Tag Archives: Brahmanism in Kerala

Mamankam and Changampally Kalari: Ancient Practices of Healthcare and Martial Arts in Kerala

Mamankam memorial: Changampally Kalari near Thirunavaya

The healthcare and self defense practices  of Ayurveda and Kalari in Kerala are of Buddhist origin.  They are lasting legacies of Buddhism in Kerala as literacy and the general  intellectual culture. The Avarna communities like Ezhavas constitute the chunk of its practitioners traditionally and even in the present.  Vagbhata and Nagarjuna who developed this indigenous practice of medicine were Buddhist monks who did missionary work in south India.

Pazhuka Mandapam near Navamukunda temple, Thirunavaya on the banks of Nila

Even in 18th century, at the peak of Brahmanical untouchability and exclusion on caste lines, the Dutch appointed an Ezhava medic, Itty Achuthan of Kadakarapally near Cherthala to write the famous Hortus Malabaricus.  Even today one of the ancient Kalaris surviving in Kerala like Cheerapanchira in Alapuzha district, that trained the legendary Ayyappan of Sabarimala, belongs to an Avarna  Ezhava household.

Manikinar: well used to dump the Chaver, Thirunavaya

Changampally Kalari in Thirunavaya in Malapuram district is associated with Mamankam, the martial carnival that settled the succession disputes in ancient Kerala once in every 12 years.  Historians like Velayudhan Panikasery argue that the festival is of Buddhist origin.   Initially it was a great cultural and trade festival of human interaction on the banks of the great Perar or Bharathapuzha just above the ancient port city of Ponnani where trade and passenger ships from across the world anchored in the calm waters of the inland port.

Nilapadu Thara: vantage used by the Konathiries and Zamorins

Anyway the Changampally household was appointed in charge of the Kalari here by the Zamorin of Calicut in the middle ages according to local legends.  The family has converted to Islam in the 18thcentury during the Mysore occupation.  When I visited the Kalari in early February 2012, Mr Jaffar Gurukal who is running an Ayurvedic centre near the ancient Kalari told me that before conversion they were Tulu Brahmans.  This could be an elitist assimilation or fabrication done later under the hegemony of Brahmanical values; as Tulu Brahmans are never identified as traditionally having martial Kalari practice or institutions in Tulunadu or down south. Almost all Kalari households in Tulunadu and Malabar belonged to Sudra and Avarna communities.

Carving in Changampally Kalari

The Changam and Pally words in their house name are marked key words associated with Buddhism.  Changam or Chingam represent Chamana or Amana or Sramana culture as in Chinga Vanam or Changanassery (place names in Kottayam district).  As Sramana culture is inseparable from the month of Chingam and the great secular egalitarian festival of Onam in Kerala, the words Changam/Chingam and Pally/Pilly are also inextricably linked to the Buddhist past of Kerala  that is the foundation of egalitarian culture here, that was erased by Brahmanism after the 8th century.

It is great to see the ancient Kalari shrine and surroundings and the Mamankam sites being preserved by the Government and the people.  An apt museum and interpretation centre that could educate the people on their rich cultural traditions can be an added attraction here.  The road from Thirunavaya to Kuttipuram is also in good condition.  The Nila Park just below the Kuttipuram bridge about which poets like Idassery have written is also luring visitors.  I found a large group of Small Pratincoles on the sandy flats of the river near the park as the sun was setting beyond the river and into the trees.

Buddha as Krishna: Kilirur Temple and Kerala History

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.


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: