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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Buddhism and Jainism in Kerala

The Vedic people worshipped the panchatatvas (five elements) and offerings to the Fire Lord (Homa) was considered very sacred. The concept of a God with a form was something which came up later. The idols of Gods carved out of stone or wood were initially sheltered under a tree. Trees were also considered sacred as we could find them on the reverse of many of the ancient coins. The idea of providing a roof to the Lord began, with a flat roofed square structure for him to remain protected. Then there was an addition of a small Mandapa (porch) for the devotees to stand as a shelter from the Sun and the Rain. Such structures datable to around 3rd/4th Century AD are available at Tigawa near Jabalpur and Sanchi. Archaeologically they are the earliest available examples of Hindu temple architecture in India. Thereafter there started a developmental stage during which the temples grew in size and ornamentation came to its zenith during 10th and 12th centuries AD.

Many of the Hindu temples in Kerala are circular in shape. This has always been pricking me.The circular shape of Kerala temples definitely suggests some indigenous initiative or other external influence.

The great Chandra Gupta Mourya and the Jain Saint Bhadrabahu are supposed to have visited Karnataka during the 3rd Century BC. Jain missionaries are also said to have visited Tamilnadu. The great Ilango Adigal, the author of the Silpaddikaram, is believed to have been a Jain patron. It is well known that Kerala was under the suzerainty of Cheras. It was, therefore, easier for the Jains to seek immigration into Kerala.

Sravanabelagola in the state of Karnataka is one of the greatest centres of Jainism (Digambara) in South India even today. There are evidences of Jain influence penetrating to the South into Kerala. Kasargod which borders Karnataka could be cited as an example. At the nearby Manjeswaram there is a Chaturmukh (Sarvatobhadra) Jain temple. The idol (Pratima Sarvatobhadrika) has  four faces, that  of Adinath, Shantinath, Chandranath and Mahavira looking at the four directions. Another Jain structure is in Wayanad which was used by Hindus and later taken over by Tipu Sultan for housing his armory. This is known as Sultan Battery.

Coming still further down, at Irinjalakuda, the Koodalmanikyam temple is also believed to have been a Jain temple dedicated to their Saint Bharateswara. Presently it is a Hindu shrine with Bharata the brother of Lord Rama, in a standing posture inside. Strangely, there are no idols of any other gods in the periphery. Generally we come across lord Ganesha (Vinayaka) in every temple. Perhaps this is the only temple in the country dedicated to Bharata. Incidentally, we find temples of all the four brothers of the Ramayana epic around Thrissur.
Sultan Battery. The Wayanad area is still home to more than 200 Jain families. Another granite structure is at Jainimedu, Palakkad. It is 20' wide and 32' long housing Tirthankaras.

Within an hour's drive towards the South, at Methala, 13 km's from Perumbavoor, we come across the Kallil Bhagawathi temple. It is a cave temple with carvings of Parswanath, Mahavira and Padmavathi reckoned to be of the 9th Century AD!. Jain monks seem to have come to this place finding an atmosphere of peace and tranquility conducive to meditation.

Kallil Bhagawathi - Up the Hill

Here is a video of Kallil Bhagawathi Temple

Buddhists too would not have been left behind since Emperor Asoka (304-232 BC) wished his Dhammam to spread far and wide. It is well known that his own daughter Sanghamitra and son Mahamahinda led a mission to Sri Lanka. In his rock Edict No.13, he mentions Cholas and Pandyas as having been won with Dhamma (they became followers of the faith). Kerala (Chera) was not included. There is a mention of Keralaputra which he has described in his 2nd major rock Edict as falling on the frontiers of his empire. In this Edict he informs having provided for medical facilities to humans as also animals (really great!).
A large number of Buddha idols have been discovered in the coastal districts of Alapuzha and Kollam. A large statue of Buddha is also reported from Lakshadweep (Kavaratti). There still exists a Buddhist temple known as Karumadi Kuttan near Ambalapuzha (Video Link). It is also believed that Kuramba Bhagawathy temple at Kodungallur was a Buddhist shrine or Vihara. There are also claims that the Vadakunnathan Shiva temple at Thrissur too was a Buddhist enclave. Interestingly, parents of Adi Shankaracharya are said to have made offerings at this temple for getting a child. Thus there seems to be some inconsistency.

Shri Rajaram Menon from Kaviyoor in southern Kerala has informed that :
"There is a cave temple in the village dedicated to Shiva, but is believed to have been built by Budhist or Jain monks. The main temple, a km away from the cave temple - again dedicatd to Shiva- is about 1000 years old. The cave is said to be older than this. The rock is called Thri-kakudi-para. (Thri=Thiru, kakudi=kal kudi, kal=stone/rock, kudi=home or settlement, para=rock). There must have been a settlement around the caves too; there is a piece of land still known as kakudi, a few blocks away from the rock. The area behind N.S.S. School in the village is still known as 'pallippuram', obvious reference to Budhist centre of learning/vihara. No excavation has been done here. Atop a nearby hill (mathimala), a tall stone-resembling shiv linga-was found and is now kept before the main temple. This could probably be an incomplete work of Budhist monks.

From the Palliyan Copper Plate of Ay King Varaguna (885-925 AD) we learn that Buddhism continued to enjoy royal patronage even in the 10th century AD. However the Ay Kings were Hindus. There is a Copper Plate assignable to the 9th century AD which tells about the construction of a Shiva temple at Tripparappu near Kulasekharam by an Ay King Karunanandakan (Sreevallabhan). This copper plate was inscribed by one Avilandrakan. This dynasty was ruling the southern part of Kerala.
Kaviyoor, incidentally, is one of the 64 brahmin settlements linked to Parasurama.

The rock temple is in a state of disrepair, though taken over by the state government. Not much is known about the village's past.

There is another place nearby - Mallappally - which is also believed to have been a Budhist centre. This village is also about 12 km east of Vazhappally, another ancient Budhist settlement."

Historical events in the sub continent lend support to assume that Jains and Buddhists had a presence in Kerala even prior to the Christian Era. While Jains entered Kerala from the North, Buddhists, on the other hand, seem to have gained entry from the South. Their decline which started somewhere in the 8th Century AD is mainly attributed to influx of Brahmins from the North, advent of Shankaracharya and the revival of the Vedic Culture. Both the faiths were completely assimilated and merged with Hinduism. People were back into the Hindu fold. Their Viharas and temples were taken over and Hindu shrines built, some for Bhagawathy and some for Lord Shiva. The Buddhist shrines must have been circular in shape for their Chaityas and the Hindu temples replacing them too followed suit. This is the obvious impact the Buddhist designs had on the temple architecture of Kerala. Most of the Jain temples were of the North Indian pattern excepting for the roof. They had their cave dwellings for their monks, which also were used to place Hindu deities.
Buddha idols have been discovered in the coastal districts of Alapuzha and Kollam. A large statue of Buddha is also reported from Lakshadweep (Kavaratti). There still exists a Buddhist temple known as Karumadi Kuttan near Ambalapuzha (Video Link). It is also believed that Kuramba Bhagawathy temple at Kodungallur was a Buddhist shrine or Vihara. There are also claims that the Vadakunnathan Shiva temple at Thrissur too was a Buddhist enclave. Interestingly, parents of Adi Shankaracharya are said to have made offerings at this temple for getting a child. Thus there seems to be some inconsistency.

Once, while I was at home in Kerala, the
Bharani festival at Kodungallur was going on. I sought permission from my Dad to visit that place. He told me that I can not withstand the happenings in the temple premises. That basically the devotees come from different lower classes. They take out processions singing dirty/erotic songs making obscene gestures and throwing dirty things at the temple premises. They use filthy language and apart from that thousands of Cocks/Chicken are brutally killed by way of an offering to the deity. The entire corridor will be smeared with blood and so on. He also explained about the 'Kavu Tindal' at length. When I questioned, him why such a tradion, he told me, these celebrations are in memory of the times when the place was inhabited by Bhikshus (could have been either Buddhists or Jains) and they were driven out.

During my efforts to enrich myself, I came across a well researched article by M.J. Gentes in the Asian Folklore Studies Vol 51, titled "Scandalizing the Goddess at Kodungallur". I am reproducing a portion which has appealed to my psyche.

"A historical and sect-based theory that attempts to explain the rite of polluting of the temple holds that originally Sri Kuramba Kavu was the shrine of a Jain goddess or a Buddhist vihara for nuns (see Obeyesekere 1984, 518-20). The Chera emperors whose capital was at Vanji, probably near or at Kodungallur, protected and supported Jain and Buddhist communities. The Buddhists flourished in Kerala during the fourth to the eighth centuries C.E.( Obeyesekere 1984, 517). At the end of this period, with the migrations of groups of Brahmin settlers into Kerala, the relegious climate began to change. The caste system as defined by the southern Indian Brahminism was gradually extended over the diverse residents, altering the social,
ritual, and political positions of the different segments of the population. By the twelfth century Buddhism had virtually disappeared and the cult of the goddess Kali was in the ascendent. This growth led to the re-consecration of Jain and Buddhist sanctuaries as Bhagavati temples (Induchudan 1969, 200-201). In order to get the nuns to leave their residence at Kodungallur, low- caste devotees of Bhagawati were persuaded to throw animals and filth into the sanctuary (Induchudan 1969, 39). It was then rededicated to Bhadrakali and lost its institutional association with the Jains or Buddhists and with the Jain goddess Kannaki of the fourth century epic Shilappadikaram (The affair of the anklet). The worship of Kannaki was absorbed into the Kali cult, and the polluting of the temple during Bharani commemorates the original confrontation and transfer of liturgical control."

It would be pertinent to add here that "Cheraman Perumal" was a dynastic title enjoyed by all the rulers of the family as we could understand from various inscriptions of Cheras. The last of the Perumal was Rama Kulasekhara (1089-1122 AD). His Kollam inscription of 13th year tells us that he offered 'Prayaschittam' for having offended the Aryan of the place. This shows the brahmins had a upper hand in his kingdom.

From what has been observed above, it would be evident that Buddhism and Jainism ceased to exist in Kerala only after/around 12th Century AD.


  1. very interesting to read about the temples of Kerala and how they are connected to Buddhism and Jainism.


  2. Hi,

    I have some thoughts that i would like to share. I too am from Kerala, and I want to comment on the section related to Kodungalur Bharani. I have attended that festival several times, and my family has a strong devotion to this temple. My fascination with it has given me impetus to research the matter through more academic, and less religiously-oriented, venues.

    Remember, in the passage which you had quoted from Gentes, the theory of "driving out the Buddhists" was offered as the second of 3 possibile explanations for the rites of Kavu-Thindal.

    I have read both Obyeskere's and Induchudan's studies on the subject, and I would whole-heartedly agree with them that Buddhism had a lot to do with the formation of Kodungalur, as well as with the formation of South Indian culture in general.

    However, I dont think Kavu Thindal could relate very much to anti-Buddhist activities on the behalf of emerging Brahmanism, especially since Brahmins consider Barani to be as polluting as one might assume Buddhists and Jains would. Brahmins leave the temple during these festivals, which they consider extremely backwards and offensive, and the temple then becomes the property Adivasis. I think Bharani has a lot more to do with the theological history of the Adivasi's then it does with that of the Brahmins or ancient Buddhist Sanghas (just as Kotankulangara has a lot more to do with Kotis in the pastoral communities than it does with casted Hindus.)

    I dont know how one can scientifically prove the relationship between Bharani and the religous strife that ended Buddhist and Jain influence in Kerala. While it it is certain that such strife did exist, and that it manifested violently, there is little in Bharani to reflect back on that conflict.

    At the same time, there is much in Bharani to point out influences from Mother-Goddess traditions known to the ancient Mediterranian. For instance, the rites of Ishtar, Cybele, Ashera, Anath etc... all included elements similar to Shakthi worship in South India. These rites involved ceremonial teasing of the goddess as well as voluntary self-mortification and blood sacrifice.
    Furthermore, comparing the dieties from both locations provides some remarkable parallels. All these goddesses ride on Lions, Ishtar and Anath wear the cresent moon in their hair, Anath wears wreaths of skulls while swaggering on the battlefield, all of these goddess were served by actively gay male transvestitie priests, priestesses and a class of sacred prostitutes. One could say almost the exact same things about the cults of Mariyamman or Angalaparameshwari.

    As far as the feasts at Kodungalur are concerned, I think there is much more weight in the theories offered by Gentes relating to Dravidian fertility concepts, and how these were shaped by other theologies entering Kerala from the ancient Near East. Obyeskere's writing elaborates on this aspect of South Indian goddess-worship as well.

    Dravidian theological constructs are flexible enough to allow for the integration of a plurality of religious frameworks. Kodungalur, and Kerala's Bhagavathy traditions in general, certainly perserve and showcase all the diverse elements of that plurality-- whether tribal, Brahmanist, Buddhist, Jain, MidEastern or what have you. The character of Kerala's goddess traditions speak more to an amalgamation of diverse religious strains, at least moreso than to a disection of them.

    This does not counter the idea that Buddhism and Jainism were once quite prominent in Kerala-- clearly they were, and clearly it took a degree of hostile and bigoted persecution to drive them out, but I dont think that Bharani reflects that history.

  3. Dear Shrikishen,
    It would be interesting if you could contribute an article on Bharani as perceived by you. (palikara@gmail.com)

  4. Obviously Buddhist and Jainism heritage has been total destroyed in kerala more than any other place. It is surprising that on the ground there has been so much hatred against these religions. Even when i visited Kallil temple the priests were behaving funnily. When we started dicussing Buddhism or the statue is so well hidden on top with asbestos roof, we discovered the same and took photograph. I think Kalamukha sect has been responsible for such vandalism. However it is sad that the heritage has been literaly consigned to flame.

  5. It's stunning post. I liked it.

  6. Please read more about "jainism in Wayanad (Kerala)" at: