The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram is a blend of Dravidian and Kerala styles.

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, which is in the news with the discovery of treasures in its vaults, is an imaginative amalgam of the Dravidian and Kerala architectural styles. If the structure of the sanctum sanctorum, the Dhwaja Sthambham and the Chuttambalam characterise the Kerala style, the influence of the neighbouring Tamil country is visible elsewhere — the wall of the sanctum of the Sree Krishna shrine has Tamil Vattezhuthu inscriptions dating to 1375 CE; the gopuram over the eastern entrance has hundreds of stucco figures, reflecting the Vijayanagara style of architecture; the stunning sculptures in the Kulasekhara mandapam and on the pillars of the rectangular prakara are by sculptors of the Madurai Nayaka period and in the vimana over the sanctum. It is a daring, dramatic fusion. This befits a temple where the presiding deity, Vishnu, reclines on a snake, in a rare depiction.

While no definitive age can be ascribed to the temple, popular belief is that Divakara Muni, a Tulu Brahmin hermit, built it centuries ago.

The Tamil Vaishnavite saint Nammalvar, of the Ninth century CE, sang 11 verses in praise of the “Annalaar [Lord] of Ananthapuram, who is reclining on a snake.” This establishes that the temple came into prominence before the Ninth century CE. While Nammalvar's references to “Annalar” are unambiguous, a reference in Silappadhikaram, the Tamil epic of the Second century CE, has brought forth different interpretations. Some scholars argue that “Adaga maadathu ari thuyil amarthon” denotes the reclining Vishnu at “adaga maadam,” which is the present-day Thiruvananthapuram. Mr. S. Padmanabhan, founder of the Kanyakumari Historical and Cultural Research Centre in Nagercoil, concurs. Other scholars say “adaga maadam” merely means golden temple.

The temple complex, situated on seven acres, is enclosed by fort walls. In the sanctum is “sayanamurthy,” stretched out on the serpent-couch Anantha. From Vishnu's navel rises a lotus that has Brahma seated on it. Vishnu's dangling right hand touches a Siva linga. The reclining image and the serpent consist of a wooden core covered with lime plaster and katu-sarkara, which is a mix of herbs. As many as 12,008 salagramams, sacred stones found on the bed of the Gantaki river in Nepal, are embedded in the idol. Abhishekam (libations poured on the image of the deity) is not performed on it so as to keep the katu-sarkara intact.

Similarity with Tiruvattar temple

Dr. R. Nagaswamy, a former Director of the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, and Mr. Padmanabhan, point to the striking similarity between this temple and the Adikesava Perumal temple at Tiruvattar in Kanyakumari district, in terms of plan and internal arrangement. Both are dedicated to Vishnu in the seshasayee pose. Tiruvattar is the older of the two. According to Mr. Padmanabhan, the Tiruvattar temple is also called Adhi Ananthaswamy temple.

The Tiruvattar temple does not have anything like the Padmanabhaswamy temple's Kulasekhara mandapam with sculptures belonging to the late Nayaka period, said Dr. Nagaswamy.

Mr. M.G. Sasibhooshan, cultural historian and archaeologist, said the Tiruvattar temple has beautiful granite sculptures and Deepa Lakshmis in the Sivelipura and in the Balipeedam mandapam. It has two small gopurams at the eastern and western entrance points, built in typical Kerala style. While the length of the reclining Vishnu in Tiruvattar is 18 feet, the length of the Ananthasayee at Thiruvananthapuram is 16 feet, he said.

Mr. H. Sarkar, in An Architectural Survey of the Temples of Kerala (Archaeological Survey of India, 1978), says that Padmanabhaswamy was the tutelary deity of the Ay kings (whose ancestry goes back to the Tamil Sangam age) and that the temples in Thiruvananthapuram and Tiruvattar are monuments of the Ay dynasty. Both the Venad and Travancore kings, who ruled the southern part of what is now Kerala, patronised these temples. In fact, Tiruvattar fell under the suzerainty of the Travancore kingdom, which, at one stage, ruled a stretch from Kollam in present-day Kerala to Kanyakumari and the Tamiraparani river belt in what is now Tamil Nadu.

There is a row of three doors to the sanctum of the Padmanabhaswamy temple that allow one to see the deity's face and the five-headed serpent, the lotus flower with Brahma seated on it and the feet, all separately.

In front of the sanctum is the “Ottakkal (single stone) mandapam,” a massive platform fashioned out of a block of granite, which has pillars with carvings. “The ceiling is pure artistry in itself and is made of well-seasoned wood, abounding in carvings,” says Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi, a member of the Travancore royal family, in her book Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1995).

The credit for erecting the platform goes to the King Anizhom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the maker of modern Travancore, during whose reign (1729-1758 CE) the temple got its present shape. Writes Gouri Lakshmi Bayi: “The work on this platform was started and completed under the direct supervision of Sree Anizhom Thirunal Marthanda Varma in 1731 AD. It took the tireless efforts of a huge task force comprising men, horses and elephants for 42 days to bring the stone from Thirumala, a hill in the city, to the temple.” This huge block of granite was somehow transported across the Karamana river.The temple has shrines dedicated to Ganesha, Narasimha, Krishna, Kshetrapalan and Sastha. The walls of the main sanctum and those of Krishna and Kshetrapalan have a wealth of murals, mostly of Krishna Leela scenes.

The sculptures in the Kulasekhara mandapam and hundreds of sculptures of Deepa Lakshmis and carvings on the pillars of the covered prakara are by sculptors of the late Nayaka period (18th century) of Madurai. The 100-foot-tall gopuram is dated to the 16th century CE of the Vijayanagara period. The life-size sculptures in the Kulasekhara mandapam are of Nataraja performing ananda tandava and urthva thandava, the highly ornamented Rathi and Manmatha, gypsies, the lion-headed Vyalas, Anusuya with a ladle, musical pillars and so on. All these have an uncanny resemblance to the sculptures at the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, the Nellaippar temple in Tirunelveli and the Vishnu temple at Krishnapuram near Tirunelveli.

Gouri Lakshmi Bayi calls the Kulasekhara mandapam “an extravaganza in stone” and a “living wonder of the granite sculptures, a lavish expression of pure poetry in stone.” Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma succeeded Anizhom Thirunal in 1758 CE. Karthika Thirunal built the mandapam to commemorate his receiving the title of Kulasekhara Perumal. Sculptors from the Tamil-speaking areas (such as present-day Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts) of old Travancore, and Mootha Panikkar Thottathu Ashari of what is now Kerala, contributed to the work.

The prakara, Sivelipura in Malayalam, has hundreds of Deepa Lakshmi sculptures on the granite pillars, and superb carvings of Hanuman, warriors, danseuses, couples in erotic poses, male practitioners of martial arts, and so on. The granite slabs that form the ceiling have snakes, fish and turtles carved on them. Anizhom Thirunal was the architect of the Sivelipura. The artisans were from Tamil country.

Which style?

Mr. Sarkar, in his book, does not shy away from raising the question whether the Tiruvattar temple and the Padmanabhaswamy temple were built in Dravida or Dravida-Kerala style of architecture. “The question that remains to be answered is whether they were built in Dravida or Dravida-Kerala style,” he says. “Frankly speaking, it is difficult to settle the issue,” he adds. “But if the present form is any indication, then both were built in the indigenous Kerala style...”

Gouri Lakshmi Bayi's assessment is this: “The typical Kerala features are underlined by the structure of the Sreekovil (sanctum sanctorum), the Chuttambalam, the Belikkal area, the Dhwaja Sthambham and the Chuttu Vilakku or encircling lamps and the Thirumuttam (sacred open courtyards) while the Dravidian style is projected by the huge gopuram (tower) abounding with figures and projections. The Tamil character is only natural as south Travancore had close cultural affinity with nearby Tamil Nadu regions. Moreover, many parts of southern Tamil Nadu incuding Tirunelveli were very often under the rule of the Travancore kings. Marthanda Varma himself had grown up in south Travancore and was well exposed to the Tamil influence. As such, the blending of the Tamil culture in the temple construction was unavoidable and inevitable…Since this temple too came directly under the temple tradition set down by the Namboodiri Brahmins of Kerala, it was able to retain its basic originality even though the Dravidian ideas and influences inspired its structural patterns…”

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple is indeed an eclectic edifice.

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