The Intriguing Tale of Babiya- The Vegetarian Crocodile of Ananthapura Temple in Kerala

Sindhu Murthy

Ananthapura is a tiny village located in the northernmost region of Kerala bordering with the Karnataka state in India known for its beautiful lake temple. The Ananthapura temple is famed as the only lake temple in Kerala which is considered as the original seat of the Ananthapadmanabha Swami temple of Trivandrum or Thiruvananthapuram. What is more intriguing about the temple is the story of Babiya, the vegetarian crocodile which guards the temple.

Arecanut trees on the way to Ananthapura temple

Arecanut trees on the way to Ananthapura Temple

Kerala, India

Lush green plantations of arecanut welcome us as we take a deviation from NH 66 to drive along the serpentine road leading to Ananthapura temple. The temple is not much crowded but for a few workers who are cleaning the premise. As we enter the temple, the person at the ticket counter asks if we would like to donate for the Crocodile’s food. We are quite amazed to know that the crocodile only eats food that is prepared by the temple priest using the offerings made by the devotees. The ritual of feeding the crocodile happens exactly at 12.00 noon every day. Since we have a long journey to make, we do not have the luxury of time to wait for two hours to see the ritual but we pay for the crocodile’s food. The cashier, however, tells that we can visit the pond and call the crocodile thrice by its name.  The crocodile would show up if it likes to bless us. We are in no mood to believe his words but since our kid insists we decide to give it a try.

Lake temple of Ananthapura temple

The only lake temple in Kerala dedicated to Lord Anantha Padmanabha or Vishnu

As we enter the precinct of the temple, we see a small yet beautiful shrine built on a square platform in the middle of the lake connected to the mainland through a bridge. The red terracotta tiled temple stands out against the green water of the lake. The walls of the shrine look rich with the brass plating. We can see many fish in the lake.  The idol of Sri Anantha Padmanabha, the chief deity appears to be seated on a five-headed snake in the middle of the lake. The mosaic-like idol with many shades of cream and green carved perfectly looks beautiful in the illumination of the traditional lamp burning in the shrine. The ceiling of the shrine is magnificent with detailed carvings of the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu. Photography of the chief deity and the ceiling is forbidden. The priest who sits by the main shrine offering sandalwood paste to the devotees gladly accepts to tell us more details about the temple. Per him, there are many intriguing stories and facts about the temple which he narrates to us with a lot of enthusiasm.

The main shrine at Anathapura lake temple

The main shrine of Sri Anantha Padmanabha Swami

An idol made of 108 elements of nature
the idol of main deity, Ananthapadmanabha, is made using a tedious procedure called Katu-Sarkara-Yogam which is quite unique compared to the way the usual idols seen in many Indian temples are made. It is prepared using about 108 ingredients sourced from sea, earth, plants, and animals. Wood of certain trees is used to carve the skeleton of the diety over which different natural elements are layered just like a human body is composed of different layers of bones, muscles, skin and other tissues to the extent that even a layer of nerves made of some plant fiber is added to the idol before it is finished with the superficial layers. The detail involved in the making of the idle and the procedures followed are quite overwhelming.

Ananthapura lake temple

The idol of main deity Sri Anantha Padmanabha Swami appears to be seated on a five-headed snake in the middle of the lake

The legend of Vilvamangalathu Swami
As the legend goes, Sree Vilvamangalathu Swami, a saint, was doing penance in the name of Lord Vishnu. During his prayers, Lord Vishnu appeared in the form of a small kid and started troubling him. Annoyed by the behavior of the child, the saint pushed the kid aside. A cave was formed at the place where the boy fell. He disappeared into the cave revealing his identity. The saint heard a voice from the cave stating he has to go to Ananthakadu to see the lord again. The saint followed the kid into the cave and emerged out in a forest near Ananthakadu, the present location of Trivandrum( Thiruvananthapuram), the capital of Kerala popular all over the world for its Ananthapadmanabha temple. The cave from the legend still exists near the temple in Anantapura and a crocodile guards the shrine and the cave.

The cave at Ananthapura temple

The cave at Ananthapura temple

Babiya, the vegetarian crocodile
Babiya, the sole crocodile that resides in the lake of Ananthapura temple is considered as the guardian of the temple. It only eats a vegetarian meal that is prepared by the temple priest using the offering made by devotees. Every day after the noon’s worship in the temple, the priest goes out to the pond and calls the Babiya for a meal. The Crocodile eats the gruel prepared with rice and jaggery from the priest’s hand. There has been no history of anybody getting harmed by the crocodile.

Ganesha temple in Ananthapura

A shrine built for Lord Ganesha in one corner of the lake

The mystery of the single crocodile in the lake
According to a local folklore, the crocodile in the lake was shot dead in 1945 by a British soldier. The soldier died within few moments because of snakebite. People believed that it was a curse of serpent god Anantha. However, the very next day another crocodile appeared in the lake. It is said that, if one crocodile dies, another one appears in the lake in a short while. What is intriguing is that there is no other water source nearby from where the new crocodile would have come. As per the aged people of the village, Babiya is the third crocodile that has lived in the lake.

Babiya in Ananthapura lake

Babiya, the vegetarian crocodile in Vana Shastra lake in Ananthapura temple

After praying at the shrine, we step out to go around the lake. We see many remains of the ruins surrounding the lake which indicate that the temple was once part of a larger complex. A tiny pond beside the lake is filled with overgrown lotus leaves. Many coconut trees towered high in the grooves behind the pond. There are a few houses, probably the priest’s quarters. We are told that the crocodile has gone to another pond named Vana Shastra located about 200m from the main lake. We walk along a narrow paved path to reach the pond. The Vana Shastra pond is quite small with a few lotus plants spread across. It has no fence and the crocodile can easily walk out of the pond at its will.  We call Babiya by his name thrice as suggested by the priest. To our surprise, the crocodile emerges out of the water in one of the corners of the ponds. It is a moment of goosebumps for us. It takes a while for us to believe it happened. Babiya disappears into the water as calmly as it had surfaced. We call him a couple of more times and wait in vain. We have to wait for more than an hour for the daily offering to Babiya. Since we have a long distance to cover, we decide to return, content with the fact that we are lucky to see the crocodile.

After we return from the trip,  we do a little bit of research online to know if crocodiles can really be vegetarian and what we find really surprises us.  A crocodile farm in Zimbabwe which rears close to 1.6 lakh crocodiles started introducing vegetarian diet to the reptiles in 2006 by mixing it with meat.  Within a few months, the crocodiles were happy having complete vegetarian meals. Though this answers a part of the puzzle about the vegetarian crocodile of Ananthapura, the fact that there has been exactly one crocodile in the lake at any given time since eons still remains a mystery.

 

Getting there: The nearest railway station to Ananthapura is at Kasaragod which is around  14 km away. The nearest airport is at Mangalore which is at a distance of 60 km.

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