The Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, made international headlines in 2011, when a treasure valued at $ 22 billion was discovered in the underground vaults there. Before this discovery, the temple was hardly known outside Kerala. Even within, it was considered to be the private sanctuary of the Travancore royal family. But how the temple came to hold such great wealth and the royal family’s long tryst with it, make for a great story.
A treasure valued at $22 billion was discovered in the Padmanabhaswamy temple
The origins of the fabulous wealth of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple are intertwined with the fortunes of the Travancore kingdom and its greatest ruler Martanda Varma. In the 1720s, the Padmanabhaswamy temple was just a small wooden temple dedicated to Vishnu and Thiruvananthapuram was nothing but a small village. The great seat of power and glory of Travancore kings was at Padmanabhapuram, the city of Padmanabha, located 60 kms south of Thiruvananthapuram. Today, the magnificent old wooden palace of Padmanabhapuram is the only remainder of the once mighty capital of the great King Martanda Varma.
Martanda Varma (1705-1758) was born into a family that ruled the minor chiefdom of Thiruvithaamkoor, later be anglicized to Travancore. His was a minor branch of the Venad royal family, one of the many small chiefdoms ruled by the powerful Nair clans of the region.
Martanda Varma’s kingdom stretched from Kanyakumari in the south to Kozhikode in the North
In the 1730s, Martanda Varma took charge, defeating the small chieftains to consolidate power in his hands. At the end of this exercise, his kingdom stretched from Kanyakumari in the south to Kozhikode in the North. Strong and powerful, the armies of Travancore would have resounding victories over the Dutch in the battle of Colachel in 1741 and raise the prestige of Travancore even further. The years of victories and control of some important ports and with it access to revenues from international trade, also brought Immense wealth to Martanda Varma. This also financed the building up of his seat of power in Padmanabhapuram.
One of the only wooden palaces still standing, the Padmanabhapuram Palace had a massive fortress with granite walls spread over 186 acres. It had been originally built in 1601 CE by Ravipillai Ravivarma Kulashekhara Perumal, who ruled the Kingdom of Venad, between 1592 and 1609 CE. Later while it had come into the possession of the Thiruvithaamkoor branch of the family, it only came into great prominence during the reign of Martanda Varma.
He and his heirs would rule the kingdom as ‘Padmanabhadasa ’ or servants of Lord Padmanabha
A seat of political power, interestingly this capital city also had another feather in its cap. Martanda Verma had ensured that this would also be the center of the lucrative pepper trade, that had made Kerala so famous the world over. Power and wealth combined to make Padmanabhapuram one of the most powerful capitals of the region, at the time. But interestingly, at the height of his power in 1750, Martanda Varma took a decision that would have a far reaching impact on the history of Travancore. In a gesture that was as political as it was spiritual, he made a Thrippati Danam- submitted his kingdom to his family deity Lord Padmanabhaswamy. He also declared that from then on he and his heirs would rule the kingdom as ‘Padmanabhadasa’ or servants of Lord Padmanabha. Something that the family does even today.
A lot of the treasures found in the vaults of the Padmanabhaswamy temple, which made international headlines in 2011 were donated by Martanda Varma during this Thrippati Danam.
Martanda Varma’s successor Karthika Thirunnal Rama Varma or Dharma Raja (1758- 1798) was the one who shifted the capital of Travancore kingdom closer to the family deity and also a more strategic location - Thiruvananthapuram. Gradually, the old capital of Padmanabhapuram lost its importance. As the political and economic power shifted to Thiruvananthapuram, the old city declined and the palace became an empty shell. The royal family no longer lived there. In 1938, it was declared a monument of historical importance. What’s more during the reorganization of states on linguistic lines in 1956 , the entire Padmanabhapuram region was transferred to Tamil Nadu. Today the palace is a museum and the income of the palace museum and the expenditure for maintenance is equally shared by governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The Travancore state grew in great wealth and influence over the years and was the only one apart from Cochin left standing in the face of Tipu’s assaults in 1789-90 CE. The British helped Travancore and thanks to their support the Travancore royal family rose well above the Zamorins of Calicut and the royal family of Cochin, both of which faded into obscurity.
Padmanabhapuram is a little piece of Kerala now entrenched in Tamil Nadu. It maintains its links through history to the Travancore Royal family and with it, their deity, Sri Padmanabhaswamy.
Cover Image Courtesy - Wikimedia Commons
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