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.

Jain Temples of Manjeswaram: Jainism in Kerala

Chathurmukha Basati, Jain temple in Bengara, Manjeswar

Jainism was the first missionary religion to reach the present Kerala in BC fourth century itself (Gopalakrishnan 2009).  The Pattanam excavations prove this historical fact beyond doubt now.  Indian rouletted ware with the inscription “Amana” meaning Sramana or Jain/Buddhist recently recovered from Pattanam near Muziris or Kodungallur testify the presence of Jain monks even in central Kerala itself around BC fourth century.

Parswanatha Basati Jain temple, Bengara near Hosangadi, Manjeswar

Jain texts and inscriptions also talk about the southward migration of Chandragupta Maurya under the guidance of his Jain guru Bhadrabahu following a prolonged drought in the north in BC 4th century.  They settled down in Sravanabelgola (white pool of Sramanas or Jains) in present Karnataka so close to north Kerala.  Jainism and its culture and architecture spread to various parts of ancient Tamil country including Chera kingdom from here (Damodaran 2002).

Remnance of an ancient stone temple near Manjeswar river mouth close to the Arabian sea. Clearly Jain according to granite archetectural patterns, motifs and Dwarapalaka reliefs

Manjeswaram was the headquarters of a Jain kingdom called Bengara-Manjeswar towards the northern frontier of present Kerala for atleast 500 years from 12th century onwards (Pathmakumar 43).  According to scholars involved in Jain studies more than 800 families where here and the debris of a destroyed fort is still found in the region.  The relics of an ancient stone temple near the river mouth of Manjeswar close to the Arabina sea is also a clear evidence of the Jain antiquity of the place.  Manjeswaram still has two Jain temples or Jaina Basatis on the southern shore of river Manjeswar still called Bengara after the Jain kingdom.  There are also a few surviving Jain families here near Hosangadi to the west of NH 17 around the Parswanatha Basati.

Ancient Asoka tree and Naga deities before Chathurmukha Basati, Manjeswar

There is a Chathurmukha Basati housing four idols of Jain gurus Adinatha, Santinatha, Chandranatha and Mahavira facing to the four directions.  This ancient structure belongs to 12th century according to experts (Pathmakumar 42) It is situated on a small idyllic hillock  and is a green and calm retreat for the culturally inclined visitor.  The Sramana sages loved peace and tranquility of nature.  There are also sacred trees like flowering  Asoka underneath which Naga or serpent idols are worshiped by the ancient Jains. I found plenty of birds, butterflies and even a peacock there in Jan 2011 when I visited the place alone.

Ancient alter or Bali stone in Mallinatha Basati, Manjeswar

The second temple is the Parswanatha  Basati named after another saint  or Thirthankara of Jainism.  This temple renovated several times in its long history is identified as belonging to 14th century.  It has idols of Parswanatha, Pathmavathy Devi, Khusmandini Devi and Saraswati as well.  In many places in Karnataka and north Kerala Mallinatha Basatis are converted to Mallikarjuna Hindu temples. A Jain family is also attached to this temple.  I met the family who are fourth generation Jain priests called Indrans of the temple and they informed me that most of the community had migrated to Karnataka because of various social pressures and extreme marginalization and exclusion under hegemony.

Small Blue Kingfisher on the helm of a fishing boat in Manjeswar estuary, Kasaragod, Kerala

These temples at the northern boundary of Kerala like the Chitharal (Tirucharanthumala) rock temple and Nagerkovil temple at the southern frontier now being Hinduized along with Kallil in Ernakulam district and Kaviyoor rock temple in Pathanamthitta district prove the basic presence and foundation of Jain culture as the primary civilization of Kerala.

Entering Jain temple near Hosangadi, Manjeswar

All the bahujans or the people or subaltern in Kerala have their Jain/Buddhist ancestry and that is why they were considered as untouchables by Hinduism till a few decades ago. The Avarnas or former untouchables in India  as a people have their Sramana heritage and ethical legacy to fall back that lie at the bottom of things.  The still surviving Jain centers of Moodbidri, Karkala, Venur and Dharmasthala are also geographically close to Manjeswar like Sravanabelgola.

Green hillock housing the Jain temple in Manjeswar

Irinjalakuda Kudalmanikya temple was also a Jain temple till the 14th century (Valath 1992: 127; Gopalakrishnan; Pathmakumar).  Almost all the Brahmanical temples having an antiquity of more than a thousand years were violently Hinduized during the Brahmanic conquest with the help of Sudra henchmen who served as the militia and pimps of Brahmanism in establishing its material, sexual and mental colonies in Kerala during the 7th and 8th centuries AD through caste and pollution. The Savarna or upper caste Hindu hegemonic culture in Kerala is built on bloody and violent forms of invasion, brute aggression and inhuman oppression including genocide and annihilation.

Photos of Jain gurus inside the Jain home near Parswanatha temple, Manjeswar. Saraswati on the left showing that she was originally a Jain deity

It is high time that the people in Kerala who have survived these material and symbolic violences for centuries  must realize their true ethical heritage in the Sramana egalitarian cultures of Jainism and Buddhism and rewrite the cultural history of Kerala that was erased, obliterated and mutilated by Brahmanism and Savarna hegemonic forces who infiltrated and destroyed the Baliraj or rule of the egalitarian and subaltern mythical Maveli of Kerala in the middle ages through Brahman-Sudra nocturnal alliances and knowledge/power monopolies built by barbaric violence, erasure and repression.

Alter or Bali stone in Manjeswar Jain temple. Another feature of Jain temple architecture later Hinduized in the Brahmanical appropriations


Damodaran, K.  Tamilnadu: Archeological Perspectives.  Chennai: Govt. of Tamilnadu, 2002.

Gopalakrishnan, P K.  Keralathinte Samskarika Charithram.  Trivandrum:  Kerala Bhasha Institute, 2009.

— ,   Jainamatham Keralthil.  Trivandrum:  Prabhat, 1992

Pathmakumar, P D.  Jaina Dharmam Keralathil. Kozhikode: Wayanad Jaina Samaj and Mathrubhumi, 2007.

Sarkar, H.  Monuments of Kerala.  New Delhi:  Archeological Survey of India, 1992.

Valath, V V K.  Keralathile Sthala Nama Charithrangal: Ernakulam Jilla.  Thrissur:  Kerala Sahitya Academy, 1991.

— , Keralathile Sthala Nama Charithrangal: Thrissur Jilla.  Thrissur:  Kerala Sahitya Academy, 1992.