Travancore Coins from Beena Sarasan's Collection. Photo: Special Arrangment
The priceless possessions found at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple are nothing but offerings made to the deity over the centuries
The antiquity of the priceless jewels and valuables found in the vaults of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram in recent weeks can be assessed with the aid of the Mathilakam Records, and the stone inscriptions found on the eastern wall of the first prakara of the Kanyakumari temple. These records reveal that the precious articles are indeed offerings made to the temple over the centuries.
The earliest mention of an offering made to the Padmanabhaswamy temple is found in a 12th century inscription in the Kanyakumari temple (Travancore Archaeological Series, Volume 1, Page 49). It states that Parantaka Pandya “vanquished the Chera in battle” and levied a tribute from him. The king of the Kupakas (the Venad ruler) offered his daughter in marriage to Parantaka Pandya, who in turn set up 10 golden lamps to the God of the temple at Ananthasayanam (Thiruvananthapuram) and granted the village of Tayanallur towards their upkeep. This was not an isolated event. It was customary to make endowments and assign villages for their maintenance.
Thus, it is not surprising that over the centuries offerings made to the temple accumulated and reached fabulous proportions. Although most of the landed property was alienated, the fact that the gifted articles of immense value were guarded zealously over the centuries is a tribute to the honesty of the Venad/Travancore royal families and their traditional priests. It is also a testimony to their unflinching devotion to their deity.
Mathilakom Document No. CXXIV, Granthavari No.1, Ola No. 222, relating to 16th of Makaram, 861 Malayalam Era, or ME (AD 1686), describes a fire that consumed the Padmanabhaswamy temple. The temple was gutted and “gold, silver, copper, bronze, brass, iron, timber and stone burnt as one till the afternoon of the 17th.” However, the idol was saved, with minor damage. The text of this document is given as an Appendix to Volume 11 of the Travancore State Manual by T.K. Velu Pillai. The editor added the following important note: “The document continues with the details of the jewels of the deity which were kept locked in the ‘kallara' [vault]. This portion is left out.” It would appear that the contents of the vault were safe. This document in its entirety will throw light on the contents of the vault as of AD 1686. The editor wisely left out the details, apparently as a measure of security. This closely guarded secret is now practically in the open, posing a threat to the security of the contents.
Anizhom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, who ascended the throne in AD 1729, renovated the temple, which bore the scars of the fire of AD 1686. The details are provided by Princess Aswati Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi in her book, Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1995). Thus the present structure of the temple is the result of Marthanda Varma's efforts. By AD 1749, Marthanda Varma's territory had extended from Kanyakumari to the limits of Cochin.
On the 5th of Makaram ME 925 (AD 1750), Marthanda Varma made over his whole kingdom to Perumal Sree Padmanabhaswamy and assumed its management as a vassal of the deity. He and his successors assumed the role and title of Sree Padmanabhadasa. History bears testimony to the fact that they lived up to this self-imposed role.
The coins struck immediately thereafter bore the device of the deity. One such copper coin was reportedly found in the Netherlands recently by a mine-detector pilot along with other material from the 18th and 19th centuries. Considering that Eustachius D'Lannoy, the Dutch commandant in the Battle of Colachel (AD 1741) who was captured by Marthanda Varma later, rose to become the commander-in-chief of the Travancore Army, it is not surprising that a coin depicting Sree Padmanabha found its way to the Netherlands.
During successive reigns, gold coins minted in Travancore were appropriately named Anantha Varahan and Anantha rayan panam. This was a departure from the then current Rasi and the Kaliyan panam, which owed their origin to neighbouring kingdoms. The silver double chuckram minted in AD 1810 bears the legend ‘Padmanabhan' in old Malayalam script. These coins are mentioned in the Mathilakom Records as coins found in the vanchika of the temple. Nagamaiya, in the Travancore State Manual, gives the Anantha Varahan the value Rs. 3-15-5 (or three rupees, 15 annas, five pice), but does not describe it. Therefore, until recently there was no means to identify the Anantha Varahan that was minted in Padmanabhapuram and Alleppey. However, Barbara Mears stumbled upon a line drawing of this coin with an article (The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Volume LII, Calcutta, 1883, Pages 35-55) by Major Bidie, who was the Superintendent of the Madras Museum: he had obtained two of the coins from the maharaja's treasury. This helped identify the Anantha Varahan (Studies in South Indian Coins, Volume XXI, Barbara Mears, Pages 81-86; Beena Sarasan, Pages 87-90).
The Mathilakom Records in the Kerala State Central Archives, Churuna No.1308, Ola No. 410, dated ME 968-8-16, provides the interesting information that on the occasion of minting the Anantha Varahan for the first time in Alleppey, Dewan Chempakaraman Kesava Perumal sent some panam as offering (kaanikka) to Sree Padmanabha Perumal, the deity at the Padmanabhaswamy temple. The same document gives the names of others who made such offerings. This includes the ruler – Sri Padmanabhadasa Balarama Varma Kulasekharaperumal.
More details of donations in the form of coins are available in the Mathilakom Records. For example, Volume 60, Page 102, shows that on ME 952-9-9, the following coins were found in the vanchika: Kaliyan, Old Kaliyan, Kozhikode Panam, Rasi, Madurakali, Kanthirayan Panam, Gopali Chakram, and so on. Volume 8, Page 175 gives the list of coins counted on ME 952-11-9. Again, on ME 976-6-27, Velu Thampy Dalava, along with Thrippapur Mootha Tiruvadi, offered 11 Paranki varahan (Churuna 128, Ola 218). Thus, the treasures now found in the vaults are those offered to Sree Padmanabhaswamy and that accumulated over the centuries. The earliest recorded gift was that of Parantaka Pandya in AD 12th century.
(Beena Sarasa, formerly with the Indian Revenue Service, is a vice-president of the South Indian Numismatic Society. She has authored two books on Travancore coins: Coins of the Venad Cheras and Traversing Travancore Through the Ages on Coins.)