Friday, 27 January 2012



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 unforgettable experience attending the drawing class 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 keyhole, 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 to 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 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 the Padmatheertham!

The next day newspapers carried the shocking news on the front page. 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 murdered in the same sacred tank!

The temple and the tank in the 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 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, imparted a divine ambience. Later, the authorities installed an iron railing around the tank 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 lacked the ‘intimate’ relation the seniors shared with the tank. Time went by; the tank which was once known for its purity had begun 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), Ēshanatheertham (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 maybe 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 topography 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 became 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 centre where the leftover sālagramams 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 tidbits 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 sent 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 have 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 the 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 condition of the tank. But looking back one wonders how effective the whole process was.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev


For further reading:



Sitting in front of the thekkath in my grandmother’s ancestral home in Manacaud is a stone idol of Lord Hanuman; a relief carving in white stone. Until recently my grandmother's younger brother Kumara Swamy had maintained the thekkath, which was originally setup by his grandfather’s younger brother, a famed occultist of his time, Valiya mandravathi Govindan Achari (1850s-1944). The thekkath houses a small idol of Lord Ganesh, a small ‘Vel’ representing Lord Subramanyan and a cane that belonged to the mandravathi himself. The Hanuman idol was carved by the local stone masons, who lived in Manacaud and Kuriyathy regions. These craftsmen were associated with the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple and the Valiya Kottaram. The ‘chellam vaka’ associated with the temple and the palace was in old days headed by the Kallampally karnavar. This section employed skilled craftsmen from all fields. 

A pyalwan (?) - from the private collection of
K. Ramakrishnan Achari.
During last century the fame of Manacaud spread all over India with the name of a single man - ‘Pyalwan Narayana Pillai’. Better known as ‘Kerala Gamma’, Narayana Pillai was one of the best traditional wrestlers Travancore has ever seen. Travancore has a long tradition of maintaining wrestlers, locally known as mallanmar. In the old days, many of them served as personal attendants and bodyguards to the Kings. Swathi Thirunal’s reign was the golden age of artists, musicians, and wrestlers. Many eminent wrestlers from far off lands came and performed before the King. ‘A number of native boxers from Travancore and other parts of Malabar skilled in the art of fencing, single combat, sword, stick, and other exercises, were entertained for the amusement of the court. To witness the mode of champion-fighting in other countries, the Maha Rajah got from the court of Mysore a few sets of trained athletes called Mullaga Chettis, who fight in single combat, till the combatants bodies are bathed in blood….A set of pyalwans (Mussulman champions) from Hyderabad who performs wonderful feats and exhibits extraordinary powers of muscle, were entertained at the court for some time. The performances exhibited by these men would be considered exaggerated, even if correctly related. One of them, a young man of about thirty years of age, with a strong-built body, used to lie on his back and allow a thick granite stone slab to be placed on his breast, and have the same split into pieces by pounding it with a thick iron pestle. He used to throw large iron cannon balls into the air and receive them on his head, back and breast’ (Shangunni Menon). C.V. Raman Pillai in his epic work 'Rama Raja Bahadur' gives a vivid description of a wrestling match between Azhakan Pillai and Kandiravarayar. V. Narasimhan Thampi, another historian of the royal family writes about the turbulent days of Dharmaraja’s reign when spies, disguised as wrestlers and magicians had gained entry inside the Fort. In old days Gatta gusthi, a form of wrestling was common in Thiruvananthapuram. Manacaud Narayana Pillai was one among the last famed wrestlers of Thiruvananthapuram. However, the wrestling community once patronized by the royals has now become almost extinct.

The Ganesh idol, Vel and the cane inside the thekkath and the Hanuman idol.
Once the name and fame of the Narayana Pillai spread all the way from Aarulvaimozhi to Kannur. He defeated several famous wrestlers such as Chotta Thimmayya, Gourimutthu, Ashique Hussain, Bhima Rao and Periya Pillai. During the 1940s many famous wrestlers camped in Narayana Pillai’s house in Manacaud. Children from the surroundings would crowd around the house to get a glimpse of the wrestlers. A senior resident of Manacaud says; “As children, we would assemble near the house of Narayanan Pillai to see the wrestlers who have gathered there. In the evenings they would all march to the nearby Shasta temple, with a group of children following them”. Matches would be conducted in the large grounds of Palayam. The Goda (arena) would be prepared and soft red soil from Thiruvallam was spread all over. The soft soil prevented injuries. The majority of the Pyalwanmar were worshippers of Lord Hanuman; some of them carried with them the idol of their favourite deity where ever they went. 

Kerala Gama Manacaud Narayana Pillai - in his younger years and during his last years - Picture courtesy - Kala Kaumudi Magazine, Issue 429, from an article written by Kallikadu Ramachandran.
Narayanan Pillai was a friend of artist K. Ramakrishnan Achari (my paternal grandmother’s father) and often visited the house. In front of Putten Veedu (another related house) in Manacaud was a large open space where the youngsters of the region assembled under the famous pyalwan Narayana Pillai to learn wrestling. Sundaram Achari and Lekshmanan Achari of Putten Veedu were his friends and disciples. Soon the ground was transformed into a goda where Narayana Pillai could formally train his students. The stone laying ceremony for the Goda was done by Elayaraja Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma (the present King). Influenced by the wrestling tradition of Manacaud, my grandmother’s eldest brother Krishna Swamy of Pillavilakathu Veedu, his brothers and friends started a gymnasium in the 1940s. It was situated behind the studio building, situated opposite to the house. During those days a ‘pyalwan’ came there to train the youngsters. On special occasions, the famed pyalwan of Travancore, Narayana Pillai himself came to the goda and gave instructions. The idol of Lord Hanuman carved out of white stone was worshipped there. Once as a small boy Kumara Swamy kicked the idol, only to find that his foot had swollen up and he could not walk for days!

The Hanuman idol - Sketch by the author (2007).

Thekkath - a place of worship.
Karnavar- male head of a joint family.


Narasimhan Thampi. V, Travancore Royal Family and Valiakottaram, 1976.

Shangunni Menon P, A history of Travancore from the Earliest Times, Volume I, Higginbotham, 1878.