It was a bright rain washed morning in Kasaragod. On the way to Kumbala is the Sree Ananthapadmanabha Swami temple – our destination. Mythology links it to the famed Sree Padmanabha Swami Temple of Thiruvananthapuram. Grandmothers tales, as well as firm belief, trace the links.
The venue is a tiny lake blanketed with greenery. On a little platform forming an island in it is the temple, ensconced as if made to fit. And a crocodile, "Babiya" resides in it.
The Malayalam of this border region is as soothing as the breeze that accompanies the rain. Peppered with Kannada and Tulu, it makes a strange amalgam of our language. Finding the route was easy. A large board in Kumbala indicated the way to the Ananthapuram temple, five km away.
The temple lies nestled in the hills. The path takes on the hues and textures of the changing seasons. During the rains, it is bright green. Just after the rains, in the Malayalam month of Chingam, the wayside will be a burst of colour, with flowers blooming everywhere. But everything grays out, come summer when the hills wear an ancient look.
A bunch of little school children walk ahead, a prayer moving their tiny lips for better exam marks and being spared the teacher's beating. Hearing the sound of the rain from afar they advise you to run for cover. The temple board becomes visible now – Sree Ananthapadmanabha Swami temple. Rain descends like a benediction. One seeks the manager Lakshmana Hebbar as a guide.
When the Lord came in a boy's guise
The temple lies below ground level. A short bridge begins at the entrance. The water body that one crosses is called a lake by the devout. Beyond is the prayer hall (mantapam), the ritual hall (namaskara mantapam) and the sanctum sanctorum. Standing by the bridge leading to the temple, Lakshmana Hebbar points out that Lord Vishnu Himself accords darsan, dormant on the Snake Anantha, right at the centre of the pool.
According to him the temple is thousands of years old. "The great Brahmin Vilwamangalam Swamikal and this divine abode of Ananthapadmanabhan have a connection. It is believed that Swamikal consecrated the idol at this very spot. He carried on his puja and other rituals here. One day while he was conducting puja a little boy came and sat beside him, observing the rituals with keen interest. From that day the boy started regularly visiting the swami during this pujas. At first he did not take it seriously. Gradually as the boy's mischief grew, the swami got irked. He shoved the child aside with his left hand; and the lad fell on the north east side of the lake. Suddenly a cave formed there. The boy vanished even as a cry 'Come to Ananthan forest if you want to see me hereafter' rent the air. A resplendent figure slowly drifted away through the cave. Swami followed the figure. The realization dawned on Swami that the boy was indeed Ananthapadmanabha Swami. Filled with remorse he went out on a search of Ananthan forest. Day and months sped by until he finally had the Lord's darshan in Ananthan forest, in a lying position at the foot of a tree. It is believed that the Lord asked him for food and he fed Him with ripe mango plucked from a tree there and served in a coconut shell. Ripe mango is offered daily at Sree Padmanabha Swami temple even today. It is also believed that the region came to be called Ananthapuram which eventually became Thiruvananthapuram. It is the source location of Sree Padmanabhaswami temple. That makes it two Padmanabhaswami temples on either end of Kerala". Lakshmana Hebbar shut his eyes and folded his palms as extreme devotion moistened the sandal mark on his forehead that instant. (According to another version, it was Divakara Muni who was the sage in question).
A riot of fish reveled beneath the bridge. Water never floods the bridge, even in the face of heavy downpour. It was the same earlier when the bridge was wooden. If water rises above a certain limit, it escapes through the groove in the stone construction and flows several kilometers to join the Kannur River.
The engineering excellence does not stop there. The lake on which the temple is situated is nearly ten feet deep. It had to be emptied once for the re-consecration. That was when old timers came upon an aperture in the bed of the lake. It was closed with a big wooden stump. The water in the groove would gush out when it is removed. Here is an account from the temple office-bearer Karunakaran on what happened then:
"Water was less as it was summer. Still it was not practical to pump it out using a motor. I have heard from old timers that it is closed with a large wooden stump like a cork. Finally it was discovered that an object resembling rubber surrounded the cork. The local people drew it out with tremendous effort. Water drained away through the aperture. Availability of a spring helped fill the lake again with water.
Such a construction in those days is really amazing. Signs of deft craftsmanship mark the facing hall. Cross the bridge and pass by the hall to reach the sanctum sanctorum. The Lord is seated atop a five-headed serpent. In Sree Padmanabhaswami temple he reclines over the serpent Ananthan.
Karunakaran went on to narrate the story of the Lord's idol in the sanctum sanctorum which shines atop the five-headed serpent and beside Sridevi, Bhoodevi, Garuda, Hanuman and Naga kanyas.
"The consecrated idol here is made of kadusarkkara, a mix of 108 ingredients including 64 Ayurveda medicines, same as used by Vilwamangalam Swami, centuries ago. This indicates the sacred manner in which the consecration was done here. However during British days the temples were attacked and the idols maimed.
The temple began to decay after the Swami left the land. When renovation started, the handicapped idols were ceremoniously immersed in the lake per tantric custom. Pancha loha (five metals) idols were consecrated in their place. The problems did not end with that though. Things came to a pass where even the daily puja became a challenge and the temple got completely covered with moss.
An astrological check revealed the need for installing idols made of the same kadusarkkara mix as of old. The search for an expert in the art of making such idols led to a family in Brahmamangalam in Kottayam district. The duo of Brahmamangalam Subrahmania Asari and son Kailasan pleaded inexperience in such idol making but agreed to refer tomes on the subject and attempt it. They came here and retrieved the idol that had been immersed in the lake. It had not melted away even though they had been immersed for a quarter century .
Idols are made in the same way as human forms, complete with bones, marrow, veins and arteries. The skeleton is made in catechu tree (Acacia catechu) and consecrated. Coconut fibre (coir) goes to make the veins and arteries. The flesh is made out of 64 Ayurveda ingredients. Additionally several materials including pearl oysters, termite mound and Gangetic soil are ground well and plastered.
A two month gap precedes each plastering. The idol making took eight years to complete. It was plastered 24 times. After the final Brahmakalasam, the temple assumed its present form. Evil was warded off and prosperity ushered in"..
By now a crowd, comprising of people from far and near, had gathered. The very sight of the temple seemed to inspire awe in them. As he distributed the fragrant sandal paste, the priest explained::
"It was tough earlier. From the age of eight I have been coming here on and off to conduct pujas. Grass used to grow really tall. I stepped in when the tantric (chief priest) was indisposed and could not enter the temple. This area was a thick jungle. The wooden bridge used to rattle. And the offering was just a handful in a circular leaf. All that has changed now…"
A four year old kid popped up a question at this point, "Does the crocodile live in this lake?"
Bhatt smiled. "Now it lives in the outer pond. Nothing to fear, it is quite harmless. Occasionally it comes out of the pond and into the lake at night. I have seen it. It shies away from humans. It will stay still until we have gone. It is indeed the Lord's icon. You may take a look."
Babiya the crocodile
The herbivorous crocodile is a source of wonderment. It is said to come up to the surface when called by its name ‘Babiya'. The lake is rumored to have housed a crocodile since olden days.
When British troops ransacked the temple they decided to finish off the crocodile.. One day a soldier shot at the sunbathing crocodile from beneath the banyan tree on the eastern side of the lake. Precisely then a poisonous creature slipped down from the tree and bit the soldier. He died instantly. But the very next day a crocodile appeared in the lake and it is believed to be the one that still lives there.
Temple staff Chandkan accompanied us to the crocodile sighting. "Do not disbelieve for a second that this crocodile is a miracle. This is an open pond which floods during the monsoon. The crocodile is free to go anywhere he wants but he would not. An offering to the crocodile is an important ritual here. Devotees conduct this ritual for fulfilling their wishes. The crocodile is fed the same offering. Can one predict in what form the Lord incarnates in this Kaliyuga (Machine Age)? Chandkan called Babiya by name and entered the water. Lo! Babiya acknowledged as out he came with a swish and then lay near a stone in the lake, stone-like.
Installations of Ganapathi beneath the banyan tree and Goshala Krishnan by the lake are as old as the main temple. Sree Vedavathi, Sreevana Sasthavu, Sree Raktheswari, Sree Mahishamardhini are some of the many sub-deities..
The temple wall been designed in a serpentine fashion, resembling a serpent with its hoods spread. The wall is built of stones and without any trace of cement.
Big abode of memories
The temple is presently under Malabar Devaswom. But once upon a time the administration vested in the members of Ananthapuram Valiyaveedu. Its present occupants are Srikrishna Iyer, his brother and their families, who reside near the temple. Srikrishna Iyer tells us:
"The temple and the first form of the tharavad are said to have been built around the same time. In the days before Independence my father Narayanayya was Village Officer of Madhur village. The British collector who came to know about this crocodile expressed a wish to visit the temple. He argued that the crocodile would not respond to calls. But when my father went to the lake and called ‘Babiya' it promptly showed up. The collector said the crocodile must have responded to a call from a usual place. My father called out from other sides of the lake too, and the crocodile was quick to respond. The white man was flabbergasted".
It was annadanam (food distribution) time when we returned. Every day a hundred people partake of the meals, replete with three or four curries and a payasam (kheer). The temple staff pointed out that the turnout is bigger on Saturdays and Sundays.
After the temple closed, devotees took part in the annadanam.
The cave by the lake
The spot where the boy fell when Vilwamangalam Swami shoved him with his left hand supposedly turned into the cave. The cave ends at the seashore near Kumbala several kilometers away. The rocks there still bear two giant foot marks which people believe are Ananthapadmanabhan's. They also worshipfully believe that the Lord must have taken the cave route to reach the seashore and gone to the Ananthan forest. Unlike earlier times devotees are now denied entry to the cave.
Kumbala was the seat of the Rajas of Kumbala. It forms a peninsula in a lagoon separated from the sea, by a sand spit. Duarte Barbosa visited it in 1514 and reported that a variety of brown rice was exported from here to Maldives in exchange for coir. It is the birth place of Parthi Subba, 18 century known as the father or Yakshagana.