Tiruvanantapuram the capital of Kerala is now renowned as a Vaishnava centre. Before eighth century CE it was a Sramana holy place of Jain and Buddhist antiquity and significance. In inscriptions and early land records till seventeenth century it is known as Tiru Aanandapuram after the lead disciple of the Buddha. It was also called Mitranandapuram and Anandankad.
As the Asokan elephant or Gajotama statue by the Padma Teertha Kulam of the Padmanabha shrine testifies it could be an ancient seat of Buddhism from Asokan times and later became a Mahayana shrine around fourth century CE and by the eighth century transformed into Vaishnava Brahmanism as the Buddha Neelkandha temple in Kathmandu. The place name Tiruvanatapuram is not mentioned in the ancient Tamil texts of the Sangam age of the early common era. Learned local historian and toponymy or place name expert V V K Valath who wrote the local histories of four districts in Kerala for Sahitya Akademi (1984) has clearly elaborated the Buddhist antiquity of the place. In the recent book by Hari Kattel from SPCS (2016) the Jain and Buddhist legacy of the city is accented. It was Ilamkulam Kunjan Pillai who wrote elaborately on the Aay kings of Potiyil Malai now known as Agastyarkoodam and their port at Vizhinjam and their capital at Tiru Atankod that eventually became Tiruvitankod or Thiruvithamkoor. The cave and sculptures at Vizhinjam are archeological evidences of the Buddhist rock cut architecture and iconography influenzed by the Pallava and Pandya styles, says Valath. Kantaloor Sala was a Sramana university near Tiruvanantapuram like the Buddhist university of Vanchi at Kodungallur or Muziris. The local lore on Pulayanar Kotta and Kokotamangalam Pulaya Rani also signify the importance of basic communities of people in the region since Sangam age. The great human rights struggles of Ayyankali for educational rights and freedom of movement exemplify the mobility and agency of the people at the bottom in the region. The early struggles of Ayya Vaikundhar, Tykad Ayya, Chattambi Swamikal and Narayana Guru also attribute to the cultural and political significance of the place. During renaissance cultural movements it was Sahodaran Ayyappan who wrote in his verse that the shrine at Trivandrum that is now worshiped after Vishnu as Padmanabha was originally a Padmapani Boddhisatva or Mahayana Buddhism in ancient times. Prof A. Ayyappan has also archeologically verified and substantiated this argument that the idol of Padmanabha is a modification of Padmapani Boddhisatva.
There are several places named after Aanada in Kerala like the Aanada Pally near Adoor. The proximity to Potiyil or Bodhiyil Malai is another significant aspect of the city’s Buddhist character. Legend has it that it was Cheran Chenguttuvan the Chera chief and the elder brother of Ilamko Adigal who composed the Tamil epic Silapatikaram, who consecrated the shrine of Kannaki as Patini at Kodungallur, Mangaladevi and Atukal. Patini as Mangaladevi is part of a Buddhist popular culture and tradition found in Tamilakam and Ezham or Sri Lanka. The ritual of Ponkala has its origin in the ceremonial welcome feast given to the young nuns when they entered the order by giving an offering, cooked with rice and milk by the laity in true spirit of a larger egalitarian community.
The recent Padmanabha temple treasure controversy in 2011 has also brought some light into the Buddhist past and treasures in the vaults of the temple as the Buddhist antiquity of Sabarimala or Chavarimala/Savarimala in ancient times that was exposed in the 2018 riots and standoff at the mountain shrine. In the case of Savarimala the Brahmanic priesthood was established only in early 20th century by the Travancore regime, before that the Avarana Ezhava chief of Cheerapanchira was the protector of the shrine. The city of Aananda retains many elements of the ancient city of joy with enlightened and ethical legacies that are deeply rooted in the soil and the people, though altered and modified in many ways as it is evident in the case of Kerala as a whole.
Dr Ajay S Sekher, Assistant Professor, Dept of English, SSUS Kalady, Kerala 683574.
Ajay Sekher’s recent books include Putan Keralam, Kerala Navodhanam (Ed) and Sahodaran Ayyappan.