There was wide-spread presence of Buddhism in Kerala from the 3rd Century BCE to at least the 12th Century CE. Buddhism arrived in Kerala during the reign of Emperor Ashoka. Buddhism and Jainism became widespread in Kerala much before Brahmanism took root there. Unlike the rest of South India, there are not many Buddhist artifacts found in Kerala though the historical records elsewhere prove that there was a widespread presence of all forms of Buddhism in Kerala, particularly Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Further, most Buddhist artifacts were rediscovered in an abandoned condition in lake-beds, with some of them mutilated. However, we can see deep undercurrents and the influence of Buddhism in the culture and language of Kerala. This points to a dark past of widespread oppression of Buddhism in Kerala.
The general public and many historians in Kerala are unaware of this Buddhist past. Many even mistakenly believe that Buddhism came to Kerala as an import from Sri Lanka or China. However, based on the historical records in other parts of the globe, it is clear that the philosophy and methods of Buddhist masters from Kerala spread to even distant places like China, Japan, and Tibet. Some world-renowned scholars and yogis in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition like Bhavaviveka, Vajrabodhi, Ayyappa (Siddha Aryadeva), and Paramabuddha (Ajitanatha) were from Kerala. The practices of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and Bodhisattva Tara originated and spread from Potalaka (Agastyakoodam / Potikai) in the Malaya mountains (the southern part of the western ghats) to the rest of the world. There were also some world-renowned Mahayana Viharas in Kerala, such as Sreemoolavasam.
Dispelling the prevailing myth about Shankaracharya defeating Buddhism
The general myth in Kerala is that Shankaracharya defeated Buddhists in debates leading to the demise of Buddhism in Kerala in the 8th Century. However, our studies make it evident that this is a fictitious story. In reality, both archeological remains and historical accounts show that Buddhism continued to flourish in Kerala for many centuries after that period. Also, there are no sound arguments against the Buddhist views of higher scope in the writings of Shankaracharya. Shankara has some valid arguments against some of the Buddhist philosophical schools of lower scope, such as Vaibhashika and Sautrantika (the philosophical schools that assert the existence of real objects and subjects). Nevertheless, those arguments are very much in line with what the Buddhist philosophical schools of higher scope make against the schools of lower scope. And, regarding Madhyamaka, the finest philosophical school of Buddhism, Shankara said he had nothing to argue because, according to Shankara, Madhyamikas say there is nothing. So, Shankara mistakenly presents Sunyavada as Nihilism and then ignores it there.
Moreover, many later Vedantins such as Bhaskaracharya, Yamunacharya (Guru of Ramanujacharya), and Vedanta Desikar accused Shankara of being a Pracchanna Buddha (Buddhist in disguise) and his Mayavada Advaita as merely Buddhism in disguise. So, we can infer that though the decline of Buddhism in Kerala happened much after Shankara’s time, the destruction of Buddhism was simply attributed to Shankara in later compositions of triumph-songs to glorify Shankara’s philosophy.
Earliest Historical Accounts of Buddhism in Kerala
In his second major rock edict, Emperor Ashoka mentions about extending his benevolent activities to the border countries, including Kelalaputo (Kerala), Choḍa (Chola), Paṁḍiyā (Pandya), Sātiyaputo (Satyaputra / Southern Karnataka) and Taṁbapaṁni (Tamraparni / Sri Lanka). Also, in the thirteenth major rock edict at Kalsi, he talks about his endeavors for Dhammavijaya (Victory of Buddhism) in his own country and the border regions mentioned above.
According to Manimekhalai, a Tamil Epic belonging to the 5th Century CE, Vanchi in Kerala (probably, the present-day Kodungalloor) was a great centre of philosophical learning. Bauddha, Nirgrantha (Jainism), Ājīvika, Vedavāda, Mimāṁsa, Śaivavāda, Vaiṣṇavavāda, Sāṁkhya, Vaiśeṣika, Bhūtavāda (Cārvāka), etc. were taught there. In Manimekhalai, there is also a mention of a Buddhist Stupa at Vanchi.
Most of the rediscovered Buddhist statues of Kerala are from the period 6th to 9th Century CE. [Ref-1]. That means the statues from the period before Shankara continued to remain, and there were more after him. As discussed earlier, this implies that Shankara did not dent Buddhism in Kerala. As we shall see below, historical evidence from literary sources shows that Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism flourished at least up to the 12th Century in Kerala. However, Buddha statues from that later period are not discovered till now. Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha statue (known locally as Pātthikkalappan) in Koyilandi, and various Bodhisattva statues currently worshipped as Sastha are from this later period.
Buddhist Luminaries from Kerala
The most robust historical evidence about the flourishing of Buddhism in Kerala comes from the records of ancient Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese Buddhist scholars. They narrate about influential Buddhist masters from Kerala who became world-renowned. These Buddhist masters from Kerala span from the 6th Century CE to 12th Century CE and represents various ways of Buddhist practice and scholarship. We shall see some of those important figures.
Acharya Bhavaviveka from Kerala was one of the most influential Buddhist philosophers of the 6th century CE. According to the Tibetan Scholar and Historian Taranatha [Ref-6], Bhavaviveka is from the Malyara region (a name used for Kerala) of South India. Belonging to the philosophical lineage of the illustrious Acharya Nagarjuna, Bhavaviveka became well-known for his philosophical system, Svatantrika Madhyamaka. Heated debates between the followers of Bhavaviveka’s Svatantrika Madhyamaka and Prasangika Madhyamaka of Buddhapalita and Chandrakirthi kept the Buddhist philosophy circle vibrant for many centuries. Svatantrika and Prasangika are the two major logical approaches in understanding the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nagarjuna.
In his composition, Madhyamaka-Hridaya-Karika and its auto commentary, Tarkajvala, Bhavaviveka showed how Nagarjuna’s Śunyatā-vāda (emptiness) is superior to Gaudapada’s Brahma-vāda. It may be noted that Nagarjuna in his Śunyatā-vāda established the Māyopama (illusion-like) nature of all phenomena. Nagarjuna showed that all phenomena are essenceless and arising only due to interdependence of conditions (pratitya-samudpāda). Since phenomena do not exist with their own essence, their appearance is like a rainbow, mirage, or illusion. Gaudapada borrowed Nagarjuna’s logic, and he also agreed that all phenomena are illusion (Māya), unlike what the earlier Vedantins claimed. However, Gaudapada also postulated a truly existent basis for the illusion in place of Nagarjuna’s interdependent arising (pratitya-samudpāda) and conditional imputation (upādāyaprajñapti). Gaudapada postulated that the Brahman of Upanishads is that truly existent entity upon which illusionary phenomena arise. Bhavaviveka, in his works, shows that such a postulate of truly existing basis is irrational. It may also be noted that Shankara propagated the thesis of Gaudapada.
Vajrabodhi, a 7th century CE Buddhist yogi is renowned in Japan and China. He was also from Kerala. According to his Chinese biography written by Zanning (give reference), he was a native of Malya in South India, in a location close to Potalaka (Agastyakoodam). He and his disciple Amoghavajra (from Sri Lanka) were instrumental in establishing Tantric Buddhism belonging to the Yoga-Tantra class in China. He was the chief guru of the then Chinese emperor. Shingon Buddhism popular in Japan is the continuation of the Yoga Tantra system that Vajrabodhi and his disciples taught in China.
Mahasiddha Śabarīśa is a celebrated Buddhist master who lived in the 10th century CE. He was born among the forest-dweller clan of Sabaras and was a hunter in the beginning. Later, he developed great compassion and became a Mahasiddha and a highly accomplished master of Anuttara Yoga Tantra. Sabarisha was the Guru of many other great masters such as Advayavajra (Maitripa). Though the birthplace of Sabarisha is probably not in Kerala, there is evidence for his association with Sabarimala. That will be elaborated in another article.
Ayyappa and Paramabuddha
Paramabuddha (11th century CE) was a Buddhist Mahasiddha from Kerala [Ref-2]. He was the founder of the Mahayana system of Pacification in Tibet (Shije in Tibet). His system of teaching went on to become one of the eight major practice traditions of Buddhism in Tibet, known as the Ashta maha rathas. His original name was Ajitanatha. His Tibetan disciples called him “ParamaBuddha who is like a father” (Pha Dampa Sangye) out of great reverence.
From the pointers available in the Tibetan biographies of Paramabuddha it can be inferred that Ayyappa of Sabarimala is none other than the Siddha Aryadeva (also known as Ayyamuni) who was Paramabuddha’s uncle and Guru. Ayyappa’s main Gurus were Mahasiddha Saraha and Yogini Sukhasiddhi. The famed Chod (cutting attachment) tradition established in Tibet by Yogini Machig Labdron, the foremost disciple of Paramabuddha, traces its origin to a short text by Ayyappa on the same. Chod is another one of the eight major practice traditions of Buddhism in Tibet. For a detailed article on Paramabuddha and Ayyappa see – “Paramabuddha (Padampa Sangye) and Ayyappa“.
Tibetan historians also mention about an accomplished Yogini named Gangadhara (11th century CE), the daughter of a king of Kerala. Yogini Gangadhara was the companion of the Mahasiddha Advaya Vajra (Maitripa). The Shangpa Kagyu system, one of the eight major traditions known as the Ashta maha rathas in Tibetan Buddhism, is based on the teachings of the Tibetan yogi Khyungpo Naljor (Garuda Yogi), who came to India and studied Vajrayana. Yogini Gangadhara was one of the gurus of Khyungpo Naljor. Mahasiddha Paramabuddha also learned from Mahasiddha Advayavajra and Yogini Gangadhara (also known as Gangabhadri).
Punyasri (Punyakaragupta, 11th century CE), also known as Vajrasanappa, an abbot of the Vajrasana Buddhist monastery at Bodh Gaya was also from Kerala. He studied Buddhist philosophy at Nalanda University and became a master of Buddhist sutras and tantras. He later became the abbot of the Vikramashila Buddhist University, one of the major centers of Buddhist Tantra. Vajrasanappa was the root guru of Nayapala, the then king of the Pala dynasty. He was also known as Mahavajrasanappa as the first Vajrasanappa since three later teachers were also known as Vajrasanappa. His Buddhist lineage spread to Tibet through his disciple Vajrasanappa Ratnakara Gupta to Khyungpo Naljor.
Śāstha and Buddhism
Many ancient statues of Bodhisattvas in Kerala are regarded as that of Śāstha or Dharma-Sastha. Currently, the Brahminical legend holds Sastha either as a retinue of Siva, or a son of both Siva and Vishnu. However, the original meaning of Sastha is the founder of a Sasana (teaching). Amarakośa, the Sanskrit dictionary, gives Sastha as one of the eighteen epithets of the Buddha. There are many occasions where the Buddha calls himself Sastha. Dharma Sastha particularly means the Buddha, the founder of Dhamma / Dharma / Buddhism. With the decline of Buddhism, the Buddha statues were mostly abandoned in temple ponds. But, the Bodhisattva statues were absorbed into non-Buddhist worship as some or other God. And since these figures were originally from Buddhism, they were called Sasthas.
Some of the famous Sastha statues of Kerala are the ones at (i) Sabarimala, where Siddha Ayyappa is considered as Sastha, (ii) Aryankavu, where Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is considered as Sastha, (iii) Acchankovil, where the wealth deity Kubera is considered as Sastha.
Important centers of Buddhism in ancient Kerala
Agasthyakoodam – Potalaka, the sacred place of Avalokitesvara
Malaya mountain was a preferred place of meditation for Buddhist monks and yogis since ancient times. Agasthyakoodam peak, also known as Potikai / Potiyil in Tamil, is in the southernmost part of this mountain range. Potikai was famous as Potalaka, the sacred abode of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. It was a famed pilgrimage center among the Mahayana Buddhists and pilgrims from even distant lands used to visit this mountain, braving the treacherous path and wild animals. However, once Buddhism waned in India, the location of Potalaka also vanished from the memory of people. Then in recent times, Japanese scholar Shu Hikosaka [Ref-3] identified Potala with the Poitikai mountain based on Gandavyuha Sutra and Xuanzang’s records.
Potalaka, as the sacred realm of Avalokitesvara first appeared in the Mahayana sutra Gandavyuha. In that sutra, the aspirant Sudhana kumara meets and takes teachings from Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, sitting in the form of a rishi (hermit) in a cave in a high and rocky mountain peak (Potalaka) surrounded by stormy waters, in the southernmost part of India. In his famous travelogue, the 7th century CE monk traveller Xuanzang recorded that Potalaka, the sacred mount of Avalokitesvara is situated in the southernmost of India inside deep forest in a terrain of precipitous peaks and deep valleys. [Ref-4]
The practice lineage of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara originated in the area surrounding Potikai and gradually spread to the rest of India. In a 11th century CE palm leaf Prajnaparamita sutra manuscript from Nepal, there are images captioned “Sri Potalake Loknatha”, “Sri Potalake Tara” and “Sri Potalake Bhrikuti”. From this, it can be inferred that some famous Mahayana temples (or peethas) existed in this place.
Sree Moolavasam Mahayana Vihara
Vikramaditya Varaguna (9th-10th century CE), one of the most celebrated kings of the Ay dynasty of South Kerala gave an extensive grant of land to the Bhattaraka (Venerable one) of Sreemoolavasam Buddhist Monastery. Paliyam Copper Plate Inscription documents this grant. Some beautiful Sanskrit verses praising the triple jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) and Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara are there in the Paliyam inscription. [Ref-5]
A 11th century palm leaf manuscript of Aṣṭa-sahāsrikā-prajñāparamitā-sūtra from Nepal has miniature Buddhist paintings depicting famous Buddhist / Bodhisattva statues and stupas in India and abroad. [(This book is now housed at the University of Cambridge.) One such image is that of a four armed Avalokitesvara flanked by Tara and Bhrikuti with the caption “Dakshinapathe Sreemoolavasa Lokanatha”. This shows that Sreemoolavasam was well known as one of the holy places of Lokesvara in the Indian subcontinent.
Vajrayana Influence in Mushika-dynasty
The ancient Mushika dynasty, who ruled over the Ezhimala region in the Malabar region of Kerala patronized Buddhism. Particularly, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism were widespread in that region. In poet Athula’s (11th century CE) epic poetry ‘Mushika Vamsam’, which chronicles the story of this dynasty, there are multiple references to the Buddhist past of Kerala. Rajavarman, the 49th king of the Mushika dynasty, established a Buddhist monastery called Rajavihara. It is also mentioned in the Mushika Vamsam that Vikramaraman, the 104th king, built a sea wall to protect the Sreemoolavasam Mahayana monastery in the Chera kingdom from sea erosion. According to Mushika Vamsam, Vallabhan, the 114th Mushika king, visited the Sreemoolavasa Vihara on the way when he went to provide military assistance to the Chera kingdom. Another interesting fact is that the names of some of the kings of the Mushika dynasty like Vajradhara (18th king), Achala (45), Vairochana I (54), Vairochana II (55), Vajrasrara (65th) Ajita (69), Sumathi (89) and Akshobhya (92nd) are the names of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana / Vajrayana Buddhism.
Some other evidences
The earliest manuscript of the Mahayana / Vajrayana Buddhist text Aryamanjushrimoolakalpa was found in a collection of palm-leaf scriptures maintained by Manalikkara Math near Padmanabhapuram.
Another interesting fact is an inscription (CE 800 – 1000) found at a stupa at Kurkihar near Gaya in Bihar. The inscription says that this Buddhist stupa called ‘Sugatha Gandha Kudi’ was built by ‘Abhayachandra Muni’ from Kerala.
Vestiges of the Buddhist past in Kerala culture.
Remnants of the ancient Buddhist cultural heritage can still be seen in multiple facets of Kerala society.
In Art Forms
The Kalamezhuthu in North Kerala is very similar to the Mandalas made of sand mixed with different colors for the Vajrayana ceremonies. Theyyam also resembles masked-dances performed in Vajrayana to create deep habitual imprints about certain Buddha forms.
The early Koodiyattams (performing art) of Kerala also used Buddhist themes. King Harsha’s (7th century) Nagananda, a Buddhist Sanskrit work that narrates the story of a Bodhisattva named Jeemuthavahana was among the earliest themes of Koodiyattam performed in Kerala.
In Temple Festivals
In some temple festivals of Kerala, such as that of Chettikulangara, temple cars known as Kettukazhcha (Kettukuthira/ Eduppu Kuthira) are paraded, which bear a striking resemblance to the Buddhist pagodas. Chinese Buddhist travelers, Fahien and Xuanzang have recorded such processions in Buddhist Viharas. According to Fahien, the temple cars were multi-storied and resembled Pagodas. It is common in Buddhist culture to have processions of temple cars carrying idols, stupas and texts of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. The idols, scriptures, and stupas represent the body, the word, and the mind of the Buddha, respectively. These annual processions were held to renew the memory of the Buddha’s teachings among the people.
The elephant processions during the temple festivals of Kerala may have also originated from the aforementioned Buddhist procession around the city. Elephant processions in the Buddhist monasteries of Sri Lanka are an example. Every year such a procession is held in Kandy, Sri Lanka, with the elephants carrying relics (tooth) of the Buddha.
Kshetram and Anpalam
It is noteworthy that most of the Buddha statues in Kerala were discovered from temple ponds. Temples in Kerala are called Anpalam (anpu+alam). In Tamil (the language of Kerala too on those days) the meaning of anpu is loving-kindness, and the meaning of alam is place. So Anpalam means the ‘place of loving-kindness’. Later, when Buddhism declined, and Kerala became infested with the disease and madness of caste and religious divisions, most probably these statues were shifted outside to the temple ponds from the temple sanctums. Even today, the temples of Kerala, in contrast with other parts of India, continue to be called Anpalam/ Kshetram. This may be due to the continuation of the Buddhist influence in culture and language. In Mahayana Buddhist literature, Kshetra (domain, field, dwelling place) is widely used to denote Buddhakshetra (dwelling place of the Buddhas), Punyakshetra (the field towards which meritorious deeds are performed) etc.
Kalaripayattu, the martial art form of Kerala is very much connected to the Buddhist master Bodhidharma’s martial arts tradition. The role of non-violent martial arts in Buddhism is to transcend the division of stillness and movement. Movements in these martial arts are a fine display of inner stillness and ease, expressed as mindful and vigilant actions. Martial arts is an applied practice of the four foundations of mindfulness. In Mindfulness practice, one attends to the stillness and movement of body, feelings, thoughts, and the phenomenal world with mindfulness, vigilance, and ardency, while taking care not to slip into covetousness or hatred with respect to whatever arises. Gaining proficiency in these principles of mindfulness is the key to mastery in these martial arts. Instead of aggressive application of force, yielding and harmonizing movements turn out to be more powerful in these martial arts. Angampora, Sri Lanka’s martial art form, is strikingly similar to Kalaripayattu. Probably, Silambam of Tamil Nadu also share some common ground as one continuum of martial arts tradition. (See The Wild Leaps of Awakening – Bodhidharma and Martial Arts for more details)
The popularity of Ayurveda in Kerala also reflects its Buddhist past. Nagarjuna, the progenitor of Mahayana movement was also a physician. Vagbhaṭa, the author of Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita, the most important treatise of the Kerala Ayurveda System was a Buddhist. Vagbhata’s Ashtanga Samgraha also contains various Mahayana Dharanis and Mantras for healing purposes.
Onam’s association with Buddhism
Most of the Buddha statues found in Kerala were from the old kingdom of ‘Onattukara’ that had its capital at Mavelikkara. Onam and its legends associated with king Maveli even now fill the minds of Keralites with the memories of a foregone era of equality, truthfulness, and righteousness. This may not be a mere coincidence. It may be indicative of a kingdom ruled with the Buddhist ethos of “abandon negativity, abide in wholesome deeds and perfectly conquer one’s own mind”. The destruction of such a kingdom would have been equated to the legend from the Puranic literature where a benevolent Asura king Mahabali was banished to Patala realm by Vamana, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Though the original Mahabali legend has no association with Kerala, the similarity with the destruction of Buddhist kingdom would have made this legend striking a chord in Kerala. Keralites celebrate Onam in memory of legendary home-coming of Maveli / Mahabali for an annual visit of his old kingdom.
Possibly, the regions of Onattukara and Kollam would have been the places where the lamp of Dharma had its final glimmerings before complete fading away from the land of Kerala.
The Buddhist culture that had been so prevalent in Kerala for more than a millennium was later completely uprooted from here. However, many relics of that Buddhist past, including Buddha and Bodhisattva statues, have been unearthed during the last century or so. For more information, read the article – “Ancient Buddha Statues of Kerala”.
Ref-1: Yogini Abhaya Devi, Yogi Prabodha Jnana (2018), Ancient Buddha Statues of Kerala, https://www.wayofbodhi.org/ancient-buddha-statues-of-kerala/
Ref-2: Yogini Abhaya Devi, Yogi Prabodha Jnana (2018), Paramabuddha (Padampa Sangye) and Ayyappa, https://www.wayofbodhi.org/paramabuddha-padampa-sangye-ayyappan/
Ref-3: Hikosaka, Shu (1989), Buddhism in Tamil Nadu: A New Perspective, Madras, Institute of Asian Studies
Ref-4 – Xuanzang. (1884). Great Tang Records on the Western Regions. (Samuel Beal, Trans.). Buddhist Records of the Western World. London: Trubner & Co. (Original text 6th century CE).
Ref-5: Yogini Abhaya Devi (2017), Sreemoolavasam – an Ancient Buddhist Monastery in Kerala, https://www.wayofbodhi.org/sreemoolavasam/
Ref-6: Taranatha. dpal dus kyi ‘khor lo’i chos bskor gyi byung khungs nyer mkho. (Original text 17th century CE).