Let us discard the ideology of Vamana or the Brahman dwarf
Let us recover the just governance of Mabali the leader of the people
From the “Song of Onam” by Sahodaran Ayyappan
Teravada Buddhism, the world’s earliest missionary religion, reached current Kerala or the Chera land that was part of the ancient Tamil country or Tamilakam, comprising Chera, Chola and Pandya kingdoms, through the missionaries of Asoka the Great in the 3rd century BC. This civilizing ethical culture prevailed in Kerala till the 16th century and was finally erased from the social sphere through hegemonic appropriations and violent conversions by Saiva and Vaishnava Bhakti frenzies of the brahmanical Hindu religion that became prominent from the 10th century AD onwards in Tamilakam. The liberalization and dilution of Teravada Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism into the broader popular movements called Mahayana and Vajrayana, respectively, also resulted in this violent and all-encompassing embrace by Hindu Bhakti cults. But Buddhist idols, art and architecture still survive in disguised and Hinduized forms in Kerala. Buddhism and the language of its scriptures, Pali, have had lasting imprints in the language and culture of Kerala.
Attacks on Shramana culture
A Buddha idol fragment was identified among a heap of broken idols at Pattanam in Ernakulam district in 2012. People generally worship these broken idols now as Naga Yakshi and Naga Raja. But on closer examination they were found to be parts of different idols. A seated figure in Padmasana is the vital fragment. On 26 October 2012, I visited Pattanam and had a close, enlightening look at the fragments. It is placed on a granite pedestal with a water chute. The iconography, colour and texture of the stone, chiselling style closely resemble the Buddha idols recovered so far from Mavelikara, Karumady, Bharanikavu Pallykal and Kayamkulam in the south. Kuttanad wetlands were a flourishing space of Buddhism till the 16th century, when it was pushed out by the usurping Brahmanism and Hindu terror.
This idol in Padmasana seems to be demolished above the waist and is the only one resembling a Buddha idol to be recovered so far from the Ernakulam district. It is important at this moment to remember that the bas-relief of the Jina on the façade of Kallil rock temple a few miles east of Perumbavur in Ernakulam district is also half-demolished (P. K. Gopalakrishnan, Jaina Dharmam Keralathil, Prabhat, 1992). In the case of the Pattanam fragment, the fracture and the tear and wear indicate violent takeover, demolition, dumping into the pond where it lay in muddy water for centuries. The seasoning of the stone under water and the sculpting style situate it among the earliest Buddhist idols in Kerala. Thus, along with the Karumady and Mavelikara idols, the Pattanam Buddha fragment can be dated to the 7th or 8th century AD. Experts like Ilamkulam, P. C. Alexander, A. Aiyyappan and S. N. Sadasivan have dated the Kuttanad Buddhas to this early period of Teravada or Hinayana in Kerala (A. Aiyyappan, The Story of Buddhism: With Special Reference to South India, Madras Government Museum, 1960).
The region between Edapally (in Ernakulam district) and Vadanapally (in Thrissur district) is full of places with names that have the affix “pally”, a Pali word signifying a Chamana (Shraman) sacred place (Puthussery Ramachandran, Kerala Charitrathinte Atisthana Rekhakal, Kerala Bhasha Institute, 2007). In some of the place names, the affix pally is now being changed gradually, into “pilly”. This word “pilly”, which does not feature in any lexicon of the language, is a cunning coinage and lexical violence strategically used by hegemonic forces that try to monopolize language and local histories. The “Pillyfication” of place names in Kerala could be read as the hidden Savarna Hindu agenda of erasing the ancient minor Buddhist or Jainist histories and legacies of the regions (Ajay Sekher, “Pillyvalkarikkapetunna Pallykal”, Pachakuthira Magazine, August 2010).
Buddha idols unearthed so far in Kerala are mostly from the Alappuzha and Kollam districts. The Buddha idol from Kottapuram, near Kodungallur or Muziris, in the southern frontier of Thrissur district, was found only a few decades ago (Aju Narayanan and Ajay Sekher, “Buddhane Pedikunnatharu?”, Mathrubhumi Weekly, 2 Dec 2012). A number of similar Buddha sculptures have also been found in Tyaganur, Ariyalur, Nagapatinam and other parts of Tamil Nadu, especially in Madurai and Tirunelveli districts (K. Damodaran, Tamil Nadu: Archaeological Perspective, Dept of Archaeology, Govt of Tamil Nadu, 2000). The Buddha at Tyaganur is still sitting pretty in the open field, exposed to the elements, almost a millennium after its creation either by skilled sculptors or Chamana sages themselves. The whole Kaveri delta from Tiruchirappalli to Thanjavur to Chidambaram and Puhar was a fertile ground of Buddhism as testified by the scores of bronzes and granite sculptures recovered from the region. As early as 1960s, Prof A. Aiyyappan, then curator and superintendent of Madras Museum, had highlighted the panels of the Buddha in the Thanjavur Big Temple.
It is very important to note that the idol fragments at Pattanam were recovered from a temple pond. It was the same case in Mavelikara, Kayamkulam, Pallykal and Karumady. All the Buddha idols in Kerala were recovered from current Savarna temple ponds, or paddy fields and wetlands in their vicinity. They appeared to have been violently attacked, uprooted and thrown or buried in ponds and marshes. The traces of Chamana past were buried deep under and pushed down into the subaltern netherworld, as in the metaphoric myth of Maveli or Mahabali.
Humanist spirit of Mahabali/Maveli
Maveli, who represents the egalitarian and humanist spirit of Buddhism, was trampled down to the underworld by the covetous Brahman dwarf Vamana who is hailed as an incarnation of Vishnu. While Vamana is worshipped in a Savarna temple in Trikakara (which, according to Ramachandran, was a Jain and Buddhist centre before the 8th century), Maveli lives only in the popular unconscious. The memory of Maveli was revived by Sahodaran Ayyappan in the early 20th century as an act of cultural resistance against the elitist appropriation of Onam, through the poem Onapattu or the song of Onam, where he urges all Keralites to “Throw away the Vamana ideology or Brahmanism and to bring back the governance of Maha Bali” (Ajay Sekher, Sahodaran Ayyappan: Towards a Democratic Future, Other Books, 2012).
The Pattanam idol fragment is not likely to be a Jain Tirthankara image because there is no Lanchana or customized icon of animals or Chaitya trees associated with each Tirthankara on the base or pedestal. Prof M. R. Raghava Varier, for example, gives a detailed table of Jinas and their corresponding Lanchana, trees and escort of Yaksha and Yakshis in his book Jainamatham Keralathil (NBS, 2012). Moreover, the stylization of the figure and its seating posture and orientation of the limbs closely echo the Buddhas at Mavelikara, Karumady and Bharanikavu. P. C. Alexander and S. N. Sadasivan, who wrote their own versions of the histories of Buddhism in Kerala, have argued that these south Kerala Buddhas resonate the Anuradhapura style of stone sculpting and chiselling (P. C. Alexander, Buddhism in Kerala, Annamalai University, 1984; S.N. Sadasivan, A Social History of India, APH, 2007). The blackness and density of the granite and the exquisite oily-suppleness of appearance closely link the Pattanam fragment to its counterparts in Alappuzha and Kollam and farther south in Sri Lanka.
Violent Brahmanization of the South
The pivotal significance of the archetypal phallus or the Linga in the Saivite Hindutva appraisal gains meaning in these contexts. It is very easy to chisel and modify a votive stupa and even a Jina or Buddha into an erect Linga. The traces and relics of such iconographic modifications can be seen throughout south Indian temples that were turned into Hindu temples in the early Middle Ages. In Odisha, too, it is visible. The subaltern energy was also hijacked by the superficially egalitarian Saiva and Vaishnava movements in the Bhakti cults. These seemingly populist streams were utilized by Brahmanism to re-establish the Hindu world order. Appar, who converted to Saivism from Jainism, and Sambandhar, who was anti-Jain, provoked the henchmen of Brahmanism in the eighth century in Madurai into persecuting thousands of Jain sages (Ramachandran 2007).
P. K. Gopalakrishnan, who wrote the cultural history of Kerala, also mentions the persecution of at least 8,000 Jain sages on the banks of River Vaigai and the ritualistic re-enactment of the same hoary episode of barbarism in the annual celebrations of the Madurai Meenakshi Temple called “Kazhuveti Tiruvizha” (Gopalakrishnan 1992). It can be assumed that such bloody genocides and persecution were also carried out in Kerala during the early Middle Ages, which exterminated the Chamana culture and established the Savarna elite culture marked by the use of Manipravalam and Sanskrit. There are plenty of local narratives by the Avarna people on the persecution of the Buddhists in Aluva, just a few miles east of Pattanam, upstream by River Periyar. According to some local legends, Aluva got the place name from the big wooden or metal spear used to penetrate and rip off the body of the Amana/Chamana from the hip to the head. Such fixed spears used to peel the coconut is still called “Alava or Alavang” in central Kerala. Killing a human being with this spear was called “chithravadham” (unusual execution) in the Middle Ages (Velayudhan Panikasery, Kerala Charithrathinte Ullarakalileku, Current, 2012).
The broken figure in Padmasana at Pattanam is also a key marker of the cultural reality and history of Kerala. It proves once again that grave material violence was used to convert and modify the ethical and egalitarian spiritual practices and instructive places in Kerala during the early Middle Ages by the practitioners of brahmanical Hinduism and its strategic appropriating tropes like Saivism and Vaishnavism. The brahmanical henchmen, belonging mostly to the Maravar, Kallar and other militia clans, demolished and buried all traces of Buddhism and its non-violent culture in Kerala with true Shudra allegiance and slave-like fidelity to their caste- sovereigns, the earthly gods or the Bhudeva.
The broken granite Buddha sculpture at Pattanam testifies to the fascist violence that is perpetrated even today by the Hindutva and Savarna henchmen against minor sects, others and outcastes in India. Pattanam Buddha is a vital fragment of history that teaches us to be vigilant against cultural, iconographic, architectural and epistemic violence and alterations carried out by the power elite with coercion and appropriating strategies. It is striking how close Pattanam is to Cherai, where, under the visionary leadership of Narayana Guru, Sahodaran Ayyappan, along with C. V. Kunhiraman and Mitavadi C. Krishnan, initiated the most dynamic neo-Buddhist discourse in Kerala in the early 20th century as part of the cultural struggles now termed as the Kerala Renaissance. Narayana Guru symbolically and radically subverted the brahmanical hegemony in the spiritual and religious realm through his Aruvipuram installation in 1888 and the Sarada consecration at Varkala in 1911.
The shattered Buddha of Pattanam is an immortal piece of art as well. It tells us a lot about south Indian cultural history, iconography, society and polity of the last few millennia. It is an icon of survival, resistance and articulation against invasions and imperialisms, both internal and external. It is an ethical and spiritual work of art that is both political and social, with its polyphonic significations and liberating visual cultural possibilities. This invaluable treasure and heritage of humanity – of Kerala in particular – must be preserved and protected by the people and their elected governments for the future. As B.R. Ambedkar, the neo-Buddha of India, has reminded us, the people who do not know history, cannot make history.
This is the edited version of a paper presented at the National Seminar on Buddhism at S S University of Sanskrit, Kalady, Kerala on 8 February 2013
Onapattu – the Song of Onam
The festival of Onam is celebrated at present in central and southern Kerala as a harvest festival marking the end of the monsoons and the beginning of the New Year. Though Onam is celebrated in Malabar (northern Kerala), another festival Vishu marks the New Year there. It is interesting to note that Onam is the beginning of the New Year in Sri Lanka as well, showing the close cultural proximity and shared past. Historically, it marks the end of the Buddhist age and the institutionalization of the Hindu brahmanical caste system or Varnasramadharma in Kerala.
The mythology and symbology of Onam represent the Buddhist past of Kerala. The yellow robes given to the new converts who stepped in to the Sangha by the Buddha are symbolized in Onakodi or the new cream-coloured dhotis of Onam. The Dhamma Chakra or the wheel of ethics is symbolized in the well-rounded floral carpet. The pyramidal clay figure of Onatappan placed amid the floral carpet represents the Buddhist stupa, a key icon of the Buddha. It has been elongated to give it a phallic shape and Saivite accent in the post-Buddhist period. The eight steps of the ground prepared for the floral arrangement in some places also suggest the eightfold path or the Ashtanga Marga as elaborated by the Buddha.
It is the day of the defeat of Maveli or Mahabali, the just and egalitarian king of Kerala, who is referred to as a demon or Asura by the Brahmins. He was pushed down to the netherworld (Patala) by the covetous Brahmin dwarf called Vamana, who is hailed as an incarnation of Vishnu. It is also the day when Mahabali revisits his people. While the caste Hindus celebrate it as a victory of Vishnu and his birthday, the Bahujans celebrate Tiru Onam or the Holy Onam as a second coming of Mahabali. The prefix Tiru or holy also marks its connection with the religious past of the Shramana tradition, especially Buddhism.
It is mentioned in a Malayalam folk song that Maveli was a just ruler and there was no caste hierarchy in his kingdom. It clearly shows that it was a pre-Varnashrama (pre-caste Hindu) society, or a Buddhist society without caste and gender hierarchies. Subaltern historians are of the view that the song was composed by the 16th-century Dalit poet and shaman called Pakanar. This ballad was adapted and rendered in a modern idiom by the early-20th-century reformist poet and cultural activist, Sahodaran Ayyappan. Sahodaran used Pakanar’s lines at the beginning of his song and improvised to turn it into a scathing critique of the caste system and Brahmanism that pervades society and polity in Kerala and India at large. It is titled Onapattu or the song of Onam.
In the song, Sahodaran talks about how Brahmanism infiltrated south India by cheating the just ruler Maveli, the Buddhist, and usurping his kingdom. His song of Onam clearly exposes the brahmanical conspiracy that led to a caste and feudal Hindu system taking over Kerala between the 8th and 12th century. He elaborates the cultural destruction and moral catastrophe that followed and the violent establishment of Brahminism, the most heinous system that introduced the ideas of “purity”, “pollution” and “untouchability”. Sahodaran’s Onapattu concludes with an appeal to the people that they must leave the ideology of Brahmanism and recover the just and egalitarian rule of Mahabali.
Published in the October 2015 issue of the FORWARD Press magazine