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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Whatever is the essence of the Tathagata, That is the essence of the world.
The Tathagata has no essence.
The world is without essence.
Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika, XXII:16
It was Prof P J Cherian the director of KCHR and the Pattanam/Muziris excavation project who drew my attention to certain broken granite sculptures kept in Pattanam Nileeswaram Siva temple a couple of months ago. A retired school master told him about the fragments, says Prof Cherian. These fragments were recovered some 70 to 80 years ago from the temple pond and placed on the raised platform of the Yakshi outside the Nalambalam structure beneath a Pipal by the pond.
People still worship these broken idols as Naga Yakshi and Naga Raja. But in close examination they were found to be of different statues. A seated figure in Padmasana is the vital fragment. Yesterday, 26 Oct 2012 I got time to visit Pattanam and had a close and enlightening view of the fragments. It is placed on a pedestal with a water chute. The iconographic style, color of the stone, chiseling style and texture of the stone closely resemble the Buddha idols recovered from Mavelikara, Karumady, Bharanikavu and Kayamkulam in the south.
This idol in Padmasana seems to be demolished above the waist and is the only one resembling a Buddha idol reported to be recovered so far from Ernakulam district. The regions between Edapally and Vadanapally thrive in place names with the common affix Pally, a Pali word signifying a Chamana sacred place. All other Buddha idols recovered so far are from Alapuzha and Kollam districts. Plenty of similar Buddha sculptures are also reported from Tyaganur, Ariyalur, Nagapatinam and other parts of Tamil Nadu, especially in Madurai and Tirunelveli districts.
Any way it is very important to note that the idol fragments were recovered from the temple pond. It was the same in Mavelikara, Kayamkulam, Pallykal and Karumady. All the Buddha idols in Kerala were recovered from current Savarna temple ponds or paddy fields in their vicinity. They were violently attacked uprooted and thrown or buried in ponds and marshes. The Buddha at Tyaganur is still sitting pretty in the open field exposed to the elements almost a millennium after its creation by skilled sculptors or Chamana sages themselves.
It is not likely to be a Jain Thirthankara image because there is no Mudra or symbols of animals or Chaitya trees associated with each Thirthankara on the base or pedestal. Moreover the stylization of the figure and its seated posture and orientation of the limbs closely echo the Buddhas at Mavelikara, Karumady and Bharanikavu. P C Alexander and S N Sadasivan who wrote the history of Buddhism in Kerala have argued that these south Kerala Buddhas resonate the Anuradhapura style of stone sculpting and chiseling. The blackness and density of the granite and the exquisite oily suppleness of appearance closely link the Pattanam fragment to its counter parts in Alapuzha and Kollam and in the far south in Srilanka.
It is a mockery of history that these invaluable fragments of Pattanam went unnoticed and unidentified for the last one century. It shows the repressive power of the mainstream Savarna Hindu ideology and common sense that becomes hegemonic and annihilating. Crucial suppression and erasure of collective consciousness, memory, past and integrity under cultural hegemony is a key aspect of Kerala’s elite culture called Savarna supremacism. Genocidal and symbolic violence and perpetual erasures and mutilations are its chief tenets. These historic and epistemic violences are legitimized in the name of an omnipotent god and timeless religion. The pivotal significance of the archetypal phallus or the Linga in the Saivite Hindutva appraisal gains meaning in these contexts.
The broken figure in Padmasana at Pattanam is yet another key-marker of the cultural reality and history of Kerala. It proves once again that grave and material violence was used to convert and modify the ethical and egalitarian spiritual practices and instructive places in Kerala during the early middle ages by Brahmanic Hinduism and its strategic appropriating tropes like Saivism and Vaishnavism. The Brahmanic henchmen belonging mostly to the Maravar and Kallar clans, literally demolished and buried all the traces of Buddhism and its non violent culture in Kerala with true Sudra allegiance and slave like fidelity to their caste- sovereigns, the earthly gods or Bhudeva.
Suppression of reality, resistance and speech are still widely practiced by the Savarna power elites who monopolize every public institutions in the country, especially the higher academia and media. The ideology and praxis of erasure and sanctioned ignorance or silence on the key aspects of collective past are still dominant practices in higher academia and media in Kerala and India at large. Even the victims conform to this dominant practice out of compulsion from conventions and supervision from the orthodoxy. Through such hegemonic measures of suppression and silencing the ethical and democratic Chamana culture of Kerala is pushed under the carpet even today in mainstream academic and media discourses. Mainstream academic historians from the former Savarna social background argue that the idols are some exceptions brought here by some merchants and traders and not part of a people’s culture and tradition! They are still keeping mum over the extensive presence of Pali words in Malayalam and the cultural symbols and images in the daily life practices of people related to Jain and Buddhist traditions. Archaeological, cultural and linguistic evidences explode the silence of the self-fashioned academic scholars who make a monopoly of the “academic methodology and practice.”
The broken granite Buddha sculpture at Pattanam testifies this fascist violence that is still brewing in the present against minor sects, others and out castes in India by the Hindutva and Savarna henchmen. Pattanam Buddha is a vital fragment of history that teaches us to be vigilant against cultural, iconographic, architectural and epistemic violence and alterations by the power elite done with coercion and appropriating strategies. It is striking that Pattanam is so close to Cherai where Sahodaran Ayyappan initiated the most dynamic neo buddhist discourse in Kerala along with C V Kunhiraman and Mitavadi C Krishnan in the early 20th century as part of the cultural struggles now termed as Kerala renaissance under the visionary leadership of Narayana Guru who symbolically and radically subverted the Brahmanical hegemony through his Aruvipuram installation in 1888.
In his verse and prose he reintroduced the ethical message of the enlightened one to the people in their mother tongue Malayalam as against the Pali of the Amana monks. Sahodaran journal was dedicated to the teaching of ethics to the dalitbahujan people in Kerala. He used the Pipal leaf as its logo and compared the modern boddhisatva of Kerala, Narayana Guru to the Buddha himself. The coinage “Sri Narayana-buddha” is an insightful and futuristic semantic construction by Sahodaran. He also inaugurated the rationalist and civil/human rights movement in Kerala in early 20th century that culminated in the Kerala model and modernity in a few decades.
The shattered buddha of Pattanam is an immortal piece of art as well. It tells us a lot about South Indian cultural history, iconography, society and polity during the last few thousand years. It is an icon of survival, resistance and articulation against invasions and imperialisms, both internal and external. It is an ethical and spiritual work of art that is political and social as well, with its polyphonic significations and liberating visual cultural possibilities. This invaluable treasure and heritage of the whole humanity and Kerala in particular must be preserved and protected by the people and their elected governments for future. As the neo buddha of India has reminded us the people who do not know history, can not make history.
It is vital to remember that the Padmasana a basic posture in Indian Yoga traditions has its origin in the Indus valley Dravidian civilization that dates back to BC 3000. The meditating Yogi in Padmasana amidst wild animals including the tiger and the elephant, recovered from terracotta seals in the Harrappan sites is identified as one of the earliest artistic expressions of this unique nonviolent culture, ethical aesthetics and cosmological vision.
The orientalist scholars and early Hindutva ideologues instantly declared it Siva as Pasupati or lord of the beasts. But radical organic intellectuals from the people recovered this iconic image as the early manifestation of Indus valley Dravidian culture and ethics. The rudimentary forms of Sramana/Amana/Chamana ascetic-ethical tradition could be aptly traced back to this Yogi in Padmasana. The Jain and Buddhist wisdom and philosophy of nonviolence, renunciation and being one with nature could be appropriately identified with the spiritual tranquility and ethical stability of this human figure amidst animals and the wild forces of nature.
It is again vitally important to remember that O V Vijayan the legend of Malayalam letters was struggling to write his last novel titled Padmasanam as death separated him from us. He was trying to connect the Indus valley Yogi in Padmasana with the numerous Sramana idols in south India in the same lotus posture, while negotiating with the Parkinson’s disease. The Pattanam Buddha fragment is there fore the latest addition to this ethical and egalitarian cultural legacy of India that is ever growing and being rediscovered everyday by the people in their various walks of life, struggle and survival. Preserving it for the world and for the posterity with correct details is going to be a task ahead for the people.