Tag Archives: Asoka

Buddha as Elephant: Dhauligiri to Dindikal and the Mystery of Ganes

Dhauligiri elephant by Asoka done in BC 3rd century on the banks of Daya river in Bhubaneswar. The first artistic depiction of the Buddha as Gajotama or the exquisite elephant.  Feb 2015

Dhauligiri elephant by Asoka done in BC 3rd century on the banks of Daya river in Bhubaneswar. The first artistic depiction of the Buddha as Gajotama or the exquisite elephant. Feb 2015

Asoka represented the enlightened one as an exquisite elephant or Gajotama at Dhauligiri near the Kalinga war site by the river Daya near Bhubaneswar in Odisha.  This BC 3rd century rock cut idol is one of the earliest archaeological representations of the Buddha that is still surviving and is one of the earliest examples of Indian art, sculpture and architectural expressions.  The Gajotama is also called Ganapati, Ganes or Vinayaka.

Elephant image is a key icon of the Buddha as Gajotama or Vinayaka as he is represented by Asoka at Dhauli.  Lotus petal motifs on altar and lamp posts are also relics of Buddhist iconography. Dhamma Simhas and Gajas; ethical lions and elephants are everywhere in Kerala temples, especially at the baseline of altars and sanctums.  Pic from Panachikal Kavu at Vaikam temple.

Elaphant at Panachikal Kavu inside Vaikam shrine. Elephant image is a key icon of the Buddha as Gajotama or Vinayaka as he is represented by Asoka at Dhauli. Lotus petal motifs on altar and lamp posts are also relics of Buddhist iconography. Dhamma Simhas and Gajas; ethical lions and elephants are everywhere in Kerala temples, especially at the baseline of altars and sanctums.

The Buddha is imagined as the exquisite elephant because in the dream of Mahamaya he entered the body of his mother Mahamaya in the form of an elephant. The dream of Mahamaya also tells us about the elephants giving her a bath while she was pregnant that became the Gajalakshmi in Hindu pagan appropriation.  The Buddha is called Ganes or Ganapati as he was the leader of the Gana or democratic sects or Sangha.  He is called Vinayaka as he is the master of Vinaya (the very first Pitaka), the rules of ethics that form the base of the democratic Sangha. It is also remarkable that even in those Asian countries where the elephant is absent Buddha is worshiped in the form of elephant as in Korea and Japan in the Mahayana shrines we find a lot of elephant forms and figures.

Buddha as Dhamma Gaja or Gajotama the exquisite elephant in a Mahayana Buddhist shrine in Japan. In Korea and Japan where there are no natural elephants the Buddha is worshiped in the elephant form too.

Buddha as Dhamma Gaja or Gajotama the exquisite elephant in a Mahayana Buddhist shrine in Japan. In Korea and Japan where there are no natural elephants the Buddha is worshiped in the elephant form too.

It was a hegemonic embrace and appropriation from the part of the Hindu Saivite violent forces to assimilate the image of the Vinayaka as a child of Siva through narrative strategies and iconographic alterations after the 6th and 7th centuries AD in the north and after the 8th century in South India. It is very much like the Pasupata Saivites in the north who came to existence in the 5th or 6th century AD, claiming that the BC 1500 image of the Padmasana Yogi of Indus valley is Siva in the form of Pasupati.  In Tamilakam Appar and Sambandha Moorty who converted from Jainism to Saivism in the 8th century claimed that Siva was the chairman of the first Sangha or Chankam that was existing in BC 5th century or before. Such bogus claims are also part of such hegemonic Hindu Brahmanical appropriations.

T Murali's painting on the Hindu hegemonic appropriation of the Buddhist Ganes.

T Murali’s painting on the Hindu hegemonic appropriation of the Buddhist Ganes.

The compassion, conservation and Maitri of the enlightened one are also exemplified in the icons from the natural world. From fish to fig and bull to lion, the exquisite animal motifs and natural imagery represent the Buddha in myriad organic ways. He is also called the Sakya Simha and his voice of ethics is termed as the Simha Nada, the roar of the lion or the voice of ethics and justice that cant be undone or deconstructed. The conservationist spirit of Buddhism and the Mauryan spirit of universal conservation that spread throughout the peninsula during Asokan age are also epitomized in the animal motifs and icons of early Buddhism.

Lion capital of Asoka. The Mauryan emperor depicted Sakya Simha as roaring lion with four heads to represent the universal value of his ethical teaching the Dhamma.

Lion capital of Asoka. The Mauryan emperor depicted Sakya Simha as a roaring lion with four heads to represent the universal value of his ethical teaching the Dhamma.

I was fortunate enough to stay and study in Bhubaneswar in February 2015 while doing the UGC Refresher Course in History and Literature at  Utkal University. I visited the Diamond Triangle of Lalitgiri, Udayagiri and Ratnagiri Mahaviharas.  I could also go to Dhauligiri on the suburbs of Bhubaneswar to admire the World Peace Stupa made by the Japanese monks in 1970s and the elephant idol and Brahmi inscriptions on Dhamma created by Asoka in BC 3rd century. It is one of the earliest edicts in the world where an emperor proclaims the virtues of ethics and views his subjects as humans and equal; as equal as his own offspring.  The pagan Chandasoka became a Dhammasoka through these ethical edicts and the practice of the higher ethics, non violence or Ahimsa.

Author Ajay Sekher at Dhauligiri by the Asokan elephant emerging out of the rock; Feb 2015

Author Ajay Sekher at Dhauligiri by the Asokan elephant emerging out of the rock; Feb 2015

When I visited the Gandhigram Rural University in Dindikal or Dindigul in Tamil Nadu recently in Dec 2015 to inaugurate and deliver a keynote at the National Seminar on Short Fiction on “C Ayyappan’s Short Fiction with Special Reference to Ayyothee Thasar and Poykayil Appachan” I could see a similar idol of Ganes now worshiped as Swayambhu Ganes or self incarnate Ganes at the margins of the campus in the lap of Sirumalai by a small stream.

Self incarnate or Swayambhu Ganes at GRU campus Dindikal; exactly like Dhauligiri Ganes emerging from the rock.

Cothing and garlands/ sandal paste marks mask the Self incarnate or Swayambhu Ganes at GRU campus Dindikal; exactly like Dhauligiri Ganes emerging from the rock. Dec 2015

This is a rough and course idol of Gajapati shaped out of a granite boulder by the stream, five feet tall. The Boddhi tree and Naga idols also testify the Buddhist antiquity of the region. The Kal or rock image in the place name Dindikal is also a Chamana marker. The ancient rock temple on top of the Kallu or rock fort of Dindikal city was originally a Chamana Pally and only after the 8th century was turned into a Saivite and Vaishnavite one. Later it was taken over by the Mysore rulers and then it went to the British.

Swayambhu Ganes or self incarnate Ganapati at GRU Dindikal in Tamil Nadu, similar to the Dhauligiri elephant of Asoka, having Buddhist antiquity. Dec 2015

Swayambhu Ganes or self incarnate Ganapati at GRU Dindikal in Tamil Nadu, similar to the Dhauligiri elephant of Asoka, having Buddhist antiquity. Dec 2015

The Swayambhu or self incarnate Ganes is clearly an ancient Teravada or early Buddhist Gajotama or Vinayaka, the master of Vinaya. The self incarnate status itself testify the existence of this idol prior to the Brahmanical Saivite takeover. Now the Hindu Saivites and their Brahman priests are using a lot of silk robes and ornaments to cover the idol completely so that the elephant emerging out of the rock is less visible. But it has the remarkable similarity with the Dhauligiri elephant of Asoka.  It is also important to note that such Swayambhu or self incarnate Ganapatis are abundant in many parts of South India that are clearly pre Hindu and Brahmanic and are part of the ethical and cultural discursive geography and aesthetic genealogies of early Buddhism and the Asokan legacy in the peninsula.

Apsidal or Gajaprishta shrine and the Gajotama the full size elephant, both carved out of monoliths at Mamallapuram site called Five Chariots. Aug 2015

Apsidal or Gajaprishta shrine and the Gajotama the full size elephant, both carved out of monoliths at Mamallapuram site called Five Chariots. Aug 2015

ajay sekher

The Sacred Grove in Tozhuvanur: Metamorphosis of Siddha into Durga

Tozhuvan figure at the base of the stone lamp post before the Tozhuvanur temple, Kavumpuram, Walanchery.  It is similar to the Siddha idol of Kayikara in posture and in attire.

Tozhuvan figure at the base of the stone lamp post before the Tozhuvanur temple, Kavumpuram,Valanchery. It is similar to the Siddha idol of Kayikara in posture and in attire.  Siddha is a saintly figure in Tantra traditions.

Tozhuvanur means the land of the Tozhuvan or the one who is in the Pranama posture.  There are place names in south Kerala after the mysterious Tozhuvan as Tozhuvankod and Tozhuvankonam.  In the Malapuram district in Malabar there is a place called Tozhuvaanur a few miles north of Valanchery.

This ancient sacred grove is situated near Kavumpuram on NH 47 between Valanchery and Kanjipura.  Kavumpuram literally means the periphery of the sacred shrine as Kutipuram is the periphery of the Kuti or Kottam or Vattam (a Jain or Buddhist shrine).

The western gateway of Tozhuvanur Durga temple.  The ancient trees and creepers are still growing in the Kavu or ancient sacred grove in the memory of a nun.

The western gateway of Tozhuvanur Durga temple. The ancient trees and creepers are still growing in the Kavu or the ancient sacred grove in the memory of a nun.

Kavu is a sacred grove in Kerala named after the Kanya Kavu or the Buddhist nun as Buddhist nuns planted and nurtured the culture of Sangharamas or sacred gardens and groves in Kerala through their literacy, healthcare and conservationist missionary work as the ecological and ethical base of their mission or the Sangha.  It was Sangha Mitra the daughter of Asoka and a leading nun who carried the layered cutting of the Boddhi tree from Gaya to Sri Lanka and planted and nurtured it in Anuradhapura.

It is clear from the place name Kavumpuram that the place housed a big Kavu or sacred shrine grove from the ancient times onwards.  Now a Durga temple or Bhagavati temple is situated amidst this ancient grove with numerous old world plants.  This is also counted among the most sacred group of 108 Durga shrines in Kerala.

The southern entrance to the temple and the ancient stone lamp post in the foreground.  The shrine faces south unusually. 25 march 2013.

The southern entrance to the temple and the ancient stone lamp post in the foreground. The shrine faces south unusually. 25 march 2013.

In the stone lamp post or Kalvilaku before the shrine that faces south, there is a bass relief of the Tozhuvan or a human figure in Pranama at its base.  This is very similar to the Tozhuvan or Siddha idol of Kayikara south of Varkala that is associated with the Vajrayana school of Buddhism in Kerala.  It is clear that this place got the name from this Siddha figure in Pranama and this ancient shrine grove was a Tantric Buddhist shrine at some moment in the past, most probably up to the early middle ages.

It is also interesting to note that Tozhuvankod temple near Trivandrum belongs to an Avarna Kalari household.  They were the Kalari Gurukals (martial arts masters) of the infamous Ettuveetars (Ettuveetil Pillais) who were ruthlessly annihilated by Marthanda Varma in the 18th century in Travancore.  Tozhuvankod literally means the cornering land strip of the Tozhuvan.  It is the family temple of an Ezhava Kalari household.  It is also vital to note that there was no caste or religious restriction in the access to the temple from ancient times onwards.  The lack of caste untouchability and inclusion of all and the practice of health care and self defense prove the Buddhist connection and antiquity.  I am thankful to my friends Srilal and Stanley to point out this after reading my early draft.

Tozhuvanur Durga temple, Kavumpuram, Valanchery.  The huge banyan is seen in the back ground in the north eastern corner.  It is a museum of rare plants and a memorial of local history.

Tozhuvanur Durga temple, Kavumpuram, Valanchery. The huge banyan is seen in the back ground in the north eastern corner. It is a little sanctuary of rare plants and a cultural memorial of local history.

There is a banyan on the north eastern corner of the grove above the current temple and a Pipal towards the south beneath.  The idol is said to be self incarnate or Swayam Bhu.  As in Kadampuzha or Chamravattam there is a pit in its place.  It is evident that the original installation or the early Buddhist idol was removed and a subsidiary escorting goddess was substituted later in the middle ages .  There is also a legend about Vilwamangalam Swamiyar checking the power and grace of this grove.  So it is clear that the shrine was originally Sramana and was later appropriated by Brahmanic Hinduism by removing the main idol and raising the sub deity into prominence.

Siddha idol at Kayikara in Pranama posture also called Tozhuvan.  This traditional deity is locally called Chithan a vernacular version of the Siddha.  See the resemblance in the posture, broad shoulders and the loincloth.

Siddha idol at Kayikara in Pranama posture, also called Tozhuvan. This traditional deity is locally called Chithan a vernacular version of the Siddha. See the resemblance in the posture, broad shoulders and the loincloth. The image of the Siddha was central to Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism in Kerala

In Kadampuzha it was Sankara who did the re-installation according to legend.  In Chamravattam it is said to be a Sambara Maharshi and in Tozhuvanur it could be Vilwamangalam.  This kind of metamorphosis or disguise or forced formal transformations have occurred in plenty of ancient sacred places in Kerala including the Andalur Kavu in Talassery, Kallil temple near Perumbavur and Paruvassery Pallyara near Vadakanchery.  The sacred grove at Tozhuvanur still has rare and medicinal plants and shrubs and needs protection from the local people and the temple goers.  This ancient treasure house of natural and cultural history can tell us a lot about our society and its ancient foundations.