Article by B. Hrdayakumari, published in SURRENDER – Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple Renovation Souvenir 2002.
Anything great is many things to many people. Hence the relevance of trying to define a personal response to one of the great cultural and spiritual assets of our country.
To me, the Temple is an expanse of space defined by structures. The finiteness of the total structure is domed by the infinity of the space above. To stand on the western side of the Temple, somewhat away from the back of the main shrine and watch the temple buildings and the sky above is a deeply pleasurable experience. The sky and the deep space below, and the space that fills and overflows the Temple are all a continuum, an undisturbed oneness awesome and beautiful. Whether the sky is bright and clear, or greyish blue with mountainous clouds massing up, or enchanting with the moon and the stars, the Temple responds to it, height merging into luminous depths and an architectural expansiveness maintained by a limitless expanse enveloping it.
As one walks round and round the Temple along its pillared corridor, one again becomes conscious of space in another way – space enclosed without being confined, the clean, clear courtyards with an abundance of light and air, and the broad and lengthy corridors refreshed and cooled by every breeze that perhaps started from the Arabian sea. At times, one feels in the air, the salt of the sea. As one enters the vicinity of the shrine, there is a feeling of pressure as the space gets crowded with large stone altars, and narrow stone paved paths and many an impressive detail of sculpture or architecture. The walls are as few as possible, the pillars as many as can be aesthetically accommodated and the mandapams or altars smooth and large. One climbs the narrow steps of the stone altar in front of the sanctum sanctorum. It is one of the huge slab of stone chiselled out of some ancient rock and it is a wonder that it was hauled a long distance to this place. Standing on it, one sees the inner shrine all darkness lit by a few oil lamps. There one sees the majestic, reclining figure too awesome and graceful for words to describe. What is this space that is dark like the segment of an immense cave, space dominated by a divine presence, an image that incarnates the omnipresent.? Does the vastness of space lead to a concentration on one figure, or does space spread out from this figure to a limitlessness both spiritual and physical?
It is said that the late Maharaja Sri Chithra Thirunal told some dignitary who wanted to photograph the Temple that it was a place of worship, not a museum. One can fully appreciate the sentiment that went into those words. But I confess, I am a sort of image-worshipper delighting in every design and every bit of sculpture in this vast Temple. There are birds and beasts and flowers and fish and human and divine figures on the pillars and walls and roofs and even the small space around the tall flagstaffs. The pillars, quite a multitude of them have ‘deepadharinis’ or female figures each carrying a carved lamp. These heavy-breasted, slender-waisted, graceful women have an other-worldly look and an inscrutable smile. They seem to have life in them and thoughts and memories. On the pillars one comes across dancers, deer and cranes, couples in erotic poses, sages lost in contemplation, Sri Rama with his bow and arrows, Hanuman, and all the ten incarnations of the Lord. Stylized floral and other designs sometimes make the granite look like a piece of silk. At the eastern entrance to the inner shrine is the dancing Siva, a grand and graceful image commanding reverence. And the Kulasekhara Mandapam is a store house of images enough in number for half-a-dozen temples. Some of them are exquisitely beautiful, treasures for the whole world. There are some wall paintings too for the discerning student to appreciate. Caught in this wealth of forms and figures one feels carried away by wonder and admiration. There is also the inner compulsion to stand before every carving and study all about it and respond to its ageless beauty.
The Temple is also a plethora of customs and rituals, most of them centuries old. There are beliefs and traditions some going back to the misty past, some to the eighteenth century or later. It is rather taxing to learn about all the rituals and one can only wonder at the faith and the patience that went into the shaping of the elaborate pujas and the splendid festivals. To the student of culture and religion, the Temple offers endless material. To the lay observer, what is most interesting is that he can choose what he likes and refuse to be distracted. But who can say ‘no’ to the temptations of music, to the almost divine orchestra that accompanies the major rituals?
The order that controls the customs and rituals, and the men and the things involved and imposes a pattern on them is an indication of the managerial mastery of the authorities. The discipline of centuries and the skill and good sense of the personnel go into the quiet that prevails in the Temple. And above all is the royal decorum natural to a State Temple.
And this Temple is history, layer upon layer. The history of religion, of sculptures and architecture, of political and social movements, of the royal house of Travancore, of individual devotees – this is what the Temple has, frozen but palpitating in its granite structures. One yearns to learn a little of all this and is anguished that there is so little time. Daily time and historical time and time beyond time meet here in a rhythm one cannot understand. How long it must have taken to attain this ease to convert stone into a pliant medium? And how long for this stylization of the icons to emerge! What perfection of engineering, and what subtleties of aesthetic perception! Classical Indian tradition which informed every detail of life and its Southern variations and complements claim attention as the theme to study whether one looks at the sculpture, or the processions in the ‘vahanas’, or even the plenitude of food with which the Temple nourishes the people around. If history is also a number of biographies, the Temple brings many heroes to the mind from the unknown labourers and craftsmen to the mighty Princes who presided over the construction as well as the functioning of this centre of worship. One remembers specially three of the Maharajas – Marthanda Varma, who built the Temple in its present form, Swati Thirunal whose adoration poured forth in immortal music, and Chithira Thirunal, whose life was like a floral offering at the feet of the Lord.
From the stories, past one comes back to the present, to the people around. Here, they are walking round and round or crowding on the mandapam in front of the inner shrine. Each one is a world in himself or herself. Each one is carrying what many ‘janmas’ have given him, but may be he is conscious only of the present and its many demands. But all of them, or I should say all of us are for the moment touched by something beyond us, and subdued to its power.
And that is what the Temple is all about. Everything else is peripheral. The centre of the Temple is the still Centre of the Universe, holding and sustaining all that ever was, is and will be. It is Grace and Mercy, It is Truth, It is Supreme Consciousness; It is also Beauty incarnate with lotus eyes and golden garb. It is the Peace that every heart craves for. With folded hands and closed eyes, we stand before Him who is Padmanabha, whose presence is benediction. A silence seeps into us, the profound silence, wherein He dwells.
There is a steep incline in the National Highway NO. 47 at Karmana, a part of Thiruvananthapuram, on way to Kanyakumari. Even as the 1950s, it was a steep incline, which, over the years, have become lesser owing to repeated laying of the roads after becoming a National Highway. During the period of Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, it must have been a steep hill. The stone for the “Ottakkal Mandapam”, the single stone platform in front of the sanctum sanctorum was cut from a hill called Thirumala, north east of Karamana. The huge block of stone was mounted on a carriage with iron wheels and was hauled by elephants under the supervision of mahouts and engineers. It reached the top of the Karmana hillock. As it started being drawn downwards, the carriage began to move on its own accord, because the elephants lost control, and the weight of the stone made the carriage to slide down. One can imagine what would have happened if that huge block of uncut stone about 8*8*1 meter started to slide down the hill . Both elephants and men would have become crushed under it. Somehow, the men and elephants managed to arrest the movement of the carriage. But, however much they thought about it, they could not find a way to bring the stone safely to the foot of the hill. At that time from somewhere an “Andi Pandaram” arrived on the scene. Andi Pandarams were devotees of Lord Muruga (Subramania). They were nomadic wanderers, very shabhily dressed and lived by begging. The Pandaram approached the officers and enquired about the problem. This made them angry and they scoffed at him. But, one or two among them, just out of curiosity, asked him whether he had any solution to offer. As if it is the most simple thing on earth, the Andi Pandaram suggested a method by which the huge stone could be brought down without harm to anyone. It appealed to them and they tried it. And the stone was brought down safely. Their joy knew no bounds. They wanted to thank the Andi Pandaram and to take him to the Maharaja. But search as they might, he had vanished. From then, the belief and the legend started that, it was Sree Padmanabha Swamy himself who came to that place and helped to bring the stone safely to the plain ground. Because the Lord had come in the guise of an Andi Pandaram, the incline began to be called as “Andi Irakkam”