Thiruvananthapuram – Where God Was the King


The modern Thiruvananthapuram is the capital of the beautiful land of Kerala and was formerly known as Trivandrum. Under the royal rule of the Venad Royal family, it was called Thiruvithamkoor and also known by its anglicized name Travancore.It was one of the oldest inhabited places in India. Located on the west coast of India near the extreme south of the mainland, it was always the political nerve centre of Kerala. Ruled by some of the most powerful and liberal rulers, its life was always centered on the Padmanabha Swamy temple whose presiding deity is Sree Padmanabha or Vishnu. According to the Hindu mythology, the cosmic trinity consisted of Brahma-the creator, Shiva-the destroyer and Vishnu-the preserver. In an innovative more to pre-empt any invasions by local rivals, one of the strongest rulers Marthanda Varma consecrated the “thrippadidhanam” in the 17th century. According to this, the lord Vishnu was crowned as the actual ruler of the kingdom and the king became his servant ‘Padmanabha Dasa”. With this, Sri Padmanabha became the “actual” head of the state of Travancore, assuming the title Perumal or the Emperor. The women folk of the royal family were known as “Padmanabha Dasinis” again female servants of the lord Padmanabha. In an orthodox Hindu society, attacking the lord’s kingdom would have been sacrilege. People did and do actually believe that the lord has been administering Thiruvananthapuram and acting through the contemporary ruler. The British Government saluted the Lord with a 21-gun salute, a military tradition of colonial days, which was continued by the Indian Army until the abolition of the privy purses (in a way de-legitimizing any royal claims), by Government of India when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. The royal insignia of the Lord, the Valampiri Shankhu or dextral conch-shell, served as the State emblem of Travancore and even continued so for some time after the re-organization of the States. Sri Padmanabha is still regarded as the presiding deity of Thiruvananthapuram.

The name Thiruvananthapuram may be split into three-Thiru- Anantha-Puram, which means the city of the Holy Anantha. Anantha is the mythical, cosmic serpent with a thousand heads, on whose coils Lord Vishnu (Padmanabha) reclines. Though the temple had existed long before, it was rebuilt and brought to prominence by the King Marthanda Varma of the Travancore Royal family when, in 1745, he shifted the Travancore capital from Padamanabhapuram in the south (today in the neighboring State of Tamil Nadu) to Thiruvananthapuram. As mentioned earlier having done the “thrippadidhanam” he started reigning as ‘Padmanabha Dasa’, the servant and representative of Lord Padmanabha–perhaps a nobler variant of the ‘Divine Right Theory’ that the West is familiar with.

The ancient land of Thiruvananthapuram was built upon seven hills and having played a vital role in Kerala politics has kept pace with evolution and today has grown into a sprawling metropolis. Yet, she still retains her past glory and old charm, that is visible from the old quarter of the city clustered in and around the East Fort, a protected landmark that dates back to the Royal days. What perhaps is special about the ambience of Thiruvananthapuram is the wonderful blend of the strongly traditional, the nostalgically Colonial and the outright modern elements, be it in architecture, in food or in the dress and manners of her people.

Adding to its legend and stature is the belief that the ships of King Solomon landed on ones of its prominent ports called Ophir (modern name Poovar) in 1036 BC. However, the ancient political and cultural history of the city was almost entirely independent from that of the rest of Kerala.

The rise of modern Thiruvananthapuram began with accession of Marthanda Varma in 1729 as the founding ruler of the princely state of Travancore. Thiruvananthapuram was made the capital of Travancore in 1745. The city developed into a major intellectual and artistic centre during this period. The golden age in the city’s history was during the mid 19th century under the reign of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal (the great musician) and Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal.

With the end of the British rule in India in 1947, the glory days of the royal rule were finally over and Travancore (the kingdom was originally called such) was merged with the Indian union. The state of Kerala was formed on November 1, 1956 and in accordance with its stature, Thiruvananthapuram became the capital of the new state.

Despite a royal past, Thiruvananthapuram has kept up with the times. Apart from having the pride of being the capital of India’s most literate and socially developed state, Thiruvananthapuram is a strategically important city in Southern India. With a fledgling country desperately wanting to establish itself in the field of science, chose Thiruvananthapuram to be the cradle of India’s ambitious and now successful space programme. The presence of Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) in 1962, the first Indian space rocket was developed and launched from the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) located in the outskirts of the city in 1963. Several establishments of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) were later established in Thiruvananthapuram. It is also important from the military logistics and civil aviation point of view falling under the international air route. It is also very close to the international shipping route and East-West shipping axis.

The establishment of Technopark-India’s first IT Park in 1995 helped in its metamorphosis as a modern city. Technopark has developed into the largest IT Park in India and third largest in Asia and is home to some of the global IT giants and has fostered the development of the “knowledge warrior”. It employs more than 50,000 such warriors and these highly paid people have also contributed to its economic uplift. Thiruvananthapuram was and will always remain a prominent and contemporarily important location on the map of India.

Located at 8°30?N76°54?E? /?8.5°N 76.9°E? / 8.5; 76.9 on the west coast, near the southern tip of mainland India, Thiruvananthapuram is built on hills by the sea shore. The city and the suburbs cover an area of about 250 square kilometers, sandwiched between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. The average elevation is 16 ft from the sea level. District Area: 2192 km².

The area can be divided into two geographical regions, the lowlands, midlands and highlands. The lowland is a narrow stretch comprising shorelines, rivers and deltas, dotted with coconut palms. Vellayani Lake, biggest fresh water lake in the district is in the suburbs of the city. The major rivers that flow through the city are the Karamana River, and the Killi River. The midland region comprises low hills and valleys adjoining the Ghats. The eastern suburbs of the city fall within the highlands, whose highest point in the district is the Agasthyakudam which rises 1890 m above sea level. Ponmudi and Mukkunimala are hill-stations near the city.

The regal land is blessed with a long shoreline, dotted with internationally renowned beaches, historic monuments, backwater stretches and a rich cultural heritage converting this into a much sought after tourist destination. With a tradition dating back to 1000BC, lies on a small strip of land with plenty of coconut & palm trees, and an active trading post for spices, sandalwood, ivory etc.

Thiruvananthapuram has a rich cultural background thanks to the rulers of erstwhile Travancore, who took an active interest in the development of arts and culture. Thiruvananthapuram has produced several great artists, the most famous ones being Maharaja Swathi Thirunal (musician) and Raja Ravi Varma (painter). Maharaja Swathi Thirunal was a great composer and played a vital role in the development of Carnatic music. There is a music college in his name in the city – Swathi Thirunal College of Music. Raja Ravi Varma was an illustrious painter of international renown. His contributions to Indian art are substantial.

Ancient history
While most parts of Kerala were dominated by the Brahmin Namboodhiris, Thiruvananthapuram was under the Ay dynasty, a clan known for its rich traditional and religious heritage. The Ays were the leading political power till the beginning of the 10th century A.D. and its writ extended from Nagerkovil in the South to Thiruvalla in the North. The Ays were caught in between the constant and recurring tussle for political power between the Chera-Chola dynasties (powerful entities of south India fighting for dominance of the region) wars from 999 to 1110 A.D. All of the regions were attacked and sacked by the Chola army, till they were forced to retreat to Kottar in 1110 A.D. The annihilation of the Ay dynasty led to the emergence of the rulers of Venad. Under the Ays, the most prominent city was Vizhinjham which had a famous port of the same name and also housed a famous university (Kanthalur Salai). The Venad rulers set up efficient administrative systems and the kingdom saw its pinnacle under the King, Udaya Marthanda. The Venad rule brought about development of Kerala into a capital of art and learning. Ravi Varma Kulashekhara was a renowned scholar and musician. He became the mentor for artists, musicians, poets of Thiruvananthapuram. A great writer himself, he has penned the Sanskrit play “Pradyumnabhyudayam”. The pro-active rule of the Venads made Thiruvananthapuram, the region then known by the name of Travancore, a bustling trading center.

According to legends, the Padamanabhapuram temple existed from earlier times thus lending the land a certain divine sanction. Though the Venad royal family remained the last ruling family in the region, establishing its authority was not an easy affair. Since Padmanabhaswami temple was the pivot around which life revolved, acquiring control of its affair was a strategic prerogative. The tussle between royalty and the traditional administrators of the temple was inevitable. During their rule, the trustees of the temple (Ettarayogam) became powerful enough to challenge the authority of the rulers. The king Raja Aditya Varma was poisoned by them, and five out of six children of Umayamma Rani were murdered by them. After the death of Aditya Varma, the kingdom was under the regency of Umayamma Rani. During this time, Travancore was invaded by a Mughal adventurer, Mughal Sirdar, forcing the Rani to take refuge in Nedumangad. The Sardar camped in the suburbs of the present day Thiruvananthapuram, till he was defeated by Kerala Varma, a prince from the Kottayam royal family, adopted into the Venad royal family. The Rani was brought back in triumph to Thiruvananthapuram, but in 1696 A.D., Kottayam Kerala Varma the hero was assassinated by the temple trustees within the precincts of his own palace in a daring act. Though eventually, through deceit, blood and iron, the control of the temple affairs came to the hands of the royal family thus eventually offering their rule legitimacy. The temple has always remained the key for sanctity to rule.

The regency of Umayamma Rani was crucial in the history of Thiruvananthapuram since it was during her regency in 1684, that the English East India Company obtained a sandy piece of land at Anchuthengu (land o the five coconut trees-Anjengo (anglicized) on the sea coast, about 32 km north of Thiruvananthapuram city, for erecting a factory and fortifying it. The place had earlier been frequented by the Portuguese and later by the Dutch. It was from here that the English gradually extended their domain to other parts of Thiruvithamkoor anglicized as Travancore. One may say this transaction with the British eventually proved a turning point for the Venad royal family as the British eventually took control of the affairs of the region with very limited powers left in the hands of its original rulers.

Though Portuguese were the first Europeans to land on the West coast of Kerala in the early sixteenth century, it was the Dutch who built dominated the trade. By the middle of 1600, the Dutch had entrenched themselves firmly in Travancore. Their dominance was disturbed by the invasion of the Mysore strongman Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. With the ascension of Marthanda Varma and his strong rule literally drove the Dutch out from the region. The exit of the Dutch led the way for the British domination. With south Indian rulers weakened by constant wars, the British saw an opportunity for itself. They started their campaign to oust all the European countries trading in the region by the end 1600s they ended up not just as dominant traders but as rulers of most parts of the Kerala including the Travancore. The only resistance to British dominance was put up by the French which was effectively thwarted. The East India Company had finally “arrived” in Kerala. It was a long journey “having started with a small “factory” at Anchuthengu-a small sandy strip, bought from then ruler Umayamma Rani, they ended up as rulers. Though the Venad family continued as regal heads with diluted powers mainly related to agrarian affairs, till the independence of India on 15th August, 1947, it was the British who were truly kings.

Conclusion: Despite the ascendancy of some strong rulers like Marthanda Varma, the politics and economy of Kerala was dominated by foreign powers predominantly Europeans. Even “God” who was the “real” ruler couldn’t prevent this domination by foreign powers. In a way, Thiruvananthapuram’s history is Kerala’s history in turn India’s history.

Padmanabha Swamy Temple-the axis mundi

A must on every tourist’s itinerary, the ancient Padmanabhaswami temple is believed to be one of the 108 shrines (divyadesams) sacred to the Vaishnavites (followers of God Vishnu) in India. Architecture has the power of dominating the mind of the masses and the sheer size of its 100-feet-high (with seven stories) gopuram (tower) soaring majestically skywards does not fail to evoke an awe-inspiring experience. Within its hallowed precincts, the main pavilion impresses with its 400 beautiful pillars carved out of granite. The temple has a corridor with 365 and one-quarter sculptured granite-stone pillars with elaborate carvings. This corridor extends from the eastern side into the sanctum sanctorum.The stone basement of the tower is covered with elaborate sculptures and the masonry above is replete with ornamental works of figures from the Puranas and other ancient Hindu scriptures. Tapering towards the top, it bears the statue of Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu. The temple stands by the side of a tank, called Padma Theertham (meaning spring of the lotus). An eighty-foot flag-staff stands in front of the main entry from the ‘prakaram’ (corridor). The ground floor under the gopuram (main entrance in the eastern side) is known as the ‘Nataka-Shala’ where the famous temple art, Kathakali was staged in the night during the ten-day uthsavam (festival) conducted twice a year, during the Malayalam months of Meenam and Thulam.

Well guarded with a number of massive doors, the sanctum sanctorum or Garbhagriha is carved out of a single stone and hence called “Ottakkal Mandapam” (meaning pavilion carved out of a single rock). In order to perform darshan and puja, one has to climb on to the “Ottakkal Mandapam”. The deity is huge and is visible through three doors – Face of the Lord and Siva Linga underneath his hand in the first door, Brahma seated on lotus emanating from the Lord’s navel along with the “Uthsava Moorthi” and idols of Lord Maha Vishnu, Sridevi and Bhudevi in the second door and the Lord’s feet in the third door. The deity, Padmanabha, is depicted Lying in a reclining position over the serpent Anantha or Adi Sesha in the form of Maha-Vishnu in Yoganidra posture. This sleep of the lord has been called Anananthasayanam (eternal cosmic sleep). The serpent has his face pointed upwards, as if enjoying the smell emanating from the lotus held in his left hand. The idol is made up of 10,008 Salagramas (stones from water bodies considered to be symbolic of Vishnu). These Salagramas were procured from the banks of the river Gandaki in Nepal, brought with much ceremony on elephants.

Only the King of Travancore may perform the Namaskaram, or bow prostrate on this “Ottakkal Mandapam”. Since the idol of the Lord is also on this “Ottakkal Mandapam”, anybody who bows prostrate, or any material object that is kept here, henceforth belongs to the Lord. Here, the King is called a “Padmanabha Dasa”, or a “servant” of Vishnu.

There are other important shrines inside the temple dedicated to other Hindu deities like Narasimha, Krishna, Ayyappa, Ganesha, Hanuman, Vishwaksena, Garuda etc. It was recently discovered that the main idol is entirely cast in gold except for the face and chest. Katu-sarkara-yogam, a dark colored ayurvedic paste used to keep flies and pests away was applied on the entire idol in order to disguise its intrinsic medium in order to thwart its looting the Muslim invaders

Keeping with its reputation as a centre of power, several kings, queens, other members of royalty and nobility have also built their palaces and mansions in and around the temple. It may be said that the region around the temple formed the sanctum sanctorum of Thiruvananthapuram.

Padmanabhaswami Temple stands at a place considered as one of the seven Parashurama Kshetras; texts including the Puranas, particularly the Skanda Purana and Padma Purana, have references for this shrine. According to tradition, it is located on the place where Vishnu revealed himself to sages Divakara Swami and Vilvamangalam Swami. There are many legends regarding the origin of the temple. One story describes that a Pulaya (one of the lowest castes in the discriminatory caste system) couple was given the darshan by Vishnu in the form of a child. The child took morsels of rice from the hands of the couple (in those days when Untouchability was practices, the lord taking food from a Pulaya couple was rather melodramatic). During this time, the sage Divakara passed by and he recognised the “boy” and he took the first food item he saw which was an Unripe Mango and using a coconut shell as an offering plate, he paid his obeisance. In memory of this legend, even today the naivedyam or the offering to the laity after a pooja is prepared from rice and is offered to the deity in a coconut shell. Another version describes that the Sage Divakara prayed to the God Krishna for a darshan. Krishna (a manifestation of Vishnu) gave an audience but in the guise as a small, mischievous boy. The boy swallowed the Salagrama (sacred stone symbolizing God Vishnu) which was being prayed to. The Sage was enraged at this act and chased the boy. He in fear hid himself behind a tree. The tree collapsed and took the form of Vishnu in Anantha Shayanam. But the form was of extraordinarily large proportions. The sage was amazed and overwhelmed by this life-altering experience. He was unable to fathom the entire form due to its sheer size and pleaded the form may be shrunk enough for him to see and circumambulate in devotion. The Lord respecting the sage’s vision shrink to a smaller proportion – thrice the length of his staff and told the sage that he should be worshipped through three doors. These doors are now the doors in the temple through which the idol may be viewed. Through the first door, the worship is offered to Shiva; through the second entrance to Brahma on the Lord’s lotus navel, and through the third is Vishnu’s feet, which are said to lead to salvation.

The temple is known for major festivals. Two of them are celebrated bi-annually-the Alpashy festival in October/November and the Painkuni festival in March/April, lasting for 10 days each. These festivals culminate with the performance of the Pallivetta (Royal hunt) and Aarattu (Holy bath) -the two important rituals held as part of the festivals in some of the major temples in Kerala. The uniqueness of the Aarattu at Sree Padmanabhaswami temple is that the head of the royal family of the erstwhile Travancore kingdom still escorts the idols during the procession donning his traditional attire. During Pallivetta the head of the royal family shoots a tender coconut using a bow and arrow. This ritual is symbolic of Lord Vishnu hunting down the demon of evil in a forest and is held in front of the Sundara-vilasam Palace inside the Thiruvananthapuram fort. The Aarat or the holy bath after taken in a procession to the Shankumugham Beach. The idols of Padmanabhaswami, Krishna and Narasimha are given a ritual bathe in the sea, after the prescribed poojas. After this ceremony, the idols are taken back to the temple as a procession in the light of traditional torches, marking the conclusion of the festival. It is also famous for Navaratri festival wherein the mother goddess is venerated in different manifestations including that of Saraswati & Durga. This festival lasts for 9 days. The iconic Swathi Thirunal (a famous musician-king) music festival is held every year during this festival that attracts musicians from all over the country and is a musical-feast.

Another biggest festival associated with this temple is the “Laksha-deepam”, which means the lighting of a hundred thousand lamps. This unique festival is unique and happens once in 6 years. In preparation of the festival, prayers from the Vedas (holy texts of the Hindus) are recited for 56 days and with the commencement of the festival, a hundred thousand oil lamps are lit in and around the temple premises. The reflection of the bright gopura is visible on the Padma Theertham and is an awesome sight. The last Laksha-deepam was in 2008 and the next one is slated to be held on January 2014

Other prominent places to visit (just a few of them):

(1) The Napier Museum- it is named after the former governor of Madras, General John Napier. The building with its profusion of gables and turrets is beautiful and the outcome of the creative thoughts of the English architect Chisholm. It is a product of ecclectical ideas and combines varying architectural styles. It is located within the aptly named museum compound and close to the iconic Kanakakunnu (golden hill) Palace. A repository of fine works of art, it displays rare archaeological and historical artifacts including bronze idols, ivory carvings, Stone sculptures and ornaments dating from 11th century to the 18th century. The chief attraction here is the 250-year-old temple car made for Lord Vishnu (Padmanabha), artistically designed and ornamented. Besides this, objects carved out of wood, models of temple, antique jewelry, etc., make the museum worth a visit. The museum better known as Thiruvananthapuram museum or Art museum was built in 1855 making it the oldest in Kerala.

(2) Sree Chithra Art Gallery is also located within the Museum compound and displays a rare collection of paintings. Its main attractions are paintings by Raja Ravi Varma, Nicholas Roerich, Rabindranath Tagore, Jamimi Roy, K. K. Hebar, along with miniatures from the Rajput and Mughal schools of painting and the famous Tanjore paintings encrusted with semi-precious stones and mural paintings typifying malayali culture. It also exhibits paintings from around the world including China, Japan, Tibet and Bali. It was inaugurated the KingChithira Thirunal in 1935. The most important collection includes rare mural paintings dating back to the pre historic time. The Sree Chithra Enclave is located adjacent to the gallery. This is a museum that depicts the history of the Travancore Royal Family and displays their personal belongings and artifacts including old newspaper clippings.

(3) Palace museum also known as the Kuthira Malika (Puthenmalika) Palace: It islocated on the eastern entrance of the Padmanabhaswami temple. It has a good collection of many antique items used during the reign of the Travancore kings. The museum is well maintained and has artifacts, paintings, wood carvings, huge chandeliers, Belgian glass mirrors, marble sculptures, weapons, portraits of Travancore kings & their thrones. Being an erstwhile royal building built by famous musician-King Swathi Thirunal in 1844, it is also a walk into the haloed residence of the kings. The building is called Kuthiramalika(Horse palace) because the palace exterior has a lot of wooden horse figures carved into it. This beautiful, two storied, 80-room palace was built based on the traditional Kerala architecture.

(4) The Kanakakunnu Palace. The red and white colored Palace is one of the major tourist attractions of the city. It is located well within its centre. Located besides the Napier Museum, it is an architectural classic is often the venue for exhibitions and cultural programs. It was originally commissioned by the then Travancore King, Moolam Thirunal and built on the crest of a small hill surrounded by meadows and grooves, it was used to hold royal banquets.

(5) Navarathri Mandapam: It islocated adjacent to the Padmanabha Swami temple, near the Kuthira Malika Palace. It is the venue of the 10-day annual Navarathri celebrations.

(6) Sree Parashurama Temple, Thiruvallam- The temple lies six kilometers south from the city, on the Thiruvananthapuram-Kovalam road. According to the prevailing local traditions, this temple is2000 years old temple and lies on the banks of Karamana River. Origin myths of Kerala attribute its creation to the warrior-sage Parashurama (an avatar of lord Vishnu). It is the only temple in Kerala dedicated to him. Ancestor-worship being widely prevalent in Kerala, this is “the” spot for ‘Balitharpanam’ (annual offering to dead for the peace of their soul). The temple is a protected monument and had been dated back to the 13th century.

(7) Shanmugham Beach- Another splendid beach, it is located close to the airport 8 kilometers from the city. It is the best place to watch sunset. The famous 35 m long “Matsya Kanyaka’ (the mermaid) sculpture designed by the local artist Kanayi Kunjiraman is an added attraction here. One may see a few palaces, old pavilions etc in and around the beach.

(8) Kovalam- The iconic beach of Kerala known as the “Paradise of the South”, is located 16 kilometers from Thiruvananthapuram city has been on the tourists’ radar since the 1930’s. The name in local vernacular means “a grove of coconut trees” and true to its name the village offers an endless sight of coconut trees. It consists of two adjacent beaches- ‘Samudra’ and the ‘Howah’. The Howah beach has black sand and is a contrast to the pristine white sands of Kovalam. There is an Lighthouse that stands as a sentinel to the old times when merchant ships from other lands would arrive for trading. These beaches are close to the Vizhinjham port.

(9) Vizhinjham Rock Cut Cave Temple: dating backto the18th century, these cave temples are dedicated to Vinandhara Dakshinamurthi (a benevolent manifestation of the destroyer among the Hindu trinity lord Shiva). It is about 17 kilometers from the Thiruvananthapuram city. Located between a small well maintained garden, it also has sculptures related to Lord Siva and Parvathy. The cave is a recent discovery.

(10) Varkala: it is an important Hindu pilgrimage center in this region. Its fame originates from the presence of the ‘Papanasham’ (Papanasham means redemption from sins or destruction of sins) beach, The Janardhana Swami Temple (2000 years old according to “legends”) and Sivagiri. The Papanasham beach also known as the Varkala beach lies 45 kilometers away from Thiruvananthapuram. It is also ideal for viewing the sunset. Red laterite cliffs’ overlooking the beach is the main attraction. According to mythology, the sage Naradha created the place Varkala with his ‘Valkalam’ (cloth made of the bark of a tree), and he advised his disciples to pray sitting along the seashore for their salvation. The Janardhana Swami temple deifies Lord Siva, Lord Krishna and Hanuman as important deities. Though non-Hindus are not permitted to enter the inner sanctum of the temple, others can see around the temple. Sivagiri is the final resting place of the great social reformer Sree Narayana Guru and lies on a hilltop 3 kilometers from Varkala at Sivagiri. A caste-ridden asymmetrical society Kerala was described by Swami Vivekananda as a “madhouse”. It was Narayana Guru who himself belonged to the backward “Ezhava community” who tried effectively to bring about a change in such outdated thinking processes. His motto was “one caste”, “one religion” and “One god for entire mankind”. He has been deified and continues to be the symbol of Kerala’s struggle for social equality.

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