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Feb 01, 2014

Padmatheerdham: The Embodiment of Spiritual Purity

Sharat Sunder Rajeev
image Sharat Sunder Rajeev is an Assistant Professor at Mc Gans Ooty School of Architecture. He has a keen interest in the unique architechture of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore and stories on this city. He  graduated in Architecture from College of Engineering, Trivandrum and studied Architectureal conversation from School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. He is an immensely talented artist and an ardent blogger. He contributes to the column 'Art & Architecture' in from this month. 

February 6, 2000; it was a Sunday, the day for attending the drawing classes at Chitrakalamandalam. Chitrakalamandalam, the art school was then housed in an old ottupura on the northern side of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. As a history freak it was an experience studying there in the old building. I still remember the dark cellar by the side of the courtyard, where we kept our drawing paper and paint brushes, the huge kalthotti and the wooden bed with beautifully carved legs. Many of the rooms were closed and were accessible only to the temple and palace officials and we kids used to peep through the key hole, hoping to find some treasure chest inside the dark rooms.

Yes, it was February 6, 2000 and that day I was not in a mood to attend the drawing lessons. I went to my father's studio and in the afternoon I coaxed him to take me inside the Fort, to the banks of Padmatheertham, where there was an old man who sold coins and other interesting stuff. As we entered the Fort premises we could sense some trouble, a crowd had gathered around Padmatheertham tank, some of them seemed sad, some of them were arguing with others. The police were trying hard to remove the crowd from the banks of the tank. On one corner stood a group of old men, silently staring at the tank, I could see deep sorrow and disbelief in their eyes.

By then someone told my father that a man was drowned to death in Padmatheertham!

The next day newspapers carried the shocking news in the front page, with pictures. We, the residents of Thiruvananthapuram had not relieved from the shock. For us Padmatheertham was the most sacred tank, an embodiment of spiritual purity, and now a man was cold bloodedly murdered in the same sacred tank.

 The temple and the tank in 1900s - Photograph taken by Royal Photographer J.B. D'cruz. 

The old folk of Thiruvananthapuram who live in the precincts of the temple had an intimate association with the temple tank. For some, the tank and its banks were a favourite 'hangout', where they would gather with like age group to discuss about all things under the sky. Years back when the temple tank was free from the ugly railing surrounding it, the old folk used to spend hours sitting in the steps and the small mandapams around the tank. The serene waters of the tank, with the reflection of the pagoda and the smell of camphor and incense put on a divine ambience. Later the authorities installed iron railing all around and the pilgrims and visitors were charged to enter the mandapams and to take a dip in the tank. This physical barrier brought about a distance between the tank and the people. The newer generation did not have the 'intimate' relation the seniors had with the tank. Times were fast changing; the tank which was once known for its purity had began to stink!

Seniors 'hangout' in the banks of Padmatheertham (1970s)- Photograph from the private collection of K. Hari. 

How old is Padmatheertham?

No one seems to have a correct answer; however, no one is doubtful about the antiquity associated with the tank, for it finds mention in ancient works regarding the temple and the temple town. The tank must be as old as the temple itself.

Ananthapuravarnanam (12th-13th century work) gives us a long list of sacred ponds once associated with the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple and other sacred shrines within its precincts. Indratheertham (Attakulam), Brihutheertham (Manacaud Sree Dharma Sastha temple pond), Agnitheertham (Agneeshwara temple pond), Varahatheertham (Sree Varaham temple pond), Dakshina Ganga (Thekkanamkara canal), Agasthyakundam(Mithranandapuram temple pond), Kanvatheertham (Chettikulam), Varunatheertham(Karippukoikkal pond), Rudratheertham (Chirakkulam), Somatheertham (Manjalikulam)Ramatheertham (Vaniyankulam), Ananthatheertham (Padmatheertham), Çshanatheertham(old Nandavanam pond), unfortunately many of these water bodies have vanished from the topography of Thiruvananthapuram (Prof. A.G. Menon,  History of the Sree Padmanabhaswami Temple). Padmatheertham was a small tank in its early days, with may be a modest flight of steps leading to the water. Later it was during the reign of Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma(1729-1758) that the area of the tank was expanded and the ghats were added (Shasi Bhooshan M.G., Dr. Raja R.P., Charithramkuricha Sree Padmanabha Swamy Kshetram, D.C. Books (2011).

The tank had a companion, the Patrakulam, another tank which has disappeared from the geography of the Fort area. Marthanda Varma, who built check dams and tanks in Nanjinadu to irrigate the farmlands, had developed an excellent drainage system for Thiruvananthapuram also. The temple tank was constantly kept clean with the water from the Killi Ar, brought in by a small rivulet. The spillover from the Padmatheertham would flow to the nearby Patrakulam and then the water from the pond was in early days directed to the other ponds and to the gardens around the temple. Later the Thekkinakkara canal drained the water to the Parvathy Putten Canal, to the west of the Fort area. When Patrakulam vanished, the old drainage system also become partly defunct. 

The temple premises during early quarter of 20th century. 

Picture from Life Collections, 1950s. 

 Padmatheertham, Patrakulam and the drainage system highlighted in dark blue - The map used here is a cropped portion of the 'Trivandrum Guide Map' (Survey of India 1968-69) 

Padmatheertham and Patrakulam during the last quarter of 19th century - engraving from  ' Native Life in Travancore' by Rev. Samuel Matteer. 

In the old days, in a society segregated by caste, Padmatheertham was always reserved for the use of the elite communities. Only royals, nobles and the Brahmins were allowed to use the tank. Every morning the residents from the nearby agraharams would gather there to perform the ambulation before entering the temple. This traditional system had a periodic way of keeping the tank clean. The tank was cleaned in every six years for the Lakshadeepam ceremony associated with the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. During murajapam the temple and its precincts would be crowded with Brahmins and certain rituals were also conducted in the tank. The tank has a small vault in its center where the leftover sâlagramams used to make the idol of Sree Padmanabha Swamy is stored. It was during the time of Sree Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma (1885-1924) that the Maharaja kept inside the vault the water from the sacred rivers from all over India, thus adding to its sanctity. The tank holds in its depth several interesting tit bits of history. When Travancoreans were shocked to hear about the murder in the temple tank many recalled a similar incident which took place in the days of Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma (1758-1798). Once Tippu Sultan send a spy disguised as a sanyasi to the Travancore court, the man with his exceptional talents soon gained entry inside the Fort. He is said to walked over the sacred tank with his yogic skill, however, the sanyasi was drowned in the same waters by Makayiram Thirunal, the younger brother of the King who found out that the sanyasi was a spy from Mysore. 

The famed vocalist Sreekanteswaram Ratnakaran Bagavathar shared with the author his feelings for Padmatheertham. Ratnakaran Bhagavathar who came to Thiruvananthapuram in 1940s started his career as an ivory carver. He worked in a private firm in Palayam. Ratnakaran hailed from a family of craftsmen from Kadakkavoor. Some of his ancestors and relatives were well known artists and musicians. Ratnakaran who had the affinity towards music devoted his free time listening music and attending concerts. One of his favourite hangouts in the city was the banks of Padmatheertham, there he would spend his evenings sitting in the granite steps, with his feet in the water and lend his ears to the music from the nearby small shops. The tank and its serene environment had helped in surviving the artist within.

The tank in its present state is a ghost of its glorious past; the old drainage system had once kept the water clean. Now the choked drain keeps the stagnant water in the tank itself, infested with dirt and algae. The temple authorities once tried to pump the water from the depths to aerate the murky water through surface agitation, thinking that it would help in improving the tanks condition. But looking back one wonders how effective the whole process was.

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