As can be expected from the names of these places, Salem and Dharmapuri are rich in their Buddhist heritage. Dharmapuri means the ‘City of Dharma’. The rocky town of Salem would have derived its name from the pali word ‘sela’ which means rocks. During our travels through the Buddhist trails of Tamil Nadu, we came across some unique and majestic statues in the interior regions between Salem and Perambalur, the vestiges of Buddhism in Salem and Dharmapuri. (Please see the article “Buddhism in Perambalur, Tamil Nadu” for details on the statues in the Peramabalur district.)
Thiyaganur, a remote village in Salem district, is home to two ancient Buddha statues. The place name, ‘Thiyaganur’, means ‘the place of self-sacrifice’, indicating a connection to the Buddha’s teachings. These two statues came from the ancient Buddhist context of this place. Interestingly, the context around them evolved in two different directions after their rediscovery. One became a God according to Vaishnavite stories, while the other became instrumental for the construction of a new meditation hall according to the teachings of the Buddha, inspiring the people of this region again towards Dharma.
The first one, a majestic broad-shouldered 7ft Buddha statue, is from the 8th Century period. It is now hosted as the principal idol in a small Vaishnavite style temple that probably came up within the last 100 years. It is the largest of the sitting Buddha statues recovered in Tamil Nadu with full-body intact. The new temple’s vimana (roof) has a Buddha sculpture to its front side (east) and sculpture of Krishna, Narasimha, and Vishnu to the south, west, and north respectively. This is as per the belief of the Vaishnavites who regard the Buddha as a God according to their Puranas, and not as the Buddha according to the Buddha’s teachings.
The second one at Thiyaganur is yet another majestic Buddha statue of 6ft height recovered from a field. We found it placed inside a beautiful meditation hall made by the collective effort of the villagers. A farmer donated the land, and the villagers pooled in money to build the meditation hall in 2013. They also constructed a lotus seat inside and installed the Buddha on that. Here, the Buddha is regarded according to his teachings and not as a God. This new home for the ancient statue exemplifies how to preserve ancient statues most beneficially.
We also visited another Buddha statue in Veeraganur, not far from Thiyaganur. It is preserved in the Dalit Colony of Veeraganur. It felt nice to spot this ancient 5ft Buddha statue on the roadside right in the middle of the colony. In contrast with Buddha statues in other parts of Tamil Nadu, many locals here revere him as ‘Buddha’ and have considerable interest in learning more about the Buddha’s teachings. We met one person from that colony who received teachings from a Buddhist organization in Nagpur. He also occasionally leads group meditation and prayer sessions for the locals there.
Right in the middle of Salem City, there is a temple known as Thalaivetti Muniappan Kovil. The temple’s central deity is a broken Buddha idol. It is worshipped now as Muniappan, a local God. In fact, Muniappan means Venerable Muni. The word ‘Muniappan’ was earlier used in Tamil to refer to the Buddhist and Jain statues. However, later the name Muniappan became a common name for many local guardian gods to whom animal sacrifice rituals are done.
About a hundred years ago, someone found this broken Buddha statue with its body and head separated. The statue also had its nose broken. Someone affixed the head to the body but not in a proper way. The affixed figure looked odd, with its head slanting to the left. The nose that was added to the statue didn’t come out well. The outcome looked a little wrathful, unlike the usual Buddha statues. The eyes were also later painted in a wrathful way. So people consider it as some fierce local god and worship him that way with animal sacrifice. Thalaivetti means with a cut head. Since this statue is right in the middle of Salem City, many people started reporting that it is a Buddha statue. Presently photography is not permitted there. So, we are adding here a file photo of that statue from Wikimedia.
Buddhism in Dharmapuri
As the name denotes, Dharmapuri (dharma + puri – the city of dharma) was a Buddhist center during the ancient days. There are two statues of Buddha kept in the Dharmapuri Government Museum. One is a standing Buddha around 3 ft in height with the right hand in abhaya mudra. The style of robe resembles that of the Amaravathi statues. The second one is a headless Buddha statue in the sitting posture. It is around 3 ft in height. These statues were found from Kadakathur in Dharmapuri district and are from the 8th-9th century CE.