Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple – a magnificent shrine with rich history and a controversy

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram is one of the richest shrines in the world. The riches it keeps in its six vaults and its several antechambers have yet to be fully determined.

The history and glory of this temple are intertwined with mystery and rich antiquity. Several stories without accuracy have emerged from its vast collection of priceless gems, gold, silver and a vault yet to be opened. The fame of the temple is such that several people visit this residence of Lord Padmanabha every day.

The temple, which has roots in the eighth century, is one of 108 Vishnu temples in India. Here the deity is in the ananthashayana posture – or the lying position – and rests on Adisesha, the serpent god.

A major fire almost destroyed the temple in 1686 AD. Marthanda Varma, who became King of Travancore in 1729, undertook the renovation and remodeling work. Then the five floors of the temple were built, and Dharma Raja, who later ruled the princely state, completed the sixth and seventh floors.

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The accumulation of the temple’s wealth dates back to the reign of Marthanda Varma, who ruled Travancore as a vassal of Lord Padmanabha. He surrendered the lands (princely states) conquered by him and their wealth at the feet of Lord Padmanabha.

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Photo: Shutterstock/alionabirukova

The last king of Travancore, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma established the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Trust in 1965. The former royal family of Travancore still runs the Trust, the Temple’s controlling and administrative body.

The idol at rest is 18 feet long. The Tamil-style temple’s seven-storey monumental east tower towers over the city and is one of Thiruvananthapuram’s most important landmarks.

 The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple

Dating back to the eighth century, the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is one of 108 Vishnu temples in India. Photo: Shutterstock/suronin

Stone sculptures add grandeur to the tower. It is reported that 4,000 sculptors, 6,000 laborers and 100 elephants labored for six months to complete the single stone “Sheevelippura” or elongated corridor of 365 columns. Each pillar was carved from a single rock.

The controversy

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple became a source of controversy after a complaint was lodged with the Munsiff Court in Thiruvananthapuram in 2007, which said several items had been stolen from the temple. The legal battle went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ordered in 2011 that the temple’s treasures and possessions be examined and inventoried.

Several priceless gems, gold and silver objects came from the vaults, which had remained closed for more than a century and a half. The temple treasures are kept in six vaults, A, B, C, D, E and F. Of the six vaults, five have been opened and examined.

The five vaults presented a glittering collection of gold coins, golden idols, jewellery, precious stones and crowns of gold. The exact value and size of the hoard has not been disclosed, although it is believed to be the world’s largest collection of gold and precious stones.

The vaults were opened with much effort. The most valuable treasures were found in Vault-A. Treasures included a gold Vishnu idol four feet high and three feet wide, an 18-foot long garland of gold coins, and Roman and medieval gold coins.

The Royals of Travancore have always opposed opening the Vault-B, saying it would be against the mores and will of the gods. The royals turned to the Supreme Court for a directive against opening the mysterious vault, and the court ordered it not to be opened until further notice.

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Stories galore

The world has no idea what lies behind the heavy doors of Vault-B. There were tales of snakes, bats, and superhuman powers guarding the vault. The antiquity and anticipation of countless treasures gave the stories an aura of mystery.

It has been said that some of the temple officials once attempted to open the Vault-B and were petrified when they heard the waves crashing on the beach. They abandoned their attempt and fled, the stories said.

The vaults contain treasures contributed by the kings Chera, Pandya, Pallava and Chola, alongside the Travancore rulers, alongside those “handed over” by the vassal kings and their subjects. The treasures still lie within these vaults, arousing the curiosity of the world and giving rise to several stories steeped in mystery.