I’m in deep withdrawal for Kerala. Just two days this week in Thiruvananthapuram for a National Seminar on Indian Classical Dances hosted by the Kerala government. But those two days were pure happiness because a) I was in South India, b) it was raining and ‘lastly but not leastly’ as we Indians like to say, I got to hang out at the ambalam (temple) of Sri Padmanabhaswamy in whose name Travancore was ruled by its former kings.
The British even did a 21-gun salute to the deity (the highest in the imperial hierarchy, accorded only to the rulers of erstwhiles like Mysore, Hyderabad, Baroda, Gwalior, J&K and Patiala).
The deity, Sri Padmanabhaswamy (Vishnu), is depicted in ‘Ananta-sayanam’ – reclining on the cosmic serpent Ananta. That’s how Thiruvananthapuram the city, the modern state capital of Kerala, gets its name:
Thiru (the Malayali and Tamil way of saying ‘Sri’ or ’sacred/holy’)
+ Puram (city/town),
adding up to the Holy City of Ananta the Cosmic Serpent.
Sri Ananta Puram, if you insist.
‘An-anta‘ itself means Eternal – ‘un-ending’; see the Indo-European word link?
The ‘v’ between Thiru and Ananta is the ‘sandhi‘ or joining sound between two vowels, according to Sanskrit phonetics. ‘Trivandrum’ is the meaningless anglicisation of this fabulous name.
The temple is the property of the former rulers of Travancore and bang in the middle of the palace grounds, which are bang in the centrum. To get to the flight of steps above which the temple sits, you go past the big temple tank to the right, with its slat-covered ladies’ bathing ghat on the far side.
It blew my mind as it always does in South India, how temples are such a chill-zone for the citizenry. That is if you’re not bolshy about what constitutes chilling and don’t insist that the only way to chill is with a bottle while chewing on assorted dead animals. My point is that it’s possible to do both as a matter of right.
Anyhow, Kerala temples are v. bolshy about dress codes. Men have to be bare-chested and togged in mundus (dhotis) and women have to wear saris. Since I was in the salwar-kameez I’d worn for the four-hour flight from Delhi, I bought a mundu for Rs 50 at a kiosk outside and tied it like a lungi on top of my clothes, which was acceptable. You can also rent a mundu but I couldn’t handle the thought of wearing a used one and laughed at my pickiness: as if God cares. But each religious place does its own thing, so I didn’t have a problem. Anyway, I had personal stuff happening in my head for Sri Padmanabhaswamy.
Going in, the particular smell of a South Indian temple swamped me: that dear, familiar compound of malli (jasmine), tulsi, vibhooti (sacred ash), incense, lamp oil, burnt wicks, coconuts, bananas, sandalwood, ghee and samagri (offerings to the sacrificial fire). It’s a smell like no other. It’s how the house would smell in childhood after Varalakshmi Puja every August on a Friday and we’d pipe in Telugu: “Ma intiki raave, Mahalakshmi!” (Come to my house, O Goddess of Good Fortune).
Why did a Tamil family do a Telugu number as its family ritual? South India’s like that, we’re all awash together in a tsunami of sambar.
That temple smell operates on me as powerfully as Carven’s Ma Griffe or good old Chanel No 5 which my dead-for-decades mother wore and I wear in her memory, though Ma Griffe is simply not to be found anywhere now. I know only one woman in Delhi who wore Ma Griffe, an Eastern UP Thakur married to a Sikh and I almost fainted when I realized years and years ago that she wore that particular scent.
Since Kerala is where we last lived as a proper family, it’s hallowed ground for me. I’d last been to Padmanabhaswamy with my mother as a little girl so I looked around with grateful and curious eyes, just so glad for the chance to be there again.
There was much to see and admire in carvings made of one huge block of stone and Kerala-style frescoes vivifying mytho-moments all around the walls with great drama and quite voluptuous splendour. Children put their ears to the walls at certain places where you’re supposed to hear the sound of the sea like when you hold a seashell to your ear (I did too, but couldn’t hear it, worse luck). There are three pradakshinas (concentric spaces) around the sanctum and you’re supposed to walk all three to properly conclude your visit, after the upclose darshan of the deity.
What I saw was a whole life being lived in and around Sri Padmanabhaswamy.
In one far sandy courtyard was a mandap (pavilion) where some people sat in deep meditation. Above them was the blue-grey monsoon sky (at 5 pm) and the pagoda-like silhouette of a red-tiled roof. Couples who had obviously taken a vow were sitting together murmuring from a Sanskrit prayer book. In each case, man and wife looked deeply bonded as they prayed together, the man holding the book while the wife turned the pages, as they sat shoulder-to-shoulder in that clean, open, beautiful space. College boys suddenly chancing on each other in the long stone-pillared corridors produced big smiles. Children played here and there, not hooting and hollering, but quietly, taking care not to cannon into elderly souls hobbling gamely around in triple pradakshina (you cover a whole km by the time you’re done).
Everywhere, groups of people chatted in low tones or solitary dreamers sat still watching the world wag by.
The only sound was that of Naam-kirtan by a band of Vaishnava pilgrims from Bengal who went around with cymbals singing ‘Hore Krishna, Hore Krishna‘. The local people tapped along where they sat, enjoying the pleasant sound, or stepped aside to give them space to do their thing.
On my way out down the broad flight of steps, I passed by an elderly samiyaar (sanyaasi) who sat mid-way in flaming gerua (monk’s orange), telling Hari-katha (epic stories with explanations) while people listened attentively around him.
At the foot of the steps, kiosks sold coffee, fried cashews, banana and tapioca chips, devotional cassettes, rudraksha wristbands (some, quite funky) and the usual pilgrim takeways like calendar pictures of Sri Padmanabhaswamy and of just everybody else from up in Sivalokam and Vaikuntham.
You may turn up your nose at ‘commercialisation’, but I found them quite dear and comforting. People buy those pictures to take back and keep in their puja room, to add to the god gallery already at home. It’s a keepsake for mere mortals, of having been to a kshetra. And surely these are nicer memories to keep than sad or angry ones? I counted my blessings and said bye to Sri Padmanabhaswamy with a good feeling.
I didn’t buy a picture.
But then, I knew I’d be able to tell you about it and share his picture right here.
And share this song in Malayalam composed by Maharaja Swati Thirunal (a whole, wonderful topic in himself), in Raga Neelambari, the ‘lullaby raga’ of South India.