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Madras HC verdict on Thalaivetti Muniyappan opens up space for Buddhist history

A note distributed by Dalits Media Watch on the Madras High Court verdict on Thalaivetti Muniyappan, which opens up space for Buddhist history in Tamil Nadu and will impact India's history and historiography:

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A Madras High Court verdict appears to add grist to the mill of historians of repute and Buddhists who had claimed that Buddhist places of worship and many of its rituals were appropriated (and destroyed) as Hindu gods and Hindu rituals. P. Ranganathan (deceased) argued in his petition that if the statue was that of Thalaivetti Muniyappan, like other Hindu Gods/Goddesses, it would have been depicted with some kind of weapon like a sword, aruval, spear, etc. Several important historians in India, including Romila Thapar, have proposed the theory that Buddhism had been appropriated and destroyed by Hinduism.
The verdict directing the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department to hand over 26 cents of land belonging to the Thalaivetti Muniyappan temple on Kottai Road in Salem to the Archeological Department of Tamil Nadu promises to rekindle the fire of the Buddhist movement in the State, opening up several possibilities.
The court further directed that all Hindu rituals in the temple must be stopped immediately based on a study of the idol that confirmed it was indeed one of Lord Buddha.
While the verdict’s potential to make an impact on everyday politics in Tamil Nadu is negligible, as the temple itself isn’t a popular place of worship, scholars and Buddhist activists believe that it is bound to have a significant impact on the history and historiography of India.
The court’s verdict appears to add grist to the mill of historians of repute and Buddhists who had claimed that Buddhist places of worship and many of its rituals were appropriated (and destroyed) as Hindu gods and Hindu rituals.
It said: “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 original status must be restored and permitting the HR&CE Department to continue treating the sculpture as Thalaivetti Muniyappan, will not be appropriate, and it will go against the very tenets of Buddhism.”
The verdict is the result of a decade-long legal battle waged by P. Ranganathan (deceased), who approached the Madras High Court in 2011 and argued in his petition that if the statue was that of Thalaivetti Muniyappan, like other Hindu Gods/Goddesses, it would have been depicted with some kind of weapon like a sword, aruval, spear, etc. He had also obtained a copy of a register of Periyeri village which revealed that the 26 cents of temple land originally belonged to a ‘Buddha trust’. He also founded a Buddha trust, which is now being managed by his son, R. Selvakumar.
In July, 2021, a joint inspection team from the Archeological Department noted that the sculpture was made of hard stone, and the figure was in a seated position known as Ardhapadmasana on a lotus pedestal and concluded that the sculpture depicts several Lakshanas [physical characteristics] of the Buddha.
“The hands are posed in Dhyana Mudra, and the figure wears a sangati. The head shows Lakshanas of the Buddha, such as curly hair, ushnisa [ovoid shape at the top of the head] and elongated ear lobes. Urna [a spiral auspicious mark in Buddhism] is not visible on the forehead. The head was severed and reattached to the torso with cement and lime mixture a few years ago. However, due to human error, the head was not positioned properly.”
According to historians, the statue of Buddha is likely to have been sculpted in the 8 th or 9 th Century CE.
“The available historical evidence says that this is a statute of the Buddha. At some point before or at the start of British rule, the Buddha statue was refurbished as Thalaivetti Muniyappan. For over three generations, it has been worshipped as Muniyappan. The statue is likely to have been sculpted in the 8 th or 9 th Century CE. The pose and style (of the sculpture) is similar to that of the Pallava-Chola transitional period,” said, J. Barnabas, general secretary, Salem Historical Society.
Writer and historian Stalin Rajangam, who has written about the Thalaivetti Muniyappan temple in 2015, said, “Several important historians in India, including Romila Thapar, have proposed the theory that Buddhism had been appropriated and destroyed by Hinduism. However, this historical topic does not hold any value in everyday politics. The verdict (that the Hindu temple is, in fact, a Buddhist temple) by a court of law, which is an institution of the modern government institution, has historical significance and opens up several possibilities for Buddhists in modern India, who, so far, have only understood Buddhism as a political tool but not as a religion or coming together as a religious community.”
Though the Court accepted the historical evidence that Thalaivetti Muniyappan is Lord Buddha, the locals who visit the temple and the priest, who belongs to a dominant Hindu community, appear to believe that the statue and the temple have been around for the last 2,000 years. The story is that the Sultan severed the head of ‘Muni ayya’ and threw it into the well. More than a hundred years ago, one of the believers then found the head and attached it to the body of the statue.
The believers believe that their loved ones who are close to death recover if they come and worship him. ‘Muni ayya’ enters the body of his believers directly and tells them what to do,” said Munusamy, the temple’s third generation priest, and added that the Thirumalai Amman deity in the temple was believed be around 300 years old. He said believers donate chicken and goats to the deity.
Asked if the temple devotees are anxious about the recent court verdict, he said, “Many of them ask me about the court verdict. They ask how it is suddenly being called a Buddhist temple while they have been worshipping here for so many years. The HR&CE officials have told me that they will appeal against the verdict.”

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