In Salem, Buddhists struggle to offer prayers to a Buddha once mistaken to be Muniappan

The Tamil Nadu HR&CE Department is planning to approach the High Court seeking a review of its order, citing that Hindus have been worshipping the Buddha statue as ‘Thalaivetti Muniappan’ for many years.
In Salem, Buddhists struggle to offer prayers to a Buddha once mistaken to be Muniappan
In Salem, Buddhists struggle to offer prayers to a Buddha once mistaken to be Muniappan
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December is the follow-up month at TNM where we go back to headlines of the past for a status update. In this series, we strive to bring focus back to promises made by governments, revisit official investigations that should have been completed by now and exhume issues of public interest that lost steam over time.

On the full moon night of December 7, Friday, a group of Buddhists made their latest attempt to offer prayers at a shrine in Tamil Nadu's Salem district, where archaeologists have confirmed the existence of an ancient Buddha statue. As on previous occasions, their entry to the shrine currently run by Hindus — who believe it to be a temple of Thalaivetti Muniappan — was far from easy. Even as Hindus lit diyas (small oil lamps) and celebrated the Kartigai Deepam festival on the premises, despite a Madras High Court order explicitly barring the practice of Hindu rituals here, it was the Buddhists who were stopped and questioned on the way.

“Sevvaipetti SI Mariammal asked us to explain the purpose of our visit before letting us offer our prayers. This scenario has played out repeatedly over the past four months here, despite a court order declaring that the idol inside the temple is of Buddha,” said Seevagan, deputy secretary of the Tamil Nadu Boutha Araneriyalar Sangam, Salem. “The police officers on duty told us to send a letter to the Archaeological Department and ask them to take over the temple if we wanted to avoid such inquiries in the future,” he said.

On July 19, the Madras High Court had established that the archaeological and historical evidence submitted by the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology (TNSDA) proved the statue at the shrine was indeed that of Buddha. It also ordered the TNSDA to erect a board on the temple premises stating the same, adding that poojas and other ceremonies should also not be allowed to be performed for the sculpture. The court further directed the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charity Endowment (HR&CE) Department, which manages the temple, to hand over the property to the TNSDA.

Nearly five months later, with seemingly no initiative from the HR&CE Department to hand over the temple as per the court directive, the Buddhists who seek to offer prayers are forced to do so in the presence of police officials for fear of a law and order issue. Besides, according to the followers who visited the temple, no sign boards clarifying the Buddhist origins of the idol can also be found on the property still.

“The official court order arrived in August, more than four months ago. But still, the sign boards calling the property a Hindu temple are yet to be removed,” alleged Seevagan. When TNM asked TNSDA Commissioner R Sivananthan about this, he said that the department had already installed a banner on the temple premises stating that the idol inside was of Buddha and Hindu rituals were not to be performed there. But the temple priest or local Hindu people might have removed it later, he said. “We have requested the HR&CE Department to officially hand over the temple to us, but we are yet to receive a response,” he added.

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One of the staunch opposers to the presence of Buddhists on the property is apparently a priest at the temple, Munusamy. “Munusamy refuses to let us into the temple for prayers. He calls the police on us whenever we visit,” Seevagan said. According to a report by The Federal, Munusamy’s father Balraj and grandfather Govindaraj Naidu used to do poojas for the temple idol. Ever since Govindaraj took over the temple’s care, the task of looking after the temple affairs and carrying out poojas became somewhat of a hereditary affair for the family, which explains Munusamy’s reluctance to let go of the temple.

“We are not visiting the temple to create a ruckus. We just go there every full moon to offer our prayers. But as the HR&CE department is yet to hand over the temple as per the court order, we have to be accompanied by the police. If the government fails to facilitate the temple handover by next month, we will go to the temple site ourselves to install the sign boards,” Seevagan said.

When asked about the delay in the handover of the temple, HR&CE Salem Joint Commissioner Mangayarkarasi told TNM that the department is planning to approach the court seeking a review of its order. “Thalaivetti Muniappan, the deity in the temple, has been worshipped by Hindu devotees for many years. We have asked the court to review its verdict regarding the temple,” she said.

Mistaken identity

The Madras High Court’s landmark order was based on a petition filed by P Ranganathan and the Buddha Trust in Salem in 2011. According to Selvakumar, son of Ranganathan who is now no more, the ‘Muniappan’ statue used to be worshipped under a tree for a very long time. “The temple building was constructed in 2008, as part of which the workers had cleaned all the statues. My father, who was working in the area, had gone there simply to see the construction work. But when he came across the idol, he recognised it as a Buddha statue,” he recalled.

Selvakumar pointed out that Muniappan statues across the state, most of them located at borders of rural villages, were usually built on clay. “But this was the only ‘Muniappan’ that was carved out on hardstone,” he said.

The TNSDA’s subsequent inspection of the temple on July 28 last year — based on the directions received from the Madras High Court on November 20, 2017 — cited more evidence to establish that the idol at the temple was indeed a Buddha statue. In its report, the TNSDA pointed out that the temple building is of modern origin and built with “cement, bricks, and concrete”, while the sculpture was “covered with thick layers of sandal, kumkum, turmeric, ash, and oil”.

The department’s iconographic study indicated that many of the idol’s features are those typically associated with Buddha statues. The sculpture is made of hard stone and the figure is seated on a lotus pedestal, its backside flat without any artistic ornamentation. The figure, which sits in a cross-legged (ardha padmasana) posture, measures 108 cm in height. Shoulder-to-shoulder length of the idol was noted as 58 cm. The hands form the dhyana mudra (meditation sign) often used in the representations of Buddha. The sculpture’s head too shows lakshanas (signature attributes) of Buddha, such as curly hair, presence of an ushnisha (a three-dimensional oval on the top of the Buddha’s head), and elongated earlobes. The height of the ushnisha is 7 cm. Urna, a spiral or circular dot placed on the forehead of Buddhist images as an auspicious mark, however is not visible on the forehead.

With these findings, the TNSDA in its report had arrived at the conclusion that the statue “depicts several mahalakshanas (great traits) of the Buddha”.

After receiving this report, the Madras HC ruled that it would not be appropriate to permit the HR&CE Department to continue to treat this sculpture as that of Thalaivetti Muniappan. “The mistaken identity cannot be allowed to continue after concluding that the sculpture is that of Buddha. In view of the same, the original status must be restored, and permitting the HR & CE department to continue to treat the sculpture as Thalaivetti Muniappan, will not be appropriate and will go against the very tenets of Buddhism,” the court said.

Decline of Buddhism

The TNSDA’s report had also stated that the head of the statue was severed from the torso, and later glued together with a mixture of cement and lime. But as the head was not attached properly to the torso during the reassembling process, it can be observed to be slightly twisted towards the left side of the body. This is how the idol seems to have received the name ‘Thalaivetti Muniappan’, with thalaivetti literally translating to ‘beheaded’ in Tamil.

But as prominent Tamil anti-caste activist Iyodhee Thass Pandithar had once pointed out, the decapitation of Buddha idols was a method historically used by adversaries of Buddhism in their alleged pursuit to eliminate all traces of the religion. He had also cited examples of temples like Madurai Pandi Muni and Salem Thalaivetti Munneswaram, where beheaded statues of Buddha were replaced with local deities.

“There was a time when Buddhism was very prevalent not only in Tamil Nadu, but across southern India. It was commonly practised in Kerala as well. But in Tamil Nadu, we currently don’t have enough evidence to trace the details of its practice after the ninth century,” said AK Perumal, a Tamil folklore researcher and historian. While there were some traces of Buddhism in the region during the Chozha period, it flourished during the Pallava period between the seventh and eighth centuries, he said. Kanchipuram was a prominent Buddhist learning centre in Tamil Nadu, he added.

Perumal believes that the rigidity of the principles followed by Buddhists and Jains was one of the many reasons for the decline of these practices. “These principles made them unpopular among the common people, and the flexibility of Shaivism and Vaishnavism took over,” he said, adding that this, however, cannot be called the ‘destruction of Buddhism’.

“Buddhist temples or constructions were rarely destroyed. But the rituals underwent a change. The identity of the temple and the idols changed in accordance with the succeeding religions. Some Buddhist idols started to be worshipped as Muniappan, while Shasta idols came to be worshipped as Ayyanar in rural Tamil Nadu,” he said.

Though people in Tamil Nadu rarely associate Buddhism as a part of their cultural heritage, it should be noted that at least a small proportion of Pali (the sacred language of Theravāda Buddhism) derivatives sit ingrained in the Tamil language. Many Buddhist writers have also contributed to post-Sangam literature. Buddhist clerics Prabodha Jnana and Abhaya Devi, who have visited 12 districts in the state since 2016 to study and document Buddhist sites, state in their website that the rocky town of Salem would have derived its name from the Pali word ‘sela’, which means rocks. The name Dharmapuri (the City of Dharma) too indicates that it was a Buddhist centre during the ancient days, the website says.

Prabodha Jnana and Abhaya Devi note that the Tamil Nadu region used to have widespread presence of Buddhism in all forms, including Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. In fact, many prominent Buddhist scholars and yogis such as Bodhidharma, Dignaga, Buddhaghosha, Dhammapala, Dharmakirthi, Chandrakirthi, and Dharmapala hailed from this region.

According to Tibetan master Taranatha, Guru Padmasambhava stayed in the Tamil Nadu region for many years, where he taught Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. “There are also historical accounts of attempts to revive Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the 13th century by inviting monks from Tamil Nadu,” Prabodha Jnana and Abhaya Devi state in their website.

Sampath, a member of the Salem Buddha Trust, told TNM that along with the Thalaivetti Muniappan issue, they had also asked the government to restore a small Vihara (Buddhist monastery) in Reddiarpatti of Tirunelveli district in 2011. “The organisation has urged the government to look after several places formerly known for its Buddhist practices,” he said. In one of the petitions filed by the Trust, they have also demanded the recovery of an encroached land originally owned by the Buddha Mutt at Puthamangalam (Buddhamangalam) near Kilvelur in Nagapattinam.

Even though there has been a rise in the search and discovery of Buddhist sites and idols in Tamil Nadu in recent years, the TNSDA has no data on how many such sculptures have actually been recovered so far. While the Ministry of Culture has been showing great interest in excavating historical sites to trace their Tamil History, its seeming negligence when it comes to conducting studies on and restoring the sites linked with Buddhism remains a sore point.

Alleging that the government’s way of handling the issue showed its anti-Buddhist stand, writer and Dalit rights activist Shalin Maria Lawrence said the Madras High Court’s verdict has set a precedent in India and that more orders like this are likely to follow in the coming days. “The state government, however, seems to be standing against the interest of Dalits and religious minorities. The government has taken the decision to file for a review to appease caste Hindus because many of the Buddhists seeking the handover of the temple are Dalits. This wouldn't have happened if they were from any other castes,” she added.

“Ideally, the government should have ensured that the temple was handed over to the Buddhists within a few days after the court order,” Shalin said. Alleging that HR&CE’s delay in handing over the temple was contempt of court, she asked, “If the delay is because they are considering the feelings of Hindus, doesn't this hurt the Buddhists? The Buddhists are visiting the temple without being informed about the department’s review appeal. Does the government not think this could cause communal tension between Hindus and Buddhists? This could create enmity between them.”

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