Archive for December, 2011

Buddha as Krishna: Kilirur Temple and Kerala History

// December 29th, 2011 // 1 Comment » // Cultural Politics

Western gateway of Kilirur temple, Kottayam

Kilirur temple stands on a laterite hill surrounded by waterways and canals.  It is so close to the backwaters of lake Vembanad that forms the heart of Kuttanad. Kuttanad is also well known as the land of Kuttan or Putan; rustic names for the Buddha.  The Kilirur or Kiliroor temple is locally called Kilirur Kunnummel Bhagavathy temple (hilltop temple of the goddess).  It is just 8 km west of Kottayam town. Etymologically Kilirur means Kilirna Ur or the village on a raised land strip as it is a tiny hillock amidst the wetlands of Kuttanad.

central temple enshrining the goddess. Oiginally Mahamaya, Karthyayani after 16th century.

The uniqueness of the temple is the relief of the Buddha inside a shrine now dedicated to Krishna. The idol of Krishna also looks like a Yogic Avalokitesvara in Padmasana. The shrine is in Gaja Prishta architectural style (resembling the butt of a standing elephant) that is associated with temples of Buddhist antiquity.  It is facing east and the northern door is marked for Sri Buddha, but remains closed.

The present deity called Bhagavati in the central shrine originally built by Pallybanar for Mahamaya

The present deity called Bhagavati in the central shrine originally built by Pallybanar for Mahamaya

There is also an ancient sacred grove and Naga deities towards the east of the temple compound on the hillock.  Some of the former lords who were in charge of the temple are still known as Pallymenavans and all of them are non-Brahmans.

Ancient Naga deities in the Sarpa Kavu on the east of the Kilirur temple. A relic of nature worship and conservation related to Buddhism

According to historians and researchers this was one of the last surviving Buddhist temples in central Kerala along with Nilamperur Pally Bhagavathy temple (Ilankulam, Ravivarma, Valath, Ajunarayanan,  Sugathan, Sadasivan).  Both these Buddhist temples were patronized by Pallyvana Perumal, a Chera prince of the 16th century, whose image wasl worshiped in Nilamperur till recently.

Sapta Kanya or seven virgins. Originally nuns or Bhikshunis who pioneered Buddhist missionary work in Kilirur under the leadership of Pallyvana Perumal.  Yellow robes and turmeric powder still used to worship them.

Sadasivan says that the Bhagavathy of the central shrine was originally the idol of queen Mahamaya the mother of the enlightened one.  Pallyvana Perumal was a devotee of the mother of the affectionate one and thus he placed her at the centre of the temple.

Mahamaya the mother of Buddha, now moved to a subshrine and called Madhatil Bhagavati. Madham in Kerala was originally a Buddhist monastery or nunnery as in Kanya Madham or Kanyakavu.

Mahamaya the mother of Buddha, now moved to a subshrine and called Madhatil Bhagavati. Madham in Kerala was originally a Buddhist monastery or nunnery as in Kanya Madham or Kanyakavu.

It is also remarkable that there is no Namputhiri Illams in Kilirur and even the Brahman priests who do their service in the temple never stayed in the place though they do daily worshiping rituals in the temple through out the year.  The Brahmanical aversion to a Mlecha (Buddhist) holy place could be the reason for this, say researchers (Ravivarma) and local people.

southern shrine dedicated to Krishna, enshrining the Buddha relief in meditative posture beneath Bodhi tree. Built in simple Gaja Prishta style. Facing east and its northern door is marked “Sri Buddha”

Local people still believe that the temple was originally a Buddhist shrine.  Mr Rajappan Nair of Chandanaparambil narrated his memories and local lore about the temple.  It is interesting that local people still cherish the legends of Pallyvana Perumal and the Buddhist connection between Kilirur and Nilamperur.

Idol of Krishna closely resmbling a Boddhisatva in Ardha Padmasana. Buddha relief is on the other side of the backwall.

This last surviving Buddha image in a Kerala temple must be preserved for posterity and the temple and its rich and composite history must be conserved for the whole humanity who value the life and teachings of the compassionate one.  Further studies and excavations in the premises may recover precious details regarding the Sramana past of Kerala and its democratic and egalitarian cultures.

Remembering local history: Rajappan Nair near Kilirur temple. 28 Dec 2011


Buddha bronze in Mahayana style with the ornamental crown Ushnisha and Bodhi tree in the backdrop Prabha, now worshiped as Krishna in Kilirur temple, Kottayam.

Buddha bronze in Mahayana style with the ornamental crown Ushnisha and Bodhi tree in the backdrop Prabha, now worshiped as Krishna in Kilirur temple, Kottayam. Also mark the Chin Mudra and Triratna Mudra with the hands.


Ajunarayanan.  Keralathile Buddhamatha Paramparyam.

Jayaprakas.  Padmanabhaswamy Kshetram Arku Swantham?

Ilamkulam.  Keralacharithrathinte Irulatanja Edukal.

Panikasery.  Keralam Pathinanjum Pathinarum Noottandukalil.

Puthusery.  Kerala Charithrathinte Atisthana Rekhakal.

Ravivarma.  Pandathe Malayalakara.

Sadasivan.  A Social History of India.  Google Book available online:


Music from the Sacred Grove: An Ancient Fairy in Panachikadu

// December 28th, 2011 // No Comments » // Culture and Ecology

Sacred grove around the shrine

Just a few decades ago it was a dense and impenetrable forest on the north western slopes of a hillock overlooking the paddy fields on the southern banks of river Kodur, south of Kottayam.  This sacred grove enshrined the stone icon of an ancient goddess related to the serpent clan.  She is also worshiped as the spirit of the wood and the virgin spring that comes out of its thickets.  She is revered as Panachi the Naga Yakshi and her protected grove is thus called Panachikadu.  She is now worshiped as Saraswati in a pond covered with wild creepers. But her antiquity is traced back to the pre-Hindu or Sramana cultural phase of south India by historians and scholars (Valath).

Saraswati Nada

Buddhism in South India was open and inclusive towards the local and indigenous traditions like nature worship and tribal sacred practices.  The greater philosophy of conservation and bio-ethics manifested in Buddhist praxis in a variety of ways in the ancient Tamil country as early as BC 3rdcentury (Sugathan).  Conserving protected and sacred groves for endemic flora and fauna was one of the most popular and persistent practices in South Indian Buddhism that lasts even today in Kerala in the form of numerous Kavu and Kadu that sheltered the birds, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles, insects and medicinal shrubs for thousands of years. Serpent and tree worship was also integral to this practice that included the Naga, Negritoid and Dravidian traditions (Gopalakrishnan).

Yakshi Nada, the seat of the fairy above Saraswati Nada

The sacred grove dedicated to the serpent deities in Vaikom temple is called Panachikal, meaning the vicinity of Panachi.  The sacred grove near Niranam is called Panayannar Kavu, meaning the shrine of Panayan.  Panayan means the serpent king and Panachi represents the serpent queen (Valath 313).  In this analogy, Panachikadu means the sacred forest of Panachi the serpent queen or Sarpa Yakshi.  According to experts in local history like V V K Valath, Panchikadu near Chingavanam in Kottayam was originally a Sramana (Buddhist or Jain) sacred grove were this Naga deity was worshiped and after the Hindu-Brahmanic cultural invasion that happened in the eighth or ninth century the old shrine was converted into a Saraswati temple.

Pond of the goddess below the spring

Place names like Chingavanam and Channanikadu nearby also point towards the Chamana or Sramana cultural connection.  Channanikadu could be an adjacent shrine of a sister deity.  It is also important to note that Pakil Dharmasastha temple is closeby.   Anyway the Yakshi or Naga goddess still has a stone abode underneath the intertwined wild vines and creepers here. It is also important that the word Yakshi/Yakshan has a strong Jain linkage in the post Sramana period.

The place is also marked for a spring or Thirtham and a stone or Sila; that are key indicators or Mudras related to Jain or Buddhist shrines.  Vishnu is enshrined in the nearby big temple now. Places having the Pali word Pally in name, like Mariapally, Puthupally, Vazhapally, Mallappally, Pallypurathu Kavu etc. surround the hillocks of Panachikadu that rises from the backwaters and paddy field formations of Kodurar towards the south east of Kottayam town. 

It is also interesting to observe that Saraswati is worshiped as a sub deity of letters and arts by Jains along with Ganesh representing the primal connection with the animal kingdom in the form of an auspicious elephant god.  The Jain temples of Sravanabelgola, Halebidu, Venur and Moodbidri are typical examples of this mode of plural and eclectic worship and spirituality.

Unfortunately the sacred grove and its wild endemic vegetation are shrinking day by day under the pressure of development in the forms of concrete roads and construction all around the shrine.  The forest in the place name may remain in the very name in a few years if the culturally and ecologically aware people ignore this ancient sacred grove that has been an unlimited source of eco-spirituality, oxygen, drinking water and life sustaining knowledge practices for centuries.  I could see rare medicinal plants, insects, butterflies and birds inside this holy wood as I walked around the grove on the morning of Monday, 26 December 2011.  The lonesome long call of an invisible Iora from the darker green depth of the grove was particularly sweet and moving.

Stone representing the goddess covered in wild creepers, enshrined within the spring pond


Gopalakrishnan, P K.  Keralathinte Samskarika Charithram.  Trivandrum: Kerala Bhasha Institute, 2008.

Sugathan, K.  Buddhamathavum Jati Vyavasthithiyum.  Calicut: Progress, 2011.

Valath,  V V K.  Keralthile Sthalanama Charithrangal: Ernakulam Jilla.  Thrissur, Kerala Sahitya Akademi, 1998.