Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Kocchu Karyangallude Tamburaan

Another blog that owes its existence to comments by Kuts and the whole train of thought set off by Narayanan's recounting of Kerala history.

Narayanan and I got into this discussion about how pervasive Hindu (for want of a better label) symbolism had become in Kerala. “'God’s own country'” was once the bastion of '“the most excellent law,”' he said.

In case you did not get that bit, Buddhism is also called the faith of “the most excellent law.”

This came as a revelation to me – for having spent most of my life in Bombay, I am not particularly aware of the rest of the country. Sensing a hesitation, Narayanan began plying me with examples.

“"What do you know of Karumadikuttan?”"

"That, he is an especially dark-skinned boy?”"

He brushed aside my attempt at corny humour.

"“Karumadikuttan, is a statue of Buddha near Ambalapuzha. It is at least ten centuries old. And it is not the only marker Buddhism left behind.”"

He went on to list a litany of objects and edifices, most of which I don’t remember (a couple of neat Bacardis can do that to you). But he did provide the spark that lit the fuse.

My search led me to see the history of Kerala, and indeed Western and Southern India, in a very different light.

Among the first truly organized theological groups to reach, what is today Kerala, were the Jains. They predated the Buddhist missions of Emperor Ashoka by at least a hundred and fifty years.

Jainism’s big push south came around 300 BC, under the patronage of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 BC) and a Jain monk - Bhadrabahu. Jainism, apparently had a strong and broad-based following. Many Hindu temples in Kerala today, began their life as Jain shrines ostensibly.

The chief prathista of Kudalmanikkam Temple near Irinjalakuda in Trissur District is for all intents and purposes is Lord Rama`s younger brother Bharata. However, I’ve read that it was originally a shrine dedicated to Bharateshwara, a Jain saint. A Bhagavati Kshetram near Perumbavur still features the carved images of Paraswanta, Mahavira and Padmavati.

Buddhism formally came to the South of India through the missions sent out by Emperor Ashoka. The Emperor`s son Mahindra headed a Buddhist mission to Sri Lanka. For more than 700 years, Buddhism flourished in Kerala. The Paliyam Copper plate of the Ay King, Varaguna (885-925AD) shows that at least in South Kerala, Buddhists continued to enjoy royal patronage well until 1000 AD.

They say, there is ample archeological evidence that many Hindu temples were once Buddhist shrines. Among the ones counted on this list are Vadakkunathan Khsetram in Trissur and the Kurumba Bhagawathi temple in Kannur. Buddhist statuary and iconography have been discovered in close proximity of Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In the coastal districts of Kerala, especially Allapuzha, they are unearthed with alarming frequency. This is also the seat of Karumadikuttan.

Almost every town with the word “pally (palli)” attached to its name was almost certainly a Buddhist center. The word palli is associated with the Christian church in Kerala today, but the word has its origin in the Buddhist word for a center of learning. Hence the persistence of names like Pallikudam, Kanjirappalli and Villiappally.

So what caused Jainism and Buddhism to disappear? The Hindu Revival championed by Adi Shankara is of Kaladi is offered as the primary reason.

But, that is a simplistic answer. Over a period Buddhism lost its royal patrons, who likely switched their allegiance to Hinduism. Maybe the royals resented the growing economic power of the monks, or the fact that the lands belonging to the monasteries could not be taxed or simply that they represented an alternate powerbase. Whatever the reason, by the turn of the first millennium, Hinduism was on the resurgence in Kerala.

History offers a date around 700-800 AD for the arrival of Vedic Brahmins in Kerala. They travelled along the West coast, likely by invitation from a Kadamba King. The name of King Udaya Varman of Mooshika dynasty is associated with the settling of 237 Brahmin families in Kerala. One lore recounts how six outstanding Brahmins defeated Buddhist monks in public debates and established the intellectual supremacy of Hinduism. Tales of the genius of Shankaracharya also serve to reinforce the legend of “superiority.”

By this time Hinduism also found powerful patrons in the Kulashekara kings of the Second Chera Empire. The royal patronage of Brahmins brought about radical changes in the social, political and cultural landscape of Kerala.

Communities living on the soil like the Ezhavas, most likely Buddhists once, were absorbed into Hindu fold. The Ezhavas are themselves a very interesting people. Until the advent of Hindu revival and the emergence of Nairs, they were the dominant social group in Kerala. They were originally immigrants from Ezham, (Tamil for island) likely Sri Lanka. The original sons of the soil, were no doubt, buried under tons of soil, or lots of toil in any event.

Returning to our story – the old Gods were not thrown away. Those that could be, were co-opted into the emerging Hindu fold like Bharateshwara and numerous Bhagavatis. Others objects of worship like the Sarpangal and Bhramharakshas were relocated away from temples and outside the Pradikshina-patham, but were still revered and paid homage to.

With established social mores and a system of education hard-wired into the social structure, the Buddhists were not a walkover. For almost a thousand years they had provided religious and social guidance to the people. Buddha (and Buddhist ideals) continued to be worshipped for a while. Even today, say some, Sastha or Ayyappa, is a Hindu veneer on Buddha. It is easy to make that leap - Swami Sharanam sounds remarkably like Buddham Charanam!

(Caveat: Most of the information here is from what I have read (online, books and journals), and the jottings I have made over the months from talking to people who seem to know a great deal about this issue. I make no claims about its source or accuracy – just my take on how I have come to understand my slice of history. And yes, I apologize for the rip off title. Apologies to Arundhati Roy.)