A temple with a hoary past

Neelakanta Swamy temple is located to the east of Padmanabhapuram palace in Kanyakumari district

Published - March 10, 2017 04:49 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

The tank and the pavilion of the Neelakanta Swamy temple, set against the backdrop of Veli hill

The tank and the pavilion of the Neelakanta Swamy temple, set against the backdrop of Veli hill

Nestled at the foot of the majestic Veli hill, the historic Padmanabhapuram palace complex is an architectural marvel. The grand complex, consisting of several palaces, treasury, offices, temples, ponds, and guest houses, was converted into a museum in 1935.

Enclosed within the fort walls is a remarkable settlement, its pattern clearly defined by the caste-based social hierarchy of yesterday. The houses of the nobles and important officials, once associated with the royals, is seen strewn about the palace complex. Surprisingly, the core of this settlement is not the sprawling palace complex, but a temple!

A general view of the temple and the tank

A general view of the temple and the tank

Not all tourists who make it to Padmanabhapuram palace complex visit Neelakanta Swamy temple. Located to the East of the palace complex, the temple, its imposing gopuram and emerald green tank, is mostly hidden from the eyes of tourists.

Architectural style

The architectural style is undeniably Dravidian, the lofty gopuram and the beautifully carved stone pillars bear testimony to the skill of the master craftsmen associated with its construction. Even though the exact date of its origin remains elusive, the temple and its legends make the warp and weft of local legends. The temple houses several inscriptions dating from the thirteenth century, perhaps a clue to its antiquated heritage. While the oldest inscriptions found in the temple date back to the early thirteenth century, the latter ones could be dated to the early twentieth century. One such inscription can be seen in the Western side of the temple tank. The inscription from 1907 A.D. records the name of Dewan Peishkar Narayana Iyen Subramanya Iyen and the then ruler.

The temple, as the name indicates, is dedicated to Lord Siva. However, one can find alongside the main shrine, another shrine housing Anandavalli Devi, the idol bearing close resemblance to the one seen in the famed Madurai Meenakshi temple. The idol of the Goddess (then known as Meenakshi Amman ) was installed, in 1635 A.D., by none other than Thirumala Nayak of the Madurai Nayak dynasty. Later, Anizham Tirunal Marthanda Varma renamed the Goddess as Anandavalli Devi. The generous patronage extended by Thirumala Nayak and Marthanda Varma is permanently recorded in the temple in the form of two life size carvings of both the rulers, seen with folded hands, facing the shrine of the Goddess. The expansive temple tank is lined with stone steps and separate bathing ghats for men and women; the grand pavilion in the centre is lit-up with lamps for festivals.

The interior of the Neelakanta Swamy Temple inside the Padmanabhapuram fort complex

The interior of the Neelakanta Swamy Temple inside the Padmanabhapuram fort complex

An important destination in the Sivalaya Ottam (ritual marathon undertaken on Sivarathri when devotees visit 12 Siva temples), Neelakanta Swamy temple and its charming rural setting comes to life during Navarathri and the annual festival conducted in the Tamil month of Panguni (March-April).

(The author is a conservation architect and history buff)

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