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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.