Sastha and Buddha: Buddhist Vestiges in Southern Western Ghats of Kerala

Buddhist vestige at Kallupacha, RPL Estate, Kulathupuzha
Buddhist vestige at Kallupacha, RPL Estate, Kulathupuzha. Carved into a fine granite boulder with three doorways

The western foothills of the southern ranges in the Western Ghats are known for ancient and popular Sastha Temples of Kerala.  Sabarimala, Achankovil, Ariankavu, Kulathupuzha and Sasthamkotta are prominent Dharma Sastha or Ayyappa temples located in and around this region.  Their proximity to the Tamil Country in the east and Malakootam or Malaya Kootam/Parvatham (Now Agasthya Kootam) in the south are remarkable.  Malaya Kootam is still called Pothiyil Mala (variation of Boddhiyil Mala) and it was also called Pothalaka in Buddhist lore, the seat of the Avalokiteswara Boddhisatva.  It is a ghat region revered by the Hindus and the Buddhists alike.

Kattalapara Buddhist vestige. near Shenduruny sanctuary, Kulathupuzha. Abandoned due to poor stone quality. Now three doorways are worshiped as representing Hindu, Christian and Islamic religions

Dharma Sastha is a synonym for the Buddha.  Ayyappan is an Avalokiteswaran later Hinduized and appropriated by Brahmanism in the early middle ages as an offspring born out of the Siva-Vishnu union.  The metamorphosis of this deity through the violent conflicts and negotiations  involving  Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism) Saivism and Vaishnavism is evident in the legend.  In the Tamil Country Pali words Ayyan, Appan, Achan, Ayyappan and Puthan refer to the enlightend one at least from BC third century.

Kottukal rock cut temple, near Anchal.

Vajrayana used various Avalokiteswaras and Boddhisatva idols with consorts to popularize the cult and it was easy for Brahmanism to appropriate it overnight. Like the Buddha Nilakandha temple of Nepal or the Padmanabha temple of Thiruvananthapuram the Ayyappa temples were easily modified into Hindu Brahmanical ones.  Some scholars also argue that Tantric Buddhism itself was a clever deviation made by the Brahmanical usurpers who joined the Buddhist Sangha for the gradual sabotage as the basic teachings of the compassionate one challenged Brahmanism and caste.

Ariankavu Ayyappa temple at the eastern end of Kollam pass close to Tamilakam

The Buddhist rock cut vestiges in and around the Kulathupuzha forests prove the early presence of missionaries in the Kollam pass well before the advent of the common era.  It can be assumed that they entered the western slopes of the Western Ghats through the Ariankavu pass and established their Pallys and Pallykootams in the lower foothills. The rock cut constructions in Kallupacha in RPL estate in Kulathupuzha and Kattalapara close to the Shenduruny sanctuary are still surviving relics of early Buddhist rock architecture.

Kulathupuzha Sastha temple. The idol represents a Kulanthai or boy

The same architectural pattern and style of carving are found in the rock temple at Kottukal near Anchal.  As the first two vestiges are inside plantations and forests they are almost in abandoned state but the Kottukal rock cut temple is modified into a Siva temple by later Saivism that entered Kerala in the 8th and 9th centuries.  It also shows remarkable resemblance to Kaviyur rock temple near Thiruvalla and Kallil Jain temple near Perumbavur.

River Kallada at Kulathupuzha temple. Location of fish-feeding, an ancient conservationist practice related to Buddhism and Jainism as in Triprayar

It is interesting to note that the bigger shrines close to important mountain routes and the popular ones were transformed into bigger Hindu temples while the smaller vestiges and rock carvings were neglected and forgotten in the jungle.  On June 1, 2011 the Hindu published an article on the report of Dr Rajendran an archeologist who surveyed the region.  According to him these vestiges are related to early Buddhism that reached Kerala in the last centuries of BC era and the whole Ariankavu, Kulathupuzha, Ponmudi belt still holds the relics of this early Buddhist cultural  intervention.

Mahamaya/Mayadevi in Kulthupuzha in classic Yakshi stance with a mirror in hand and leaning onto a tree.
Mahamaya/Mayadevi in Kulthupuzha in classic Yakshi stance with a mirror in hand and leaning onto a tree. Mahamaya is the mother of Buddha who is the central deity in Kilirur and Neelamperur

According to Dr Rajendran Malsya Mudra or fish signs are identified in the carving sites that prove the Buddhist identity of the makers.  In Kulathupuzha fish-feeding is also an important ritual that is still practiced showing the Buddhist conservationist spirit of the shrine.  Such practices of conservation are still sustaining in many temples all over Kerala as in Thriprayar in Thrissur district.  Naga deities and Mahamaya (mother of the Buddha) idol are also worshiped in Kulathupuzha.

Naga deities in Kulathupuzha Sastha temple

I visited the region on 18th and 19th May 2012 and got the opportunity to see and experience the unique ecology and cultural traces related to the ancient conservationist traditions of Kerala.  The Thenmala eco-tourism project and rivers Kallada and Kallar along with the numerous life forms offer plenty of learning experiences for the seeking.

Indilayaappan idol.
Indilayaappan idol. An ambiguous deity in Ariankavu Ayyappa shrine, showing the Vajrayan, Saiva and Vaishnava scramble

Cultural and Ecological Legacy of Periyar Valley

Brown-breasted Flycather in Thatekad
Brown-breasted Flycather in Thatekad

Today (Saturday, 21 Nov. 2009) I visited Thatekad and adjoining forest patches with Jaime Chithra. We were a bit late to reach the Cuckoo Paradise at eight in the morning. Though we could not see any Cuckoos first we heard the welcome call of Indian Cuckoo.

A couple of Red-wattled Lapwings were warming up in the open grassland in bright sunshine. The Cuckoo that we finally saw there turned out to be a Drongo Cuckoo! Plenty of Spotted Doves and Pompadour Green Pigeons were on the canopies of the teak tress. Racket tailed, Bronzed, Ashy and Black Drongos were also vocal and very much visible in the morning glory.

As we crossed the river Periyar the Ashy Wood Swallows were sitting tight together on the electric wires above water. As soon as we entered the Salim Ali Sanctuary with guide Rejiv the Jazzy ensemble of Malabar Grey Hornbills began. We saw the Brown Hawk Owls perched on the pinnacle of a bamboo grove. Brown-breasted and Asian Brown flycatchers came to us to say hi! Black-naped and Black-hooded Orioles were enjoying themselves on top of bare branches in the sun. Little Cormorants and White-throated Kingfishers were plenty in the lagoons nearby. A solitary Small Blue Kingfisher was perched on a pole provided by the authorities anew.

Inside the forest we saw the awesome Black Baza spreading its wings and crest and coming down to perch on a tall tree. We were shown the roosting Frogmouth, the favourite of Thatekad. A Crested Serpent Eagle was hovering above with frequent calls. We saw a lot of Brahmany Starlings and Black Crested Bulbuls. Yellow-browed Bulbuls were also not uncommon. A few Paradise Flycatchers also came out. Gold-fronted Leafbirds were delightful to watch. Scarlet Minivets showed off in full colours to entertain. As we were leaving the place we also heard the call of a Dollar Bird distinctly.

Black Baza in Thatekad
Black Baza in Thatekad

From Thatekad we went further west all along the Periyar to reach Budhathan Kettu barrage were a Long-tailed Shrike was sitting on a pole awaiting us. Popular superstition says that the huge stone dam was built by the ‘Bhuthathans’ or Demons, but historians say that it was built by the Bhudhist missionaries to feed paddy fields in the adjacent villages in the pre-Brahmanic era.

Then we moved further down stream along the southern bank of Periyar to reach Thrikariyur an ancient Buddhist shrine which is now a Hindu temple. The huge temple pond and the Pearl-spots or Karimeens in it are a reminiscence of the old eco-cultural heritage of conservation, a lasting legacy of Buddhism in Kerala and South India in general. A few Indian Cormorants and a Darter were seen by the pond.

From here we moved slightly south west to reach Kallil, the ancient Jain rock-cut temple near Methala in Odakali. We were received by a chatty group of jungle babblers on this rocky hillock. It is a laterite hillock with a granite top. The image of the Thirthankara is still visible above the rock entrance. Archeologists say that there were reliefs and granite idols of Mahavira, Parshwanatha and Padmavathi Devi inside the rock chamber. Now the Padmavathi Devi idol is worshiped as Bhagavati.

Thirthankara relief, Kallil
Thirthankara relief, Kallil

As we encircled the gigantic rocks on top of the shrine we saw the carved image of an elephent on a rock which clearly is a Jain Mudra or symbol of peaceful co-existence with nature without conflict and non-violence. On a nearby ancient fig tree we saw five yellow footed green pigeons savoring the sun and the mellowing fig-fruits. The brooding presence of a Brahmany Kite was really alarming as a dramatic re-enactment of the whole history of violence. Fortunately the green doves were perfectly camouflaged.

Then we moved further west to reach Iringol Kavu near Perumbavur. It was already past noon and was getting hotter and hotter. We could not see much birds here except a hasting Oriental Honey Buzzard. Plenty of flower peckers and sun-birds are thriving inside this ancient Sramana sacred grove which was once part of the Periyar valley civilization created and nurtured by the Jain-Buddhist heritage of Kerala. As the clouds of North Eastern Monsoon began to gather in the horizon we were speeding up the retreat back to Kottayam.

Srilankan Frogmouth (female) in Thatekad
Srilankan Frogmouth (female) in Thatekad