In March/April every year, the Padmanabhaswamy temple celebrates the Painkuni utsavam, one of its two major festivals. And every year, the imposing figures of the five Pandavas are erected during the 10-day festival. Once made of wood, the fibreglass figures are an integral part of Painkuni utsavam.
In Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple, Gouri Lakshmi Bayi of the royal family of Travancore writes that the figures of the Pandavas are put up to ward off rain during the festival. The belief, she adds, is that the figure of Arjuna, believed to be the son of the rain god Indra, is especially useful to keep the rains away. Which is why the Painkuni utsavam is sometimes also called the 'pancha Pandava utsavam' or the festival of the five Pandavas.
While the figures of Yudhishtira, Bhima and Arjuna are large, those of Nakula and Sahadeva are smaller, with Sahadeva’s being the smallest. A nod, perhaps, to each brother’s place in the Pandava pecking order.
The figures are a big draw, even today. People gather around them; some gawk, some take pictures, while some touch the feet of each idol and whisper a prayer.
The Padmanabhaswamy temple itself is, arguably, the spiritual heart of Thiruvananthapuram. The presiding deity — Padmanabhaswamy — is an avatar of Vishnu and the idol in the temple is carved in the anananthasayanam posture; in which Vishnu is depicted reclining on the serpent Anantha. It is, in fact, believed that the name Thiruvananthapuram is derived from Ananthapuram or ‘the city of the one who reclines on Anantha’. The temple also has smaller shrines dedicated to Narasimha, Krishna and Ganesha.
For centuries, Padmanabhaswamy was the spiritual overlord of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore. But in 1750, the deity also became the temporal overlord of the kingdom when Marthanda Varma, the then ruler of Travancore, literally handed over the keys of the kingdom to Padmanabhaswamy. Since then, the Kings of Travancore have described themselves as ‘Padmanabha dasas’ or servants of Lord Padmanabha and ruled in his stead.
Located bang in the middle of the city’s frenzied ‘fort’ area, a stone’s throw away from the always-busy arterial MG Road, the temple radiates tranquillity. The sight of the temple, especially the view of it across its pond, is like popping a serenity pill — the heart, dust, automobile fumes and the din from the roads around simply melts away.
While the temple celebrates many festivals, two big annual events are the 10-day Alpashi and Painkuni utsavams; the first held in October/November. Like the Alpashi utsavam, the Painkuni utsavam also ends with the Arat ceremony. During the Arat, processional idols of Padmanabhaswamy, Krishna and Narasimha are taken in a splendid parade and immersed in the sea off Thiruvananthapuram before being brought back to the temple.
An interesting aspect of the Arat procession is that it wends its way from the temple to the seashore by taking the most direct route, which involves passing through the city’s airport. Even today, the Thiruvananthapuram airport’s flight operations are paused while the Arat procession passes through the airport.
What also makes the Arat unique is the strong spirit of religious harmony that enfolds it, particularly as it passes through Vallakadavu, a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood. Residents of the area line the road to catch a glimpse of the procession. The most moving sight though, is that of the boys from the Vallakadavu Muslim orphanage lining-up outside the orphanage to see the Arat go by.