Buddha as Krishna: Kilirur Temple and Kerala History

// December 29th, 2011 // 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.

Reference

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:

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=Be3PCvzf-BYC&pg=PA137&lpg=PA137&dq=Kilirur+temple+and+buddhism&source=bl&ots=9j3sOcnoAp&sig=Xwx0TxObZeQ25p3WftN1YHOWuMU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Vvj7TvngB8bprQeJjKkH&ved=0CEgQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=Kilirur%20temple%20and%20buddhism&f=false

 

One Response to “Buddha as Krishna: Kilirur Temple and Kerala History”

  1. Sabu says:

    കൊട്ടാരത്തിൽ ശങ്കുണ്ണിയുടെ ഐതിഹ്യമാല
    26 ആമതു എഡിഷൻ പുറങ്ങൾ 564-568 നോക്കുക.

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