Buddhism in Tamil Nadu

// August 2nd, 2015 // Cultural Politics

Buddha at Tiruchirapally Govt Museum, marked 11th century AD

Buddha at Tiruchirapally Govt Museum, marked 11th century AD

Theodore Bhaskaran on Buddha at Tanjavur in the Hindu

Dakshinamurty fragment in Tiruchirapally Govt Museum, showing remarkable similarities with the above Buddha with the Bodhi tree and hairdo indicating the appropriation of Buddhist iconography into Saivite art in Tamilakam

Dakshinamurty fragment in Tiruchirapally Govt Museum, showing remarkable similarities with the above Buddha with the Bodhi tree and hairdo indicating the appropriation of Buddhist iconography into Saivite art in Tamilakam in early middle ages

Read Dr Jambulingam’s writings on Buddhism in the Chola Country

Buddha at Tanjavur Palace Museum

Buddha at Tanjavur Palace Museum

The fresco and stone reliefs featuring the Buddha in Tanjavur Big temple or Brihadiswara temple is interpreted in many ways by scholars and pundits. Theodore Bhaskaran keeps alive the sceptical tradition in his 2004 piece in the Hindu. It is also found in Odisha that the 7th or 8th century Siva/Devi temples are having images/motifs similar to the Buddhist Viharas. It is generally interpreted as an act by the Viswakarma artisans who worked for all these monuments.
But considering the violent fanatic nature of the Saivite forces and kings who monitored the making of the new Hindu temples in early middle ages such aberrations by artisans are literally impossible. The abandoning of the Big temple in Tanjavur by Rajendra Chola the son of Rajaraja soon after its construction in AD 1010 and the religion of Rajaraja the father are in deep mystery.
The presence of the Buddha with the Bo tree at more than three different locations in the Tanjavur Big temple proves its ancient Buddhist legacy. It is also interesting to note that Dr Jambulingam a local archaeologist has recovered almost 65 Buddha idols from the Kaveri delta itself in the last few decades. Tanjavur Palace Museum is having more than five Buddha idols, some of them in standing posture and more than five feet tall, all in simple Teravada style.
Tiruchirapally Govt Museum is also having more than three huge sculptures of the Buddha. Acharya Buddha Duta Mahatero a Buddhist scholar of the fifth century AD is believed to have lived in the vicinity of Tiruchirapally, near Srirangam and Uraiyur. Six feet tall granite sculpture of Buddha Duta was found in a current Siva temple in Putamangalam near Uraiyur.
The origin story of Tillai Kovil in Chidambaram is also shrouded in mystery. As the sacred tree belonging to the mangrove variety called Tillai and the antiquity and unique architecture of the sanctum are also connected to the sacred groves of Buddhism and the basic principle of conservation of life rather than destruction and cosmic dance done on the back of the opponent rendered as demon. Saivite take over and transformation of Buddhist shrines in Tamilakam in the 6th to 8th century is the general pattern that we can recognize in the cultural and discursive geography.

Buddha 2 at Tiruchirapally Govt Museum

Buddha 2 at Tiruchirapally Govt Museum

A lion pillar at Tiruchirapally Govt Museum, recovered along with the Buddha 1. Dhamma Simhas or lions were key motifs in Buddha Pallys or Viharas

A lion pillar at Tiruchirapally Govt Museum, recovered along with the Buddha 1 above. Dhamma Simhas or lions of ethics were key motifs in Buddha Pallys or Viharas

Buddha 3 at Tiruchirapally Govt Museum, seems to be of later middle ages.

Buddha 3 at Tiruchirapally Govt Museum, seems to be of later middle ages. The hallow marks it as Mayana style.

Buddha 2 at Tanjavur Palace Museum. The Mayana style hallow is added and not part of the original Teravada sculpture.

Buddha 2 at Tanjavur Palace Museum. The Mayana style hallow is added and not part of the original Teravada sculpture. So is the frontal piece.

A standing Buddha at Tanjavur Palace Museum

A standing Buddha at Tanjavur Palace Museum

Seated Buddha 3 at Tanjavur Palace Museum

Seated Buddha 3 at Tanjavur Palace Museum

Panel reliefs depicting the Buddha under the Bodhi tree in Big temple, Tanjavur also called Brihadiswara temple built in early 11th century AD by Rajaraja Chola. This one on the eastern side of the southern exit from sanctum.

Panel reliefs depicting the Buddha under the Bodhi tree in Big temple, Tanjavur also called Brihadiswara temple built in early 11th century AD by Rajaraja Chola. This one on the eastern side of the southern exit from sanctum.

Another panel relief featuring the Buddha under the Bo tree on the western side of the inner or second eastern tower or Gopura in Big temple Tanjavur.

Another panel relief featuring the Buddha under the Bo tree on the western side of the inner or second eastern tower or Gopura in Big temple Tanjavur.

The author, Ajay Sekher in Big temple at Tanjavur. This Siva temple was built in AD 1010 by Rajaraja Chola, but it shows remarkable Buddhist connections in fresco and reliefs.

The author, Ajay Sekher in Big temple at Tanjavur. This Siva temple was built in AD 1010 by Rajaraja Chola, but it shows remarkable Buddhist connections in fresco and reliefs. The inner fresco gallery is now closed to visitors.

The author, Ajay Sekher with the Buddha at Tanjavur Palace Museum

The author, Ajay Sekher with the Buddha at Tanjavur Palace Museum

Read Peter Schalk’s essay “Buddhism among the Tamils”

One Response to “Buddhism in Tamil Nadu”

  1. Arasu says:

    A good reference in English:
    ‘Buddhism in South India’ by Pandit Hisselle Dhammaratana Mahāthera
    http://www.bps.lk/olib/wh/wh124-u.html

    Most of this publication is translation of parts of the popular book in Tamil ‘Bauthamum Thamilum’ by Scholar Mylai Seeni Vengatasamy first published in 1940 (with many later editions). Chapter 7 of his book that identifies holy sites of buddhists includes some locations in Kerala.

    Regards,
    Arasu

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