Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism in Kerala’

A Tranquil Buddha on the Periyar Bank: Buddha at Topil in Onampally

// August 17th, 2014 // No Comments » // Cultural Politics

Buddha idol at Topil House in Onampally near Kalady, Ernakulam district of Kerala. Photo by Ajay Sekher 16. 8. 2014

Buddha idol at Topil House in Onampally near Kalady, Ernakulam district of Kerala. Photo by Ajay Sekher 16. 8. 2014

Onampally or Onampilly is a small village on the southern banks of the Periyar just to the opposite of Kalady in Ernakulam district of Kerala.  The regions in and around Kalady have plenty of places with Pally or Pilly as an affix to the name.  Nampilly, Onampilly, Nellipally, Natupilly, Netinampilly, Talayatampilly etc are some of the place names on the banks of the Periyar in this region.  West of Kalady you have places like Vellarapally, Puliyampilly, Marampally and so on.  The Pali word Pally means a Buddhist or Jain sacred place.  It is generally seen that these Pally names are changed to Pilly in order to obliterate the history of Jain and Buddhist antiquity from the middle ages onwards. Kalady itself means the footprint or Sri Pada that is specifically Buddhist in etymology.  Kaipattur a place east of Kalady that literally means the the village bearing a hand print is a clear Jain marker. Manickamangalam is another one.  It is also remarkable that Malayatur mountain on the east of Kalady  has a footprint on its summit.

Ancient granite idol of the Buddha recovered in 1964 at Topil in Onampally.  See the Ushnisham or crown of hair, Utariyam or robe on left shoulder and Jwala or flame of enlightenment atop the hair that are the key markers of a Buddha idol.  Could be dated to 7th and 8th century AD and in early Teravada Anuradhapuram style.

Ancient granite idol of the Buddha recovered in 1964 at Topil in Onampally. See the Ushnisham or crown of hair, Utariyam or robe on left shoulder and Jwala or flame of enlightenment atop the hair that are the key markers of a Buddha idol. Could be dated to 7th and 8th century AD and in early Teravada Anuradhapuram style.

In Onampally on the south bank of Periyar there is an ancient household called Topil.  This family belonging to the Avarna Ezhava community has a small  family shrine in which they worship an idol that was recovered from beneath the soil, from their own plot fifty years ago in 1964.  The very name Topil means an orchard or plantation.  There are plenty of places with Topil or Tottam as affixes all across Kerala like Totapally in Alapuzha, Totapady in Thrissur, Topumpady in Ernakulam etc.  The shrine of Ayya Vaikunta Swamy in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu is called Swamy Topu.  These Topus/Topils and Tottams are relics of Sangha Aramas or Buddhist sacred groves and agricultural plantations.  The festival and word of Onam is also a colloquial expression of Amanam or Chamanam or Sramanam.  The semiotics related to Onam including the floral carpets, yellow robes and little Stupa like Onatapan, the myth of Vamana and Maveli explain its egalitarian anti caste  Buddhist antiquity.   The place name Onampally is therefore specifically Amana or Sramana or Buddhist in origin.

Buddha at Topil in Onampally or Onampilly near Kalady.  Iconographically similar to Buddha idols recovered at Mavelikara, Karumady, Kayamkulam, Kottapuram and Pattanam.  Mr Padma Prabha whose Topil house shrine houses it is also seen. 16. 8. 2014 by Ajay Sekher

Buddha at Topil in Onampally or Onampilly near Kalady. Iconographically similar to Buddha idols recovered at Mavelikara, Karumady, Kayamkulam, Kottapuram and Pattanam. Mr Padma Prabha whose Topil house shrine houses it is also seen. 16. 8. 2014 by Ajay Sekher

On 16 August 2014 Mr V P Sugatan of Kodungallur who is researching on the Buddhist past of Kerala informed me that the idol at Topil in Onampally has some Buddhist connections.  I went there in person in the afternoon and met Mr Padma Prabha the current family head of Topil and he led me to the family shrine, an octagonal pagoda painted in charred yellow housing a black granite idol seated on a black granite pedestal.  The idol in Padmasana in special meditating posture is found to be a typical Buddha exactly in the style and analogy of the ones in Karumady, Mavelikara, Pallykal, Kayamkulam, Kottapuram and Pattanam.  The iconography, stone type and chiseling style strongly resemble the other Buddhas so far recovered from various parts of Kerala and south India including the ones at Tyaganur, Arivalur and Putur in Tamil Nadu.  This peninsular style of Buddha idols is called the Anuradhapuram style by experts like P C Alexander and S N Sadasivan.  The lotus petals are beautifully carved on the seat of the Onampally Buddha at Topil.

Buddha idol and pedestal were recovered 50 years ago from the Topil plot and was enshrined in the Pagoda in 1964.  Identification and Photo by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

Buddha idol and pedestal were recovered 50 years ago from the Topil plot and was enshrined in the Pagoda in 1964. Identification and Photo by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

In close examination no Lanchana or signature mark was found on the seat or pedestal and there fore it is confirmed that this Padmasana idol is not a Jain one.  According to conventions in iconography it is clearly Buddhist and can be rightly called the Buddha at Topil in Onampally.  But it was under earth for a thousand years or more and therefore it shows clear evidences of stone erosion and mutilation.  The Buddhist idol specifications or Lakshanas like Utariyam or the robe over the left shoulder, the Ushnisha or the crown of  hair and Jwala the flame of enlightenment on top of Ushniasha as a pointed one are clearly visible.  As part of the tear and wear under soil or through deliberate mutilation by the evil forces that uprooted it from the nearby Viharas or Pallys, the nose and facial features are badly lost or forcefully altered.  In addition to it the Hinduized family that worships it as Rama or Hanuman have done their own decorations and marking with sandal paste, silk and garlands of flowers  so that the facial appearance is puzzling and confusing.

Black granite Buddha in deep meditating Padmasana at Topil, Onampally.  Exactly like the other Teravada Buddha idols so far recovered from Kerala in Anuradhapura style.  Identification and photo by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

Black granite Buddha in deep meditating Padmasana at Topil, Onampally. Exactly like the other Teravada Buddha idols so far recovered from Kerala in Anuradhapura style. Identification and photo by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

 

This alteration or modification could be done under threat from the Hindu hegemonic forces when it was recovered from mud five decades ago.  Or this mutilation was done at the time of uprooting and take over by the Brahmanical forces in the early middle ages.  Anyway the idol could be dated to 7th or 8th century according to the iconographic style and stone type that closely resemble the other recovered Buddhas of Kerala.  It is also remarkable to note that all these Buddha idols were recovered from mud, paddy fields or temple ponds in the last fifty to ninety years only after Kerala renaissance was in full swing and C V Kunjiraman’s essays on Putarachans and Tayyil Ayyans (rustic forms of Putan or Buddhan) got published in 1911 onwards.  Now we know that Putan, Kuttan, Ayyan, Appan, Achan, Tankappan, Nanappan, Ponnappan etc are rural names of the Buddha and Tirthankaras.  In that sense Nanu Asan or Narayana Guru himself bears the Tirthankara legacy in his very name Nanu or Nanappan that indicates a nude male body of a Digambara and Nirveda Tirthankara.

Buddha at Topil in Onampally near Kalady on the southern bank of Periyar.  photo and identification by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

Buddha at Topil in Onampally near Kalady on the southern bank of Periyar. Facial feature are mutilated and sandal paste markings are distorting.  photo and identification by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

It is important to note that so much of material and symbolic violence was done to the Buddha icons and idols  in Kerala from the early middle ages onwards by the forces of Varnasrama and Vedic obscurantism.  Buddha who preached his philosophy of ethics for the good and welfare of humanity was rendered into an ape or monkey god under this dehumanizing religious dogmatism that is a cover to the caste barbarism.  The demonization and animalization of the south Indian people are peculiar to the Hindu Metanarratives.  The Onampally or Onampilly as the place name itself is distorted to erase the history of Pali word Pally and Kerala’s 1500 year old rich egalitarian and ethical legacy of early Teravada Buddhism and similar invaluable treasures of our democratic cultural past must be rightly   acknowledged and protected by the people who care for their rich and humane traditions and cultural genealogies for posterity and for the sustenance of democracy and secularism in the present in the country that is facing severe challenges of cultural Nationalism and chauvinist Hindutva counter revolutions.

ajay sekher

Breast Cloth Struggles in Kerala: Nanjinad to Talapally

// July 27th, 2013 // 3 Comments » // Cultural Politics

V Lakshmikutty (1911-2013) in 1952 at the time of the struggle and recently at 100.

V Lakshmikutty (1911-2013) in 1952 at the time of the breast cloth struggle in Velur, Thrissur and three years ago as she turned 100.

Women in Kerala especially Avarna  or dalitbahujan women were forced to uncover their breasts in public by the caste feudal lords for more than a millennium as a symbolic humiliating bodily practice reinstating caste and gender hierarchy.  This dehumanizing practice that followed genocidal violence came to currency around the 8th century when Brahmanic Hinduism was established here subverting Buddhism through a hegemonic nexus between patriarchal priestocracy and the militia clans and continued up to the 20th century. Brahmanic patriarchy and its Savarna subservient Sudra foot soldiers were maintaining this inhuman convention in the name of the Sanatana Hindu religion and its sacred purity tradition with bloody repression and violence for all these 1200 years at least with regional variations.

This heinous Hindu caste practice came to an end in Nanjinad in south Travancore in mid 19th century with the colonial missionary interventions that contributed to the Nadar rebellion that transformed Travancore challenging Savarna power and absolute hegemony for the first time in the modern times. The cultural ground work of Ayya Vaikuntan, Narayana Guru and Ayyankali was inseparable from this social protest and reform possibility. The people following the ethical and egalitarian traditions of Buddhism and Jainism were expelled as untouchables and slaves.  Humiliation was made ritualisticallypublic and a performative social practice in every day life through unimaginable shaming practices like exposing the breasts before the caste lords.  The Avarna in general were prohibited from wearing decent cloths and using decent language.  The caste system was inscribed deep into cultural codes through the manipulation of various domestic practices including food, ornaments, cloths and even sexuality and body.

Caste lords violating the honour of Avarna women in public: Channar Woman by Chitrakaran T Murali

Caste lords specifically Nair Pattalam and Savarna goons violating the honour of Avarna women in public: Channar Woman by Chitrakaran T Murali

It was a religious and partly ethnic conflict that infuriated the Bhudevas, the earthly gods or the Brahman and their menial mindless doggedly henchmen the Sudra who cheated their own brothers and women in search of the Vedic wisdom of Brahmanism.  The Avarnas who where thus expelled outside the Varna system because they adhered to their ancient Buddhist egalitarian anti caste values that date back to BC fourth century in Kerala, never accepted the caste ideology of Brahmanism and its purity-pollution riddles and never opened up their households for the high priests for inhuman Manipravala sexual slavery.  The local elites who provided sexual colonies and militia services to the priests were thus upgraded and reloaded as the Sudra, the fourth Varna.  These Sudra or Kanakar where protecting the Varna Dharma by killing and dying with the sword and spear till the Kerala renaissance social revolutions in late 19th and early 20th century changed society and polity following the western evangelical intervention.

Though this practice of systematic public shaming ended in Travancore in late 19th century and early 20th century in Cochin through the historic struggles of the subaltern; it continued even up to the second half of 20th century in Malabar.  In Thrissur district in Talapally taluk this caste practice sustained even after the Indian independence.  In 1952 Velathu Lakshmikutty (1911-2013) a brave Avarna woman belonging to the Ezhava community was instrumental in leading the agitation to end it.  In the Manimalarkavu temple in Velur just a few miles east of Kechery in Thrissur, Avarna women were forced to parade exposing their breasts as a religious festival ritual by the Nair caste lords of the Thazhekad petty kingdom who controlled the shrine that was originally a Buddhist shrine before the early middle ages.  The taluk now skewed as Talpilly was originally called Talapally the head Vihara or the leading Pally, that clearly distinguishes the region as Buddhist before Brahmanism was established in the 8th or 10th century here.

Lakshmikutty the defiant Avarna crusader against Brahmanic Patriarchy and its inhuman dictates on the gendered subaltern body, led a procession of Avarna women who were decently dressed and challenged the caste Nair lords and their Brahman paternal priests by breaking their one millennium old cultural taboos.  The Avarna renaissance organizations and the forming communist party workers mostly dalitbahujans, where there to resist the casteist aggression form the Savarna males.  This historic assertion of human rights and women dignity by Avarna women, organized and led and materialized by Avarna women and men is not yet textualized in Kerala history.  It is also a shocking fact for Kerala and its social history as it exposes the reality of caste humiliations continuing in constitutional India even after independence.  It also explodes the myth that caste feudalism and Brahmanic patriarchy ended in Malabar with the Mysore occupation in early 18th century.

Velathu Lakshmikutty (1911-2013) at 103.  Photo: The Hindu

Velathu Lakshmikutty (1911-2013) at 103. Photo: The Hindu

Such subversive trajectories of subaltern women movements are all the more important in the present where the same elite Manipravala forces the covert Savarna status quoists in the regime are corrupting and ruining democracy through the creation of a parallel government colonizing the secretariat with sexy sirens with caste tags and tails attached.  A Savarna caste tail would give any one access to the CM’s chamber or the cockpit of a flying passenger aircraft.  Brahmanism and Brahmanic ancestral claims are growing not just among the Savarna Hindus but among some of the OBCs and even Syrian Christians and elitist power groups within Muslims in Kerala.

Collective amnesia regarding key aspects of subaltern social struggle and protest that created modern Kerala and the Kerala renaissance or indigenous democratic model is proving to be fatal.  The ex caste lords are pepping up their dark age caste surnames to get into ‘key positions’ in the regime and the growing Hinduization discourses and Ramayana propaganda even in the official media especially on AIR and DD are enslaving the minds of the dalitbahujan and persuading them to imitate and follow their immediate caste superiors,  the Sudra  in the true Varnasrama Dharma fashion.  Only Gandhi who wrote and published a defense of the same would be happy with this and the neo Gandhians like Anna and Kejariwal; and neo Nationalists in the Siv, Sriram Senas who are presenting and remixing Na Mo as the new Rambo and neo Rama the savior of India, the Virat and Vikas Purush (cosmic developmental Man) would be happier soon.

Go to Hindu news on the demise of V Lakshmikutty