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10th century Buddhist statues in Chennai - varnamvarnam
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10th century Buddhist statues in Chennai

In Kalki’s epic novel, Ponniyin Selvan, which is about the the early life of 10th century Chola emperor Raja Raja Chola I, there are many references to Buddhism. In the second book, we get to see him in Sri Lanka restoring the Buddhist Viharas and getting impressed by the size of the statues of Buddha. Later when he gets caught in a cyclone and falls sick, he lives in hiding in the Buddhist Monastery of Nagappatinam in Tamil Nadu.

Recently the Archaeological Survey of India had found a 10th century Tamil inscription that mentioned the donation of land to build a Shiva temple in Kolapakkam, 20 km from Chennai. Deciphering the inscriptions, they found two Buddha statues in dhyana pose and some ornamental pillars.

S. Rajavelu, epigraphist, ASI, had recently found that the third inscription belonged to “Sri Vijaya Maharaja,” a king from Sumatra, and that it was issued in his eighth regnal year. The inscription mentions his donating 250 kuzhi (a measurement) of land to Agatheeswarar at Kolapakkam, which was in Perur nadu (country), a sub-division of Puliyur. Sri Vijaya was a contemporary of Raja Raja Chola and the palaeography of the inscription showed the script was similar to that of the period of Raja Raja Chola. Sri Vijaya had a cordial relationship with the Chola kingdom. Although the inscription mentioned Sri Vijaya’s donation to the temple, it indirectly indicated Buddhist activity nearby, because Sri Vijaya was a Buddhist.

Dr. Satyamurthy and Dr. Rajavelu explored the area and found the ruins of a Buddhist temple close to the Agatheeswarar temple. The two Buddha sculptures and ornamental pillars, in granite, were unearthed. The Buddha sculptures are three feet tall. One sculpture has a dharma chakra on either side of the Buddha. This was sculpted in the ancient region that is now Tamil Nadu. The other sculpture has a three-tiered umbrella above the Buddha’s head and women bearing fly-whisks.

According to Dr. Satyamurthy, the face of this Buddha has Mongoloid features and this sculpture shows South-East Asian influence. One of the ornamental pillars unearthed has a bas-relief of a human face, with a head-gear that shows South-East Asian influence. An image of Ganesa is carved on this pillar.

Kolapakkam perhaps was a centre of Buddhist activity. According to Dr. Rajavelu, this area coming under Tondaimandalam was noted for Buddhist activity about 1,000 years ago, prior to the Chola period. [Buddha statues unearthed near Chennai]

Update: It seems the statues are not that of Buddha, but of Jain thirthankaras


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