during the reign of King Aditya Varma. But it was Maharaja Marthanda Varma, who initiated the construction of this seven storeyed gopuram. Only five storeys were completed during his time and the remaining construction was carried out by his successor Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma, popularly known as Dharma Raja. The general practice followed in South India in the construction of such ‘rajagopurams’ was to adhere to the principles of the Vijayanagara canons. But in the Padmanabha Swami Temple, the gopuram stands out from the general pattern by the inclusion of the replica of a ‘vanchi or boat on its crown. Seven golden ‘kalasas’ complete the grandeur of the tower. It is quite possible that the overall structure of the gopuram of the Tirukkurunikudi temple in Tirunelveli built by a Venadu ruler was considered as a model for the construction of the same at the Padmanabha Swami Temple. However the vanchi-shaped structure atop the tower is unique to the latter.
Crossing the eastern entrance, we enter a fairly big pillared hallway which was obviously the stage for the performance of many temple arts like Kathakali, Koodiyattom, etc. The Sheevelipura, which runs around the length and breadth of the shrine is actually a wide, pillared corridor that forms a rectangular structure enclosing the main shrines as well as the subshrines. Open at the sides the stone roofs of these 20 feet broad corridors are supported by three hundred and sixty five and a quarter stone pillars. The corridors are 96 metres long from east to west and 125 metres from south to north. The fraction pertains to those pillars which are the memorial pillars engraved with the figures of the main carpenter or perumthachan who was in charge of the construction. The columns which are nearly twenty feet high have the figure of a lamp-bearer or deepa kanyaka and stylised reliefs of animal and human figures.
The popular method of classifying the wealth of stone sculptures inside the temple premises is to divide it into three broad categories as pre-Marthanda Varma and post-Marthanda Varma, taking the extensive renovative activity during Maharaja Marthanda Varma’s reign as the standard. One of the important pre-Marthanda Varma structures is the ‘namaskara mandapa’ in front of the older shrine of Thiruvambadi Krishnan. There are splendid carvings on the stone pillars of the mandapa which support a highly decorative wooden roof. The sculptures in stone include those of Venugopala Krishnan, Sree Rama, Sree Hanuman as well as the characters of the’ Kiratarjunaneeyam story and the ‘Vastrapaharana’ episode from the Bhagavatam. There is a striking similarity between these sculptures and those at the Mahadeva temple in Keralapuram near Thuckalay and the Adikesava temple at Thiruvattar. The stylistic features of both display attempts by the mediaeval sculptors to grow out of the deep-rooted influences of Pallava and Chola styles of sculptural art. The sculpture of Anusooyadevi, the consort of the Sage Athri is also a beautiful work that deserves mention. Incidently noted historian S. Sanku Iyer had identified this sculpture mistakenly as that of a Yakshi, the mythical seductress that haunts our groves. An inscription on a pillar in the mandapa says that the sculptures were done by a Velayudha Perumal Adityan Asari, the son of Sevesha Perumal Sivaraman Asari in the 14 century.
The Abhisravana Mandapa and the sculptures therein particularly those of the Pandavas are a tribute to the glory of the reign of Marthanda Varma. These are remarkable specimens of the fusion of Dravidian sculptural styles with the later Venadu style.
The Balikkal mandapa is a fairly large space which is again supported by huge pillars which have various splendid sculptures of Lord Siva; a warrior probably Arjuna; Rathi, the goddess of Love on a Swan; Kamadeva, the god of Love among others and the twelve foot high figure of Sree Hanuman which is also worshipped by devotees. Apart from these, there are also the terrifying figures of the guardians of the temple. What is outstanding about these is that, despite the lack of irises, the figures seem to gaze back at the onlooker.
The Kulasekhara mandapa or Aayiramkal mandapam is indeed a museum of granite sculptures, a palpable visualisation of various dhyana mantras. The construction of this pavilion was initiated by Dharma Raja in 1758 AD for the conduct of elaborate royal rites like Hiranya Garba etc. The stone roof has the whole Ramayana story carved on its outer edge and from the centre hangs a stone bell from a chain, the two carved from a single piece of granite. A cluster of musical columns support the four corners of the mandapa. The remaining twenty two pillars have carvings all around it with a main figure and lesser figures surrounding it. The most remarkable of these are surely that of four armed yoga, Venugopala Krishnan and Ganesha. Smaller sculptures particularly that of Sree Rama entrusting Hanuman with his signet ring are also captivating. The deepakanyakas are also different from others found elsewhere in the temple. These female figures seem to exude greater sensuous appeal. On the whole the Kulasekhara mandapa is a museum of beautiful and priceless icons.
Apart from sculptural art, the Sree Padmanabha Swami Temple is also a treasure-house of murals. The wall paintings found here can also be classified as belonging to the period of Marthanda Varma and after. The older paintings can still be seen on the upper portions of the walls of the main shrine and inside the shrine of Vishwaksenan. The other paintings have been repainted twice in the last century. On the western wall, one can see the Ramayana come alive. The southern wall depicts stories from Shiva Puranam and Devi Mahatmyam while the northern pictures depict the glory of Mahavishnu. The walls of the two major subshrines viz. Narasimha Swami’s and Thiruvambadi Krishnan’s are also adorned with murals that had been re-painted recently. Among the old generation of artists, two names must receive particular attention. They are Ulloor Subramaniyan Annavi and Chalayil Kalahasti. According to Huzur records, Annavi received 17 rupees as reward in 1003 ME. He was assisted by 33 artists who were paid 77061 1/4 panams for their services. These have been repainted twice by Mammiyoor School of Painters. The sculptures and murals in the temples of Kerala were generally executed by men belonging to the Ambalavasi and Viswakarma communities according to the directions of Namboothiris. Namboothiri artists and Nair artists were also engaged quite rarely. In Padmanabhaswami Temple, the equation was slightly modified and we find that the sculptors were Viswakarmas while the muralists were Tamil brahmins. It is a fact, they received not only partonage but also directions from the Travancore Kings. It was this direct involvement of the Royalty which imparted an indelible mark on the art heritage of the Sree Padmanabhaswami Temple.
Hundreds of pilgrims and tourists who visit this ancient temple daily marvel at the splendour of the temple’s architectural and artistic excellence. Being a royal temple, the hours of worship and the inviolable rituals are wound according to a traditional clock. Strict prohibition of photography has not helped to splash this heritage on colour-plates of highbrow journals in the country or abroad. This lack of exposure has certainly helped to preserve the grandeur and splendour of the artistic heritage of the Padmanabha Swami Temple for ages to come.