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Spread of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu

Spread of Buddhism

Buddhism has been one of the centrifugal life forces of Tamil culture and Literature. The Tamil language and its literary and grammatical traditions had their veins fertilized and invigorated by this religion at a point of time, so much so that we have today several art works and ideas that bear an inerasable Buddhist imprint.

From almost every district of Tamil Nadu, ancient Buddha statues have been discovered. Tamil Nadu had wide-spread presence of all forms of Buddhism including Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Many great Buddhist scholars and Yogis were also from there including Bodhidharma, Dignaga, Buddhaghosha, Dhammapala, Dharmakirthi, Chandrakirthi and Dharmapala. According to Tibetan master Taranatha, Guru Padmasambhava stayed in Tamil Nadu for many years and taught Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism there. There are also historical accounts of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka being revived in the 13th Century by inviting monks from Tamil Nadu.

The introduction of Buddhism into Tamil country, according to Shu Hikosaka, can trace it to the third century B.C. when Emperor Asoka’s Dhamma Vijaya occurred. The Rock Edicts II and XIII of Asoka speak of the provinces in his own empire as well as abroad where he sent Buddhist missionaries. These two Rock Edicts are of particular value on account of the information they contain about his missions to the Tamil country and Ceylon. Rock Edict II mentions the names of the following dynasties of the Tamil country and Ceylon namely, the Chola, Pantiya Satyaputra, Keralaputra and Tamaparni. Among these names, the Chola, Pantiya and Keralaputra are well known as the three principal dynasties of the Tamil country who ruled Cholanatu, Pantiyanatu and Cheranatu respectively. The last name Tamraparniis identified as Ceylon.

The evidences for the early phases of the spreading of Buddhism in the Tamil country can be seen mainly from the epigraphical sources found in its ancient caves and stone-beds. A number of caves with Brahmi scripts have been found in Tamil Nadu in Madurai, Tiruchi, Tirunelveli and Chingleput districts. It is a known fact that the Brahmi script was popularized by Asoka through his Dhammavijiaya. Such scripts are found in abundance in almost all parts of India as well as in some places in foreign countries.

Buddhism among Tamils in Tamilakam was heavily exposed to the polemic from the Caiva (Shaiva) and Vaiṇava (Vaishnava) side from the Pallava period onwards which resulted in a marginalised position in Tamilakam. Alvappillai Veluppillai has written on several antiBuddhist spokesmen from the patti (bhakti)-movement like Campantar, Appar and Māṇikkavācakar.

Buddhism flourished in Tamil Nadu in two phases, firstly in the early years of the Pallava rule 400-650 AD, and secondly in the Chola period mid 9th to the early 14th century AD. There were many centres of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu among them Kanchipuram, Kaveripattinam, Uraiyur and Nagapattinam. The Chinese Buddhist monk scholar, Hsuan Tsang who visited India in the 7th century AD, describes Kanchipuram as a flourishing city and states that most of its population was Buddhist. He says there were over 100 Buddhist monasteries and over a thousand Buddhist monks. He also mentions about the presence of 300 monks from Sri Lanka in the monastery at the southern sector of kanchipuram. The Pallava king Mahendra Varman in his Sanskrit work Mattavilasa Prahasana’ refers to the existence of many Buddhist Vihares chief of which was the Raja Vihare. Among the notable Buddhists scholars who were natives of or resident in the city, he mentions Rev. Dharmapala rector of Nalanda University was a native of the city as was Anuruddha Thera author of the Abhidammathsasangaha. Although there is evidence that the Ven Buddhaghosha was resident in kanchipuram for some time.

The interaction between Tamil Nadu monks and Sri Lankan monks is also mentioned in the Mani Mekalai, the 6th Century Tamil literary epic by Sattanar. Among the other Tamil literary epics which show the influence of Buddhism are the Sillappadhihkaram, Valaiyapathi Kundalakesi and Jivaka Cintamani. The Manimekalai, is a Buddhist work, it expounds the doctrines and values of Buddhism. The book also mentions Tamil Buddhists in the island of Nagadipa off the coast of Jaffna. Since Tamil Nadu was largely Buddhist, one can easily conclude that the Tamil population in the north and east of Sri Lanka was also largely Buddhist. “The Tamil Buddhists who followed Theravada Buddhism shared common places of worship with the Sinhalese . There were also Tamil Buddhists who were followers of Mahayana Buddhism, and they had their own Mahayana temples”, states L K . Devanda In his book Tamil Buddhism in Ancient South India and Sri Lanka.

He points out that there are still some Tamil Buddhist establishments “Palli” in the East of Sri Lanka and possibly in the Jaffna peninsula. The best known is Velgam Vihare, which was renamed Rajaraja Perun Palli after the Chola emperor. Another was the Vikkirama Calamekan Perumpalli. Velgam Vihare also known as Natanar Kovil by the present day Tamils stands out as the only known example of a Tamil Vihare or Buddhist Palli. In the words of Dr Senerat Paranavithana –”an Ancient Buddhist shrine of the Tamil people”— some of the Tamil inscriptions found at the site record donations to this shrine and are dated in the reigns of the Chola kings Raja Raja chola and Rajendra Chola.

Important Centres of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu


Kanchi rose to fame as a Buddhist center right from the 2nd Century BCE, when Poompuhar, the earlier center in Tamil Nadu, submerged in the sea. Buddhist presence in Kanchi finds mention in many Tamil Sangam texts like Manimekalai, Silappatikaram, and Maduraikkanchi.

According to the Tamil epic Manimekalai, the Buddhist master Aravana Adigal was staying in Kanchi, and he guided the protagonist, Manimekalai, in the path of Buddhism. Manimekalai, according to the epic, is a Bodhisattva Bhikshuni who spreads her compassionate activities to alleviate the suffering and hunger of many and finally attains nirvana at Kanchi.

According to Vajrayana Buddhism, Kanchi is one of the twenty-four sacred power places. As per many Vajravarahi and Chakrasamvara Sadhanas Kanchi is the heart of the Dakini (the spontaneous play of the basic space) and a sacred place of Dakinis (where the vibrancy of wisdom activities naturally plays out). Even according to some of the Tantras revealed in Tibet, e.g., Yumka Dechen Gyalmo of Longchen Nyingthik, Kanchi is at the heart of the dakini (Yumka, the Great Bliss Queen).

By the time Xuanzang, the Chinese monk-traveler (7th century CE) visited Kanchi, it was at the height of its glory. He recorded [Ref-1] about hundreds of Mahayana viharas and 10,000 monks there. Xuanzang also mentions about a 100 ft high Stupa built by Ashoka in Kanchi. About people of Kanchi, Xuanzang wrote, “People there are courageous. They deeply hold the principles of honesty and truth, and highly respect learning. The monks there belonged to Mahayana and practiced the Vinaya of Sthavira school.” Xuanzang also reported that there were about 80 Deva temples and many Nirgranthas (Jains).

Kanchi produced many great Buddhist masters and philosophers. Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism is said to be the son of the king of Kanchi (possibly a Pallava king). The world acclaimed Buddhist logician Dignaga is also from Kanchi. His disciple Dharmakirti is from a nearby place, Trimala (Thirumala / Thirupathi). Aryadeva, the famed disciple of Acharya Nagarjuna is also said to have lived in Kanchi during his last days. Dharmapala, an abbot of Nalanda and a great master of Yogacara Buddhism was also from Kanchi. He was the main teacher of Xuanzang. Kanchi also produced Buddhaghosa, the author of Visuddhimagga, an acclaimed practice manual of Theravada tradition. Dhammapala, another famous commentator of Pali Suttas and Anuruddha Thera, the author of Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha were also from Kanchi. According to the Vajrayana tradition, Siddha Nagarjuna, one of the 84 Mahasiddhas was also from Kanchi.

Poompuhar or Kaveripattanam

When the Tamil Nadu coast was hit by a tsunami in 2004, signs of an old city under the ocean surfaced. Later, marine archeologists discovered structures of a city as well as a standing Buddha statue from under the ocean. This is, possibly, the earliest of the Buddha statues of the Dravida land. (During the earlier period, the Buddha was represented through symbolic footprints rather than an image of the body. Revering the footprint indicates that the disciple follows the path traversed by the Buddha.) The statue is in the style of Gandhara sculptures, but small in size.

Archeological excavations at Pallavanesvaram, about 1km inland, also revealed the remains of an ancient Buddhist vihara and chaithya.There was also an excavation at Manigramam in the nearby area, where the remains of another Buddhist monastery were discovered.

The two Tamil epics, Silappathikaram and Manimekalai were primarily set in the backdrop of this lost city, though they were actually composed much later (probably between the 2nd to 6th Century CE). Manimekalai, composed by Chithalai Chathanar, a Buddhist teacher, is a sequel and response to the more famous Silappathikaram. Silappathikaram centers around Kovalan and his chaste wife Kannagi. In the climax of Silappathikaram, Kovalan was executed by mistake by the Pandya King while they were living in Madurai, the Pandian capital. Kannagi goes onto to burn down the city of Madurai through the power of her chastity. While Silappathikaram was a typical classic that glorifies the power of chastity, the epic Manimekalai takes a rather rebel approach. In that, the focus shifts to Madhavi, the courtesan with whom Kovalan lived for a while, and their daughter Manimekalai. Manimekalai decides that neither the life of a devoted wife with the power of chastity nor the life of a courtesan with the power of seduction and command over even the wealth of the prince, is suitable to her. Having seen the way life unfolds to Kovalan, Madhavi and Kannagi, she is not inspired to enter either of such conventional lifestyles. Though she was approached by the prince of Chola kingdom, she turns down the offer and decides to enter the life of a truly free woman, as a Bodhisattva Bhikshuni, who goes about alleviating the suffering and hunger of others. She finds that the virtue of benefiting all beings is far more fitting and gratifying than the other alternatives. She finds it the most meaningful utilization of this precious human life.

Manimekalai meets her teacher, Aravana Adigal, in a Buddhist monastery in Puhar and takes the vows. Following the instructions of her teacher, she goes to Vanchi in the Chera kingdom of Kerala to learn different schools of philosophy – Buddhist and non-Buddhist. The epic also deals with many philosophical debates. Later she rejoins her teacher at Kanchi. By then Puhar was already swallowed by the ocean. As a matter of fact, by the time the epic was composed, Puhar was already under the ocean, and Kanchi had become a major center of Buddhism in the South with a large number of monasteries. Chathanar, the author of the epic Manimekalai went far ahead of his time in presenting the possibility of women’s liberation and equality to woman.


Nagapattinam was interestingly both one of the first and the last centers of Buddhism in South India. Even now, there are places such as Sangamangalam, Buddhamangalam, Putthakkudy, etc around Nagapattinam, as a reminiscence of its Buddhist past. It was a major port city of the medieval Cholas with maritime connections to many east asian countries. The nearby port, Poompuhar, was the capital of the Chola kingdom of the Sangam Age. Stone and clay statues of the Buddha from the 2nd Century CE and the remains of monasteries are found in Poompuhar.

Pallava king Narasimhavarman II (7th to 8th century) also built a vihara at Nagapattinam. The Chudamani Vihara in Nagapattinam was constructed by the Srivijayan king Sri Mara Vijayattungavarman of the Sailendra dynasty with the help of Rajaraja Chola I. According to the archeologists, the bronze statues found from Nagapattinam (that we cover in this post) belong to various periods between 9th to 17th Century CE (AD). Around Nagapattinam, there are also many ancient stone statues of the Buddha (8th to 10th Century CE) in places such as Pushpavanam, Peruncheri, Thirunellivakaval, Buddhamangalam etc. From this can be inferred that Mahayana Buddhism thrived in Nagapattinam till 17th Century CE.

About 350 bronze statues have been unearthed in Nagapattinam


Tiruchirappalli is the heartland of erstwhile Chola kingdom. It is also home to some of the most interesting ancient Buddha statues in Tamil Nadu. These statues indicate that Buddhism, and particularly Mahayana Buddhism survived in the Chola heartland all through the Chola reign.

The statue shown above is one of the finest and most elaborately carved Buddha statues in Tamil Nadu that we have seen. It is a clear indication of the presence of Mahayana Buddhism in Tiruchirappalli (Trichy) during the Chola period. The Buddha is flanked by two Bodhisattvas.

Thanjavur and Kumbakonam

Buddhism in Thanjavur and Kumbakonam were vibrant as late as the 16th Century CE. This is indicated by a 16th Century inscription found in Kumbeswarar Temple in Kumbakonam. The inscription mentions about a person from a Buddhist Temple at Thiruvilanthurai in the vicinity. According to that inscription, permission from the person at that Buddhist temple was obtained to dig a canal through its land. That makes it clear the Buddhism was live there in the 16th Century period.