The state of Kerala lies at the extreme southern tip of India, along its western shores. Facing the Arabian Sea, it has a geography and climate that set it apart from the dry interior of South India’s Deccan Plateau. This is lush green hill country, drenched by heavy monsoon rains and enveloped by tropical forests. The coast is a mosaic of lagoons, lakes, rivers, canals, paddy fields and coconut plantations. Kerala’s coast attracted merchants and sailors in search of riches sustained by its weather and soil – spices. It has been a melting pot of influences, drawn from all over Asia – Arab, Persian, Sinhalese, Malay and Chinese. No wonder then that it has also had a rich Buddhist past, now hidden beneath a veneer of Hindu tradition.
Kerala might not have the abundance of Buddhist sites that Andhra Pradesh boasts of but it has a living tradition reflecting Buddhist customs. According to some, the South Indian deity Ayyappa is the result of the Hindu appropriation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. The parallels between the mythology, iconography, ritual worship and shrine architecture of the two figures are remarkable. Nevertheless, Kerala has managed to retain some archaeological evidence for the presence of Buddhism. One example is the Karumadikuttan (meaning ‘Boy from Karumadi’ in Malayalam, the state’s principal language) Statue, a three-feet tall black granite image of the Buddha that was recovered from the Karumadi Thozhu, a stream flowing near the village of Karumadi, Alappuzha District in 1930.
The credit for discovering the ‘Boy from Karumadi’ goes to a British engineer, Sir Robert Bristow (1880-1966). Bristow is famous for his role in developing the city of Kochi (or Cochin) into a major Asian seaport. He can be counted among the many Europeans who helped resurrect the Buddhist heritage of South Asia. The statue itself is a poignant reminder of the persecution and decline of Buddhism in the region. The left half of the Buddha’s torso has been hacked clean, an act attributed to an elephant by local legend but more likely the work of hostile humans. Said to date back to the period between the 9th and 14th centuries CE, Karumadikuttan is a reminder of Buddhism’s heydays in South India. The site is now being revived and developed by Kerala’s Department of Archaeology. It has also been drawing tourists and devotees, the most famous one being the Dalai Lama who came visiting in 1965.
Given below is an excerpt from The Hindu newspaper’s 2017 article on the celebration of Buddha Purnima in the village by the Kerala Buddhist Council:
Karumadi, a motley village in Ambalappuzha, became a venue of religious camaraderie on Wednesday. A few hundreds of Buddhists converged in front of Karumadikuttan, a statue of Buddha, amidst chants of ‘Dharmam Saranam, Sangham Saranam’ as candles were lit. The occasion was Buddha Purnima, organised by Kerala Buddhist Council. It was for the first time that the festival was celebrated here on a State level, inviting guests from different States. The presence of Tibetan lamas and Buddhist monks from Maharashtra and other States enriched the motley crowd as Dharmadesana, the message of Dharma, rent the air. A seminar on ‘Karumadikuttan and Buddha Dharma’ was among the programmes held at the venue. The three-ft high, black granite statue, with its left portion missing, is said to belong to a period between 10th and 12th century, and represent the remains of Buddhist culture that prevailed in Kerala. The statue was found in ‘Karumadi Thodu,’ a stream, and was installed by Robert Bristow, a British engineer in 1930s, according to historians. Dalai Lama had visited the site in 1965. The location has been attracting domestic and foreign tourists and its upkeep has been entrusted to the Department of Archaeology.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a map of Kerala dating back to 1866. Labelled ‘The Hill Districts of the Madras Presidency’, it appeared in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 36 (1866), as part of an article discussing the effect of deforestation (in the Western Ghats, the mountains forming the eastern half of the state) on the region’s water supply.