Sculpture mistakenly identified as a Hindu deity is originally “Buddha”, declares Madras High Court

Thala Vetti Muniyappan To Buddha

In a Writ Petition challenging the identity of the statue at Thalaivetti Muniyappan Temple, Periyeri Village, Salem, Tamil Nadu, the Madras High court after considering the detailed report of Archaeological Department declared the statue to be the depiction of “Buddha”.

The Petitioners, one Mr.P.Ranganathan and a Buddha Trust, contended that the statue which is installed at the temple is Lord Buddha and it has been worshipped by the followers of Buddhism for many years. However, over a period of time, the statue has been converted into one of Hindu deity and being worshipped by the Hindus. However, the said submission has been refuted by the learned Special Government Pleader. In order to give quietus to the entire controversy, the High Court issued a preliminary direction to the Principal Secretary and Commissioner, Archaeological Department, Tamil Development to inspect the subject temple and submit a detailed report as to the rival claims of the parties.

Report of the Archaeological Department

The Temple and Sculpture

The report of the joint inspection team revealed that the temple building of Thalaivetti Muniappan is of modern origin. It is built of cement, bricks and concrete. The temple is under the control of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, Tamil Nadu and Poojas are performed daily.

The Thalaivetti Muniappan Sculpture was covered with thick layers of sandal, kunkum, turmeric, ash and oil. In order to inspect the sculpture it was required to remove such coating from the sculpture. Therefore, with the help of the temple priest and his assistants, the sculpture was cleaned completely.

The Iconography of Sculpture

The sculpture was made of hard stone. The figure was in seated position known as “ardhapadmasana” on a lotus pedestal. The hands are posed in “dhyana mudra”. The head shows lakshanas of the Buddha such as curly hair, ushnisa and elongated earlobe. Urna is not visible on the forehead. The head was severed from the torso which were glued together with cement and lime mixture a few years ago. However, due to human error or some other reason, the head was not positioned properly to the torso and consequently, the head slightly twisted towards the left side of the body. Height of the image is 108 cm. The reverse side of the sculpture was flat without any artistic work.

Concluding Remarks

After inspecting the sculpture and carefully examining the available archaeological and historical evidences, the inspection Committee collectively expressed their opinion that the sculpture depicts several mahalakshanas (great traits) of the Buddha.

Archaeological Department to take control of the property

In view of the categorical report submitted by the Archaeological Department, the court held that the assumption of the HR & CE Department that the premise of the sculpture is a temple is no longer sustainable and the control must go into the hands of some other authority.

On the direction of court to inform as to who will take control of the sculpture inside the property, the learned Additional Government submitted that HR & CE Department should continue to take control of this place since the locals used to come to this place for worship by treating it as a Temple of Thalaivetti Muniappan for a considerable period. However, the court declined to accept the submission and clarified that after having received the report of Archaeological Department, it will not be appropriate to permit the HR & CE Department to continue to treat this sculpture as Thalaivetti Muniappan. The mistaken identity cannot be allowed to continue after coming to a conclusion that the sculpture is that of Buddha. In view of the same, the court held that 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 it will go against the very tenets of Buddhism.

Eventually direction was given by the court to the Archaeological Department to take control and maintain the property in which the sculpture has been placed. The Department shall also erect a Board inside the property by depicting the sculpture inside the property as Buddha. The general public can also be permitted to visit this place and it shall be ensured that no poojas or other ceremonies are allowed to be performed for the sculpture of Buddha.

The Excavations carried on by Archaeological Survey of India[1] has proved the spread of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu’s past. According to 2011 Census data, the population of Tamil Nadu comprises a mere 0.02% as Buddhists (11,186 person)[2]. The State also accounts for a dwindling number of Buddhist Monks- less than 15, at present. Unlike the statutory Waqf Boards or the TN government’s HR & CE Department, an exclusive and specialized body to look after the Buddha Viharas is yet to be formed in the State.

A.B. Karl Marx Siddharthar is a practising Advocate channelizing his interest in Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. He is also the Author of ‘UNCASTE’ subtitled as ‘Understanding Unmarriageability: The Way Forward To Annihilate Caste’. The book is available worldwide. The author can be reached here karlmarxsiddharthar@gmail.com.

[1] Link: https://www.oneindia.com/chennai/excavations-prove-spread-of-buddhism-in-tn-asi-1516929.html

[2] Link: https://www.census2011.co.in/data/religion/5-buddhism.html


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