Plans are always best written in pencil when one is on the road. And this is especially true when your chosen travel destination has just been struck by a cyclone!
Arriving in Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) on a dreary Saturday afternoon in December, a visit to the famous Vishnu temple – Sri Padmanabhaswamy – was definitely a desire at the back of my mind but one that I was deliberately not clinging to too tightly, just in case I was disappointed if I wasn’t able to visit. It wasn’t just the weather that was an important factor, but as any Indian would say, to visit a Divine place requires also the assistance of Grace.
Despite the excitement that my mind was trying to drum up, my body was not in a mood to cooperate that afternoon. A headache took over as soon as I entered my cozy and comfortable hotel room and I immediately knew that most of the rest of the day would be spent underneath the soft and cool covers. Plus my mind was spinning with the concerned voices of family members who had felt it a moral duty to call several times to tell me to be careful and not venture out much given the bad weather warnings for Kerala.
Sunday morning I woke up at 6.30 a.m. still not sure if I would visit the temple but a pull inside seemed to be moving my body to just take one step at a time. Finding myself dressed and ready by 7.45 a.m. and finding the skies bright and clear, I decided to try and make it for the 8.30 a.m. ‘darshan‘ time slot. I decided not to inform anyone back home, incase they took the opportunity to dissuade me again(!)
I kept my expectations very low – I was fully prepared to be turned away by the temple security for not wearing the proper attire (a saree or full skirt) or for losing my patience with long queues and large crowds and turning away myself. Another funny concern was that they might turn me away for not appearing ‘Hindu’ given my slightly lighter complexion for this part of the country and my non-traditional clothes (only Hindus are allowed to enter the temple as a strict rule). Not wanting to take a chance, I even made a small fake bindi on my forehead with my red lipstick!
Inwardly, with every step, I completely placed myself in His hands – Krishna will do, not me…
Reaching the Temple
Fully aware that I had just been grossly overcharged by the auto-rickshaw driver, I stepped out of the vehicle apprehensively and found myself looking directly at the intricately carved temple facade in the traditional south-Indian style.
The main deity of the temple is Lord Vishnu reclining on the celestial snake Anantha (or Adi Shesha) which has five hoods. Anantha means infinite, eternal. The statue of the deity is made from 12,008 saligrams. A saligram is an extremely rare and powerful stone which is like a micro-cosmos in itself. The deity is covered with an Ayurvedic mix called ‘Katusarkara yogam’ which keeps the deity clean. The Lord’s right hand is placed over a Shiva lingam. Lord Brahma is seen sitting on a lotus emanating from the Lord’s navel, giving the temple the name Padmanabha.
The temple dates back over 500 BCE although parts of the structure have come up over several centuries. According to some legends, the temple was established on the first day of Kali Yuga. The form of the main deity, the Anantha Sayana Moorti had appeared to sage Vilvamangalathu Swamiyar who had prayed for the ‘darshan’ of Lord Vishnu. The temple finds mentions in ancient literature including the Puranas and even the many thousands of years old epic, the Mahabharata (read more about the temple).
I had read up about the temple the night before and was so intrigued that I felt I just had to come to see the Anantha Sayana Moorti of Lord Vishnu. The thought of so much prayer and the chanting of sacred mantras at a single spot for millennia gave me goosebumps. Even if ordinary words were repeated to an ordinary stone for millennia, some power would be generated with the practice. Here there was a Divine murthi (idol/deity), powerful saligrams and sacred, powerful mantras chanted for thousands of years with great devotion. The best way to approach such a place is to be quiet and receptive, absorbing what one can.
I was relieved to see that there wasn’t too much of a crowd at the temple entrance. Reaching the entry gate, I was informed by security that I had to go back outside to drop off my mobile at one of the cloakroom type safe-keeping enclosures. I went off to do this, feeling grateful that I had reached the temple well before the darshan time and so had more than enough time to spare. Returning to the entry gate again, I was now informed that I needed to cover myself with a ‘dhoti’ (a draped white cloth) from the waist downwards. No-one is allowed to enter the temple wearing any form of pants i.e. split-leg clothing. So off I went again to buy myself a dhoti, feeling somewhat amused but also surprised at the lack of any feelings of irritation that I fully expected to well up in me. I reminded myself that I had ample time on my hands before darshan time and I was strangely finding all the many rules and regulations quite intriguing.
I finally entered the temple just before 8.30 a.m. after undergoing the very thorough security check. The inside of the temple is enormous and sprawling. The outer facade suddenly seemed deceptively humble in comparison. The temple grounds are simply beautiful – long, wide corridors on all sides, made of carved stones studded with beautiful sculptures and oil lamps. I felt transported right back into Vedic times, feeling the vibes and atmosphere of ancient India. As with all Kerala temples, the entire complex was extremely clean and organised – not a twig out of place.
Climbing down a couple of large cold steps of glossy black stone, I found tears welling up in my eyes, taking me quite by surprise. I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling so emotional – maybe I was just tired or maybe just overcome by the beauty of the place, I reasoned. Deep down, however, I knew it was because of something much more powerful and special- the feeling of a Divine presence, the fragrance of the Sacred, the presence of Vishnu…
The Mysteries of the Temple
The temple is shrouded in secrecy. There are no photographs of its premises or deity on the internet because no one is allowed to photograph or film there. In recent years, the temple has acquired an aura of even greater mystery given the enormous amount of treasure discovered in its vaults. A government order forced open the temple vaults that had been kept closed for many centuries. Tons of pure gold, diamonds and precious gems and coins in different ancient currencies were discovered in the vaults that according to some estimates total billions of dollars, perhaps even trillions. The wealth is the accumulation of hundreds of centuries of donations to the temple especially by kings and rich traders. One of the temple vaults is still unexplored because it is very difficult to open and also because the priests and common people believe it would be very inauspicious to force it open.
Having wasted all my spare time in trips to and from the cloakroom to the entrance, I joined the very long and winding darshan queue at 8.30 a.m. precisely. The relative quietness at the temple and the lack of crowds at the entrance had been deceptive, because the queue inside was indeed very very long – a 45 minute wait, I was told. There was no way I would be able to make it back to my hotel in an hour which I had to do if I wanted to make it to the airport in time for my flight at mid-day.
Just where I was standing in the queue, was a sign for buying special tickets for a faster darshan. Luckily being at the back of the queue, I was not barricaded in and thinking quickly on my feet, I decided that purchasing the special ticket was what I needed to do. For Rs. 250, I even got a ‘Prasad thali’ with offerings for the deity which I felt was also a much better way of taking darshan.
The experience of the darshan of the deity itself is hard to put into words. The deity is visible through 3 doors. Through the first is visible the head of Lord Vishnu reclining on the serpent Anantha – a dark black, cool figure, His hand on a Shiva linga. Vishnu floating on the cosmic ocean of eternal existence. Smiling slightly. If for just one second the image contacts your consciousness, only tears flow. It is a glimpse of what is beyond Space and Time.
The second door reveals the forms of Sri Devi (Goddess of prosperity) and Bhu Devi (Goddess of the Earth), the two consorts of Vishnu as well as the forms of Bhrigu muni and Lord Brahma. The third door reveals Lord Vishnu’s feet, Bhu Devi and Markendaya muni.
On walking out of the main shrine, one is guided to a Krishna temple which according to some legends is even older than the main shrine.
I am constantly amazed by the wonder and profundity of India’s spiritual traditions- the more one travels this mystic land, the more one discovers. The entire experience was too beautiful. Some things cannot be conveyed in words and some things one does not want to convey in words.
A devotee can never adequately explain his or her experience to a logical mind. Perhaps the only description that can be given is that of the experience of a presence of unlimited greatness. It is not that the presence is there in some places and not in others. It is there everywhere. And yet there is something in certain places – a power, a force, a vibration – that touches something beyond even conscious presence. That reminds you to find It, to seek for It, wherever you may be; and to not stop until you can see It everywhere.
Om Namo Narayana
– So blessed and grateful to have visited this temple on the auspicious day of Dattatreya Jayanti and Margashirsha Purnima, a day for the worship of Lord Vishnu.
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