I recently visited Thiruvananthapuram or Trivandrum as it was known earlier. I arrived from Palakkad Town by the Amrita Express reaching early morning. The Railway Station building is a magnificent granite edifice and a significant landmark of this city. I checked into Hotel Horizon located at Aristo Junction.
The name of this city has its origins from Sri Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple a 5000 year old legendary & awe inspiring monument. This temple has been sung by the Tamil Alwar Saints and is revered as one of the 108 shrines held sacred in the Sree Vaishnavite tradition. As per Bhagavadam, Balarama was supposed have worshipped here during his pilgrimage. According to another legend Diwakar Muni, a Tulu Brahmin, was doing penance and praying to Vishnu. The Lord was pleased and appeared before him as a two yr old child. The Muni requested that the child stay with him. The Lord agreed but under one condition- that no harm shall befall the child. The Muni agreed. One day the child tried to swallow a saligrama that was kept in the puja and the muni was angry. The Muni pursued him and the child ran away. Before disappearing the child told him that he can find him in Ananthakad. The Muni searched for the Lord in Ananthakad and discovered him hidden in a tree. The tree then fell assuming the pose of Ananthasayanam. The Head was in Tiruvallam (3 miles away), the body in Tiruvananthapuram and the feet in Tirupapuram(5 miles away). The Muni was so overawed and scared that the Lord offered himself in a compact form. Till today Puja at the temple is done only by Tulu Brahmins.
The temple is located inside the Fort or "Kottai Kulle" which earlier was the private property of the erstwhile Travancore Royal family. Most of the land and buildings now belong to the State but the temple still continues to be owned by the present day "royals". The Fort itself has now transformed into a busy contemporary bazaar with a mixture of large modern showrooms & small businesses as well as residential colonies with narrow streets and heavy pedestrian and motor traffic. It is almost an independent town ship in itself. As you approach the Temple you see on your left the Puthiran Maaligai which has an exquisite clock tower with a dial type clock. To your right is a large temple tank called the Padma Teertham with plentiful cool, clean and clear water filled with fishes. It serves as a bathing ghat especially for devotees visiting the temple. You walk up a dozen steps to reach the temple and enter through the main gopuram. Entry is restricted and dress code is very strict. Cell phones and cameras are prohibited and have to be deposited at the entrance. Men can enter only if wearing white vesthi (dhoti) - Pants, shirts, banians are barred. Ladies wearing traditional saree or 'mundu nerithu' can enter with ease. Ladies wearing Shalwars/churidars need to drape a white dhoti around their waist before they are permitted entry. Dhoties are available for hire & a change room facility is provided for convenience. I did not have a dhoti; so I bought a new one from a nearby shop. There is a separate stand for leaving your footwear.
The main gopuram is a massive structure with myriad sculptures. Once inside the temple area you can see huge outer prakaram comprising large spacious stone corridors and innumerable skillfully sculpted stone pillars. There also exists a lot of open space covered with white sea sand probably transported from the Shanghumugham beach. The temple stands on a 9 acre property and is surounded by tall granite walls on all sides- a veritable fortress. The temple has a total of 366 stone pillars in the prakaram each one has a lady holding a lamp carved in it. As you go straight in you reach the Dwaja Sthambham and to your left you find the Kulasekhara Mandapam. This is also called as the Ayeeram Kal Mandapam (1000 stone). This is a unique mandapam containing many musical pillars and also pillars containing artistically & intricately carved figures & figurines of gods & Goddesses. This was supposed to be built by Kulasekara Alwar but the stone plaque says it was built by Maharaja Rama Varma. The ceiling design is sculpted from a single large stone slab and integral with this is an amazing hanging chain and bell of stone. Then you enter the inner prakaram pass through the shrine of Narasimha and as you go around the sanctum you find bright attractively coloured paintings on the outside of the sanctum walls. On the prakaram wall to the rear you see a large colour painting of Lord Vishnu in the Ananthaasayanam pose lying on the naga with hood covering his head and devotees thronging all around. Next is the Vyasar shrine and from there you enter the inner sanctum to get the most breath taking & awe inspiring view of Sri AnanthaPadmanabhaswamy. It is a stone sculpture (similar to the painting you see earlier) with Lord Vishnu reclining on Adisesha with the hood providing protection above the Lords crown. You cannot view the Lord as a whole - you view through 3 windows and see three portions namely the head, the middle portion and the legs. The Utsava murthy is visible from the middle window with Sri Vishnus two consorts - Bhodevi & Sridevi. You can also see Brahma seated on a lotus originating from Sri Vishnus navel. As you exit the inner prakaram to your left you can see a tall Anjayanaya statue. I saw the statue covered with white butter from head to toe with a vada malai around the neck.
In 1686 there was a major fire in the temple which destroyed everything except the wooden idol. In 1729 Martanda Varma replaced the wooden idol & installed one made out of Saligramam and completely rebuilt the temple prakarams.
About 1750 Tiruvananthapuram was a flourishing town and the ruling family under Raja Martanda Varma and family and relatives became staunch devotees of Padmanabha and handed over the ownership of the Travancore State to the Lord. He placed his sword at the deity's feet and then ruled as custodian of the Lord and the family called themselves Padmanabha Dasas. Till today the descendants continue to call themselves by the same name. The Maharaja comes to pray every single day through a private entrance.
Pazhavangadi Pillayar :
My next stop was Pazhavangadi Pillayar Koil situated just outside the Fort at a busy crowded intersection. This is a contemporary temple under the upkeep & maintenance of the military establishment. A large crowd had gathered at the time I visited which was around 7 pm. The rapid beating of drums & ringing of bells was in progress and the crescendo was rising. The nadai or temple door was closed with the priest inside. The crowd was waiting anxiously for the Deeparathanai. Meanwhile the number of devotees was surging and the inner & outer prakaram was bursting with people.
Breaking of coconuts is a tradition here and a separate stone trough with a hard surface is provided at the temple entrance for this purpose. Devotees were thronging this counter many with sackful of coconuts. During the short period I was present in the temple several hundred coconuts would have been thrown & smashed. The broken halves fall automatically into the trough and are immediately cleared away by volunteers. Coconut vendors parked outside the temple were doing brisk business. Smaller coconuts were available for Rs.5 apiece & larger ones for Rs.7. I too bought a couple of coconuts and smashed them against the wall. I was offered a small piece and I gratefully put it into my mouth.
Meanwhile the noise of drum beats & bells ringing continued to rise to a high pitch and suddenly the temple nadai was flung open for Deeparathanai. The priest carried out aratis with single wick, multi wick & multi tiered oil lamps. The devotees chanted and prayed and payed obeisance. It was a wonderful spiritual experience and exhilarating, enlightening and elevating.
In the morning I visited Thycaud and my first stop was the Sastha or Ayyappan temple which we had frequented often as children. The temple had been simple & unpretentious in the early days but has now transformed considerably and expanded with new mandapams & a high roof at the entrance where the dwaja sthambam stands constructed with the help of liberal donations from devotees from India & overseas. Other than the main deity 'Ayyappa' you also find Mahavishnu, Mahadeva, Anjaneya, Muruga & Vinayaka.There is also an enclosed shrine for Nagas and the Navagrahas. The interior landscaping includes several “Techi” plants with beautiful crimson flowers in bloom and several coconut palms . There is a separate mandapam for performing Ayyapa poojas and “kettu narai” for those bhaktas proceeding on pilgrimage to Sabarimalai.
From there I proceeded to the Model School where my brother Ganapathy and cousins Natarajan & Sambamoorthy had studied. My brother was a brilliant student and an excellent sportsman and received the most outstanding student Award in Class X. Unfortunately in 1959 at the tender age of 14 he was plucked away from our midst due to an unfortunate incidence of brain fever. As a memorial to him my father instituted an Award- a cup which is given away every year to the most outstanding student in Class X.
Next I visited Lakshmi Nivas (named after grandmother manni) the house where my grandparents lived. I was born in Lakshmi Nivas and spent the first 5 years of my life there along with my parents. We lived in the outhouse in the early days. Then my father who was an engineer with All India Radio was transferred out to Bombay in 1953 and the three of us moved away leaving my brother Ganapathy(Mottai) and sister Anandavalli(Kunju) behind to continue their education in Trivandrum and live with the grand parents. Kunju studied at the Parithi Kunnu (Cotton Hill) Girls High School.
Many old memories came flooding back when I entered this memorable mansion which has witnessed several births & deaths and several significant events like Weddings, Upanayanams, Kolus, Homams, Bhagavathi Sevais,Punyajanams,Tharpanams, Sastiaptapoorthy's. etc over several decades spanning over 60 years. Laxmi Nivas was a regular haunt for the summer vacation for the Travancore sisters Sarada(my periamma), Lalitha(my chitthi), Rama(my mother) and families. Rain or shine whether from Delhi, Bombay or Patna they would unfailingly keep up their annual rendezvous to Lakshmi Nivas. Ambi,Rajamoney & Moorthy (all of them my mamas) and families were regular visitors too. The holidays were real fun and spent playing games in & around the house,dining in the thavaram, going for movies,visiting the local sister Ankichi's (my periammai) house,travelling to Karamanai to visit mannis brother & his wife Ammami and to visit other relatives like Ganesan,Rasha etc. Travelling in a jutka was a unique & exciting experience. Alas jutkas have now become extinct and given way to crude automotive inventions like auto rikshas.
Many years after grandfathers death it was decided to sell the house and is currently owned by The Teachers Training Institute. They have maintained the place very well. The only changes made by them is the laying of light crimson tiles on the floor replacing the old red oxide flooring that existed earlier. This has added elegance to the interiors. The old rose wood cane sofa sets that were left behind are still in good shape and used by the occupants. The granite compound wall and steps are intact but the grilled cast iron gate has been replaced. The mangostein and vilvam trees are still standing after so many years - living but silent witnesses of our yester years. I went in to take a few snaps. The 'nadu mittam' was exactly as I remember it - perhaps a little jaded through disuse. Nostalgia swept through me - I had a vision of thatha sitting on his easy chair reading a book and smoking his favourite cigar in the massive hall while manni slowly walked up from the "tavaram" her upper torso bent over horizontally, carrying a cup of coffee !