Tag Archives: Avarnas in Kerala and Buddhism

Uliyanur Perum Tachan: The Master Architect of Kerala

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

Breast Cloth Struggles in Kerala: Nanjinad to Talapally

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