Posts Tagged ‘Buddhist architecture in Kerala’

Uliyanur Perum Tachan: The Master Architect of Kerala

// October 13th, 2014 // 1 Comment » // Cultural Politics

Uliyanur Siva temple a construction of Perum Tachan. This unique Vatta Srikovil has 68 wooden beams converting on top.

Uliyanur Tevar temple a construction of Perum Tachan. This unique circular sanctum or Vatta Srikovil has 68 wooden beams converging on top.

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.

An ancient sacred grove or Kavu north of Uliyanur Tevar temple.  Kavu or Kanyakavu is a relic of ancient Sangha Aramas or sacred groves associated with the Buddhist nuns or Kanya Stree, also called Madhatil Amma in olden days.

An ancient sacred grove or Kavu north of Uliyanur Tevar temple. Kavu or Kanyakavu is a relic of ancient Sangha Aramas or sacred groves associated with the Buddhist nun or Kanya Stree, also called Madhatil Amma in olden days. The sacred sword is still called Pally Wal.

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.

Alter or Balikallu at Uliyanur Siva temple. Lion and Elephant motifs along with Dragon faces and facades are reminiscent of Buddhist architecture in Kerala.

Altar or Balikallu at Uliyanur Tevar temple. Lion and Elephant motifs along with human faces within Dragon  facades on top are reminiscent of Buddhist architecture in Kerala. Padma Dala engravings are also on top.

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.

Human face within the dragon motif on the altar at Uliyanur Tevar temple. Dragon was a key Buddhist iconographic element highly popular in China, Tibet and other South Asian regions.  Dragon iconography is a shared Buddhist legacy of Asia. "Vyali Mukham Vachu Teerta Valanja Vatil" says Asan in Karuna.

Human face within the dragon motif on the altar at Uliyanur Tevar temple. Dragon was a key Buddhist iconographic element highly popular in China, Tibet and other South Asian regions. Dragon iconography is a shared Buddhist legacy of Asia. “Vyali Mukham Vachu Teerta Valanja Vatil” says Asan in Karuna.

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.

Anapallam or Elephant belly swollen walls of Uliyanur temple. Another Buddhist architectural feature and a creation of Perum Tachan.

Anapallam or Elephant belly swollen walls of Uliyanur temple. Another Buddhist architectural feature and a creation of Perum Tachan. In Trikoditanam such a massive elephant belly citadel is called Bhudatan Kotta.  The ancient dam in Periyar is called Bhudatan Kettu.  The abandoned temple in Tirunadha Puram east of Aluva is called Bhudatan temple.  The word Bhuda is distortion of Budha.

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.

Madatil Appan shrine at Uliyanur.  Only a few elevated sanctums of Madatil Appan pagodas in Kerala.  Swayam Bhu Ganapati is facing south. The Linga was installed by Parasurama as per legends.

Madatil Appan shrine at Uliyanur. Madam means an elevated pagoda. Appan like Tevar denoted Jina or Buddha originally.  Then Saivite and Vaishnavite shrines used it post 8th century. Only a few elevated sanctums of Madatil Appan pagodas survive in Kerala. Swayam Bhu Ganapati is facing south. The Linga was installed by Parasurama at the top as per legends. Bhattarakas were early priests.

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.

Altar top of Madatil Appan shrine. Padma Dala or lotus petal motifs celarly engraved on it.  The temple was destroyed in a fire as a result of the dispute between the Bhattarakas and Namputiris.

Altar top of Madatil Appan shrine. Padma Dala or lotus petal motifs  engraved on it. The temple was destroyed in a fire as a result of the dispute between the Bhattarakas and Namputiris, say the people.

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.

Top panel of the Anavatil or Elephant Gateway at Uliyanur Tevar temple. The relief shows figures in Padmasana and elephant motifs; two key Buddhist icons.

Top panel of the Anavatil or Elephant Gateway at Uliyanur Tevar temple. The relief shows figures in Padmasana and elephant motifs; two key Buddhist icons.

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.

A portrait of Perum Tachan from the cover of Pooteri Balan's book Uliyanur Perumtachan

A portrait of Perum Tachan from the cover of Balan Pooteri’s book Uliyanur Perumtachan

 
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 author with Dr Aju K Narayanan and the younger member in the Perum Tachan family at Uliyanur.

The author with Dr Aju K Narayanan (left) and Mr Vivek the younger member in the Perum Tachan family at Uliyanur before Perum Padanna house.

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.

Pagodas in which Perum Tachan (right) and Bhuvaneswari Devi are enshrined at Uliyanur Perum Padanna household.

Pagodas in which Perum Tachan (right) and Bhuvaneswari Devi are enshrined at Uliyanur Perum Padanna household also called Asari Parambu.

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.

Madatil Appan shrine at Uliyanur. The Linga was installed by Parasurama according to legend. The current laterite structures were constructed some 50 years ago.

Madatil Appan shrine at Uliyanur. The Linga was installed by Parasurama according to legend. The current laterite structures were constructed some 50 years ago. Perumanam and Parambutali in Thrissur district have Madams.

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.

Uliyanur Tevar temple; a view from east. The new metal covered concrete flag post that terminated the traditional rights of the Perum Tachan family is on the front.

Uliyanur Tevar temple an exquisite creation of the great Tachan of Uliyanur in early middle ages; a view from east. The new metal covered concrete flag post that terminated the traditional rights of the Perum Tachan family in front.

Reference

Chungath, Rajan.  Perumtachan Dukhitananu. Thrissur: Green Books, 2011.

Pooteri, Balan.  Uliyanur Perumtachan.  Kondotty: Author, Undated

Changaram Komarath: The Ancient Household of Mitavadi C Krishnan in Mullassery

// April 15th, 2013 // 2 Comments » // Cultural Politics

The remaining block of the old Ettukettu of Changaram Komarath household of Mitavadi C Krishnan near Mullasery, Thrissur district of Kerala, early April 2013.

The remaining block of the old Ettukettu of Changaram Komarath household of Mitavadi C Krishnan near Mullasery, Thrissur district of Kerala, early April 2013.

I revisited the Changaram Komarath household of Mitavadi in early April 2013 after almost  four years.  Though I had read a lot on Mitavadi and his counter hegemonic struggles against caste and untouchability from my early doctoral research stage in 2002 onwards, I first visited the place in 2009 while teaching briefly in an Engineering college at Thrissur.  This ancient household is in Thrissur district of Kerala near Guruvayur, close to Mullassery junction.  The remaining block of the old Ettukettu and the family shrine is still preserved by the current generation but it requires further care and larger support.

The current elder at Changaram Komarath explaining the family tree at the household temple, early April 2013.

The current elder at Changaram Komarath explaining the family tree at the household temple, early April 2013.

I was lucky to meet a few senior members from the family and they explained the family tree and the past.  The family shrine in which the ancestors are worshiped as Achan is still used for prayers on a daily basis.  There is a huge Pipal and a small pond before it on the eastern side.  The old house in which Narayana Guru rested while he visited Changaram Komarath is still intact.

Mitavadi C Krishnan Vakeel and old photo from internet

Mitavadi C Krishnan Vakeel, an old photo from internet

The senior members narrated the story of the struggles of the Avarna for human rights and equality that continued till the mid 20th century against the popular misconception of Malabar being delivered from caste by Tipu’s rule and the British rule in mid 18th century.  Though they were the leading tax payers and regional supremos they were not allowed to use the roof tiles till 1903 for being the Avarnas.  Till then coconut leaf thatches were used for a few Ettukettus in the family at Mullasery.

Mitavadi: my on portrait in charcoal on paper, a few years old

Mitavadi: my on portrait in charcoal on paper, a few years old

Though they were having their own temple at the household, as untouchables they were not allowed to stand before the doorway of their own family shrine and salute the deity and were forced to bow before a different stone installed towards the north east of the actual shrine. Bowing the deity directly was a taboo for the outcastes.   Though the region was under Mysore and the British from mid 18th century heinous caste discrimination and untouchability practices continued till the mid 20th century; testify the elders of the family.

The family temple enshrining the ancestors as Achan at Changaram Komarath near Mullasery

The family temple enshrining the ancestors as Achan at Changaram Komarath near Mullasery.  The old Pipal or Boddhi tree to the left and a pond to the east.

There is no wonder that an English educated and ethically inclined C Krishnan (1867-1938) as a lawyer and human rights champion (he was an M L C in the British Madras Province of Malabar) established his own press and daily called Mitavadi in Malabar.  As his bosom friend Sahodaran he also became renowned after his journal.  His father Mr Paran was also supportive in this early journalistic endeavor as part of the renaissance struggles in Kerala under the visionary leadership of Narayana Guru and intellectual and cultural camaraderie of  socio political stalwarts like Sahodaran and C V Kunjiraman from Kochi and Travancore respectively.  Mitavadi, Sahodaran, Muloor and Bhikshu Dharmaskand were instrumental in initiating the neo Buddhist discourse in Kerala.  They founded the Mahabodhi society and Buddha Vihar in customs read near the beach in Calicut in early 20th century.

Mr Kunji Paran an elder at Changaram Komarath remembering family history and Mitavadi.  According to him Narayanga Guru visited the house in 1911 on Mitavadi's invitation.

Mr Kunji Paran, retired revenue inspector and an elder at Changaram Komarath remembering family history and Mitavadi. According to him Narayanga Guru visited the house in 1911 on Mitavadi’s invitation and ended rooster sacrifice in the family shrine. He asked the question,”Is there Himsa here?”

The Changaram Komarath house proclaims its ancient origin with its very name.  Changaram is a recurrent affix in place names and family names in Kerala as in Changaram Kulam north of Kunnam Kulam or the widespread family name Changaram Kandath existing in Thrissur district.  It is a regional modification of Changam or Sangham.  Komarams are the ancient south Indian oracles.  Changaram can also be a derivation of Sangha Arama the sacred groves in the memory of Buddhist nuns now called Kavu.  The location of the Komaram or oracle in the Sangharama is shortly termed as Changaram Komarath.  The inherent link of the family to Buddhism is evident from this family name as in Changampally family north of the Perar. The forced and farfetched Sanskritized interpretation of Changaram as Sankaram by the Savarna forces is a post Hinduization  trend.  Also there is a current Hinduized way of etymologically connecting Komaram with Kumaram.  Both these derivations are baseless as exemplified by place names like Komarakam, Komaranellur etc.

See the gateway of the family shrine dislocated to the right a Avarnas were prohibited from directly standing and saluting in front of the deity till early decades of the last century, though it was their own family shrine.

See the gateway of the family shrine dislocated to the right as Avarnas were prohibited from directly standing and saluting in front of the deity till the early decades of the last century, though it was their own family shrine in their own plot adjacent to their home Changaram Komarath.

More over a few miles north east of Mullassery an ancient Tali temple is surviving.  Tali temples were originally Buddhist, before the 8th century.  When Hindu Brahmanism took over they made it the centre of Brahmaswam regime.  It then passed on to Azhvanchery Tampran in the early middle ages when caste system was established  and is still with him.  The Sery or Chery affix in Azhvanchery and also in Mullasery is a Pali word.

Parambu Tali temple a few miles north east of Mullasery.  Under Azhvanchery Tamprans from early middle ages onwards.  Shows remarkable closeness to Buddhist architectural features.  The southern shrine of Muruka is a Vattadage or Vattam or rounded structure originally a Buddhist structure found only in Kerala and Sri Lanka.

Parambu Tali temple a few miles north east of Mullasery. Under Azhvanchery Tamprans from early middle ages onwards. Shows remarkable closeness to Buddhist architectural features. The southern shrine of Muruka on the left  is a Vattadage or Vattam or rounded shrine originally a Buddhist structure found only in Kerala (Kara-elam in ancient parlance) and Sri Lanka (Tiv-elam). The words Tali, Vattam, Kottam and Kuti also denote a Buddhist or Jain Vihara, Basati or Pally.

According to the  OED, Sery or Chery (lamasery) means the abode of the lamas or Buddhist monks.  This word came to English and French from Pali (through Tibetan perhaps) and was pointed out to me by a local historiographer Mr P S Sugathan from Kodungallur who is working on his new book on Buddhism in Kerala.  Mr Sugathan’s ancient household in Kodungallur is called Panikasery.

The remaining western block of the old Ettukettu at Changaram Komarath.  The blue pvc sheet thatched pagoda on the extreme left was used as an Ezhuthupally for children.

The remaining western block of the old Ettukettu at Changaram Komarath. The blue  sheet thatched pagoda on the extreme left was used as an Ezhuthupally for children.

From these linguistic evidences  sustaining in place names and family names it can be seen that not just the Ezhava households but even the Azhavanchery Tampran’s family were originally Buddhists before the 8th century.  Those who submitted to Vedic Brahmanism were made into Savarna Tampurans or lords and those who never submitted to Hindu Brahmanism or the Vedic hegemony were casted away as the untouchables or Avarnas.

Old photos in the verandah of Changaram Komarath at Mullasery

Old photos in the verandah of Changaram Komarath at Mullasery

The caste  Tamprans made Kerala into a lunatic asylum as acknowledged by a Hindu sage Vivekananda himself in early 20th century and it required the collective struggles of generations of Avarnas to materialize the Kerala renaissance that liberated modern Kerala from the clutches of the self fashioned caste Tamprans and feudal lords.

The wooden parakeet on the western balcony at Changaram Komarath house. Early April 2013.

The wooden parakeet on the western balcony at Changaram Komarath house. Early April 2013.

Mitavadi C Krishnan was in the forefront of anti Tampran or anti caste democratic struggles within the broader movement of the grass root level cultural politics unleashed by Narayana Guru and his disciples like T K Madhavan, Sahodaran, C V Kunjiraman, Murkoth Kumaran, C Kesavan and others.  The current family generations are trying their best to preserve this common cultural heritage of Kerala.  It is high time that the people and their elected governments who are interested and committed to Kerala renaissance and anti caste struggles that formed the ethical foundations of modern Kerala come together and protect and preserve the ancient Changaram Komarath house of Mitavadi for posterity.

Vatadage or Vattam at Polonaruva, Sri Lanka.  Photo from internet

Vatadage or Vattam at Polonaruva, Sri Lanka. Photo from internet