The Forlorn Fort
East Fort, home to the historic Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is among the liveliest areas in Thiruvananthapuram. It has witnessed the rise and changes of many an important kingdom and governments from the time of the erstwhile Travancore kingdom to the modern day Thiruvananthapuram, capital of Kerala.
Inside the fort are structures used by the erstwhile royal family, including several small and big palaces, and palatial buildings built in traditional as well as western style of architecture. Most noteworthy among them is the world famous Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple.
Today in the backdrop of the pandemic, the heritage site looks resplendent but desolate.
Visitors came in hordes. They were gullible to trust many a fascinating chronicle. Those spiels had solidified the status of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in their minds as the most opulent temple in the world. They had heard about the unbelievably large collection of treasure in the chambers of the temple. They had perceived that the estimated value of the monumental items is worth trillions of rupees. They had fancied that the unopened mystery-ridden chamber that is sealed with an iron door and an image of a cobra on it had an eerie backstory.
Today they are missing at the temple gate.
A lone cyclist is seen standing and praying to Sree Padmanabhan. He isn’t here looking for treasure in the underbelly of the edifice but to invoke a deity.
The pathway that once led millions into the interiors of the shrine that is one of the 108 principal holy abodes in Vaishnavism, is today devoid of the scamper and scurry it once witnessed. The most visited address in Kerala that was the cynosure of over forty million eyeballs a year, today stands unchaperoned, curtailed of its entertainment quotient, waiting for the next set of beholders of its vast unaccounted, unexplored wealth.
The policeman standing duty at the North gate junction is part of the first layer security team. He is in charge of vehicle movement towards the temple gate. Today is Thursday, considered an auspicious day for God Vishnu but he knows it’s going to be a quiet day for him.
The guards that protect the treasury too heave a sigh of relief after ages.
The de facto guard of the treasure is all smiles, stretched on the mighty Ananthan. Omniscient! Omnipotent!
The dream merchants have set up shops all around Sree Padmanabhan’s abode. They sell a better tomorrow. For the devotee, all his deed in the presence of His Lord carry His approval and blessings. He has no qualms about His benevolence, so he always picked up a lottery.
But Sree Padmanabhan was in a predicament. He could see thousands of his devotees buying lottery tickets. And there was only one prize to be given away!
Today there is no one selling lottery tickets at His door step. And no one buying them!
Sree Padmanabhan is all smiles on the mighty Ananthan. Unperturbed! Unflustered!
The figure of an elephant, carved in a single piece of granite stands on the east end of the temple pond. Fondly called ‘kallana,’ (stone elephant) it has some intriguing stories to tell. The elephant was carved during the 16th century, around the time when work of the temple gopuram began. But what has the elephant got to do with the construction of the temple? There is a long standing tradition to offer prayers to Ganapathi, the Vighneswara before executing a major work, and an elephant was installed to represent Ganapathi before commencing the work of the gopuram.
Tamil Paradeshi Brahmins, as they are called, are a vivacious community that influence the cultural milieu of Thiruvananthapuram. These eighteenth century settlers nurture a culture that is unique and derived from years of experience and wisdom. Their practices, perceptions and peculiarities constitute their culture. They march relentlessly in the absolute path of their religion, tradition and culture. They are the dwellers of Puthan Theruvu Agraharam, just outside the southern end of East Fort.
The usually crowded streets of Puthan theruvu look deserted today and the sprightly neighborhood appears serene.
Agraharams are essentially houses in dense clusters with common walls on either side of streets. The streets lead to the local temple. Agraharam in Sanskrit is a festoon with open ends that has a locket in the middle.
The locket is Sri Varaham temple. And the keepsake, the local deity, Sri Varaha murthy.
Agraharams are incomplete without its visual poetry, the Kolam. Kolams are underlying visual mappings of the auspicious and inauspicious. They are drawn to welcome, honor and to express gratitude to Gods, especially Lakshmi, who represents good luck and good health and Bhoodevi, the earth. Absence of kolam at the doorstep signifies death in the household or the house does not belong to a Hindu family.
Kolams are also drawn to ward off Moodhevi, harbinger of evil and illness. Some of the kolams on the streets of Puthan Theruvu today have multiple crests similar to those on a crown. Do they speak anything? Are these kolams drawn to banish the current Moodhevi afflicting the world? Or is it just a coincidence? Or still, is it contrivance of a crazy mind?
Udayakumar sits behind his hand cart strategically positioned outside North Gate of the temple. He has been making and selling tea, coffee and snacks for the past several years. His clientele included office goers, visitors to the temple and passers-by. The shop was shut for more than a month but he resumed his business a few days ago taking advantage of the relaxations announced for essential items. The most sought-after article from his shop’s menu currently is ‘Chukku Kaappi’, a black coffee laced with dry ginger believed to be a good beverage to drink when you suffer from cold and cough. He is happy he is doing his bit in the fight against the virus through his special ‘Covid Coffee’.
Next to him is another team that is fighting the pandemic along with health workers. Amrita Homoeos have been selling medicines that boost immunity against the virus. Arsenic Album 30 has been a very sought after medicine and they have not been able to meet its demand, all the while trying their best to make it available for the needy.
Covid or no Covid, when it rains it pours. And monsoon hasn’t been kind to Kerala in the past few years. There is an inherent fear for the oncoming monsoon. Fear of yet another flood looms large this year too. Or that is what predictions show. And who else would fight the flood? The sanitation staff is on the job to clean up the sewers and sluices in the entire city.
The florist knows he will not find many customers for his flowers. But he is making festoons and garlands and nonchalantly displaying them. That is the only thing he can do for a living and he does that well. The main temples are closed but the smaller ones beside the pond that are visited by devotees in small numbers for a quick darshan are open and functioning. He is hoping against hope that visitors to those temples may care to buy a garland or two.
A few hundred metres outside of East Fort, stands Pazhavangadi temple. Pazhavangadi Ganapathi, has witnessed adversities before. During Second World War when the Nair Brigade from Travancore was sent to the warfront as part of the State Forces, it was he who gave them protection when they embarked on the arduous journey. Many a coconut was broken to pieces but an enduring bond was blended between the supreme and the soldiery.
Over the years the lord has blessed millions of students to come out victorious in their examinations and win honors in the sundry competitions they participate in. On the strength of his protection, thousands of young people triumphantly undertake their grinding journey of life every year. He has endowed hundreds of poverty ridden devotees with prizes in sweepstakes and raffles and bestowed thousands with life changing fortunes.
The lone cyclist wouldn’t pass the temple without spending a few minutes in front of his venerated God. He was at the door step of Sree Padmananabhan earlier today. Here he is with his beloved God and his fervor hasn’t lessened a bit. That His doors are shut on him today does not dishearten him. The cyclist wouldn’t mind the fact that he cannot enter the precincts of the temple or move to a cooler spot so as to have an extended conversation with his God. He wouldn’t mind standing there and explicating his sorrow and travails.
His only regret is, he cannot break a coconut for his Lord.
And the Lord is all ears for the mellifluous sound of smashing coconuts and also to take a count of the smashed brown seeds. Philharmonic! Philomath!