Column | How Kerala’s Buddhist heritage and legacy live on

The Buddha shrine at Mavelikkara

As we move through one more Vaisakham month with pandemic-related restrictions on ‘normal life,’ one is tempted to look back at the traditions and customs of Kerala in what is considered a spiritually important time. Many Malayali Hindus believe that enhanced spiritual activity during the month helps remove bad karma and liberate worshippers from the bondage of rebirth. This month on the lunar calendar is equally important for Buddhists, as they believe the Buddha was born, attained enlightenment and died on the full moon day of the month, known as Vesak.

If one were to blindfold a Hindu pilgrim at a temple in Kerala on a May evening and teleport him to a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka, he would not notice too much of a difference. The smell of incense, the lighting of oil lamps, the landscape surrounding the temple, the worshippers dressed in white and even the style of praying are very similar.

Zhao Rukuo, a 13th century Chinese historian who wrote the Zhu Fan Zhi, collected all his information about Kerala from merchants and visitors to the court of the Song Dynasty. He made a mention of Kollam, which the Chinese called Ku Lin, where he says the locals were “extremely devout Buddhists.” In the book he added, “…whenever they have taken a bath, they anoint their bodies with turmeric, as they like to have their bodies gilt like that of a Buddha.”  Noted historian K A Nilakanta Sastri wrote in the 1930s that this was a “natural confusion” by Zhao between Hindu and Buddhist images and forms of worship. Even now an untrained eye would hardly be able to tell the difference between murals seen on the walls of the Triprayar Temple, near Thrissur, and those found inside the Bellanwila Temple on the outskirts of Colombo.

Explaining the confusion of Chinese travellers, Dr P C Alexander, who had an illustrious career as a bureaucrat and was Maharashtra Governor for nine years, wrote in his 1946 D. Litt thesis titled Buddhism in Kerala, that the Hindu forms of worship had retained many of their Buddhist features. “The Hinduism of Kerala of the medieval period was not free from the strong influences of Buddhism, which had once been the popular religion of the country,” Alexander wrote.

“Even though Buddhism had declined in Kerala - as it did everywhere else - it had left many permanent influences on the religious life of the people. Their forms of worship, their festivals and ceremonies in the temples, etc were still predominantly Buddhistic in appearance, and to any outsider, especially to one who viewed things from the Buddhistic angle, these would have not have appeared as quite different as those from Buddhism.”

Alexander’s thesis also cites 15th century Chinese voyager Ma Huan as mistakenly saying that the King of Cochin and the Zamorin of Calicut were devotees of the Buddha. “Ma Huan found many striking resemblances between the forms of worship of Cochin and Calicut and the Buddhist forms of worship in China and other places of Buddhistic importance,” he wrote.

Historians say some temples in Kerala retained idols of the Buddha, which were worshipped as Hindu deities. Alexander added, “With the revival of Hinduism, the Buddha was incorporated into the Hindu Pantheon - and was considered one of the many avatars of Vishnu.” This is a belief that is even shared by many Buddhists in Thailand.

Karumadikuttan is famous for its three-feet-tall statue of lord Buddha—the lone silent reminder of the fact that Buddhism once flourished in Kerala between 3rd century BC and 13th century AD

Buddhist influence in temples

Some Sri Lankans believe that the Tirupati Balaji Temple, Guruvayoor and Sabarimala were at one time Buddhist temples, prompting Sinhalese Buddhists to make pilgrimages to these temples. Alexander and other historians such as M G S Narayanan have written in detail about the many theories connecting Sabarimala and Buddhism.

Narayanan said the resemblance to the worship of the Buddha and Ayyappan was unmistakable. “The title of Shasta is applied to Buddha and Ayyappan alike,” he wrote. “The emphasis on Sharanam, the non-Brahmin character of worship and the character of worship and the location of the great Shasta temples in the eastern high ranges would suggest a close parallelism between Buddhism and the Hindu cult of Hariharaputra or Ayyappan.”

Alexander stressed on the abstinence for pilgrims and the non-existence of caste barriers during the pilgrimage to suggest a Buddhist influence.

However, both Alexander and Narayanan have written that while there seems to be strong influence of Buddhism in Sabarimala, there is no irrefutable proof of the temple being a Buddhist pilgrimage centre, and that were several important differences between Buddhism and Ayyappa worship.

Cultural relics

A Malayali visiting Kandy would stand back and think of the Wadakumnathan Temple in Thrissur when looking at the Temple of the Tooth. Both temples also host major elephant festivals, with the Pooram being a major cultural event in the Kerala city and the Esala Perahera an important festival in the Sri Lankan cultural capital.

There is a wide belief in some sections of Kerala society that the Ezhavas trace their roots to Sri Lanka, and that their ancestors came to the state when both places were Buddhist. Some historians credit the community for introducing coconut trees in Kerala!

Alexander in his thesis also talks of how Adi Shankaracharya was influenced by Buddhist thought, even though his reforms of Hinduism were a catalyst in the decline of Buddhism in India.

The Buddha statue at Bharanikkavu

Despite the decline of Buddhism, Malayalis share strong cultural bonds with Buddhists. “It is now a generally accepted fact that Buddhism has left its influence on the forms and methods of religious worship in all places where it had once flourished,” Alexander wrote. He added that the Buddhist influence remained the strongest in the Malabar. “One of the reasons for this is that Buddhism as such did not disappear from Kerala, but it only dissolved into the sea of Kerala Hinduism.”

The magic of Vaisakham

On this Vaisakham month, this writer, now stranded in his Mumbai home for the last 16 months, can only reminisce of the many a beautiful May evenings spent in Kerala and Sri Lanka, in deep thought of why these places have the same cultural feel.  

Vaisakham is about grandparents telling stories such as that of Angulimala, the ruthless brigand who wore a necklace of human fingers that he cut off from people, but changed after embracing the teachings of the Buddha. There are of course, stories from the Jataka Tales, and those of the Buddha’s journey to attaining enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. The stories of the Buddha have been passed down for many generations in Hindu households in Kerala.

This month is about longer white evenings, oil lamps, pre-monsoon clouds and showers, the chant of Sanskrit prayers from a Hindu temple in Kerala, and the sound of monks chanting the Pirith from a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka and the Vesak lanterns that don the yards of many homes in the country.  

For the second year in a row this part of the world is witnessing difficult times on this spiritually important month, but this too shall pass!

(The writer is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana’)

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