Buddhist and Jaina connections of Chola Temples.
In the past few decades several images of Buddha and Jain Theerthankaras have been found in Tamil Nadu fairly close to Hindu temples; tall Buddha image was found not far from Chennai. But there is no vestige of any temples or monasteries which housed these statues. Whatever happened to them? This question niggled at the mind of J. Srigururaj. This intriguing question became stronger when he read Dr. Suresh B. Pillai’s book “Introduction to the Study of Temple Art” (1976).
Srigururaj was born in Thanjavur and went to school there for some years, during which going to temples was a regular habit. There would be at least ten temples within half a kilometer. Now he started wondering, “did they really want to build so many temples or were they forced to do so, particularly considering the range of the Chola empire within and outside India?” It appeared strange that in the Chola region no Buddhist/ Jain temples or other structures were found. When emperor Asoka’s son went to spread Buddhism in Sri Lanka, would he not have left any structures in Tamil Nadu? Hiuen Tsang, who visited Kanchipuram in 637 AD, had left records of over a hundred Buddhist monasteries and numerous monks. There are Jain inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi dating back to over 2000 years ago.
To understand the matter one needs to know about Chola art prior and during the times of Vijayalaya Chola. Most historians start writing art history from Vijayalaya Choleeswaram in Narthamalai and Panangudi. Vijayalaya captured Thanjavur from the Muttarayars and established the Chola empire. Pazhayarai with modern day Kumbakonam as the centre became the meeting and melting ground for Buddhism from the delta areas, Jainism from the Muttaraiyars zone and Saivism from Kanchipuram of the Pallavas. After his time due to pressure of holding the empire together with a single faith, that is Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism bore the brunt.
In his lecture for the Tamil Heritage Trust recently Srigururaj narrated how he and his father Jayachandran decided to visit the temples mentioned in Dr. Pillai’s book to see for themselves, to identify the vestiges of these two religions. The aim of this presentation was to throw the troubling questions at the audience and allow them to draw inferences and not to blaspheme any particular religion, explained Srigururaj and also warned that one should not start looking for such evidences in every temple one visits. Other than a few secondary references the presentation was based mainly on Dr. Pillai’s book, an investigative and monumental work.
For locating the remainders of the two religions one had to look for clues, such as shrines close to rivers/water bodies; west facing shrines – Jain temples face west,- but today they are considered as a symbol of Shiva facing west to destroy the demons – eg. Brahmasira Kandeeswarar temple; circular sanctums – eg. Tiruvellarai; discrepancy between the inner and outer enclosures and also discrepancy in the dates of the inscriptions on enclosures; courtyards strewn with unwanted, broken, unrecognized stones and beautiful images – eg. Tiruvalanchuzhi; indiscreet packing of stones of different kinds; altars are never changed unless they are of Buddhist or Jain origins; they generally reveal the formulae of the entire temple in a vertical format; in some Vaishnavite temples they had been converted into Tulasimaadams; all temples would have flagstaff – while Saivite had the Nandi and the Vaishnavite the Garuda on top, Rishabam or Swastikam was on top in Jain temples, while it was the wheel in Buddhist temples; the design of the Dwarapalakas too had to be considered according to the historical settings – the Dwarapalas in Sendalai reveal the structural similarity between the Saivite and Jain temples; in general Jain and Saivite temples were very similar and thus easy to alter. In Muttarayar zone the door keepers are simple dignified with two hands, while in the Raja Raja’s time they are four handed and richly carved. In both Jain and Buddhist temples the ceilings were invariably sculpted and painted.
Sendalai Chandra-lekai-chaturvedimangalam is a Siva temple; it has not been sung by any Nayanmars. Head of a Jain Theerthankara is found while the body has been chiseled out. An image of Parsvanatha is sculpted on ‘Sarapattikai’. These are soemwaht hidden from the normal visitors. Concealed behind a deliberately erected wall is also an image of Parsvanatha seated on a five headed snake.
The Airavateeswara temple at Darasuram (Raja Raja II, 12 C. CE) shows quite a few incongruities in the plinths, pidams and upapidams. The Yalipenn image is similar to the Silapanchika of the Sanchi Stupa and also stone lattices like the Stupa which is against the canons of Hindu temples. Also Buddhist symbol of Dharma Chakra is seen in the ‘Kudus’. Miniature images of Buddha as also stories of Buddha are seen in several places. A row of 108 Buddha images are altered to look like Nayanmars.
In the Kampahareswara temple at Thribhuvanam (Kulothunga III, 1178-1218) loose and inconsistent packing of stones and individual pillars made up of different types of stones with varied styles of carvings can be seen. In places like Piranmalai weapons of war also were found.
The Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur is totally Chola in style. Here there are three small panels seen openly showing Buddha and there is Buddha on the top third of the mural of Tripurantaka. But these are considered to symbolize emperor Raja Raja’s tolerance of other religions. Anaimangalam copper plates mention donations to Chudamani vihara and there is an inscription listing in detail every temple of the time with the locations. Princess Kundavai had made several contributions to temples of other religions.
The cobra based altar is discarded in the Saranatha Perumal temple at Tirucherai and the name of the presiding deity itself leads to inferences. The fluted pillars are the only remaining Buddhist elements in the Vellai Pillayar Koil in Thiruvalanchuzhi; also many pillars have lower half of different stones with carvings and the upper part different coloured plain stones placed incongruently. In the Girigujambaal shrine in Thirunageswaram Jain statues can be found in the prakarams.
The eastern part of the delta has tiered temples known as Madakovils constructed on raised platforms. From the point of surface evidences and architectural history these conceal Buddhist shrines abandoned or usurped from Buddhists. These are exclusive to this region and felt that they could have been built by Kochenganan who was reputed to have built 70 temples.
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