A Tranquil Buddha on the Periyar Bank: Buddha at Topil in Onampally

Buddha idol at Topil House in Onampally near Kalady, Ernakulam district of Kerala. Photo by Ajay Sekher 16. 8. 2014
Buddha idol at Topil House in Onampally near Kalady, Ernakulam district of Kerala. Photo by Ajay Sekher 16. 8. 2014

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.

Ancient granite idol of the Buddha recovered in 1964 at Topil in Onampally.  See the Ushnisham or crown of hair, Utariyam or robe on left shoulder and Jwala or flame of enlightenment atop the hair that are the key markers of a Buddha idol.  Could be dated to 7th and 8th century AD and in early Teravada Anuradhapuram style.
Ancient granite idol of the Buddha recovered in 1964 at Topil in Onampally. See the Ushnisham or crown of hair, Utariyam or robe on left shoulder and Jwala or flame of enlightenment atop the hair that are the key markers of a Buddha idol. Could be dated to 7th and 8th century AD and in early Teravada Anuradhapuram style.

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.

Buddha at Topil in Onampally or Onampilly near Kalady.  Iconographically similar to Buddha idols recovered at Mavelikara, Karumady, Kayamkulam, Kottapuram and Pattanam.  Mr Padma Prabha whose Topil house shrine houses it is also seen. 16. 8. 2014 by Ajay Sekher
Buddha at Topil in Onampally or Onampilly near Kalady. Iconographically similar to Buddha idols recovered at Mavelikara, Karumady, Kayamkulam, Kottapuram and Pattanam. Mr Padma Prabha whose Topil house shrine houses it is also seen. 16. 8. 2014 by Ajay Sekher

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.

Buddha idol and pedestal were recovered 50 years ago from the Topil plot and was enshrined in the Pagoda in 1964.  Identification and Photo by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014
Buddha idol and pedestal were recovered 50 years ago from the Topil plot and was enshrined in the Pagoda in 1964. Identification and Photo by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

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.

Black granite Buddha in deep meditating Padmasana at Topil, Onampally.  Exactly like the other Teravada Buddha idols so far recovered from Kerala in Anuradhapura style.  Identification and photo by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014
Black granite Buddha in deep meditating Padmasana at Topil, Onampally. Exactly like the other Teravada Buddha idols so far recovered from Kerala in Anuradhapura style. Identification and photo by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

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.

Buddha at Topil in Onampally near Kalady on the southern bank of Periyar.  photo and identification by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014
Buddha at Topil in Onampally near Kalady on the southern bank of Periyar. Facial feature are mutilated and sandal paste markings are distorting.  photo and identification by Ajay Sekher 16.8.2014

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.

ajay sekher

A Broken Padmasana: The Fissured Buddha of Pattanam

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

Nileeswaram Siva temple, Pattanam. Ernakulam
Crossed legs and part of the left hand completing a solemn Padmasana. Demolished above the waist in the violent conquest in the middle ages. Now worshiped as Yakshi at Nileeswaram Siva temple, Pattanam. Ernakulam dist, Kerala.

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.

The pedestal and half-undone Padmasana idol
The pedestal and half-undone Padmasana idol from the back. It was recovered from the temple pond almost a century ago and placed on the Yakshi platform by the pond under a Pipal tree. Mavelikara, Kayamkulam and Kattanam Buddhas were also recovered by the people from current Savarna temples at the same time.

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.

Pattanam Buddha
Four fragments are placed together and that is why it was difficult for the people to decipher the mystery of Pattanam Buddha. It again is a hegemonic act of obscurantism and erasure of vital past by the obliterating Savarna Brahmanical forces who still specialize in burying their own past in a repressive and fascist way.

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.

Tyaganur Buddha
Tyaganur Buddha in the open field for the last one thousand years or more, from Tamil Nadu.
Photo: The Hindu

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.

Nileeswaram temple at Pattanam
Perfect disguise of the past:  the fragmets placed together in an ambiguous way.  Nileeswaram temple at Pattanam is so close to Cherai the birth place of Sahodaran Ayyappan who initiated the neo buddhist movement in Kerala during the renaissance cultural revolutions in early 20th century. Sahodaran has written extensively on the destruction of buddhist shrines in Kerala by Brahmanic Hindutva forces like Kodungallur and Srimulavasam in particular. Remember his song “O don’t go to the Bharani O brothers…”  Because of his scathing critique of Brahmanism and Savarna elitism,  Sahodaran the greatest organic intellectual that Kerala has ever produced was systematically excluded from the high canon and  textbooks by the Savarna literati, who instead celebrated Asan for his mild Hinduized worldview.

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.

Mavelikara Buddha
Mavelikara Buddha, recovered from the paddy field adjacent to Kandiyur temple and placed at the Buddha Junction, Mavelikara. Note the lotus posture/Padmasana with crossed legs and connected hands. See the tone and texture of the stone and its colour that is recurring in all the Buddha idols including the Pattanam Buddha recovered from Kerala.

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.

Pattanam Buddha idol
Pattanam Buddha idol (half demolished, above waist): An early photo by KCHR photographer. Iconography, Chiseling style, Stone type, texture and color closely resembling Buddha idols recovered at Mavelikara, Karumady, Kattanam and Kayamkulam. By courtesy of Prof P J Cherian and KCHR

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.

Buddha at Bharanikavu Pallykal
Buddha at Bharanikavu Pallykal, Katanam near Kayamkulam. It was also recovered from a pond behind the current Hindu temple in early 20th century. Till then it was used as a washing stone and foot cleaning stone in the temple pond. See the close similarity in chiseling style and lotus posture; with Mavelikara, Karumady and Pattanam idols. Pallykal Buddha is dated to 7th century by experts.  Now protected by Archeological department of Kerala.

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.”

Pattanam Nileeswaram Siva temple
The pedestal with lying human figures piled on one another on which the Padmasana figure is placed at Pattanam Nileeswaram Siva temple. Ernakulam dist of Kerala.  Note the easy chiseling possibility of modifying such  idols and seats into a Siva Linga.  It was practiced through out south India by Brahmanism and its assimilatory tropes like Saivism and Vaishnavism to convert Chamana Pallys.

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.

Sahodaran Ayyappan (1889-1968) wrote extensively on Buddhism in Kerala at the wake of the 20th century. His verses contain a special section “Baudha Kandam.” Instrumental in initiating neo buddhism in Kerala. Also initiated live dialogues with Ambedkarism and Periyor movement in early 20th century Kerala.

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.

Nileeswaram Siva temple at Pattanam. Towards the right background the big Pipal stands and beneath it the Buddha fragment is placed now and worshiped as Yakshi.  Pattanam excavation site is to the left background of this temple.

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.

neo buddha of India: Ambedkar merged into the Buddha in the imagination of a dalit artist. Image from the internet.

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.

Indus valley seal of a Yogi in Padmasana: An earliest artistic expression of ascetic and ethical practice in India. Orientalists termed it as Siva as Pasupati. Now linked to the Sramana Yogic tradition of early Dravidian and pre-Jain/buddhist traditions. Image from internet

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.

O V Vijayan with his life-partner Dr Theresa
A Boddhisatva from contemporary Kerala who wanted to write on the Padmasana in Indian cultures from the Indus onwards, but could not : O V Vijayan with his life-partner Dr Theresa. Padmasanam was his last projected novel. Photo: thehindu.com

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.

ajay sekher  2 Nov 2012