In July this year, the Madras High Court handed down what may be one of its most important judgments of the past two decades. The case itself was a minor one, one that flew under the radars of the majority of the state’s most vocal lawyers, politicians and columnists. For more than a decade, the Buddha Trust, a small Buddhist organization in the industrial town of Salem, had pushed the courts to identify a small shrine in the nearby village of Periyeri as containing a statue of the Buddha. The statue had been the focus of prayer by the Hindus of Periyeri, who had built a concrete temple around it and claimed it represented local deity Thalaivetti Muniappan – literally, headless Muniappan. The site, like many temples in Tamil Nadu, was owned and administered by the state government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department.
The case had lasted more than a decade. At a hearing in November 2017, the High Court asked the Tamil Development Wing of the State Archaeological Department to survey the shrine and submit a report on the identity of the idol. After wiping away layers of sandalwood and turmeric paste, department officials identified the idol as having all of the bodily features historically used to represent the Buddha. The verdict upheld the report’s findings, but left the state with a dilemma. The court ruled the site could no longer belong to the HRCE department – which had argued for custody – but the government lacked a statutory body representing Buddhists to which the shrine could be handed over. The verdict bans Hindu prayers at the shrine, calls for a sign to be erected announcing that the idol is of the Buddha and hands the shrine over to the archaeological department, with no comment on how the Tamil Nadu Buddhist community can access it or perform religious functions. on the site.
The Periyeri case is unlikely to be the last example of an ostensibly Hindu idol of Buddhist origin. At various times in history, Buddhism was the predominant courtly and popular religion of South India. Countless Buddha statues continue to be excavated across the state. Many historically known scholars and practitioners of Buddhism were intimately connected with the Tamil country, especially with Kanchipuram which was a major center of Buddhist learning. These include Bodhidharma, who is said to have brought Buddhism to China, Dignaga, a scholar of Buddhist epistemology, and Buddhaghosa, who remains a revered figure in Sri Lanka. All three studied in Kanchipuram.