The Thalaivetti Muniyappan temple near Salem, where a local deity is worshipped as per Hindu rituals, will be treated as a Buddhist temple hereafter, thanks to a recent Madras High Court order.
The order based on technical and scientific inspections of the deity may revive debates on the origins of many such temples in South India, which were believed to have been Buddhist shrines before they were converted into Hindu temples by force or due to the decline of Buddhism over centuries.
The court order dated July 19 was based on a petition filed by S Sathia Chandran in 2011, which prayed the court to conduct an inspection of the Thalaivetti Muniyappan Temple at Kottai Road, Periyeri Village near Salem, to ascertain the “identity and antiquity” and take appropriate action to restore the status to a Buddha Trust.
The petitioner’s claim was that the statue, the deity, was of Lord Buddha and “it had been worshipped by the followers of Buddhism for many years” before it was converted into a Hindu deity. The petition, with detailed submissions to substantiate claims that it was a Buddha temple, was initially refuted by the government counsel.
Following this, the court gave direction to the authorities to inspect the temple and submit a detailed report by the principal secretary and commissioner, archaeological department, of the state government.
Following that, an expert committee’s inspection report submitted before the court confirmed that the existing temple structure that follows Hindu rituals “is of modern origin”, “built of cement, bricks and concrete”. The inspection in July 2021 also checked the sculpture. “It 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,” details the report.
The inspection report said 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 figure were a Sagati. 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 in a cross legged (ardhapadmasana) posture. The reverse side of the sculpture was flat without any artistic work,” the report said.
Based on available archaeological and historical evidence, the expert committee concluded that “the sculpture depicts several mahalakshanas (great traits) of the Buddha.”
Noting this, the Madras High Court said the state government’s assumption that it is a (Hindu) temple is no longer sustainable and the control must go into the hands of some other authority.
While the government argued to maintain the status quo of the temple, citing that the local people have been treating it as their temple for a long time, the court rejected that demand. “After having received such a report, it will not be appropriate to permit the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowment Department to continue to treat this sculpture as Thalaivetti Muniyappan,” the court said.
The court said the “mistaken identity cannot be allowed to continue after coming to a conclusion that the sculpture is that of Buddha” and ordered that “the original status must be restored” as continuing to treat it as Thalaivetti Muniyappan “will not be appropriate and it will go against the very tenets of Buddhism”.