Tag Archives: Neo Buddhism in Kerala

Pattanam: A Rupture in the Cultural History of Kerala

 

Pattanam excavation site, North Paravur, Ernakulam

On reading my article on Buddhism in Kerala on this very blog, Prof P J Cherian the director of Kerala Council for Historical Research invited me to visit the excavation site at Pattanam near North Paravur in Ernakulam district in central Kerala.

Prof P J Cherian, Director, KCHR talking to Sunderbabu and Laxman at Pattanam

It is in connection with the Muziris heritage project to re-invent and conserve the cultural history and archeological legacy of Kodungallur/Muchiri or Muziris that this extensive digging up is done in various locations on the northern side of the Vadakekara bridge towards the west of NH 17.

Strands of Kerala history: Tangible layers of various time periods at Pattanam excavation pit

Kerala’s historic connections with the rest of the world as far as Arabia,China,Rome and the Mediterranean  are unearthed through concerted and dedicated effort of KCHR under the leadership of Prof Cherian.  Researchers and expert students from various parts of the world including Britain are involved in the work in progress that began a couple of years ago.

Researchers from Oxford and Britian participating in Pattanam excavations

I visited Pattanam along with Prof Laxman of Madras Institute of Developmental Studies, Dr George K Alex of Kozhanchery St Thomas College and Dr Sundarbabu of Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, Mumbai.  We were together in an international colloquium on Caste, Religion and Culture at Kochi.

Local women involved in community based excavations at Pattanam

We reached Pattanam just a few miles north of Paravur that still spots its Jew street, cemetery and synagogue around 7am on the bright sunny morning of May 3, 2011.  Pattanam means port city in ancient Tamil and even in current Malayalam like Valapattanam in Malabar or Nagapattanam in Tamil Nadu.  Most of the old place names in Kerala that was part of the Chera kingdom of the ancient Tamil country were formed during the ancient Tamilakam era during or soon after the Sangham period (BC 5th to AD 5th centauy) that is known for ancient  Sramana Tamil epics Chilapatikaram and Manimekhalai.

Prof Cherian explaining the methodology to Laxman, Sunder and Alex. A researcher from Oxford involved in the right

Prof Cherian welcomed us and showed the details of excavations and allowed us to see and touch the strands of Kerala’s past that is preserved in the various layers of the soil in the pits.  He explained to us about iron based early human habitations here in the BC era.  According to him Jews reached these shores probably around first century BC and they could be the first converts to Christianity here.  The legend of St Thomas reaching Malankara in AD 52 could not be an impossibility according to him.  The myth of the first Brahman converts is clearly a later bogus fabrication by a threatened minority community under Brahmanical hegemony that persecuted minorities like Jains and Buddhists and annihilated them from the soil of Kerala for ever.

Students showing broken parts of Roman amphora to us and explaining its features at Pattanam

Then with the help of terracotta ware called Indian rouletted-ware  belonging to around fourth or third century BC  he explained that there was a  clear presence of Sramana groups and trading communities from the north from the third century BC onwards.   Brahmi script used to write on the terracotta ware in old Tamil language was introduced in south India by these Sramana or Chamana or Amana sages who reached the south with their trading and mercantile brethren.

Key to Kerala cultural history: Indian rouletted ware that marks Sramana presence at Pattanam

The Hindu daily has recently reported the finding of these earthen ware with the inscription in Brahmi Tamil script “Amana” meaning Sramana or Jain/Buddhist in origin.  It clearly establishes the fact that Kerala was civilized by Sramana sages in BC fourth/third century itself.

Mediterranean beads unearthed at Pattanam

This concrete historical and archeological evidences prove that the light of letters and ethics were spread among the people of south India by Buddhism and Jainism as early as fourth or third century BC against the Hindu hegemonic claims of Brahmanism civilizing Kerala in the seventh or eighth century AD.

Dedicated experts involved in patient and painstaking perusal and careful classification of thousands of potsherds everyday. Prof Cherian says "they don't lie..." about our pasts

Prof Cherian showed us small beads and Roman amphora and other vessels belonging to the Mediterranean lands.  The Vesuvian volcanic minerals in the potsherds are clearly visible even after 2000 years.  The bitumen coating in some of them are still intact and they belong to West Asia.  These handicrafts of clay from ancient civilizations never lie about their time and place according to Prof Cherian.  Chera coins with the impression of bow and arrow (symbolizing the Villava legacy) were also recovered from the site.  These findings establish the  historical validity of Sangham literature and early literary references in old Tamil regarding the cultural pasts of Chera land and the ancient Tamil country comprising Chola and Pandya kingdoms along with it.  After all we got vivid references of Muchiri from ancient Tamil epics.

Local people and workers active in the digging at Pattanam, Muziris.

This indeed is a break and rupture in Kerala’s cultural history and archeology.  It marks a moment of paradigm shift and radical departure for all who served the dominant and hegemonic Hindu Savarna or Brahmanical versions of the pasts of Kerala repressively established through epistemological violence and erasure and covet silence by some of the high priests, sacred ideologues and Savarna headmen who monopolized and policed speech, letters, politics and history in this small part of the world.

Abundance of potsherds and clay ware: Undeniable markers in archeology and history at Pattanam

Even the orthodox and official historians who are keeping mum would have to accept the concrete tangible evidences this excavation has rediscovered in an undeniable and profounder way.  Let us appreciate the phenomenal work materialized by KCHR under the leadership of Prof P J Cherian and friends.

Prof P J Cherian, Director, KCHR leading the excavations at Pattanam and disseminating knowledge to the people and enlightening us on our cultural pasts and legacies

This radical moment prompts us to continue our search and excavations in other parts of Kerala especially in Cherthala and Alapuzha regions where the huge wooden ship was unearthed in similar attempts earlier.  The extensive archeological studies in Kuttanad and neighborhoods especially Karthikappally, Mavelikara, Karunagapally, Kayamkulam, Thotapally, Trikunapuzha, Aratupuzha regions would also produce valuable findings regarding the real and vital past of Kerala.

People digging up their own past erased by hegemony: Pattanam excavation as a break in Kerala's cultural history and archeology

The Government, departments concerned and other institutions in the field may address these key cultural tasks ahead with revitalized energy and ethical commitment to people and their lived history.  Let us recover our real history and make it visible and tangible for posterity.

Half buried and challenging: A terracotta vessel yet to be recovered from soil at Pattanam

Neo Buddhism in Kerala: The Legacy of Mithavadi C Krishnan

"Mithavadi" Charcoal on Paper by Ajay Sekher

Buddha was the first to question caste and Brahmanism in India in BC sixth century in north India.  He was also the first thinker and social reformer to challenge the authority of the Vedas the foundational texts of Hindu Brahmanism that established the Varna-caste system in the Indus and Gangetic planes soon after the devastation of the Dravidian Indus valley civilization around BC 1500.

The enlightened one included women and outcastes into his fold. The philosophy of love, non-violence and rationalism that he taught included millions in a an egalitarian way of life.  But unfortunately this ethical culture of non-violence that spread to the far corners of Asia to China, Japan and Korea was violently quelled by Brahmanical revivalism of the 8th and 9th centuries led by Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhava.  The persecution of Sramana Buddhists and Jains was a bloody example of Brahmanical Hindu barbarism that reinstated caste and untouchability in India.

Old Bodhi tree in ruins (left) and new one flourishing in Paran Square, Old residence of Mithavadi in Customs Road, Beach, Calicut (currently the property of Bhikshu Dharmaskand's family)

It was Dr B R  Ambedkar who radically reinterpreted the Buddha for the untouchable millions of India at the wake of the 20th century through his masterpiece Buddha and His Dhamma.   At the beginning of the 21st century dalit intellectuals like Kancha Ilaiah also acknowledged the signficance of the Buddha as a political philosopher and re-inaugurated the discourse of Asian enlightenment as a liberation ethics.

In Tamil Nadu Neo Buddhism was developed by Iyothee Thass and followers in early 20th century.  The recent work by Gail Omvedt Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste also enlivens this great epistemological debate in Indian history, society and politics.  In Kerala that has a long history of more than 1000 years of Buddhism from BC 3rd to AD 9th century the philosophy of ethics and enlightenment was revitalized by the leading players of Kerala renaissance including Sahodaran Ayyappan, Mithavadi C Krishnan, C V Kunhiraman, Justice Ayyakutty and others.

Location of Paran Square and Hall: Old home of Mithavadi in Customs Road, Beach, Calicut. Now with Dharmaskand's family

It was Mulur S Padmanabha Panikar the first major Avarna poet in Malayalam who translated the Dharmapada of Buddha into Malayalam straight from Pali original with the encouragement of Sahodaran in 1925 itself.  Sahodaran Ayyappan also prompted Justice Ayyakutty to attempt a second translation of the same later to popularize the word of Buddhism among people.  Through his speeches, editorials, verse and prose Sahodaran tirelessly campaigned for the propagation of Buddhist Dharma among the untouchable Avarna people of Kerala to ethically de-link them from the hierarchical and inhuman desire of caste and Hindu Brahmanism.  He radically reinterpreted his master Narayana Guru’s teaching as “No Caste, No Religion, No God for humans; But Dharma, Dharma and Dharma most appropriately and accordingly (in the enlightened way).”

Like Ambedkar, Sahodaran embraced Buddhism  along with Adv. C Krishnan at the Calicut (Kozhikode) residence of Mithavadi who actually organized a Mahabodhi Society and Buddha Mission at his residence in Customs Road near the beach highway in Calicut.  The place was named Paran Square and hall after his father and a legendary ancestor who was a fighter for just causes from his Changaramkumarath household at the southern margin of Malabar so close to Cochin in the old Ponnani taluk in Mullasery.

C Krishnan got the name Mithavadi after his journal.  It means an argumentative person adopting a middle way (in a Neo Buddhist sense).  C Krishnan was an argumentative Keralite in its most radical and emancipating sense.  Sahodaran was also known after his journal which means the brother who mixed with the dalits and was thus called Pulayan Ayyappan, a term of contempt by the elites which he accepted as an honorary degree. Sahodaran from Cochin and Mithavadi from Calicut were two powerful voices of the subaltern and the untouchable struggling people in Kerala during the renaissance.  The printing press and office of Sujananandini run by Paravur Kesavan Asan was burned by the Savarna henchmen of south Travancore during this early stage of anti-caste resistance in early 20th century .

Opening to other worlds: Calicut beach close to Mithavadi home

The residence of Krishnan at Calicut was a meeting place for all the cultural and political activists of his time.  Gandhi, Malavya, Annie Bessent and so many stalwarts had visited and spoken in Paran Hall.  It included a library, women’s club and auditorium in its prime.  It also housed the SNDP club of Calicut.  the Calicut Bank was also founded by C Krishnan nearby. One part of the complex also housed his Empire Press.

In the first week of April 2011 I visited the former residence of Mithavadi while attending the National Theatre Festival of Kerala 2011 at Calicut.  I always wanted to go and see his old residence and the historic Paran Square and the ancient Pipal which is directly propogated from the Bodhi tree from Gaya.  Some biographers also say that it was from the Pipal at Anuradhapura in Srilanka that was originally implanted there in BC forth century by the missionaries of Asoka who in tern took it from the seminal tree at Gaya beneath which Gautama got enlightenment.

Resonant with pasts: Mithavadi home today. Bhikshu Dharmaskand bought it in 1952 according to his daughters who currently posses it. Apl 2011

During the 1920s Mithavadi invited Buddhist monks from Srilanka to re-disseminate the gospel of Buddha in Kerala.  He was also part of the great conversion debate that shook the foundations of Hindu majoritarianism in Kerala during the renaissance social revolutions.  Sahodaran, C V and Mithavadi argued for conversion to Buddhism and it startled the orthodoxies and Brahmanical forces and persuaded them to share political power in some reluctant and compromised ways.

But still the Savarnas are chewing the cud of their medieval hegemony and golden past under the Brahman-Sudra nocturnal alliances (called Sambandham) in education and public service sectors.  They are assaulting the constitution and its spirit of inclusion and representation as materialized in the affirmative action policies called reservation almost every day in public spaces and government offices in covert and allusive ways. It is important to remember here that Ambedkar developed his philosophy of social democracy and inclusion from Buddhism that is the gravest critique of caste and Brahmanism in India.

Even the so called university educated young Savarnas are publically questioning the spirit of democracy and social justice in the streets.  In north it is visible in the form of anti Mandal fire dances and AIIMS mutinies sponsored by the Neo Brahmanic corporate lobbies against reservations.  But in Kerala the Savarna – Syrian monopoly groups are adopting covert and heinous means of assault against the dalits and OBCs in government and public aided educational institutions and offices.  The government aided educational institutions that run on public fund do not ensure representative inclusion of the people on whose taxes they survive.

In such contexts of growing hidden hegemony in public sphere it is vital to remember and uphold the spirit of the socio-cultural struggles and revolutions that democratized Kerala during the renaissance.  Temple entry and legislative reforms and civil rights moves were  direct outcomes of the great Neo Buddhist discourse in Kerala launched by the brave organic intellectuls mentioned above.  Neo Buddhism in Kerala was part of the cultural and emancipating politics of the bahujan leaders who used it effectively to subvert the pseudo spiritual monopolies and power centers of Hindu Brahmanism.

The place is now with the daughter of Bhikshu Dharmaskand a friend of C Krishnan.  The Paran Hall and buildings are gone.  So is the Buddha Vihara built by Mithavadi.  The ancient Pipal is decayed and in ruin but one more younger tree is flourishing fortunately for the occasional visitor or researcher.  According to the lady the Buddha idol and other belongings of C Krishanan are taken to Changaramkumarath near Guruvayur by his sons. I remember visiting the ancient household of Mithavadi a few years back.  The old mansion and small shrine of Paran the great ancestral warrior are still intact.

Mithavadi C Krishnan (1867-1938) was a High Court lawyer, a journalist, an editor, a banker, a social revolutionary, a rationalist, Neo Buddhist missionary and much much more.  He bought the Mithavadi journal and press in 1913 from Sivasankaran of Thalassery which was in crisis and developed it into a news daily of Avarnas and Thiyas in purticular from Calicut.  As a subject of British Malabar he got the opportunity for higher education which was then denied to Avarnas in Cochin and Travancore. The counter experience of Avarna’s like Dr Palpu in Travancore is remarkable here.

He used the breaks provided by English education and colonial legal system for the liberation of his fellow untouchables through his pen, press and platforms.  Along with Manjeri Rama Iyer he broke the restriction to use the public road near Calicut Thali temple on his horse carriage in 1917.  The excited people following him threw the blackened boards to the pond that prevented the entry of untouchables in public places.  This historic spatial reclamation by an Avarna could be compared to the 1917 inter dining at Cherayi organized by Sahodaran and the bullock-cart ride of Ayyankali that asserted the basic right to use public roads by the subaltern and the fundamental right and freedom of movement.

Apart from Ayyappan, C V Kunhiraman and T K Madhavan; Asan and Dr Palpu visited C Krishnan at his Calicut residence.  The SNDP club was inaugurated in October 1912.  In 1919 Narayana Guru appointed him as the authority of all his property and institutions at Aluva ashram.  He organized a huge Buddhist public meeting on 19 February 1925 at Paran Square.  The Buddha Vihara and pagoda were inaugurated there on 16 May 1927.

Krishnan became one of the five editors of Yuktivadi (The Rationalist) magzine along with Sahodaran that opened up the rationalist and atheist discourse in Kerala in January 1929.  It was also part of their greater cultural politics for equality and social justice.   In the same year in October he also published his Buddha Tatva Pradeepam (Essays on the Theory of Buddha). He also played a vital role in passing the Malabar Tenants Bill in Madras Legislative Assembly on 18 November 1930 which proved to be highly beneficial for just land reforms.

C Krishnan was in constant touch with the leaders of Tamil Nadu like the head of Justice party Dr T M Nair.  He was also a member of Justice party and became the chairman of South Indian Liberal Federation that fought Brahmanism and Savarna hegemony in public life and institutions. Mithavadi offers exquisite models and strategies for writers, media persons and cultural activists who are interested in socio cultural intervention and change.

Reference

Kaumudi: Mithavadi C Krishnan Edition. Trivandrum: Oct-Dec. 2007.

Mulur. Dharmapadam (Malayalam).  Elavumthitta:  Mulur Smaraka Committee, 1998.

Ilaiah. Post Hinduism.  New Delhi: Sage, 2009.

http://mithavadi-ckrishnan.blogspot.com/