Archive for July, 2012

Komarakam: The Land of the Oracle

// July 29th, 2012 // No Comments » // Culture and Ecology

Komarakam – Chengalam paddyfields.  White Ibises as little spots scattered in the green

Komaram or Velichapad is an oracle in Kerala.  Komarams have their ritual origin in the ancient Dravidian and Sangham ages of South India.  There are plenty of place names associated with these ancient oracles all around the ancient Tamil country or the ancient Tamilakam.  Kanya Komari the cape of the peninsula, Komaranallur in Kottayam and Palakkad districts and Komarakam on the eastern banks of the Vembanad lake are a few remaining place names associated with the ancient oracles.

Kilirur Temple: Associated with the Pallybana Perumal and Buddhism, a few miles east of Komarakam. A Boddhisatva idol is worshiped as Kannan/Krishna here.

Another etymological possibility is associated with Komaran or Kumaran the ancient Dravidian deity of Murukan who was elevated to a Boddhisatva in the Chamana period.  Along with Ayyappan and Kannan, Murukan or Andavan was also considered as an Avalokiteswara Boddhistva.  Later all these Avalokiteswaras got absorbed into Brahmanical Hinduism after the wreck of Buddhism.  The places mentioned could also be associated with Komaran or Kumaran as well.

Black-shouldered Kite at Komarakam paddyfields

Though the pronunciations are slightly changed in the Sanskritization process in writing in particular, in speech people still use the ancient original form that is meaningful and culturally significant.  It is a typical instance of people’s culture resisting the Sanskritized high culture and its Savarna worldview.  By refusing to speak the edicts of chastised varieties of language they subvert elitism in their daily life.

Pale Tiger at Komarakam bird sanctuary

The Bahujans still say Komarakam in their daily reference to the place and not Kumarakam or Kumarakom in the Sanskritized Savarna fashion.  It is notable that places like Chengalam, Kutayampadi, Kutamalur, Komaranallur etc. surround Komarakam.  Chengalam has close affiliations with Changam and Chamana culture as in Chingavanam or Changanassery.

Egrets and Purple Heron at Komarakam paddy fields

Places having strong Buddhist cultural pasts like Kilirur and Neelamperur are also found in the periphery of the Vembanad wetland ecosystem.  Kuttanad that lies at sea level was the last abode of Buddhism in Kerala.  People call it the land of Kuttan or Buddhan himself.  The 8th century granite Buddha of Karumady called Karumady Kuttan  testifies the regional form of address.  Place names in Thrissur like Kuttanellur and Kuttankulangara are also associated with the localized version of the Buddha.

Oriental White Ibis in flight near Kavanatinkara in Komarakam

Kutayampadi and Kutamalur are associated with the spherical globe like Chaityas of Buddhism that gave importance to the ritual umbrellas and spherical urns and pagodas as metaphorical symbols of the enlightened one.  A place name in Kottayam like Muttambalam can provide an analogy here (a worshiping place like an eggshell, literally).  There are plenty of wrecks and vandalized Buddhist sacred groves and Sangharamas in Kutamalur.  They are surviving as Sarpa Kavus and sacred groves on the banks of the northern  branch of river Meenachil .

Neelamperur Pally Bhagavathy Temple, south east of Komarakam. Related to Pallybana Perumal and Buddhism. Mahamaya the mother of the Buddha is the chief deity. A Buddha idol is worshiped as Vishnu in a sub-shrine.

Kumaranallur could be a post 9th century Brahmanical modification of Komaranallur.  It is also remarkable that the pre Brahmanical rituals and cultural expressions like Pallyodams (sacred snake-boats related to the Pally) and Garudan Parawa (a ritual performance that celebrates a bird) are still surviving, though in Hinduized fashion.  Garudan Parawa closely resembling the Annam Kettu in the Padayani rituals of Neelamperur in the south, is a reminiscence of the Buddhist performance celebrating the Annam or Swans and Storks that were sacred in Buddhism.  The compassionate won is said to have  saved the life of a swan in his childhood.  Swans and storks are still worshiped in Japan, Korea and the far east.

Komarakam with its rich cultural and natural history and biodiversity must be protected from the heavy influx and concentration of tourists and commercial interests; and must be made part of a greater eco-cultural circuit involving the historic places around it.  The conservationist and ethical traditions of Buddhism could provide a prudent perspective  for developing these cultural locations all around the lake Vembanad.  Komarakam, Chengalam, Kutamaloor, Kilirur and Neelamperur could become the Nalanda and Takshasila of Kerala and could be developed in the manner of those ancient Buddhist cultural centres in the north now being revived under a pan-Asian initiative led by Prof Amartya Sen.

Buddhism, Ayurveda and the Avarna Medical Tradition of Kerala:Itty Achuthan and Kadakarapally

// July 18th, 2012 // 1 Comment » // Cultural Politics

All that remains of Itty Achuthan: The small pagoda (Kuryala) eructed in his memory at Kollatt house in Kadakarapally, Cherthala. 8 July 2012

Kadakarapally is a coastal village west of Cherthala town in Alapuzha district of Kerala.  The place name proclaims that it was the location of an ancient Buddhist Pally close to the sea.  Places like Paruthiampally and Thankipally are close by.  The renowned Ayurveda scholar Kollatt Itty Achuthan hails from Kadakarapally.  Even in the 17th century at the height of the caste system and its untouchability discourses the colonial Dutch Governer Henrik Van Reed had to appoint Achuthan an Avarna Vaidyar and Ezhava by community, as the chief expert-consultant towards the  compilation of The Horthus Malabaricus the first scientific work on the plants and shrubs of Kerala.

Sacred grove in the memory of Itty Achuthan Vaidyar at Kollatt, Kadakarapally. Certain plant species in the grove are yet to be identified.

Legend has it that medics like Achuthan inherited the precious knowledge and practice of Ayurveda and the specialized knowledge on rare endemic medicinal shrubs from the students of the legendary Nagarjuna, the Buddhist monk who studied the flora of southern Kerala, especially that of Maruthwamala and spent his last years in Kadakarapally.  The direct linkage between Buddhism, Ayurveda and Avarna Vaidya tradition is undoubtedly signified through this iconic medic in Kerala history.  It is also notable that Ashtanga Hridaya a seminal text of Ayurveda was written by Vagbhata another Buddhist sage.  Uppottil Kannan an Avarna Vaidyar from Malabar composed the first interpretation to this key Ayurvedic  text in Malayalam.

Arthungal Church south of Kadakarapally

The Arthungal church which has close cultural associations with Buddhism in the past lies south of Kadakarapally.  The Avarnas who make their annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala (the seat of Avalokiteswara Boddhisatva) of the region begin and end their pilgrimage at Arthunkal church.  Prof Purushothaman has argued in his Buddhante Kalpadukal (Current 2008) that the Veluthachan deity of the church is a Boddhistava in regional coastal manifestation.

Thykal in Kadakarapally where a wooden vessel was excavated. It was dated to be 1000 years old and was identified as an Arabian one. A sign of overseas trade and cultural links of the region for more than a millennium.

Today the Kollatt family is still there in Kadakarapally.  There is just a small collapsing pagoda like hut (called Kuryala)  in the memory of the late Vaidyar.  A sacred grove is also surviving under various threats of erasure.  The local bodies and the government must act immediately to preserve the valuable relics and significant memories of Itty Achuthan in a well studied way for posterity.  The future monument or museum must focus on the historic legacy of Ayurveda and the ethical philosophy of Buddhism that promoted and propagated livelihood skills among the most depressed and needy people in the peripheries like the coastal belts and marshes of Alapuzha.  The democratic legacies of literacy and healthcare are lasting impacts of the Sramana tradition in Kerala that need to be recovered, critically studied and reasserted by the people.

Click to read Hortus Malabaricus online