'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Mysterious Emperor, Mysterious Idols

"Aitihyamala is full of resource material for plays, poems, novels,... Read it. Then re-read it. And then, read it once more!" - ONV Kurup

"By the Beard of the Buddha..."

'Pallibana Perumal' was a legendary Perumal - 'emperor' - of ancient Kerala. He reigned around 1000 AD. Here is a portion of an article on him from the evergreen Keralan classic 'Aitihyamala':

"This Perumal, though a Hindu by birth, fell under the influence of some elements and converted to Buddhism. Kiliroor, now a village near Kottayam, was his residence for many years. The Perumal built a Vihara-like temple there and installed a Buddha idol; it showed the master meditating under the Bodhi tree. The long-bearded idol is manifestly that of a hermit. .... Perumal was an ardent Buddhist and tried hard to propagate his new faith among his subjects - and some of them converted out of sheer fear. He was also keen that the priests at the new temple be selected from among Brahmins. Some Brahmins did become priests albeit with great reluctance - they would take a purifying bath after performing the puja to Buddha....

After a while, some Muslims from Mecca came and settled in the area. Their leaders met Perumal with gifts and obtained permission from him to build a mosque. Some Muslim scholars soon established cordial relations with the ruler .... and well, before long, he left Buddhism for Islam. And Perumal was as pious a Muslim as he had been a Buddhist; he would spend most of his time at the mosque studying the Koran.

Though a confirmed Muslim now, Perumal remained devoted to Buddha and would often worship at the Vihara. When some Muslim elders quizzed him about it, he told them that the idol in the Vihara was actually that of Prophet Mohammed. Then the Muslims too started kneeling in prayer and prostrating before the Buddha - a practice that persisted long after the Perumal's passing (*) and even into the early 20th century.... "

Aitihyamala goes on to say: For centuries, Kiliroor remained a Buddhist pocket. But finally, sick of the mockery and ill-treatment from Hindus who lived in the surrounding villages, the people of Kiliroor decided to build a temple of Ayyappa alongside the Buddha shrine. That led to further complications - goddess Kartyayani ( a form of Parvati) revealed to a devout lady called Kothayamma that she would be 'taking over' the newly built temple and that she was okay with Ayyappa too being worshiped there - but only as a subsidiary deity. (Note: At least some serious historians say Kartyayani was a mother goddess revered by Buddhists. However, Wiki, quoting the Amarakosa, says the slightly different(if at all) 'Katyayani' is simply a synonym of Parvati)

I visited Kiliroor last week with the primary intent of seeing the 'Bearded Buddha'. The village is located in the backwater district of central Kerala and the terrain is very flat except for a nearly 50 foot high hillock. The Kartyayani temple stands right on top; indeed, what we have up there is a religious complex with a host of sub-shrines, including one dedicated to Ayyappa.

I asked a few locals about the Buddha. They said the Buddha idol sits in a building that also contains a Krishna subshrine (picture below) but is no longer worshiped or even shown to visitors (no one seemed to know why).

One gentleman said the doorway leading to the Buddha has remained locked for at least 50 years. Another said the Buddha idol is not a proper statue but a relief carving done on a granite wall. There was also disagreement as to which door of the building (at least two appear permanently closed) leads to the Buddha. And as is obvious, the building doesn't look more than a century or two old and so cannot have been the original Vihara.

And yes, no one had anything to say about the Master's beard. Note: I first read the Aitihyamala story of Perumal while in Primary School. But it was only after its umpteenth re-reading last week that I contemplated even the possibility of Buddha sporting a beard - this despite Buddhism being a long-time favorite subject.

Here is a shrine dedicated to the Nagas; it is part of the Kartyayani temple complex:

Outside the north-western corner of the temple enclosure stands this little edifice, empty and derelict. Wonder what its story could be:

The Idol that got Stuck

Just a kilometer or so from Kiliroor is Thiruvarpu. A varpu is a vast and flat bottomed metal vessel used for large scale cooking and the literal meaning of Thiruvarpu is 'holy varpu'. The place has a Krishna temple and this is its story, again from Aitihyamala (note: the Perumal has no role in this):

Legendary saint Vilwamangalath Swamiyar was traversing our backwaters by boat. At some particular spot, he felt the presence of some holy object lying submerged. He promptly dived in and fished out a beautiful Krishna idol and resumed his journey....

A short while later, Swamiyar wanted to take a leak and asked the boatmen to pull ashore. Now, he faced a problem. It was ritually unclean to pee while holding the idol; putting it down on the bare ground was also sacrilegious (and he didn't want to leave the idol with the boatmen for whatever reason). Swamiyar saw a big varpu lying nearby and put the idol in it and went to ease himself. When he got back, he couldn't lift the idol off the varpu - the two objects had gotten fused together!

Soon, Swamiyar called the local elders over and .... long story short, they built a temple there and installed the idol+varpu composite in the sanctum. And there they remain to this day.

At Thiruvarpu, I stared long and hard into the innter sanctum. The Krishna idol is substantial - about 3 feet tall - but it didn't look as if it stands inside a varpu. But an 'official' temple poster shows the vessel very clearly:

I asked a couple of temple employees about the varpu. One of them said I hadn't looked carefully enough and maybe even if I had, I wouldn't have seen it - the adornments on the idol might have obscured the vessel. The other gentleman said that the varpu exists but only as a 'sankalpa' (=concept). Another devotee wanted to know why someone would come all the way from Cochin to check out an old cooking pot, to the apparent exclusion of more uplifting concerns.

Thiruvarpu is famous for its 'neypayasam' and claims to be the earliest-opening temple in the entire country - everyday, darshan begins at 2 am. A glass box has been fixed on a wall in the temple enclosure and a tomahawk sits inside. An adjacent inscription goes: "Punctuality is of utmost importance here. If for any reason, the inner sanctum cannot be opened for puja at the appointed hour, use this axe to break thru any obstacle!"

The same gentlemen who had told me about the 'conceptual varpu' said: "By the grace of the Lord, never in history have we had to use that axe"


A piece of news: The sculptures of Subhash Bose park, the subject of our film 'Poo Viriyunnu, Poo Kozhiyunnu' (for new Readers, it is on Youtube - with English subtitles) are being restored and renovated - with just the right amount of fanfare - after a generation of neglect, decay and vandalism. Here is a picture from there:


(*) Aitihyamala goes on to say: One fine morning, the Perumal was nowhere to be seen. The previous evening, he had been seen at the mosque by many worshipers and nobody had an idea what had happened thereafter. Some suspected the Buddhists or Hindus to have bumped him off for his apostasy. Some said he slipped out in disguise and boarded a ship bound for Mecca. And some suspected he received an Assumption - was lifted up straight to heaven.


Note added on 29th Jan 2018: An article by Ajay Shekher, who is an artist and scholar, presents many interesting details (and speculations) about Kiliroor, including a photograph of the metallic Krishna idol that is still under active worship. That it doesn't look like a 'standard' Krishna or Vishnu is obvious - it shows a meditating male figure somewhat like Badrinath. But, meditation apart, it is not proper Buddha either - the figure wears an elaborate crown, not an usnisa. Let me quote a bit from Shekher:

The uniqueness of the temple is the relief of the Buddha inside a shrine now dedicated to Krishna. The idol of Krishna looks like a Yogic Avalokitesvara in Padmasana.... (and the Buddha relief) is on the other side of the wall behind 'Krishna'.

It seems there aren't too many around who have physically seen the Buddha relief - presumably it was openly visible in early 20th century when Aitihyamala was compiled. Shekher's article is silent on the Master's beard - and the Krishna-Avalokiteswara idol is clean-shaven.

Sekher says the temple "must be conserved for the whole humanity who value the life and teachings of the compassionate one". His article also has phrases like "the Sramana past of Kerala and its democratic and egalitarian cultures" and "Brahmanical aversion to a Mlecha (Buddhist) holy place". I am reminded of an old post of mine titled "Buddha, Pizza and India" .


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