Buddha Poornima at Thirunavaya

Super Moon of Buddha Poornima 2012 reflected in river Perar or Nila at Thirunavaya. May 6, 2012

The full moon day of Vaisakha is celebrated in all the Asian countries as the birthday of the Buddha.  Vaisakha Paurnami or Buddha Poornima is conceived as representing the birth, enlightenment and the passing away of the compassionate one.  It was a lifetime opportunity for me to watch the super moon of 2012 Buddha Poornima, rise in the eastern horizon on the banks of the Nila or ancient Perar.  Coincidentally I witnessed the unusually big moon at Thirunavaya on the northern bank of the river while returning from the ancient port city of Ponnani that forms the mouth of the river Perar where it drains into the mighty Arabian Sea.

Nila or Perar at Thirunavaya. Early 2012

Thirunavaya is known for its religious and historical significances.  It is the location of the ancient carnival called Mamankam.  In the middle ages it deteriorated into a bloody feud between the Zamorin of Calicut and the Valluva Konathiri or Vellatiri of Valluvanad.  But before the 10th century it was a great cultural and spiritual festival related to the Sramana democratic traditions of ancient Kerala.  Historians like P K Gopalakrishnan, Velayudhan Panikkassery and V V K Valath argue that it was a great Buddhist festival originally called Mahamargolsavam.  Maha Margam is nothing but the way of the Buddha or the Dhama Pada.

But after the Brahmanic take over and spiritual hijacking that happened between the sixth and ninth centuries it degraded into a petty competition between the regional local chieftains resulting in bloody duels and the massacre of the suicidal militia called Chaver. The barbarism and violence involved in the establishment of the Savarna Brahmanical high culture in Kerala could be read in the vulgar decadence of this ancient carnival in Kerala.  The well used to dump the bodies of the militia (Mani Kinar), the platform used by the kings (Nilapadu Thara) and the Changampally Kalari (school of martial arts) are still surviving here.

Buddha Poornima or Vaisakha Paurnami an image of the birth, enlightenment and Mahaparinibana/demise of the Buddha

Thirunavaya is also associated with the transition from Sramana culture to Brahmanical one.  Keralolpathy and other Brahmanical texts testify that it was here that the Buddhists were defeated in verbal combats and their texts burned and tongues cut by the pedantic perverts of  elite barbarism.  Radical Malayalam scholars like P Pavithran argue that the ‘Nava’ reference in the place name is linked to this hoary episode in Kerala history.  Conventional interpretations associate it with the Navagraha Yogis who performed the installation in the Navamukunda temple.  Some versions also talk about the repetition of the installation that happened nine times .  Whatever may be the etymological root of the place name it is inextricably linked to the cultural pasts of Kerala.  The pulled or plucked tongue of the Chamana become a key icon of cultural hegemony and the resistance of the silenced.

Thirunavaya offers the best views of Nila or Perar.  The Mamankam memorials and the old temples make it a historically and architecturally rich cultural location. I had a long and enlightening conversation with Mr Rajiv, a police officer who patrols the region as illegal sand mining is ruining the river and the ecology.  We talked about the early human settlements and civilizations on the banks of the Perar and ventured deep into the history and cultural pasts of the region.  We watched the super moon climbing like poetry in the dark blue canvas of the starry night.  It was a great and meaningful dialogue with a sensitive and informed fellow being and we really enjoyed the time. When we parted it was almost 9pm and I rode to Kuttippuram, five kilometers east, where I am currently residing in a rented quarters.


Mamankam and Changampally Kalari: Ancient Practices of Healthcare and Martial Arts in Kerala

Mamankam memorial: Changampally Kalari near Thirunavaya

The healthcare and self defense practices  of Ayurveda and Kalari in Kerala are of Buddhist origin.  They are lasting legacies of Buddhism in Kerala as literacy and the general  intellectual culture. The Avarna communities like Ezhavas constitute the chunk of its practitioners traditionally and even in the present.  Vagbhata and Nagarjuna who developed this indigenous practice of medicine were Buddhist monks who did missionary work in south India.

Pazhuka Mandapam near Navamukunda temple, Thirunavaya on the banks of Nila

Even in 18th century, at the peak of Brahmanical untouchability and exclusion on caste lines, the Dutch appointed an Ezhava medic, Itty Achuthan of Kadakarapally near Cherthala to write the famous Hortus Malabaricus.  Even today one of the ancient Kalaris surviving in Kerala like Cheerapanchira in Alapuzha district, that trained the legendary Ayyappan of Sabarimala, belongs to an Avarna  Ezhava household.

Manikinar: well used to dump the Chaver, Thirunavaya

Changampally Kalari in Thirunavaya in Malapuram district is associated with Mamankam, the martial carnival that settled the succession disputes in ancient Kerala once in every 12 years.  Historians like Velayudhan Panikasery argue that the festival is of Buddhist origin.   Initially it was a great cultural and trade festival of human interaction on the banks of the great Perar or Bharathapuzha just above the ancient port city of Ponnani where trade and passenger ships from across the world anchored in the calm waters of the inland port.

Nilapadu Thara: vantage used by the Konathiries and Zamorins

Anyway the Changampally household was appointed in charge of the Kalari here by the Zamorin of Calicut in the middle ages according to local legends.  The family has converted to Islam in the 18thcentury during the Mysore occupation.  When I visited the Kalari in early February 2012, Mr Jaffar Gurukal who is running an Ayurvedic centre near the ancient Kalari told me that before conversion they were Tulu Brahmans.  This could be an elitist assimilation or fabrication done later under the hegemony of Brahmanical values; as Tulu Brahmans are never identified as traditionally having martial Kalari practice or institutions in Tulunadu or down south. Almost all Kalari households in Tulunadu and Malabar belonged to Sudra and Avarna communities.

Carving in Changampally Kalari

The Changam and Pally words in their house name are marked key words associated with Buddhism.  Changam or Chingam represent Chamana or Amana or Sramana culture as in Chinga Vanam or Changanassery (place names in Kottayam district).  As Sramana culture is inseparable from the month of Chingam and the great secular egalitarian festival of Onam in Kerala, the words Changam/Chingam and Pally/Pilly are also inextricably linked to the Buddhist past of Kerala  that is the foundation of egalitarian culture here, that was erased by Brahmanism after the 8th century.

It is great to see the ancient Kalari shrine and surroundings and the Mamankam sites being preserved by the Government and the people.  An apt museum and interpretation centre that could educate the people on their rich cultural traditions can be an added attraction here.  The road from Thirunavaya to Kuttipuram is also in good condition.  The Nila Park just below the Kuttipuram bridge about which poets like Idassery have written is also luring visitors.  I found a large group of Small Pratincoles on the sandy flats of the river near the park as the sun was setting beyond the river and into the trees.