Tag Archives: Buddhism in India and Kerala

A Tranquil Buddha on the Periyar Bank: Buddha at Topil in Onampally

Buddha idol at Topil House in Onampally near Kalady, Ernakulam district of Kerala. Photo by Ajay Sekher 16. 8. 2014

Buddha idol at Topil House in Onampally near Kalady, Ernakulam district of Kerala. Photo by Ajay Sekher 16. 8. 2014

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.

Ancient granite idol of the Buddha recovered in 1964 at Topil in Onampally.  See the Ushnisham or crown of hair, Utariyam or robe on left shoulder and Jwala or flame of enlightenment atop the hair that are the key markers of a Buddha idol.  Could be dated to 7th and 8th century AD and in early Teravada Anuradhapuram style.

Ancient granite idol of the Buddha recovered in 1964 at Topil in Onampally. See the Ushnisham or crown of hair, Utariyam or robe on left shoulder and Jwala or flame of enlightenment atop the hair that are the key markers of a Buddha idol. Could be dated to 7th and 8th century AD and in early Teravada Anuradhapuram style.

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.

Buddha at Topil in Onampally or Onampilly near Kalady.  Iconographically similar to Buddha idols recovered at Mavelikara, Karumady, Kayamkulam, Kottapuram and Pattanam.  Mr Padma Prabha whose Topil house shrine houses it is also seen. 16. 8. 2014 by Ajay Sekher

Buddha at Topil in Onampally or Onampilly near Kalady. Iconographically similar to Buddha idols recovered at Mavelikara, Karumady, Kayamkulam, Kottapuram and Pattanam. Mr Padma Prabha whose Topil house shrine houses it is also seen. 16. 8. 2014 by Ajay Sekher

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.

Buddha idol and pedestal were recovered 50 years ago from the Topil plot and was enshrined in the Pagoda in 1964.  Identification and Photo by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

Buddha idol and pedestal were recovered 50 years ago from the Topil plot and was enshrined in the Pagoda in 1964. Identification and Photo by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

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.

Black granite Buddha in deep meditating Padmasana at Topil, Onampally.  Exactly like the other Teravada Buddha idols so far recovered from Kerala in Anuradhapura style.  Identification and photo by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

Black granite Buddha in deep meditating Padmasana at Topil, Onampally. Exactly like the other Teravada Buddha idols so far recovered from Kerala in Anuradhapura style. Identification and photo by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

 

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.

Buddha at Topil in Onampally near Kalady on the southern bank of Periyar.  photo and identification by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

Buddha at Topil in Onampally near Kalady on the southern bank of Periyar. Facial feature are mutilated and sandal paste markings are distorting.  photo and identification by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

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.

ajay sekher

Buddha Purnima at Ajanta: Foundations of Indian Art in Aurangabad, Ellora, Elephanta and Ajanta Buddhist Caves

A young Buddha in Ajanta.  25 May 2013 Buddha Purnima

A young Buddha in Ajanta. 25 May 2013, Buddha Purnima Day

It was an enlightening experience to be at Ajanta on Buddha Purnima on 25 May 2013.  Anirudh and me were fortunate to visit the fundamental sites of Indian and south east Asian art in Maharashtra this summer, though we were planning for years.  The evolution of Indian sculpture, architecture and painting in the Buddhist rock cut Chaitya and Vihara vestiges and the gradual appropriation of these arts into Hindu Brahmanical mainstream can be seen in these early sites of culture in Asia as some of the caves date back to third century BC.

Ajanta caves from eastern entrance on the morning of Buddha Purnima, 25 May 2013.  Anirudh stepping on to the gateway.  River Waghora has dried up beneath in the late summer.

Ajanta caves from eastern entrance on the morning of Buddha Purnima, 25 May 2013. Anirudh stepping on to the gateway. River Waghora has dried up beneath in the late summer.

Maharashtra and the Deccan was with the Mauryas  at the beginning of the common era and the political patronage helped the spread of Buddhism, its egalitarian and ethical philosophy of peace, non violence and conservation oriented eco-aesthetics.

A Buddha bust in Ellora or Elapura.  Such busts were changed to the Mahes bust in Elephanta near

A Buddha bust in Ellora or Elapura. Such busts were changed to the Mahes bust in Elephanta near Mumbai

Cultural expressions that co-exist with nature and preserve the environment with minimum intervention was the basic tenet of Buddhist cave architecture and visual art.  These monasteries and chapels never altered the geology, topography or hydrology of the region but simply existed in a non violent way amidst the wilderness in tranquility and at ease.

A young neo buddhist monk meditating in an Aurangabad Chaitya Vihara, 24 May 2013.

A young neo buddhist monk meditating in an Aurangabad Chaitya Vihara, 24 May 2013.

The development of Mahayana school liberalized and  popularized the original Teravada austerity and it resulted in gods and goddesses called Boddhisatvas and Devis along with the paraphernalia of Yakashas and Yakshis.

In the dining Vihara of Aurngabad caves.

In the dining Vihara of Aurngabad caves.

This enormous liberalization caused a shift from Buddhism to Brahmanism and with the help of the Tantric School of Vajrayana the Hindu Brahmanical hegemony gradually absorbed Buddhism into its meta referential structure.  The Tathagata himself was assimilated as an avatar of Vishnu and a dynamic Boddhisatva was termed Siva.

With young monks at Aurangabad caves (Kharki is the original name before it was renamed in early 17th century). 24 May 2013.

With young monks at Aurangabad caves (Kharki is the original name , it was renamed in early 17th century). 24 May 2013.

Sleeping Buddha at Ajanta.  Maha Parinibana, 25 May 2013.

Maha Parinibana known in the west as Sleeping Buddha at Ajanta, 25 may 2013, Buddha Purnima.

This gradual takeover and absorption of Buddhism into Hindu Brahmanism is visible and tangible in Ajanta, Aurangabad, Ellora and Elephanta.  Violence and  forced trasformation of Boddhisatva images into Siva and Vishnu or Taradevi into Parvati is clear and concrete here.  Chiseling and modifying the Stupa of Teravada into huge Linga or phallus is also evident.

Before the Stupa in a Chaitya hall or cathedral at Ajanta.  Mark the apse, pillars and other cathedral architecture that was later recovered by European churches.

Before the Stupa in a Chaitya hall or cathedral at Ajanta. Mark the apse, pillars and other cathedral architecture that was later recovered by European churches.

The Linga cult itself was deployed to strategically absorb the Stupa icon ans symbolism in Teravada Buddhism.  While the Stupa is like an egg and womanish the phallus aggressively musculinist and patriarchal.  Brahmanic patriarchy found its ideal icon in this erect and imposing Linga, a cunning reworking of the Stupa.

A squirrel at Ajanta, 25 May 2013 Buddha Purnima

A squirrel at Ajanta, 25 May 2013 Buddha Purnima

At  Ajanta, 25 May 2013

At Ajanta, 25 May 2013

This covetous modifications happened around 8th and 9th century AD during the heyday of Hindu Bhakti surge called Saivism and Vaishnavism.  Many Buddhist and Jain caves were converted to Hindu ones during the intoxicating spell of Bhakti.  The fall of the Mauryans and the newly converted local kings to Brahmanism also contributed in this regression into  primitive phallus cult.

The reminiscent painting in Ajanta.  Most caves were painted and only traces remain after almost two thousand years of their creation, most by skilled monks and Viswakarma artisans.

Apsaras: The reminiscent painting in Ajanta. Most caves were painted and only traces remain after almost two thousand years of their creation, most by skilled monks and Viswakarma artisans.

But fortunately almost all the caves in Ajanta and half the caves in Ellora are still Buddhist, thanks to the great Ambedkarite movement and the neo buddhists.  The Aurangabad caves are also exclusively Buddhist and there is a thriving monastery beneath it were neo buddhists or dalitbahujans play a pivotal role in the present sustenance of the teaching of the compassionate one among the people at the bottom.

Reclining Buddha in Maha Parinibana at Ajanta, 25 May 2013.

Reclining Buddha in Maha Parinibana at Ajanta, 25 May 2013.

Anirudh before Sidharth College Mumbai established by Dr Ambedkar; 26 May 2013.

Anirudh before Sidharth College Mumbai established by Dr Ambedkar; Early morning 6.10am, 26 May 2013.

We also visited Ambedkar University at Aurangabad, Milind College of Law established by Babasaheb in 1951 in Aurangabad, Ambedkar Research Centre, Regional History Museums and libraries inside the campus.  The Mogul legacy that started in 14th century also resulted in monuments like Bibi ka Maqbara, famous as little Taj and Panchaki an old water mill. We reached Aurngabad on May 23, visited Ellora on 24 and went to Ajanta on 25 May.

A Teravada Buddha in Aurangabad caves belonging to BC second century.  Note the Malsya Mudra or fish mark on the base.  Gradually by the 5th century A D this simple and austere formal style gave way to the more elaborate and sophisticated Mahayana style and it was easy for the Hindu Brahmanical forces to absorb such nuanced digression.

A Teravada Buddha in Aurangabad caves belonging to BC second century. Note the Malsya Mudra or fish mark on the base. Gradually by the 5th century A D this simple and austere formal style gave way to the more elaborate and sophisticated Mahayana style and it was easy for the Hindu Brahmanical forces to absorb such nuanced digression.

On 26 May we visited Mumbai and Elephanta island and caves.  A Buddhist Stupa in ruins still exists there.  All the other six caves are now being converted into Saivite ones. This happened in the 8th century. The bloody violence is still visible in the mutilations and erasures done on the sculptural representations.

Buddha Purnima at Aurngabad.  See the entrance to the Railway Station in Chaitya gateway style of Ajanta and full moon climbing at left top; Anirudh also in the frame. 25 May 2013.

Buddha Purnima at Aurangabad. See the entrance to the Railway Station in Chaitya gateway style of Ajanta and full moon climbing in left top; Anirudh also in the frame. 25 May 2013.

We returned on the Kanyakumari Express and reached Kottayam on the morning of 28 May 2013.  The summer was hard with low humidity on the Deccan plateau and high humidity on the Mumbai coast but as working people we get time and space only during the vacation to go and see the real heritage and civilization of the people in India that has become the shared legacy of the world.

The fabric look alike Shamiana painted onto the cut ceiling  at Ajanta.

The fabric look alike Shamiana painted onto the cut ceiling at Ajanta.

The light of Asia, the only light you see amidst the darkness of the phallic violence and the barbarism of caste and Varna, emanates from Ajanta and it blooms in the month of Baisak and particularly on the Buddha Purnima.

Buddha with the begging bowl in his own home town; A trace from an elaborate work at Ajanta.  Flash not allowed. 25 May 2013.

Buddha with the begging bowl in his own home town; A trace from an elaborate work at Ajanta. Flash not allowed. 25 May 2013.

Last Buddha Purnima (2012) was at Tirunavaya in Malabar where the Chaitya Vihara was turned into a Hindu Brahmanical temple after declaring the Buddhists defeated in rhetoric and plucking their tongues out by the henchmen of Brahmanism who were intoxicated by the Bhakti of Vishnu in the 8th century AD according to radical historiographers and counter hegemonic writers from the people in Kerala.

The beauty of the Buddha form that also formed the foundation of ethical aesthetics and sculpture ever after.  The oldest and most enduring ethical and artistic expression that humanity has ever produced.

The beauty of the Buddha form that also formed the foundation of ethical aesthetics and sculpture ever after. The oldest and most enduring ethical and artistic expression that humanity has ever produced radiate from Ajanta and Elapura and Kerala is direct heir of this ethical tradition.

Let the people recognize and reclaim their cultural sites and heritage  through peaceful democratic and cultural politics that was obliterated, mutilated and erased by the Varna centered patriarchal ideology of Brahmanism through the heinous orchestration of phallic violence and lingering symbolic violence in the present.

Aurangabad city from the Buddhist caves.  Bibi ka Maqbara is also seen in distance.

Aurangabad city from the Buddhist caves. Bibi ka Maqbara is also seen in distance.

Let there be light and peace, let the peaceful light of the full moon of Baisak prevail over the peninsula as it prevailed over a millennium from BC third century to 13th century in India.  Our journey to the Deccan was an attempt to relink this ancient cultural connection between Elapura (Ellora now) and Kara Elam or Kerala.