Architectural and Iconographic Relics of Buddhism in Kerala

Like a floating pagoda: Ananthapura temple Kasaragod
Like a floating pagoda: Ananthapura temple, Kasaragod

Most of the temples that are a thousand years old are modified Buddhist temples in Kerala.  According to historians Brahmanism came and converted the temples from 8th to 16th centuries.  Buddhism and Jainism came to south India as early as BC 3rd century and established the early Sramana civilization of Kerala that was casteless and democratic.  They also spread literacy and scripts in ancient Tamilakam.

Gautamapuram temple Kottayam
Gautamapuram temple, Kottayam

Pali, Sanskrit, Ayurveda, Vasthuvidya, Visual arts and music that flourished in Kerala were legacies of Buddhism and Jainism.  Kerala gave birth to some of the leading intellectuals of Buddhism including architects, astrologers and medical practitioners.

A seated Boddhisatva on the wall of Ananthapura temple
A seated Boddhisatva on the wall of Ananthapura temple

A Sreedhara Menon in his official History of Kerala observes that the present Hindu temples in Malabar resemble the architectural style of Sramana temples (Menon 99).  The temples of Kasaragod show this remarkable similarity and the missing link.  In his linguistic and cultural analytical work Budddh’s Footprints, Prof. P O Purushothaman through his linguistic archeology affirms that all the ancient monuments of worship in Kerala were originally related to Buddhism and Jainism ( Purushothaman 50-51).

Seema Malaka lake temple, Srilanka
Seema Malaka lake temple, Srilanka

 Ananthapura temple near Kumbala looks exactly like a Buddhist lake temple.  Its replicas could be found all over Asia as far as China, Japan, Korea and Thailand.  The reliefs on the wall of the shrine also show some Buddhist motifs including the figures of Boddhisatvas, though slightly modified many times in the last millennium during the renovations.

Kilirur temple shrine housing Buddha relief
Kilirur temple shrine housing Buddha relief, in Gaja Prishta style (simple)

The legend that associates this temple with Padmanabha temple,Thiruvananthapuram also proves the Buddhist past of this temple as Padmanabha temple was a Buddhist temple before the 8thcentury.  A reclining Padmapaani (lotus in hand) Buddha idol was modified into a Padmanabha (lotus from the navel) Vishnu icon (Ayyappan, Jayaprakas, Jose).

Gaja Prishta style: Madhur temple, Kasaragod

The ancient practice of keeping the crocodile in the pond also enacts the conservationist spirit of Buddhism that established hospitals even for animals and birds as testified by the second edict of Asoka in which Kerala is mentioned in connection with wild life conservation. The word Anantha found in both place names could be a later modification of Aananda (Buddha’s foremost disciple and also the Buddhist concept of “bliss and joy”).  Any way the temple even today looks exactly like a Japanese lake temple or a floating Korean Buddhist pagoda.

Ananthapura temple, Kasaragod

The Hindu temples at Adur and Madhur in Kasaragod district also show marked architectural affiliations to Buddhist and Jain monuments.  The three-tiered sanctorum in Gaja Prishta style in both the temples; is often linked to the Sramana architectural style by archeologists (Sarkar 23).  The same Gaja Prishta (elephant butt) style is also surviving in many other Hindu temples with Buddhist past as in Kilirur temple in Kottayam in south Kerala.

Adur temple, Kasaragod. Gaja Prishta style

A close comparative study of the ancient monuments in Kerala reveals the fact that the temple architecture and ritual practices were appropriated from the Sramana traditions of Jainism and Buddhism.  Religion, power and politics were misused for this take over by the forces of internal imperialism.

Buddha recovered at Pallikal Bharanikavu, Kayamkulam. C. 7th century AD

 Cheat, usurpation, violence and unimaginable barbarism were also employed for this erasing act. But somehow it is still violently re-enacted in carnivals like Kodungallur Bharani in which low castes are given one-day license to invade and pollute the shrine after drunken and obscene parleys.  The altars inside the present shrine still shows the lotus carvings that prove that it was the seat of a Buddhist idol, says experts (Valath).

Buddha as Krishna in Kilirur temple, Kottayam

Brahmanism with the help of tribal chieftains, servile militia and petty kings converted these temples around 8th and 9thcenturies.  The partially damaged Buddhist idols and Jain reliefs recovered from central and south Kerala testify this bloody and fierce invasion that subverted the ethical and egalitarian democratic culture of Kerala that began in BC third century with the arrival of Sramana monks.

A Japanese Buddhist shrine in a pond of white lotuses

But the lasting imprints of the Sramana culture are still tangible and visible in the folk as well as classical architecture and ritualistic practices all over Kerala in connection with ancient temples and carnivals (Valath).  The Mamankam of Thirunavaya, Kettukazhcha of horses and oxen found in Thrissur and Kollam, Annamkettu and Paravathookam of Kottayam and Alapuzha districts are all abiding articulations of the ancient Sramana democratic culture of Kerala.

Mavelikara Buddha idol. c. 8th century AD
Mavelikara Buddha idol. c. 8th century AD


Ayyappan, A.  “Padmanabha Vigraham.”   Mathrubhumi Weekly.  April 8, 1984.

Jayaprakas, M S.  Padmanabha Kshetra Vivadam.  Trivandrum: BSP, 2011.

Jose, Dalitbandhu N K.  Sripadmanabha Kshetranidhi Arutethu?  Trivandrum: Bahujan Vartha,  2011.

Menon, Sreedhara.  Kerala Charithram.  Kottayam: DCB, 2010.

Purushothaman, P O.  Buddhante Kalpadukal.  Kottayam: Current Books, 2006.

Sarkar.  Temple Architecture in Kerala.  Trivandrum:  Govt of Kerala,1998.

Valath, V V K.  Thrissur Jilla.  Thrissur: Kerala Sahitya Akademi, 2008.

Royalists Disguised as Civil Society: Padmanabha Temple Disclosure — Exclusive Essay by J Reghu

Translated from Malayalam by Ajay Sekher


Ancient elephant sculpture of Asokan Gajotama by the temple pond Padma Teertha Kulam at Tvm Padmanabha shrine.

If public education is the priority and yardstick of the welfare aspirations of a princely state; historical records prove that Trvancore was not a welfare state.  From its inception in 1750 Travancore’s main expenditure was on rituals to appease the Brahmans.  The self legitimizing crisis of a Sudra dynasty resulted in the dedication of the kingdom to Sri Padmanabha and the subservient status of the king.  The kingdom  of Orissa was submitted to lord Jagannath of Puri.  The kings of Orissa called themselves the ‘sweepers of Jagannath’.

Marthanda Varma the ruler of Venad hailing from Sudra origins aggressively invaded and conquered the neighboring Sudra feudal lords of southern Kerala in the early 18th century and enlarged the small province of Venad to the kingdom of Travancore.  The only means of getting the moral sanction and legitimization of the priestly Brahmans to overrule the kingdom as a sovereign was to submit it to Sri Padmanabha.  The lack of Kshatriya status by birth that was supposed to legitimize their ascension from local chieftains to kings made them fear their own self assumed kingly identity.

Establishing their royal identity through the Brahmanic sanction of their ‘symbolic Kshatriya status’ became their sole aim ever since.  That is why they were forced to hoard unlimited wealth for the symbolic Kshatriya ascension rituals in the temple carried out by the Brahmans.  The rituals that began as Hiranya Garbham and Murajapam were further extended to Shodasa Dana and Free meals for Brahmans by the priestocracy gradually.  Sixteen types of Dana or gifts were established for the Brahmans in addition to permanent free meal serving halls.  Kunchan Nambiar the early poet in Malayalam satirically critiqued this everyday free feasts exclusively served to the Brahmans in the capital utilizing public revenue.  In short the kingly state of Travancore became a kingdom of Brahman worship and Brahman donation.

It became the burden of the kings to accumulate and hoard wealth for these unlimited donations and services to the Brahmans that grew day by day.  Discursive contexts of Brahmanism interpreted the gifts and donations to the Brahman as the supreme charitable and moral act of religious exaltation.  Brahman’s also proclaimed the king of Travancore “Dharma Raja” as the dynasty dedicated the whole wealth of a vast kingdom at their service.  As the land became Dharma Rajya the kings automatically turned to mere overseers of the Brahmanic kingdom and wealth.  Even the official historian P Sankunni Menon had to raise the question that instead of spending huge revenue to such rituals Travancore must spend public revenue for public works and public education.  A Sreedhara Menon also makes it clear that the state income was mostly used for the welfare of the Brahmans in Trivandrum District Gazetteer (page 202-03).

The kings were ensuring Brahmanic sanction and thereby the Dharmasastra legitimacy to the kingdom through this acts of devotion to the lord Sri Padmanabha and the lords of the land or Bhudevas, the Brahmans.  This historic background differentiates Travancore from other princely states and Sri Padmanabha temple from other temples.  On the one hand Travancore kingdom became the temporal domain of Sri Padmanabha and on the other hand the temple became the spiritual domain of the kingdom.   The material existence of the temple became inevitable for the rule of the kings and the regime became religious.  The rule of the kings in Travancore became a rule done for the temple and in its name.  This religious regime could be termed as a Padmanabha Dharma.  It represented a mutual symbiotic bond in which the state was merged in the temple and the temple in the state.  It also shows that as the temple has rights and claims over the state; the state in turn holds rights and claims over the temple.

P Sankunni Menon writes about the last decree of Marthanda Varma in 1758.  “The kingdom dedicated to the lord must not be taken back on any ground.  Conquered land must be dedicated to the lord in future as well.  All the financial assistances to the temple and related institutions must be continued unhindered” (History of Travancore, 136).  The kingdom and all its properties and assets were made the property of the temple and its deity (Bhandaram Vaka in Malayalam).  That is why the royal officials were called Pandaram Karyakar.  Even the border check posts and provinces were called Mandapathum Vathukal  (entrance to the divine domain)as they were the premises of the temple.    Political power and religious power became inseparable in Travancore. So was the interconnection between the state and the temple.  It became a new structural re-adjustment of the old temple centered social set up established by Brahmanism in Kerala soon after the beginning of the common era.  The monarchy of Travancore self defined and legitimized itself not through any royal power but through Sri Padmanabha.  They defined themselves as the worldly representatives and agents of Padmanabha as the Orissa kings called themselves the sweepers of lord Jagannath.   Thus the kings of Travancore were mere Muktiar kings or surrogate kings. So to whom was this Muktiyar kingdom handed over; the land and assets must also be handed over to them.

The servitude imagined in the name of Sri Padmanabha (Sri Padmanabha Dasyam) for the legitimization of Sudra power by Brahmanical Dharmasastra proved nasty to the people of Travancore.  Their money was looted to feed the priestocracy.  The political power gained by Marthanda Varma the king of Sudra origin could not gain the ‘legitimate’ status of Kshatriya power without the priestly/divine sanction of the Brahmans.  So the chief effort of these kings was to collect wealth for the rituals like Hiranya Garbham and Murajapam.  The ritual of Murajapam that included the chanting of Veda mantras by the Brahmans lasted for 56 days in a stretch.  For each king of Travancore who travelled between ‘real’ Sudra-hood and ‘seduced/imagined’ Kshatriya status there was no other way but to rely on the Brahmans for self justification.   The spiritual servitude called Padmanabha Dasyam became Brahman servitude in social sphere.   The absolute servitude or docility to Brahmans and their moral edicts persuaded Brahmans to confer the status of Dharma Rajya to Travancore.  The words of the king Visakham Tirunal testifies it:  “Travancore is the most priestly princely state in India and the king is in a dependent position too often” (Visakham Tirunal, “A Native Statesman”, Calcutta Review, LV, 1872, P. 251).

The lack of ethics in the Dharma Rajya (literally the kingdom of ethics and morality) was first exposed during the invasion of Tipu Sultan of Mysore.  The Sultan had to build new roads for the movement of the troops as there were no public roads in Kerala during those days (late 18th century).  The people engulfed and enslaved in a hegemonic ‘secure’ life under the grip of the all pervasive and omnipotent caste ridden villages never felt the need for roads and mobility under the stale stasis of caste and Varna established in south India by Brahmanism.  Basic and essential living amenities like roads, schools and hospitals emerged in Travancore only during the proxy rule of the British.  Though the kings of Travancore decided to start vernacular schools in 1817 under the influence of the British it was not effectively implemented for a long time.  By the latter half of the 19th century the British tried to intervene in a bold way in Travancore against the irresponsible and anti people policies and governance of the state.  Madhav Rao who was western educated was brought to the state as Diwan or chief minister for the purpose.  Public works department, hospitals and modern educational institutions were started during his rule.  The criticism that the Dharma Rajya or ethical state was not that ethical came to the forefront during the same age.

Travancore had to wait till the British reforms to realize that the monarchical rule legitimized in the name of Sri Padmanabha was a public extravagance.    The ideological and ethical value sphere required to critically evaluate the rule of the kings was literally absent in the Travancore tradition till then.  Therefore this concealed collection of gold is an evidence of the helpless inferiority of the innate Sudra-hood of the monarchy.

How could Travancore that was a small princely state got this much huge a collection of wealth?  In the absence of proper records and documented history some assumptions are only possible.  One; the wealth plundered from other neighboring states during the invasions of Marthanda Varma had been kept in the temple.  Two; Gold collected and kept from the levies and taxes related to exports of spices and other commodities like pepper had gone to the temple reserve.  Three; the major chunk of public income from various taxes had gone to the temple reserve.  If it was used to improve the material conditions, for welfare acts and public amenities such a huge dead reserve could not have lasted.

The historical fact that even during the hard days and famines of the first world war such a reserve of wealth and money was never utilized even to feed the hungry subjects  exposes the true colors of the ‘commitment’ of the royal dynasty of Travancore towards the people.  The Dharma Rajya was governed and maintained by forcing the Avarna majority to work without wages (Uzhiyam Vela) and by barbarically collecting inhuman taxes like Tax for Head (Tala Karam) and Tax for an Avarna woman’s breast (Mula Karam).  The Avarna resistance movements against such dehumanizing taxes and caste slavery are illuminating episodes in the creation of modern Kerala.

The history of the Travancore dynasty that experienced Kshatriya status only through Brahman servitude is also the history of anti people and anti Bahujan repressive regime.  The heap of gold coins in the darker dungeons under the Padmanabha temple is also a golden testimony to the unethical limits of the misrule of a dynasty.  The ‘heritage’ status of this collection is also the same.  Now the royal family is praised for its ‘honesty’ in not taking away this wealth.  How can a dynasty that considered Padmanabha Dasyam and Brahman servitude as their integral royal identity take away this wealth?  Because one who becomes a docile slave or Dasa ‘dies’ in the social sense.  Only the master or ‘sovereign’ is truth and real existence.  For a royal dynasty that has immersed into the social existence of the sovereign lord there is no independent existence and social identity either.

Only the master is capable of stealing the gold.  The kings of Travancore traditionally denied themselves such a subjectivity through their generations of slavery to the sovereign lord.  The slightest provocation to the Brahman is equal to withdrawal of the charity of ‘Kshatriya’ status themselves.  The heap of gold in the temple was a consolation for these kings against the haunting ‘inferiority ‘caused by the Sudra-hood of their birth.  Who will try to destroy the consolation centers that one has?

It is interesting to note that the people at the helm of a social organization that carries the name of Narayana Guru  who gave socio cultural direction and spiritual  guidance to the people’s resistance against caste and dogmatic religious elitism have come out in public as the advocates of a temple that was the spiritual symbol of a princely state that was gifted to the lords of the land (Bhudeva or Brahman).  It shows the socio political decadence of that organization and the community.  Not just temples but even public roads and schools were denied to them in the name of this lord Padmanabha, and they were casted away from his vicinity and premises as flees and humiliated on a daily basis in the name of their caste by the close associates of this Padmanabha for whom they argue so spiritedly today.  If People lacking basic historical literacy and education come to the top of such social organizations the decadence is going to increase.

All sections of the society have equal rights in expressing their opinion on matters of history related to a geographical region and society comprising of Hindus, Muslims and Christians.  At least in theory the Travancore kings were the rulers of all their subjects comprising of various religious minorities as well!   If they have submitted their kingdom to Sri Padmanabha it also means that they have submitted the people their subjects and their assets as well.

The subjects of Padmanabha Dasa (slave of Padmanabha) are subjects of Padmanabha too.  Therefore the place of Sri Padmanabha temple is in the public sphere of Travancore and Kerala at large.  The asset of an institution in the public sphere is public asset.

Historically and archeologically valid objects in the collection must be conserved and the rest must go to the material assets and public wealth of Kerala.  The enlightened Kerala must refute the claims by the royalist devotees who are disguised as civil society.

             Translated from Malayalm by Dr Ajay Sekher.                                           Courtesy:       Madhyamam daily