Statues and Statutes

The struggle over the past and future of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu

Devotees pray inside a vihara in Chennai on the occasion of Buddha Purnima, which marks the Buddha’s birth anniversary, on 16 May 2022. Buddhism in Tamil Nadu has been driven into the personal and historical, away from the popular, public and modern reality it inhabited in the days of the Dalit Buddhist reformer Iyothee Thass. ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images
31 October, 2022

In July this year, the Madras High Court issued what might be one of its most consequential judgments of the last two decades. The matter itself was minor, one that flew under the radars of a majority of the state’s loudest advocates, politicians and columnists. For over ten years, the Buddha Trust, a small Buddhist organisation in the industrial city of Salem, had pushed the courts to identify a small shrine in the nearby village of Periyeri as containing a statue of the Buddha. The statue had been a focus of prayer for Periyeri’s Hindus, who had built a concrete temple around it and claimed that it represented the local deity Thalaivetti Muniappan—literally, headless Muniappan. The site, like many temples in Tamil Nadu, was owned and administered by the state government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department.

The case had rolled on for more than a decade. During a hearing in November 2017, the high court asked the Tamil development wing of the state’s archaeological department to study the shrine and submit a report on the identity of the idol. After wiping away layers of sandalwood and turmeric paste, the department’s officials identified the idol as having all the bodily features historically used to represent the Buddha. The verdict confirmed the report’s findings, but left the state with a quandary. The court ruled that the site could no longer be owned by the HRCE department—which had argued for custody—but the government lacked a statutory body representing Buddhists to which the shrine could be handed over. The verdict bars Hindu prayers at the shrine, asks for the installation of a board announcing that the idol is of the Buddha and hands the shrine over to the archaeological department, without any comment on how Tamil Nadu’s Buddhist community can access it or conduct religious functions at the site.

The Periyeri case is unlikely to be the last instance of an ostensibly Hindu idol being found to be of Buddhist origin. At various points in history, Buddhism was the predominant courtly and popular religion of southern India. Countless statues of the Buddha continue to be excavated across the state. Many historically well-known scholars and practitioners of Buddhism were tied intimately to the Tamil country—particularly to Kanchipuram, which was a major centre of Buddhist learning. This includes Bodhidharma, who is said to have taken Buddhism to China, Dignaga, a scholar of Buddhist epistemology, and Buddhaghosa, who remains a revered figure in Sri Lanka. All three of them studied at Kanchipuram.

Despite this history, the state government has done little to document the influence of Buddhism on the region. A senior official in the archaeological department admitted to me that the department did not even have a rough estimate of the number of Buddhist shrines, viharas and statues that it has found. A study of this could be a major achievement of MK Stalin’s incumbent state government, which, particularly under Thangam Thennarasu, the minister of Tamil culture and archaeology, has taken an energetic interest in studying and eulogising Tamil history. The absence of the same fervour for Buddhist sites as for other religious and historical sites is suspect.