India has held the world in fascination due to its vibrant past, its abundance of gold, spices and cloth and was commonly portrayed in foreign accounts as a land of exotic mysteries, its myths and beliefs overlapping with its tangible, but no less enthralling history. The existence of the famous Padmanabhaswamy temple proves the famous quote “Truth is stranger than fiction”. The temple has survived the ravages of time, has stood through political uprisings, natural disasters and still stands as a beautiful testament to the wonders of devotion. It is wreathed in mysteries: about its origin and the source of its fabulous wealth.
The temple is located in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. In Malayalam, it means The City of Lord Ananta, or Maha Vishnu, the principal deity of the temple. The current standing structure is thought to be from the 16th century, however, many ancient texts refer to it, such as pieces of Sangam literature, Bhagavad Purana and the Mahabharata. Extracts from these texts reveal that the temple was already shrouded in mystery even then, and was incredibly prosperous and ostentatious, with one poet claiming that its walls were made out of solid gold. It is one of the prime centres of worship for Vaishnavites, the set of Hinduism which regards Vishnu as the Supreme God.
A sage residing near the Ananthapuram Temple prayed to Lord Vishnu for a divine visitation with great devotion. Vishnu visited him in the guise of a mischievous boy, who defiled the sage’s idol. Enraged, the sage drove the boy away. Through his senses which were heightened by penance, he understood that the boy was God himself, and begged forgiveness. Vishnu commanded him to come to the forests of Anathavana. When the sage reached there, the god visited him in the form of a great idol of Vishnu leaning on his celestial hooded serpent, Adisheshnag. A temple was built by the royal family, under the direction of the sage, at that very spot.
Another legend states that Parshurama, an incarnation of Vishnu, sanctified the idol.
The Padmanabhaswamy Temple has strong links to the political history in Kerala as well. In the eighteenth century, after the accession of Anizam Thriulam to the throne of the royal house of Travancore, the temple was renovated under the orders of the new king. Soon after, Anizam Thriluam surrendered the throne symbolically to Lord Padmanabhaswamy, declaring that he and his family would only be caretakers and vassals. In his fervent devotion, he also decreed that the names of the royal family members would be prefaced with the title “Servant of Lord Padmanabhaswamy”
The architecture of Padmanabhaswamy Temple is a mix of Kerala and Dravidian styles. Inside the garbhagriha or inner sanctum, an idol of Lord Padmanabha resting on his celestial eight-hooded snake Adishehsnag is placed. The creator out of the Holy Trinity, Lord Brahma, emerges from a lotus through the God’s navel. He is flanked by his consorts, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, also called Sridevi, and the earth goddess. The idol is coated in an ayurvedic paste to keep it clean. Statues of other goddesses holding divine weapons are also placed there.
The temple complex also boasts of another shrine which predates the Padmanabhaswamy temple, Thiruvumbadi, dedicated to Parthasarathi, the divine charioteer of Arjuna, during the Mahabharata war. Other temples are also dedicated to Rama, Sita, Ganesh, and Hanuman.
Another feature of interest is a clock tower, called Methan Mani constructed in the 1840s to celebrate the successful resistance of Tipu Sultan’s invasion of Travancore. The clock is made out of the polished mahogany and has a quaint charm to it.
The source of the intrigue around the temple is its underground vaults. As per official sources, there are six vaults under the temple, named A-F
All the vaults, with the exception of the second, have been opened to make an inventory of the contents. The members of the team dealing with the inventory were astonished beyond comprehension at the glittering magnificence within. There was a three and a half feet pure gold statue of the deity, studded with flawless, shimmering gems, a pure gold coconut shell set with emeralds of impossible size and sheen. Several Napoleon era coins were found along with Roman gold coins, probably evidence of the trade in the earlier centuries.
Other reports also mention a gold throne meant for an 18 feet long deity, thousands of golden chairs, around 1200 thick gold chains with rubies and emeralds, glittering in fantastic settings. It is estimated that the value of the monumental items is close to Rs. 1.2 lakh crore or Rs. 1.2 trillion (US$17 billion), without taking the antique value into account. The valuables are believed to have accumulated as donations to the deity under various empires such as Cheras, Pandyas, Pallavas and Cholas amongst many others. The government has ordered the vaults to be resealed after the inventory. Even without factoring in the unrevealed contents of the Nilavara vault, the value of the treasure surpasses the value of the British crown jewels and the entire GDP of the Mughal Empire at its prime,
The largest vault, vault B, also called the Nilavara vault, remains a mystery. Archaeologists surmise that it has never been opened since the 1880s.
A number of myths and legends have sprung up about the Nilavara vault.
The carvings of snakes on the door have led people to believe that the snake god guards the treasure against all human intrusion.
Another legend says that about a century ago, people tried to open the vault during a famine, but they stopped when the sound of rushing water was heard from within. The story goes that of the vault is opened, a flood will wipe out the city.
It is also said, that when Parshurama consecrated the idol, a number of holy men came to him and asked him to give them a place to stay where they could worship the deity in peace, he created the vault for them, and that being divine beings, they are still in there, protecting the treasure from human greed.
There are rumours that the government has found another two vaults, which are yet to be opened. The temple is true, a mystery for the prosaic minded and a wonder of faith for the believers.