Dharmadam is a tiny island off the coast of Malabr near Thalassery. It floats poignantly like a green offshoot or an anchored ship a few hundred meters away from the mainland. It is situated just south of Muzhupilangad beach, the only drive in beach in Kerala. The beach sand is darker and binding with scattered laterite formations. People walk to the island during low tide. It is part of a laterite projection into the Arabian sea between the two arms of the river Anjarakandy. The northern arm of the river is also called Dharmadam river by the local population.
I visited this historic and enigmatic islet on Sunday, 13 Feb. 2011 with Jaime Chithra at noon. The laterite rock formations carved out by the waves over thousands of years appear like relics of an ancient civilization. This reminiscence of natural history points towards the greater legacies of cultural history associated with this unique and strategic geo-political location and geographic formation .
The very name says it all. Dharmadam means the place of Dharma or ethics in the Buddhist sense. It was the space and abode of the ethical philosophy and praxis of Buddhism or the extremely pacified religion of Jainism during the Sramana cultural phase of Kerala from BC fourth century to the eighth or tenth century AD when these ethical cultures were devastated by invading Brahmanism that converted dynasties to Hinduism and created its notorious sexual colonies among Sudras that ensured their lasting slavery. Historians have identified it as Srimoola Vaasam the southern seat of the Buddha in Indian peninsula. But places like Thrikkunnapuzha, Thottappally and Thirumullavaram in the south coast are also tentative locations.
Fortunately the linguistic evidences are still surviving in and around Dharmadam and Malabar which abound in place names connected to ‘Pally’ or non Hindu worshiping places. The Brahmanic Hindu conquest and its hegemonic erasures could not obliterate the linguistic markers and a few place names related to Pali language, the language used by Buddhist missionaries in the south. It is also important to remember that places like Dharmasthala are still existing a few hundred miles north east in the ancient Tulunadu along with other Jain reminiscences in Moodbidre, Karkala and Sravanabelgola. The Pali and Prakrit linguistic traces are still surviving in Tulunadu and Kolathunadu as they are in the southern regions of present Kerala.
According to Dr Santhosh Manichery, a researcher and teacher from Govt. Brennen College, Thalassery Dharmadam had been a place of immense importance in relation to the Buddhist past of Malabar. The place names of Pallykkunnu, Kattampally, Kunjipally, Mullappally etc. in and around Kannur also substantiate this argument with other evidences drawn from linguistic archaeology and local oral narratives of the subaltern. According to M P Kumaran a local historian the place name Dharmadam is a shortened form of Dharma Pathanam a synonym for pepper in Amarakosa as the place was the center of pepper trade from the Sangham ages onwards. Kumaran master also locates Dharmadam as the eroded port of Tyndis or Tundis as recorded in Roman and western writings on Malabar (Kumaran 1998: 24).
It is also notable that the place was so special for Kolathiris or Nannans of Ezhimala whose original ancestry was Buddhist and non Brahmanic/Hindu as clearly established by Mooshika Vamsa of Athulan written in the 11th century. It is important to mark here that Sramana traditions sustained well into the 12th century as this vital text proves. At the wake of the 17th century The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the English competed to gain control over this strategic point on the Malabar coast. It was also with Arakal Beevi of Kannur (the only Muslim dynasty of Kerala) and Mysore for a short span in the 18th century. Soon after the Srirangapatanam treaty of 1792 it again fell into the hands of the British.
Whatever be its colonial legacies it is one of the last surviving sacred spaces historically linked to Buddhism/Jainism in Malabar. With the increasing Sanskritization and Hinduization of local shrines and Bahujan temples the invaluable traditions and traces of Sramana culture are getting obliterated everyday. Even the chants of Theyyams have become Sanskritic, Hindu hegemonic and elitist today. Neo Brahmanism and Savarna elite cultural hegemony colonize the minds through every discourse and mass media in society.
Amidst all these erasures and silences and evasions in our cultural history Dharmadam adorns a significant and self articulating space and voice that point towards the ethical and egalitarian past of Kerala and the shared historical legacies of South India. It must be protected for posterity as an invaluable heritage site of immense significances in relation to natural and cultural history by the cultural wings and environmental departments of the Government and international bodies like the UNESCO as it is done in the Cochin-Muziris heritage project. It was Sahodaran Ayyappan the seminal voice of Kerala renaissance who reminded all Keralites almost a century ago by radically rereading his own teacher in the following re-articulation:
No caste, no religion, no god
But Dharma, Dharma and Dharma …
Yes, Dharmadam is there to welcome the ethically inclined in the past, present and future.
For further Reading:
Kumaran, M P. Kolathupazhama. Thrissur: Kerala Sahitya Akademi, 1998.