Buddha as Krishna: Kilirur Temple and Kerala History
// December 29th, 2011 // Cultural Politics
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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