A two-judge bench comprising of Justice U U Lalit and Justice Indu Malhotra pronounced a historical verdict on 13 July, 2020. The 218-page judgement put to rest the infamous attempt by the Indian judiciary to usurp the administration of the Sri Padmanabha Swamy Temple – a case that was pending in the court since 2011.
The court, in its judgement, decided to return the shebaitship of the idol and the right to manage and administer the temple to the titular head of the Travancore Royal Family. This judgement not only upholds a sanctimonious custom pertaining to one of the most famous devalayas in the country, but is also an achievement towards the revival of India’s civilisational identity.
Not decades or centuries, but more than a millennia
The origin of the Padmanabhaswamy temple can be associated with three main references in ancient Indian scriptures like the maha puranas and the Mahabharata. The first is a reference to rishi Parasurama, who is said to have performed the prana prathistam of the main idol (the ceremony of inviting the spirit of God to reside in the idol) in the Dwapara Yuga (i.e., during the age of Krishna) as found in the text Kerala Mahatmyam.
The second is a mention in the Bhagavatha Purana about Balarama having visited Syanandoorapuram (today’s Thiruvananthapuram) in the course of his pilgrimage, which is corroborated by the above source. However, some scholars like Dr. L A Ravi Varma trace the temple all the way back to the beginning of Kaliyuga, wherein the Indian text Ananthasayana Mahatmya mentions that Divakara muni had installed the idol during that time.
As per the third reference, the origin of the temple can be traced to the famous ascetic Vilvamangalathu Swamiyar, whose name is linked with the histories of several temples in Southern India.
Interestingly, more than three hundred year old verses from the Sangam literature also discuss the temple in great detail, wherein the divya prabhandham glorifies the temple as being part of the thirteen Malai Nadu desams.
We also find that the great saint-poet Nammalwar in 900 CE had recorded his visit to Ananthapuram in his famous work Thiruvaimozhi; which ratifies what the Sthala Purana says – that the Ananthapuram Temple (Kasargod) was the main abode of the current Padmanabhaswamy idol.
Also in the period between 1314-1344 CE, which saw the rule of King Veera Marthanda Varma of Venad, gradual royal intervention into the management of this ancient temple was seen. Other notable events include the construction of the Ottakal Mandapam over the sanctum sanctorum in 1461 CE and the destruction of the temple in a fire accident in 1686 CE, after which it was re-constructed in 1730 CE.
The great King’s eternal surrender
In the 18th century, in-line with the marumakkathayam traditions, Maharaja Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma took over the rule of the Travancore state from his maternal uncle, Rama Varma. It was he who established this inextricably intertwined relationship between the erstwhile Royal Family and Bhagawan Padmanabhaswamy.
In 1730, the temple was renovated and the old wooden idol was replaced with a new one made from 12,008 shaligrams, which are fossilised sea shells found in South Asia, brought from the banks of river Gandaki, a major river in Nepal. The new idol was also coated with a special amalgam of Ayurvedic herbs called Katu-sarkara-yogam.
As this article puts it, “the day, 20th January 1750 CE, stood witness to an act of sublime dedication and the greatest offering possible for a crowned monarch (...) - the Trippadi Dhanam.”
“Maharaja Marthanda Varma arrived at the temple along with all his family members in the morning, and in the presence of his trusted dewan Ramayyan Dalawa and other members of the Aittara Yogam, submitted his kingdom, along with his total right on it, to Sri Padmanabhaswamy by a deed of gift carrying his signature.
He placed all the signs of his royalty in the crown, the royal umbrella and the twin white chauries (fans) along with some tulsi leaves on the Ottakal Mandapam in front of the lord Padmanabhaswamy.”
The Maharaja from then onwards became a Padmanabha-dasa, an eternal servant of the deity.
Every royal decree, every decision and every royal proclamation was issued in the name of the desha-natha, the sustainer of the land. Belongings of the kingdom were called pandaravaka (belonging to the deity) and even salaries for the state employees began to be known as padmanabhante panam (money given by the lord).
Every successor followed this custom pioneered by their great ancestor the Maharaja Anizham Thirunal Veera Marthanda Varma.
Travancore’s accession to the Union of India – A forgotten tale
Maharaja Chitra Tirunal Balarama Varma, who was responsible for the Temple Entry Proclamation in 1936, signed the instrument of accession to the Union of India as Sree Padmanabha-dasa, the eternal servant of lord Padmanabha.
This sacred connection can be better understood from the book The Story of Integration of the Indian States written by the then secretary to the Government of India in the Ministry of States, V P Menon, whose extracts were reproduced in the honourable Supreme Court’s judgement. He wrote:
“He (the Maharajah) added that he governed the State on behalf and as a servant of Sri Padmanabha and that he attached great importance to this position being maintained; that if no satisfactory solution on these points was possible, and if the Government of India still insisted on the integration of the two States he would rather abdicate than act against his convictions . . . Lastly, he felt that on account of the dedication of the State to Sri Padmanabha and the special loyalty and devotion which the rulers of Travancore owed to that deity, it would not be possible for him to take the usual oath of office as Rajpramukh. Travancore had been ruled by an unbroken line of Hindu kings from the earliest times and had retained throughout the centuries its essential character of a Hindu State. The most important temple in this State has always been, and still is, the Sri Padmanabha temple, richly endowed and possessing very extensive landed properties . . .”
- V P Menon
In 1949, these negotiations and deliberations led to the formulation of Article VIII of the Covenant jointly entered into by the rulers of the princely states of Travancore and Cochin with the Union of India. This article explicitly guaranteed that the ‘Ruler’ will have the right to manage and control the Sree Padmanbhaswamy temple, which is also enshrined in sections 18-23, chapter III of The Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Act, 1950 (TCHRI Act).
As per these sections, the Ruler is empowered to administer the Temple through an Executive Officer appointed by him, with the advice of a three-member advisory committee nominated, again by him.
In what can, and must be deemed as an act of malintent and usurpation, the Kerala High Court said that as per the Covenant only the ‘original ruler’ was allowed to administer the temple, and that the Covenant did not mention his successors – an argument that goes against all common sense as ‘Ruler’ is a position and not a person, much like the Prime Minister or President.
Even after the twenty-sixth amendment to the constitution in 1971, which abolished privy purses and royal titles, this tradition continued wherein every titular head’s name was prefixed with the epithet ‘Sree Padhmanabha-dasa’. The original signatory to this covenant died in 1991 but was succeeded by his brother, Sri Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, who also passed away in 2013. The current Maharaja, or the ‘Ruler’ is Sree Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma, his nephew.
Justice against an atrocity committed by the judiciary would have to wait nine long years, to be delivered by the Supreme Court of
This article is part-one of a two part series on the Honourable Supreme Court's judgement on the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple dispute. Read the part two here.