I revisited the Changaram Komarath household of Mitavadi in early April 2013 after almost four years. Though I had read a lot on Mitavadi and his counter hegemonic struggles against caste and untouchability from my early doctoral research stage in 2002 onwards, I first visited the place in 2009 while teaching briefly in an Engineering college at Thrissur. This ancient household is in Thrissur district of Kerala near Guruvayur, close to Mullassery junction. The remaining block of the old Ettukettu and the family shrine is still preserved by the current generation but it requires further care and larger support.
I was lucky to meet a few senior members from the family and they explained the family tree and the past. The family shrine in which the ancestors are worshiped as Achan is still used for prayers on a daily basis. There is a huge Pipal and a small pond before it on the eastern side. The old house in which Narayana Guru rested while he visited Changaram Komarath is still intact.
The senior members narrated the story of the struggles of the Avarna for human rights and equality that continued till the mid 20th century against the popular misconception of Malabar being delivered from caste by Tipu’s rule and the British rule in mid 18th century. Though they were the leading tax payers and regional supremos they were not allowed to use the roof tiles till 1903 for being the Avarnas. Till then coconut leaf thatches were used for a few Ettukettus in the family at Mullasery.
Though they were having their own temple at the household, as untouchables they were not allowed to stand before the doorway of their own family shrine and salute the deity and were forced to bow before a different stone installed towards the north east of the actual shrine. Bowing the deity directly was a taboo for the outcastes. Though the region was under Mysore and the British from mid 18th century heinous caste discrimination and untouchability practices continued till the mid 20th century; testify the elders of the family.
There is no wonder that an English educated and ethically inclined C Krishnan (1867-1938) as a lawyer and human rights champion (he was an M L C in the British Madras Province of Malabar) established his own press and daily called Mitavadi in Malabar. As his bosom friend Sahodaran he also became renowned after his journal. His father Mr Paran was also supportive in this early journalistic endeavor as part of the renaissance struggles in Kerala under the visionary leadership of Narayana Guru and intellectual and cultural camaraderie of socio political stalwarts like Sahodaran and C V Kunjiraman from Kochi and Travancore respectively. Mitavadi, Sahodaran, Muloor and Bhikshu Dharmaskand were instrumental in initiating the neo Buddhist discourse in Kerala. They founded the Mahabodhi society and Buddha Vihar in customs read near the beach in Calicut in early 20th century.
The Changaram Komarath house proclaims its ancient origin with its very name. Changaram is a recurrent affix in place names and family names in Kerala as in Changaram Kulam north of Kunnam Kulam or the widespread family name Changaram Kandath existing in Thrissur district. It is a regional modification of Changam or Sangham. Komarams are the ancient south Indian oracles. Changaram can also be a derivation of Sangha Arama the sacred groves in the memory of Buddhist nuns now called Kavu. The location of the Komaram or oracle in the Sangharama is shortly termed as Changaram Komarath. The inherent link of the family to Buddhism is evident from this family name as in Changampally family north of the Perar. The forced and farfetched Sanskritized interpretation of Changaram as Sankaram by the Savarna forces is a post Hinduization trend. Also there is a current Hinduized way of etymologically connecting Komaram with Kumaram. Both these derivations are baseless as exemplified by place names like Komarakam, Komaranellur etc.
More over a few miles north east of Mullassery an ancient Tali temple is surviving. Tali temples were originally Buddhist, before the 8th century. When Hindu Brahmanism took over they made it the centre of Brahmaswam regime. It then passed on to Azhvanchery Tampran in the early middle ages when caste system was established and is still with him. The Sery or Chery affix in Azhvanchery and also in Mullasery is a Pali word.
According to the OED, Sery or Chery (lamasery) means the abode of the lamas or Buddhist monks. This word came to English and French from Pali (through Tibetan perhaps) and was pointed out to me by a local historiographer Mr P S Sugathan from Kodungallur who is working on his new book on Buddhism in Kerala. Mr Sugathan’s ancient household in Kodungallur is called Panikasery.
From these linguistic evidences sustaining in place names and family names it can be seen that not just the Ezhava households but even the Azhavanchery Tampran’s family were originally Buddhists before the 8th century. Those who submitted to Vedic Brahmanism were made into Savarna Tampurans or lords and those who never submitted to Hindu Brahmanism or the Vedic hegemony were casted away as the untouchables or Avarnas.
The caste Tamprans made Kerala into a lunatic asylum as acknowledged by a Hindu sage Vivekananda himself in early 20th century and it required the collective struggles of generations of Avarnas to materialize the Kerala renaissance that liberated modern Kerala from the clutches of the self fashioned caste Tamprans and feudal lords.
Mitavadi C Krishnan was in the forefront of anti Tampran or anti caste democratic struggles within the broader movement of the grass root level cultural politics unleashed by Narayana Guru and his disciples like T K Madhavan, Sahodaran, C V Kunjiraman, Murkoth Kumaran, C Kesavan and others. The current family generations are trying their best to preserve this common cultural heritage of Kerala. It is high time that the people and their elected governments who are interested and committed to Kerala renaissance and anti caste struggles that formed the ethical foundations of modern Kerala come together and protect and preserve the ancient Changaram Komarath house of Mitavadi for posterity.
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.