In early March 2019 a Buddha head in stone was recovered from Vellilapally near Ramapuram and Amanakara in Kottayam district of Kerala. It was found while the workers were making a stone wall. It was part of an older wall. There is a Dhammasasta shrine nearby. This place is called Pallykandam or the field of the Pally or Vihara in Vellilapally village. Vellilapally was the original name of the whole place now known as Ramapuram. Brahman settlements came up durng the middle ages.
A similar life size Buddha sculpture in seated posture with broken hand was recovered earlier from the same spot in Pallykandam in Vellilapally and is currently on display in Trissur archeological museum.
The head seems to be part of a similar life size sculpture. It alone is more than one feet in height. The long earlobe and Ushnisha or hairdo is clear that are characteristics of the Buddha sculptures. It is broken in the back and was probably connected to a larger sculptural unit with hallow like paraphernalia as the background or pedestal. In hairdo it is similar to the Buddha at Kayamkulam Krishnapuram palace museum. The resemblance of Gandhara and Kalinga styles are visible. It may be related to C E fifth or sixth century like the ones at Trissur and Kayamkulam museums. The facial features are obscured in long tear and wear underground or badly mutilated so that it is unnoticed.
It was recovered and taken to the Hill Palace Museum at Tripunitura by Kerala Archaeology Department. It must also come to display with the correct tags at the earliest. The recently discovered Boddhisatva idols from Ponjasery in 2015 and Avittatur in 2014 taken by Kerala Archaeology Department are not yet displayed and are lying hidden in the stock room. It is now evident that Vellilapally and Kottayam district in particular was an important cultural location of Buddhism till the middle ages. Place names like Amanakara, Marangattupally, Pandapally etc are proving the presence of Amana or Sramana missionaries and their educational establishments like Pally and Pallykoodam.
Vellilapally Buddha at Pallykandam in early March 2019. See the long earlobe and the erased or mutilated face.
Kilirur temple stands on a laterite hill surrounded by waterways and canals. It is so close to the backwaters of lake Vembanad that forms the heart of Kuttanad. Kuttanad is also well known as the land of Kuttan or Putan; rustic names for the Buddha. The Kilirur or Kiliroor temple is locally called Kilirur Kunnummel Bhagavathy temple (hilltop temple of the goddess). It is just 8 km west of Kottayam town. Etymologically Kilirur means Kilirna Ur or the village on a raised land strip as it is a tiny hillock amidst the wetlands of Kuttanad.
The uniqueness of the temple is the relief of the Buddha inside a shrine now dedicated to Krishna. The idol of Krishna also looks like a Yogic Avalokitesvara in Padmasana. The shrine is in Gaja Prishta architectural style (resembling the butt of a standing elephant) that is associated with temples of Buddhist antiquity. It is facing east and the northern door is marked for Sri Buddha, but remains closed.
There is also an ancient sacred grove and Naga deities towards the east of the temple compound on the hillock. Some of the former lords who were in charge of the temple are still known as Pallymenavans and all of them are non-Brahmans.
According to historians and researchers this was one of the last surviving Buddhist temples in central Kerala along with Nilamperur Pally Bhagavathy temple (Ilankulam, Ravivarma, Valath, Ajunarayanan, Sugathan, Sadasivan). Both these Buddhist temples were patronized by Pallyvana Perumal, a Chera prince of the 16th century, whose image wasl worshiped in Nilamperur till recently.
Sadasivan says that the Bhagavathy of the central shrine was originally the idol of queen Mahamaya the mother of the enlightened one. Pallyvana Perumal was a devotee of the mother of the affectionate one and thus he placed her at the centre of the temple.
It is also remarkable that there is no Namputhiri Illams in Kilirur and even the Brahman priests who do their service in the temple never stayed in the place though they do daily worshiping rituals in the temple through out the year. The Brahmanical aversion to a Mlecha (Buddhist) holy place could be the reason for this, say researchers (Ravivarma) and local people.
Local people still believe that the temple was originally a Buddhist shrine. Mr Rajappan Nair of Chandanaparambil narrated his memories and local lore about the temple. It is interesting that local people still cherish the legends of Pallyvana Perumal and the Buddhist connection between Kilirur and Nilamperur.
This last surviving Buddha image in a Kerala temple must be preserved for posterity and the temple and its rich and composite history must be conserved for the whole humanity who value the life and teachings of the compassionate one. Further studies and excavations in the premises may recover precious details regarding the Sramana past of Kerala and its democratic and egalitarian cultures.