Uliyanur or the village of Uliyan is a riverine island like formation within the two distributaries of river Periyar, west of Aluva in Ernakulam district of Kerala. Uliyan or the chiseller is a denotation for the renowned carpenter in folk lore. The greatest chiseller and master architect in Kerala according to legend is Perum Tachan and he belongs to this village of Uliyanur.
Popular lore has it that he was born in the Pantiru Kula clan of the primeval Paraya woman (Parayi Peta Pantirukulam). Kesari argues that he was an architect from west Asia and was the Thomas of Cana himself. Brahmanical legends fix Vararuchi the Vedic Brahman as his father. His relatives belong to the Perum Padanna family of Viswakarmas the traditional artisan community in Uliyanur. The eldest carpenter or Mootasari is given the title Perum Tachan in the family. Ayyappan Narayanan is the current Perum Tachan in Perum Padanna family in Uliyanur.
The Viswakarmas are traditionally called Kammala in Kerala. They make the Pallys, temples and traditional mansions. But once the deity is enshrined in a Hindu temple they are outcastes and untouchables in the exclusive Savarna Brahmanical sacred spaces. The etymology of the word Kammala is vital in understanding their history. Traditionally in tandem with the hegemonic Hindu commonsense it is related to the Sanskrit Karmakara. But this is too strained and farfetched. Kammala is more close to the Pali word Kamma. Kammala means the one who takes on the Kamma or the ones specializing in Kamma or constructive acts or deeds. The Pali word Kamma signifies the Buddhist notion of one’s constructive good deeds and virtues that are rewarded in this world itself. In Teravada teachings the Kamma determines your destiny. The Buddhist notion of the Kamma as epitomized in the Pali word is the proper origin of the word Kammala and these Avarna people were originally Buddhist architects or Vastu Silpis in ancient Kerala. It is also argued that the word Vastu Silpi was originally ascribed to the architects or Silpis from (Kapila)Vastu the birth place of the Buddha. This distinction between Hindu Karma and Buddhist Kamma is like the difference between Hindu Sanatana Varnasrama Dharma and Buddhist ethical Dhamma.
It is no wonder that the late artist M V Devan who has revolutionized the visual cultures and architecture of Kerala came down from Kannur and settled down in Aluva near Uliyanur in a home he made on the banks of the river Periyar called Choorni. It was Devan Master who reiterated and popularized the word Kammala in his speaches and writings. He always projected something that he called Kammala Samskara or enlightened artisan culture of Kerala that was sustained by the Viswakarmas and other basic working Avarna communities of Kerala. We may even call M V Devan the modern Perum Tachan for his invaluable contributions to keep alive the constructive and critical discourse on enlightened Kammala culture.
There are two ancient temples in Uliyanur. The older one in the south is called a Swayam Bhu or self incarnate Ganes temple that was torched in some disputes in the early middle ages, between the early priests Bhatarakas and new Nambutiri Brahmans. The other one is the current Siva temple or Uliyanur Tevar temple as it is called traditionally (Tevar and Matevar were originally Buddha in Kerala with its Prakrit and Pali connection to Devar) said to be the construction of Perum Tachan. It is said that the new sacred group of Nambutiris came and settled along with the Bhatarakas and later pushed them out. The gradual internal colonization of the temple by a new group of usurping priestocracy and its takeover expelling the original custodians could be recognized in this local legend. Moreover the self incarnate denomination makes it clear that the temple was existing before the Brahmanical Hindu reinstallation by Parasurama that might have happened somewhere around AD 8th century.
The Ganapati temple was totally demolished and lost in the fire and vandalism that followed the dispute between the ancient Bhatarakas who were the original priests and the new sect of Nambutiri Brahmans in early middle ages, say local people. The Ganes is facing south and is placed at ground level. There is another raised installation of a huge stone phallus or Linga that forms the central deity. It is called Madatil Appan now or the Lord on a high pedestal or elevated sanctum.
Parasurama or the Brahman Rama with the axe, the archetypal Brahman conqueror who created Kerala with the swinging of his boomerang like axe over the Arabian Sea and established the Brahman settlements in Kerala chasing away the Naga people according to Keralolpaty and Keralamahatmyam, two 17th century Brahmanical texts, is said to have done the installation of the Siva Linga. According to traditional lore it was Brahman patriarchs like Parasurama, Sankara and Vilwamangalam who installed and reinstalled the phallus or Linga in most of the current Hindu temples.
The Swayam Bhu legend, the story of the dispute between the Bhatarakas and Nambutiris, the stories of torching and vandalizing of the shrine, the reinstallation by Parasu Rama etc. prove the Amana antiquity of the shrine of Madatil Appan. There are very few Madatil Appan shrines or high up sanctums in Kerala like that of Perumanam and Parambutali in Thrissur district. The elevated Pagodas called Madatil Appan sanctums are architecturally close to ancient Buddhist temples in Kerala and in various parts of Asia. Moreover the terms Madam, Appan, Uliyan, Tachan, Tevar, Perum, Padanna etc are also non Sanskrit and Tamil and Prakrit in origin that are legacies of early Teravada Buddhism in Kerala and south India. Bhatarakas were originally the priests and caretakers of Jain Pallys or Bastis in south India. There are many place names like Pattitanam (Etumanur), Pattitara (Tritala) and Pattambi (Shornur) after the Jain Bhattarakas.
Only certain parts of the ancient Madatil Appan temple are available on the site. The top echelon of the altar or Balikallu is the only relic found. The current laterite structure is only 50 years old. Before that this destructed temple was lying like a huge heap of soil and rock, say local residents. It is possible that this Jain Pally (now Madatil Appan shrine) was totally demolished in the religious tensions and the nearby Buddhist Pally (now Uliyanur Tevar shrine) was converted into a Siva temple in the Hindu Brahmanical take over. It is likely to have Jain and Buddhist Pallys in closer proximity. They co existed all along the important cultural and trade routes in India. Just upstream towards the east of Aluva there are abandoned temples like the Bhudatan temple in Tirunadha Puram close to Tiru Airanikulam. There are places like Sri Bhuda Puram near Tiru Airanikulam. Place names and architectural patterns suggest a strong Buddhist cultural heritage.
The Siva temple in Uliyanur towards the north of Madatil Appan shrine, has a circular sanctum or Vatta Srikovil. Vattams are found only in Kerala and Ceylon and have given birth to ancient place names all over Kerala like Palarivattam, Naduvattams (several) or Villorvattam. Vattam is called Vatta Dage in Ceylon. Its Anavatils or Elephant Gateways on the east and west and Anapallam walls or Elephant Belly swollen compound walls (like the swelling Buddha-belly bamboo) are also Buddhist architectural reminiscences in Kerala. The ancient altar with lion and elephant motifs and dragon faces that are found all over Asia are also key Buddhist architectural relics.
The Vatta sanctum with 68 heavy wooden beams converging into a single dome wooden pagoda top structure is said to be a unique creation of Perum Tachan. No other Tachan in Kerala history is able to deconstruct it or duplicate it so far. This type of labyrinthine wood ensemble is not even mentioned in the 16th or 17th century Brahmanical architectural texts like Tantra Samuchayam and Manushyalaya Chandrika that form the foundations of Hindu temple architecture in the Brahmanic period after the middle ages. This fact itself proves that the architectural practice is much ancient than the Hindu Brahmanical temple culture that was established only post 8th century.
Uliyanur Perum Tachan is now enshrined in a tiny pagoda along with Bhuvaneswari Devi in the Perum Padanna household in Uliyanur towards the south west of the temple. The family till recently held traditional rights in the temple festival. But with the erection of a concrete flag post or Kodimaram that long legacy is also taken away from them. It is clear that this household that gave birth to stalwarts like Perum Tachan is part of an ancient architectural legacy of Buddhism in Kerala.
Chungath, Rajan. Perumtachan Dukhitananu. Thrissur: Green Books, 2011.
Pooteri, Balan. Uliyanur Perumtachan. Kondotty: Author, Undated