The order was given during the hearing of a private petition seeking transparency in the running of the temple.
Some years ago, the Supreme Court had caused quite a stir when it ordered the opening of six subterranean vaults at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple at Thiruvananthapuram — Kerala’s capital. The temple is one of the 108 principal centres of Vaishnavism where Lord Padmanabha, a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, is worshiped. The order was given during the hearing of a private petition seeking transparency in the running of the temple. As ordered, five of its six vaults were opened on June 27, 2011, but the sixth remained tightly closed despite all efforts. The vast treasure that was discovered is said to be more than that has ever been seen in the recorded history of the world. It includes the largest collection of gold and precious stones — gold thrones, crowns, coins, statues and ornaments made with diamonds and other precious stones. Needless to say, the fact that the sixth vault, so firmly closed, and two more vaults that were later discovered have remained closed as the Supreme Court has since halted the opening of any more vaults.
The valuables have no doubt accumulated in the temple over several thousands of years, having been donated to the Deity, and subsequently stored in the temple by the various dynasties that have ruled the area — there were the Cheras, the Pandyas, the Travancore royal family, the Kolathiris, the Pallavas and the Cholas and many other kings in the recorded history of both South India and beyond. There were also the rulers and traders of Mesopotamia, Jerusalem, Greece, Rome and later the colonial powers from Europe.
Standing tall across the lake, the temple’s gold-plated grandeur leaves one awestruck. With its references in the epics and the Puranas, we know that the temple holds great importance in the history of Hinduism and was established over 5,000 years ago. So much so that one almost begins to believe the words of the Bhagwad Gita, that this is the temple where the great “Balarama bathed in the Padmatheertham and made offerings to the Lord.” Built as a replica of the Adikesava Perumal Temple in Thiruvattar, even after much research and study, historians and archaeologists have been unable to determine its exact age.
The next question should be who owns this splendid temple? The answer is the royal family of Travancore, who lost their ruling rights on their kingdom when Travancore merged with the Indian Union in 1949. They are descendants of the Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas and others. According to existing myths, the founding members of the Travancore royal family are said to have come to Kerala from the banks of the Narmada river. There is also a claim that their history can be traced to 820 CE, based on the story that they are descended from the Cheras of the three southern Indian Mandala kingdoms — Chera Mandalam, Pandya Mandalam and Chola Mandalam.
The kingdom of Travancore was dedicated to the ruling family’s deity, Sree Padmanabhaswamy, by Maharajah Sree Anizham Thirunal in 1750. On January 3rd and thereafter, he was referred to as Sree Padmanabhadasa Vanchipaala Maharajah Sree Anizham Thirunal Veerabaala Marthanda Varma Kulasekharaperumal. All the kings of Travancore who came after him all took the title of “Sree Padmanabhadasa” — thereby ruling the kingdom as a servant of the family deity.
The line of Travancore kings followed the Marumakkathayam law of matrilineal succession, the royal family thus continued the female line. Whenever there were no females to take forth the line, princesses were adopted from the Kolathiri family — the latest adoption being in 1994. Umayamma Rani, who reigned at the end of the 17th century, was considered a prominent ruler. Among the males, Marthanda Varma, the “maker of modern Travancore” and Dharma Raja were powerful rulers who re-established the power of the monarchy in the state, which had been slowly destroyed by courtiers and nobles.
By the early 19th century Travancore became a princely state under the British. During British rule, the Maharajah of Travancore was given a 19-gun salute outside Travancore while within the kingdom and for all temple festivals, the highest salute of 21 guns was fired. One of the most popular rulers of the 19th century was Swathi Thiunal and during his rule, there were considerable improvements in the field of administration as well as in art and music. The reign of Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma brought about revolutionary reforms such as temple entry proclamations, free and compulsory education for all and more. He was referred to as “The Father of Travancore Industrialisation” and in his book, V.P. Menon writes that under Chithira Thirunal’s reign, Travancore had become the second-most prosperous princely state in the British Empire.
The members of the royal family were earlier based at Thuckalay, and resided at the Padmanabhapuram Palace located at the foothills of the Veli Hills on the Western Ghats. The palace, which is made entirely of wood, is a fine example of craftsmanship and a very popular tourist haunt. It was built in the 16th century by Ravipillai Ravivarma Kulasekhara Perumal of Travancore. Named after the lotus that came out of the navel of Lord Vishnu (padma meaning lotus and nabha — navel), the Padmanabhapuram Palace was the seat of power of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore. The interior of the palace offers splendid detailed rosewood and teakwood carvings, oil lamps, huge earthen urns and jackfruit tree columns, fine Chinese carved chairs and 17th and 18th century murals on the walls and ceilings.
Swathi Thirumal Rama Varma decided to move closer to the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple at Thiruvananthapuram. He built his residence on the southeastern side of the temple and named it Kuthiramalika (mansion of horses) — named after the 122 horses that are carved into the wooden wall brackets that support the roof on the southern side. The official name of the palace is Puthen Malika (new mansion). The palace has a vast complex of royal buildings, but after Swathi Thirumal’s death in 1846, it was left unoccupied for more than a century.
Built in the 1840s, Kuthiramalika is an example of traditional Keralian architecture, with its typical sloping roofs, overhanging eaves, pillared verandahs and enclosed courtyards. Intricate carvings adorn the wooden ceilings, with each room having a distinctive pattern. (The palace is made of teakwood, rosewood, marble and granite. The roof is supported by granite pillars while 42 beams support the floral carved panels. The palace contains 80 rooms, of which 16 rooms are constructed in 16 different patterns. Visitors are allowed to see 20 of the rooms that were opened to the public from 1995.
The last ruling monarch of Travancore was Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, who died on July 20, 1991. His younger brother Sree Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma died at a private hospital on December 16, 2013. He is succeeded by Sree Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma, son of Maharani Karthika Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi and Lt. Col. Goda Varma G.V. Raja.
The writer is an author, a professional communicator and an intrepid traveller