History of Religion in Kerala Part II — Entry of Buddhism (From the book by A Sreedharan Menon)

Like Buddhism, Jainism is also believed to have entered in Kerala by 3rd Century BC.

In the Sangam age, Buddhism was prominent in Chola, Chera, and Pandya countries. The Buddhist missionaries made arrangements in their own countries for the treatment of people and animals, suffering from diseases. By 3rd century, during the reign of Asoka, some of the missionaries traveled to south India to spread Buddhist teachings. This made the entry of Buddhism to Kerala.

Archaeologists have found a large number of Buddha images from Durga temple at Paruvasseri (21 miles from Thrissur), Kunnatur and Karunagapally of Kollam District, and Ambalapuzha taluk of Alleppey.

As per historian Jayaprakash, Kollam district of Kerala was the citadel of Buddhism.

Kurumba Bhaghavaty temple in Kodungallur (Cranganore) is believed to have been a Buddhist shrine once.

Mulavasam was once a known Buddhist pilgrim center in Kerala. The location of this place is unknown. The place is ruined and there is more or less evidence existing for the same.

A Buddha statue was discovered in Karumadi, a place in Alappuzha (Alleppey). The statue is believed to be of 9th-14th century and is named as Karumadikuttan. Karumadi the place name and Kuttan meaning boy in Malayalam.

Karumadikuttan — half of the statue is missing, is believed to be destroyed by an elephant. There is also a story that the statue was destroyed by a Mughal emperor to avoid spreading of Buddhism in Kerala.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rejithakazhy/5067924772

Influence of Buddhism on Kerala Temples and Traditions

The images, processions, utsavam, etc in Hindu temples is believed to be a legacy of Buddhism. For example, kettukazcha or kutirakettu in Alleppey — Kollam districts.

The Sastha Ayyappan, Hindu deity that is prominent in Kerala is believed to be a Hindu-ised version of Buddha. The Buddhist influences in the Ayyappa shrine, pilgrims observing fasting, non-violence, vegetarianism, abstinence from worldly pleasures during the Ayyappa temple visit in Sabarimala are considered to be the inspiration from Buddhist teachings and principles. The chanting ‘sharanam ayyappa’ is proved to be inspired from the saranam formula of Buddha.

The location of Sastha temples of Kerala location is mostly in the interior of forests. This is compared with the Buddhist’s monastery places which are also located far away from the mainstream crowd. Example, Sabarimala Achankovil, and Aryankavu .

Some studies also point out the resemblance between postures of Buddha and Sastha.

Impact of Buddhism on Ayurveda

Ashtanga Hridaya written by Vaghbhatta Buddhist scholar is considered to be the bible for Ayurveda.

Impact of Buddhism on Education

Wherever existed, Buddhists missionaries were active in spreading literacy and education across . The Buddhist monasteries, known as the Viharas were turned into educational institutes as the demand went high for Buddhist teachings, These were called ‘Palli’ in Kerala. Ezhuthupalli, that were run later near Hindu temples are considered to be school legacy of Viharas.

The schools that were set up near to the temples were called as Ezhuthupalli.

Even now the schools in Kerala are called as Pallikoodam in Malayalam.

Impact of Buddhism on Artists

Prominent poet MahakaviKumaran Asan’s famous writings such as Chandala Bikshuki and Budha Charitham are inspired from Buddhism.

Decline of Buddhism

The decline of Buddhism started from the 8th century AD (same time when Jainism also started its decline). Many pieces of research point Shankaracharya the Hindu philosopher, as one of the reasons behind the decline of popularity of Buddhism in Kerala. The matter has been debated much by researchers and has raised many controversies around.

Shankaracharya spread the Hindu philosophy through Advaita Vedanta that depicted Hindu philosophy and practices. It is believed that Shankaracharya held and won many debates on Hindu and Buddhist ideologies. This is considered to be the main factor that increased the popularity of Hinduism and resulted in the decline of Buddhism.

Information Source:

  1. A Survey of Kerala History,
  2. Wiki
  3. http://travel.manoramaonline.com/travel/getting-around-kerala/karumadikuttan-buddhism-alappuzha.html