Buddhism, Ayurveda and the Avarna Medical Tradition of Kerala:Itty Achuthan and Kadakarapally

All that remains of Itty Achuthan: The small pagoda (Kuryala) eructed in his memory at Kollatt house in Kadakarapally, Cherthala. 8 July 2012

Kadakarapally is a coastal village west of Cherthala town in Alapuzha district of Kerala.  The place name proclaims that it was the location of an ancient Buddhist Pally close to the sea.  Places like Paruthiampally and Thankipally are close by.  The renowned Ayurveda scholar Kollatt Itty Achuthan hails from Kadakarapally.  Even in the 17th century at the height of the caste system and its untouchability discourses the colonial Dutch Governer Henrik Van Reed had to appoint Achuthan an Avarna Vaidyar and Ezhava by community, as the chief expert-consultant towards the  compilation of The Horthus Malabaricus the first scientific work on the plants and shrubs of Kerala.

Sacred grove in the memory of Itty Achuthan Vaidyar at Kollatt, Kadakarapally. Certain plant species in the grove are yet to be identified.

Legend has it that medics like Achuthan inherited the precious knowledge and practice of Ayurveda and the specialized knowledge on rare endemic medicinal shrubs from the students of the legendary Nagarjuna, the Buddhist monk who studied the flora of southern Kerala, especially that of Maruthwamala and spent his last years in Kadakarapally.  The direct linkage between Buddhism, Ayurveda and Avarna Vaidya tradition is undoubtedly signified through this iconic medic in Kerala history.  It is also notable that Ashtanga Hridaya a seminal text of Ayurveda was written by Vagbhata another Buddhist sage.  Uppottil Kannan an Avarna Vaidyar from Malabar composed the first interpretation to this key Ayurvedic  text in Malayalam.

Arthungal Church south of Kadakarapally

The Arthungal church which has close cultural associations with Buddhism in the past lies south of Kadakarapally.  The Avarnas who make their annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala (the seat of Avalokiteswara Boddhisatva) of the region begin and end their pilgrimage at Arthunkal church.  Prof Purushothaman has argued in his Buddhante Kalpadukal (Current 2008) that the Veluthachan deity of the church is a Boddhistava in regional coastal manifestation.

Thykal in Kadakarapally where a wooden vessel was excavated. It was dated to be 1000 years old and was identified as an Arabian one. A sign of overseas trade and cultural links of the region for more than a millennium.

Today the Kollatt family is still there in Kadakarapally.  There is just a small collapsing pagoda like hut (called Kuryala)  in the memory of the late Vaidyar.  A sacred grove is also surviving under various threats of erasure.  The local bodies and the government must act immediately to preserve the valuable relics and significant memories of Itty Achuthan in a well studied way for posterity.  The future monument or museum must focus on the historic legacy of Ayurveda and the ethical philosophy of Buddhism that promoted and propagated livelihood skills among the most depressed and needy people in the peripheries like the coastal belts and marshes of Alapuzha.  The democratic legacies of literacy and healthcare are lasting impacts of the Sramana tradition in Kerala that need to be recovered, critically studied and reasserted by the people.

Click to read Hortus Malabaricus online

Mamankam and Changampally Kalari: Ancient Practices of Healthcare and Martial Arts in Kerala

Mamankam memorial: Changampally Kalari near Thirunavaya

The healthcare and self defense practices  of Ayurveda and Kalari in Kerala are of Buddhist origin.  They are lasting legacies of Buddhism in Kerala as literacy and the general  intellectual culture. The Avarna communities like Ezhavas constitute the chunk of its practitioners traditionally and even in the present.  Vagbhata and Nagarjuna who developed this indigenous practice of medicine were Buddhist monks who did missionary work in south India.

Pazhuka Mandapam near Navamukunda temple, Thirunavaya on the banks of Nila

Even in 18th century, at the peak of Brahmanical untouchability and exclusion on caste lines, the Dutch appointed an Ezhava medic, Itty Achuthan of Kadakarapally near Cherthala to write the famous Hortus Malabaricus.  Even today one of the ancient Kalaris surviving in Kerala like Cheerapanchira in Alapuzha district, that trained the legendary Ayyappan of Sabarimala, belongs to an Avarna  Ezhava household.

Manikinar: well used to dump the Chaver, Thirunavaya

Changampally Kalari in Thirunavaya in Malapuram district is associated with Mamankam, the martial carnival that settled the succession disputes in ancient Kerala once in every 12 years.  Historians like Velayudhan Panikasery argue that the festival is of Buddhist origin.   Initially it was a great cultural and trade festival of human interaction on the banks of the great Perar or Bharathapuzha just above the ancient port city of Ponnani where trade and passenger ships from across the world anchored in the calm waters of the inland port.

Nilapadu Thara: vantage used by the Konathiries and Zamorins

Anyway the Changampally household was appointed in charge of the Kalari here by the Zamorin of Calicut in the middle ages according to local legends.  The family has converted to Islam in the 18thcentury during the Mysore occupation.  When I visited the Kalari in early February 2012, Mr Jaffar Gurukal who is running an Ayurvedic centre near the ancient Kalari told me that before conversion they were Tulu Brahmans.  This could be an elitist assimilation or fabrication done later under the hegemony of Brahmanical values; as Tulu Brahmans are never identified as traditionally having martial Kalari practice or institutions in Tulunadu or down south. Almost all Kalari households in Tulunadu and Malabar belonged to Sudra and Avarna communities.

Carving in Changampally Kalari

The Changam and Pally words in their house name are marked key words associated with Buddhism.  Changam or Chingam represent Chamana or Amana or Sramana culture as in Chinga Vanam or Changanassery (place names in Kottayam district).  As Sramana culture is inseparable from the month of Chingam and the great secular egalitarian festival of Onam in Kerala, the words Changam/Chingam and Pally/Pilly are also inextricably linked to the Buddhist past of Kerala  that is the foundation of egalitarian culture here, that was erased by Brahmanism after the 8th century.

It is great to see the ancient Kalari shrine and surroundings and the Mamankam sites being preserved by the Government and the people.  An apt museum and interpretation centre that could educate the people on their rich cultural traditions can be an added attraction here.  The road from Thirunavaya to Kuttipuram is also in good condition.  The Nila Park just below the Kuttipuram bridge about which poets like Idassery have written is also luring visitors.  I found a large group of Small Pratincoles on the sandy flats of the river near the park as the sun was setting beyond the river and into the trees.