Tag Archives: Bhikshu Dharmaskand

Pariyapuram: Neo Buddhism and Social Change in Malabar

Pariyapuram is a hilly hamlet north of Tanur in Malapuram district of Kerala.  The laterite hillock here houses an ancient cave that was developed and used by several generations of human beings over the ages.  The megalithic people might have originally discovered it and made it their abode.  There are similar megalithic laterite modified and cut caves in Anakara, Athavanad, Farook and Kandanasery all around Malabar.

Pariyapuram Buddhist cave.  In the 1930s Bhikshu Dharmaskand installed a new marble statue of the Buddha where an old demolished Buddha idol relic was said to be placed.

Pariyapuram Buddhist cave. In the 1930s Bhikshu Dharmaskand installed a new marble statue of the Buddha where an old demolished Buddha idol relic was said to be placed.  This is the eastern entrance.  Early April 2013.

Compared to Kandanasery of Kovilan and Anakara caves on the Ponnunirathu hill near Edapal that are built by the stone age people and are small the natural caverns on laterite hillocks in Athavanad and in Pariyapuram are huge and was used by generations of people and still being appropriated by new sects and folds.  While the Pariyapuram cave is popularly called the cave temple or Asram the Athavanad cave is called Chingali Mada.  It could be a derivative of Chengal Mada (laterite cave) or Changam Mada (Sangha cave).

The eastern entrance of Pariyapuram Buddhist cave.  Originally a natural cavern on the western slope of a laterite hill.  Artist Anirudha Raman at the entrance which is marked as Asram now.

The eastern entrance of Pariyapuram Buddhist cave. Originally a natural cavern on the western slope of a laterite hill. Artist Anirudha Raman at the entrance which is marked as Asram now.

The place name Pariyapuram near Tanur  is also interesting.  Place names with the affix Puram have Buddhist antiquity as in Anuradhapuram or Srimulapuram. Pariyapuram could be originally called Periyapuram or the mega city.  It could have degraded into a periphery or margin called Pariyamburam or Pariyappuram after the Hindutva take over in early middle ages.

The carved niche in which the Buddha idol was installed by Bhikhu in 1935 according to Aandi Kutty master.  "Be Your Own Light" the words of the enlightened is inscribed in Malayalam along with the Tri Saranas: Buddham, Sangham and Dhammam.

The carved niche in which the Buddha idol was installed by Bhikhu in 1935 according to Aandi Kutty master. “Be Your Own Light” the words of the enlightened one inscribed in Malayalam along with the Tri Saranas: Buddham, Sangham and Dhammam.

The master of Malayalam dalit short fiction, C Ayyappan for example talks about Periyapurath goddesses who were expelled from the Hindu Savarna fold.  A few miles south east at the juction of river Tuta and Perar there are seven goddesses who are considered sisters and the ones at Kanakar Kavu at Irimpiliyam on the northern banks of the confluence of the rivers are considered as expelled and ostracized goddesses who mixed themselves with the dalits.  Even today the dalits are performing the rituals and Puja in Kanakar Kavu.  The Kalakettu or Kalavela and Puram ritualistic annual festival of the Kavu are reminiscent of the Buddhist chariot and mascot festivals that are present in modified fashion throughout the south Indian peninsula.

Aandi Kutty Master narrating the early 20th century saga of Pariyapuram and the Buddhist cave at his home in Pariyapuram.  Early Apl 2013.  Thanks to his family for good coffee and jack chips.

Aandi Kutty Master narrating the early 20th century saga of Pariyapuram and the Buddhist cave at his home in Pariyapuram. Early Apl 2013. Thanks to his family for good coffee and jack chips.

In Pariyapuram near Tanur the elders remember a Buddha idol that was there in the cave at the beginning of the 20th century.  It was in a demolished state, perhaps in the violent Hindu conquest.  In early 1930s a few local Avarna and Tiya families established a school and Bhikshu Dharmaskand a close associate of Mitavadi C Krishnan and Mahabodhi Society and Buddha Mission of Calicut was invited to the school for an initiation meeting and the Bhikhu after seeing the ruined site of Chamana antiquity, renovated the cave and consecrated a new white marble sculpture of the enlightened one in the cave.  After his demise in the sixties or seventies it was taken into the school to be protected and is now missing.

Rama-Lakshmana-Sita-Hanuman mural that has come up in the Pariyapuram Buddhist cave.  See Sita worshiping the Siva Linga.  The VHP has made demands to acquire the site.

Rama-Lakshmana-Sita-Hanuman mural that has come up in the Pariyapuram Buddhist cave. See Sita worshiping the Siva Linga. The VHP has made demands to acquire the site.

It is interesting to note that on an adjacent hillock there is a Siva temple and a Math or Brahmanical monastery said to be established by Adi Sankara.  An Ayyappa temple is also there in Tanur.  The Trikaikattu Siva temple could had been a Buddhist Vihara before Sankara, that is up to mid 8th century AD.  Like Trikal or the sacred foot marks of the gurus the Amana also worshiped the sacred palm prints or hand marks of their masters.  The place name Trikaikattu literally means the forest/grove of the sacred hand.  It clearly echoes the past of relic worship that was popular in Buddhist stupas or Chaityas.

It could be Sankara who defeated the Chamana monks in equivocation and expelled them and converted the Bauddha Pally into a Siva temple by consecrating a Linga in the Garbha Gruha or the sanctum sanctorum.  The demolished old Buddha idol that was said to be there till the 1930s could be the deposed icon of this ancient Vihara.  There are also quite a few Chiras or huge laterite stone-cut and  stepped ponds in the region.  Such ancient ponds and place names including the Chira, Puram, Trikai etc. are Buddhist markers existing in linguistic parlance and toponyms.

Folk etymology or Janata Niruktam of the people also reflect such non Vedic legacies related to the region.  That is why the former untouchables or Avarna people who were casted away from current Savarna Hindu temples until the 1940s or 50s are able to relate to the idols of the Buddha and ancient caves to the Amana or Chamana monks.  It is the Avarna who defend and worship recovered Buddha idols from the muddy ponds or fields in the viscinity of current Savarna temples, everywhere in Kerala, whether it is Kuttanad or Malabar.  Neo Buddhism initiated by Avarna intellectuals and cultural activists like Sahodaran, Mitavadi, C V Kunjiraman and others in early 20th century was a strong and influential movement within Kerala renaissance.

Mr Aandikuty master, and enlightened elder from the place and a retired teacher from the local school, remembers these days of social and cultural awakening in Malabar under the aegis of Mitavadi, Bhikshu Dharmaskand and Mahabodhi Society.  The dalitbahujan people found this neo Buddhist movement as a way of social transformation and improving the self in the tumultuous upheavals of renaissance Kerala in early 20th century.  The ethical and non violent philosophy of inclusion and social democracy that originates from the early enlightened teachings of the Buddha helped the untouchable Avarnas who originally belonged to the Buddhist tradition in Kerala that was destroyed by Brahmanism, to regain their social mobility and human status in early 20th century.

But unfortunately after the re-Hinduization period following the temple entry politics and republican rule the Avarna people have lost their political and historical awareness and memories and found cozy asylums in the so called greater fold of liberal Hinduism.  The RSS and the right wing Hindutva forces are now encroaching into the cave at Pariyapuram and there is already an enamel fresco depicting Rama, Lakshmana, Hanuman and Sita worshiping a Linga in the cave.  It is only a few years old and interestingly depicts Sita as prostrating and fondling the phallus with her hands.  The VHP has also recently made a plea to make this cave a Hindu pilgrim place.

Considering the antiquity and the historical and socio cultural significance of the cave in the history of Kerala renaissance and the social transformations in Malabar the site must be protected and conserved by the state departments of culture and archeology.  Similar laterite caverns and Munimadas found throughout Malabar also need the attention of the state and the civil society.  Local bodies and people’s organizations must also show interest in the conservation of their eco-cultural heritage.

Western opening of Pariyapuram Buddhist cave. Early April 2013

Western opening of Pariyapuram Buddhist cave. Early April 2013

It was actually the daughter of Bhikshu Dharmaskand, Mrs Karuna Peterson from Denmark who telephoned me after reading my web article on Mitavadi and Neo Buddhism in Kerala and informed me on Pariyapuram cave.  Artist Anirudha Raman my friend and co-traveler also gathered information to locate the cave and we visited the place together in early April 2013.

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

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