Gautamapuram and Beyond:Towards a Cultural History of Kottayam

Gautamapuram temple, Kottayam

Kottayam offers at least two etymological possibilities of  interpretation.  Ayam of a Kotta means pond of a Kotta or pond by a Kottam.  Akam of a Kotta makes it the interior of a fort.  The second one is more popular but the first one seems more historically relevant.  In both ways the place is associated with a Kotta or Kottam that signifies a pre Hindu place of worship in south India often associated with Sramana or Chamana culture.  Jain and Buddhist temples are often called Kottam, Vattam, Kutti, Ambalam etc.  Pally was more of a sacred word in Pali language used to refer to more established Viharas, Chaityas and Basatis of greater sanctity.  Simple pagodas, pillors, towers, Stupas, Pipal platforms with ponds nearby etc. were referred to with these words of common denomination and popular currency.

Biodiversity of river Kodur: Cotton Pigmy Goose and Cormorant in a backwater formation of Kodurar that forms the southern margin of Kottayam town

It is clear that Kottayam before the 8thcentury was the abode of Kottams, ponds and Ambalams.  Place names that survive centuries of cultural onslaughts like Muttambalam, Pallypurathu Kavu, Mariyapally, Gautamapuram etc. point towards the Sramana antiqutity of Kottayam.  Pallypurathu Kavu on the banks of the Kodurar close to the lake Vembanad in the west literally means an ancient sacred grove outside but in the vicinity of the Pally (Buddhist temple after disseminating the slurs).  Mariyapally could be an alteration of Maariyapally or changed shrine.  Muttambalam may refer to a spherical Stupa of Buddhist worship as relic worship was popular in many schools of Buddhism.

Panachikad shrine on the southern bank of Kodurar

It is also important to note that Panachikad an ancient seat of a Naga Yakshi and her sacred grove and spring is located just across the river on the southern bank.  Yakshi itself is a corrupt and demonized term related to Buddhist Nuns and Teachers (imagined as evil by Brahmanism in order to exterminate them after disseminating the slur).  There are also ancient shrines of Buddhist antiquity like Neelamperur Pally Bhagavathy Temple a few miles south west and Kilirur Kunnummel Bhagavathy Temple in the west.  According to historians these temples remained Buddhist even up to 15th or 16th century.

Apart from a place in Chennai in south India only Kottayam has a place name called Gautamapuram that is located on the northern bank of river Kodur between Pallypurathukavu and Muttambalam.  It lies in the slope just south of present Baselius College and Manorama.  An ancient temple there is also called Thri (Thiru) Gautamapuram temple.  Though Krishna is worshiped here today in the central shrine as in Kilirur temple just a few miles west on the banks of lake Vembanad, local people especially the Avarnas believe that it was an ancient Buddhist shrine.  But according to the NSS officials of the temple it is named Gautamapuram as a sage Gautama has performed the installation here.

It is important to remember that there are places like Kotamangalam, Kotanallur and Kotakulangara in and around Kottayam district. There is also a popular allusion to Kotazham or Kotayam in the eastern hills near Chirakadvu south of Ponkunnam in the east. So the affix Kota is a rural form of Gota or Gotama the Buddha. Thus the ancient name of Kottayam could be seen in Kotayam. It could had been slightly changed to Kottayam after the Tali was militarily modified and fortified in the middle ages with the rise of the Tekumkur regime.

In his masterpiece Kerala and Buddhism, S Sanku Iyer talks about Gautamapuram and its Buddhist past.  According to him it was the location of a Buddhist Vihara that was lost or demolished (Iyer 5) and it was named after Gautama Buddha himself by the early missionaries who reached Kerala in the third or fourth century BC.  He also cites Changanassery Parameswaran Pillai saying that there was a Buddha idol in the ruins at Gautamapuram (Iyer 67).

Endorsing this view and rehabilitating the local legends and oral narratives by the Avarna people in the locality who have become extinct in the area because of rapid urbanization and the pressures of the newly moneyed classes, Dalitbandhu N K Jose also records about the Buddhist past of Gautamapuram at the heart of Kottayam in his polemical work Buddh Dhamam Keralathil (Dalitbandhu 36).  It is also interesting to note that same legends are also existing among dalitbahujans regarding Thiru Nakkara temple just a mile afar in the west.

Named after Gautama Muni or Gautama Buddha?

It is evidently clear that the official historical versions on Kottayam that begin with the Thali rule and Thekumkur associated with the Brahmanical Savarna hegemony that begins with 16th century are grossly inadequate and obsolete in interpreting the greater and ancient legacies of the people, their cultural traditions and trajectories of resistance against internal imperialism of caste, cultural elitism and absolute hegemony by the forces of barbaric violence, Varna and Veda.  Epistemological violence related to mutilation and erasure of history and culture done through linguistic and semiotic doctoring may take centuries of de-colonizing and rewriting to achieve balance and poise.

Music from the Sacred Grove: An Ancient Fairy in Panachikadu

Sacred grove around the shrine

Just a few decades ago it was a dense and impenetrable forest on the north western slopes of a hillock overlooking the paddy fields on the southern banks of river Kodur, south of Kottayam.  This sacred grove enshrined the stone icon of an ancient goddess related to the serpent clan.  She is also worshiped as the spirit of the wood and the virgin spring that comes out of its thickets.  She is revered as Panachi the Naga Yakshi and her protected grove is thus called Panachikadu.  She is now worshiped as Saraswati in a pond covered with wild creepers. But her antiquity is traced back to the pre-Hindu or Sramana cultural phase of south India by historians and scholars (Valath).

Saraswati Nada

Buddhism in South India was open and inclusive towards the local and indigenous traditions like nature worship and tribal sacred practices.  The greater philosophy of conservation and bio-ethics manifested in Buddhist praxis in a variety of ways in the ancient Tamil country as early as BC 3rdcentury (Sugathan).  Conserving protected and sacred groves for endemic flora and fauna was one of the most popular and persistent practices in South Indian Buddhism that lasts even today in Kerala in the form of numerous Kavu and Kadu that sheltered the birds, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles, insects and medicinal shrubs for thousands of years. Serpent and tree worship was also integral to this practice that included the Naga, Negritoid and Dravidian traditions (Gopalakrishnan).

Yakshi Nada, the seat of the fairy above Saraswati Nada

The sacred grove dedicated to the serpent deities in Vaikom temple is called Panachikal, meaning the vicinity of Panachi.  The sacred grove near Niranam is called Panayannar Kavu, meaning the shrine of Panayan.  Panayan means the serpent king and Panachi represents the serpent queen (Valath 313).  In this analogy, Panachikadu means the sacred forest of Panachi the serpent queen or Sarpa Yakshi.  According to experts in local history like V V K Valath, Panchikadu near Chingavanam in Kottayam was originally a Sramana (Buddhist or Jain) sacred grove were this Naga deity was worshiped and after the Hindu-Brahmanic cultural invasion that happened in the eighth or ninth century the old shrine was converted into a Saraswati temple.

Pond of the goddess below the spring

Place names like Chingavanam and Channanikadu nearby also point towards the Chamana or Sramana cultural connection.  Channanikadu could be an adjacent shrine of a sister deity.  It is also important to note that Pakil Dharmasastha temple is closeby.   Anyway the Yakshi or Naga goddess still has a stone abode underneath the intertwined wild vines and creepers here. It is also important that the word Yakshi/Yakshan has a strong Jain linkage in the post Sramana period.

The place is also marked for a spring or Thirtham and a stone or Sila; that are key indicators or Mudras related to Jain or Buddhist shrines.  Vishnu is enshrined in the nearby big temple now. Places having the Pali word Pally in name, like Mariapally, Puthupally, Vazhapally, Mallappally, Pallypurathu Kavu etc. surround the hillocks of Panachikadu that rises from the backwaters and paddy field formations of Kodurar towards the south east of Kottayam town. 

It is also interesting to observe that Saraswati is worshiped as a sub deity of letters and arts by Jains along with Ganesh representing the primal connection with the animal kingdom in the form of an auspicious elephant god.  The Jain temples of Sravanabelgola, Halebidu, Venur and Moodbidri are typical examples of this mode of plural and eclectic worship and spirituality.

Unfortunately the sacred grove and its wild endemic vegetation are shrinking day by day under the pressure of development in the forms of concrete roads and construction all around the shrine.  The forest in the place name may remain in the very name in a few years if the culturally and ecologically aware people ignore this ancient sacred grove that has been an unlimited source of eco-spirituality, oxygen, drinking water and life sustaining knowledge practices for centuries.  I could see rare medicinal plants, insects, butterflies and birds inside this holy wood as I walked around the grove on the morning of Monday, 26 December 2011.  The lonesome long call of an invisible Iora from the darker green depth of the grove was particularly sweet and moving.

Stone representing the goddess covered in wild creepers, enshrined within the spring pond


Gopalakrishnan, P K.  Keralathinte Samskarika Charithram.  Trivandrum: Kerala Bhasha Institute, 2008.

Sugathan, K.  Buddhamathavum Jati Vyavasthithiyum.  Calicut: Progress, 2011.

Valath,  V V K.  Keralthile Sthalanama Charithrangal: Ernakulam Jilla.  Thrissur, Kerala Sahitya Akademi, 1998.