Evidence for the history of Buddhism at the southernmost end of the Indian subcontinent (defined here as the modern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Tamilnadu) is highly fragmented, a scattered collection of inscriptions, archaeological ruins, art-historical remains, and a few texts. Yet Buddhist institutions clearly once flourished in South India. From the edicts of AŚoka (third century b.c.e.) and the written testimony of Chinese pilgrims to the presence of Buddhist interlocutors in Hindu and Jain texts for more than a millennium, Buddhists obviously played significant roles in the South Indian religious landscape until at least the fourteenth century. Yet what sort of Buddhism flourished there? What did it mean to be a "Buddhist" in early medieval South India? What kinds of interactions took place among Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains? Answers to such questions remain elusive.
With no direct references to Buddhism found in any extant Malayalam or Kannada text, both Kerala and Karnataka harbor Buddhist archaeological records that are difficult to interpret. Only a meager collection of Buddhist images has been unearthed in Kerala, all roughly datable to the sixth through tenth centuries c.e. In Karnataka, the record expands ever so slightly, from the stŪpa at Vanavāsī (third century c.e.) to the fifth-century caitya at Aihole and evidence of tantric worship at Balligāve (eleventh century). StŪpas and caityas attest to some sort of institutional organization, royal or lay patronage, and active practices of worship, but the inscriptional record provides no further evidence concerning the status or use of such structures.
Two more substantial bodies of evidence can be found in the archaeological ruins of Andhra Pradesh and in the Tamil literary record. While neither presents a complete picture of Buddhist life and practice in the South, each does provide a richer range of material for interpretation.
The impressive ruins of Amarāvatī, Nāgārjunakoṇḍa, and other sites in Andhra Pradesh constitute the earliest evidence for Buddhism in the South (second century b.c.e.). Although no textual production can be located here with any certainty, these grand stūpas or mahācaityas, with their rich inscriptional records, narrative friezes, and hundreds of Buddhist sculptures, bespeak flourishing centers of Buddhist practice through at least the twelfth century. Due both to the traditional association of Amaravat and Nāgārjunakoṇḍa with NĀgĀrjuna (the great Madhyamaka philosopher of the second century c.e.) and to the nature of the images found there, Andhra Buddhism has long been labeled "MahĀyĀna" by scholars. The narratives of the Buddha's lives carved in stone, the belief that each stūpa contained relics of the Buddha's earthly body, and the inscriptional references to lay donors (many of them women of the Īkṣvāku royal dynasty that ruled from Nāgārjunakoṇḍa) all point to flourishing centers of Buddhist worship, where monastic and lay devotees honored the remains of the Buddha, contemplated the lessons of his many lives, and worshiped in myriad ways the figures of buddhas past and future.
Turning southward to the Tamil-speaking region, the true treasure trove of Buddhist artifacts is Nākapaṭṭiṇam, a coastal site mentioned in Sri Lankan, Burmese, and Chinese sources from which over three hundred images have been recovered. Buddhist sculptures found in the midst of Hindu places of worship, such as the six-foot standing Buddha from the Kamaks yamman Temple in Kāñcīpuram (fourth century c.e.), attest to a long Buddhist influence in the Tamil region. Yet does the presence of a Buddha image mean that a Hindu temple was once truly "Buddhist"? A seventh-century inscription from Mamallapuram, listing the Buddha as an incarnation of the Hindu deity Viṣṇu, suggests a more complex scenario. Does a Buddha image imply a strong sense of Buddhist sectarian affiliation, or had the Buddha simply been absorbed into the wider South Indian pantheon by the seventh century?
What emerges uniquely in South India from the Tamil-speaking region is a Buddhist literary record in languages other than Sanskrit. The three famed Pali commentators of the fourth and fifth centuries, for example—Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta, and Dhammapāla—claim some connection to beautiful monasteries patronized by beneficent Tamil kings. Through the twelfth-century works of Buddhappiya and Kassapa, eminent TheravĀda monks associate themselves with southern India, with monasteries from Nākapaṭṭinam to Kāñcīpuram.
Tamil is unique among the regional literary languages of India for its two premodern Buddhist works. The older of the two remaining pieces of Buddhist literature composed in Tamil, the Maṇimēkalai, attributed to Cāttaṉār and dated to roughly the sixth century, narrates the story of a young courtesan who gradually turns away from that life to embrace Buddhism. The Maṇimēkalai presents its audience with a long and stylistically beautiful narrative meditation on the arising of the conditions that propel its heroine to eventual enlightenment, culminating in two densely terse chapters on Buddhist logic and pratĪtyasamutpĀda (dependent origination). With the settings of its stories ranging from luxurious Tamil cities to Kapilavastu and the shores of a Southeast Asian island kingdom known as Cāvakam, the Maṇimēkalai clearly attests to a vibrant literary culture in Tamil that counted Buddhists, sophisticated in their knowledge of Buddhist tradition and highly technical philosophical language, among its participants.
Further evidence of Buddhist literary culture in the South can be found in the Vīracōḻiyam, an eleventh-century treatise on Tamil grammar and poetics attributed to Puttamittiran and accompanied by a commentary thought to have been composed by the author's student, Peruntevanar. As the first Tamil grammar to claim direct appropriation of Sanskrit poetic theory (in its treatment of alan˙kara or "poetic ornamentation"), the Vϊracoliyam explicitly forges a new Tamil-Sanskrit hybrid language in the name of Buddhism. Claiming that the literary language he describes first issued forth from the mouth of Avalōkitaṉ (Avalokiteś´vara), Puttamittiraṉ pioneers a new poetic style for his own sectarian community. The commentary then substantiates that project by gathering together examples of Tamil Buddhist poetry in illustration of this new Sanskrit-Tamil hybrid. Such scattered poetic phrases—many alluding to Tamil versions of jĀtaka stories and to songs in praise of the Buddha and his many wonderful qualities—are, unfortunately, all that remain (apart from the Maṇimekalai, which the commentator never cites) of what must have once been a considerable corpus of Buddhist devotional, philosophical, and narrative poetry in Tamil.
Evidence for the presence of Buddhists in southernmost India thus presents us with a series of disparate snapshots, some more in focus than others. Whether the substantial archaeological finds in southern Andhra Pradesh bear any relevance for understanding the Buddhist literary record in Tamil, or whether the scattered Buddhist images recovered from paddy fields across the region reveal anything of "Buddhism" per se in the South, are questions that await further research.
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Anne E. Monius