Reclaiming Buddha from TN Hindu temples a challenge: Buddhists

There are at least 100 temples like Thalaivetti Muniappan in Salem - where the Hindu deity's idol was found to have originally been a sculpture of the Buddha. Reclaiming them all would be difficult, since HIndu devotees may object

Thalaivetti Muniappan Temple
On July 19, the Madras High Court directed Tamil Nadu’s Archaeological Department to take control of Thalaivetti Muniappan Temple in Salem district.

With the Madras High Court directing Tamil Nadu Archeological Department officials to restore the Thalaivetti Muniappan sculpture in Salem to its original state of Buddha idol, believers of Buddhism think it is the first success in restoring the identity of the religion in the State.

“There are at least 100 such identities in Salem district alone. If the government’s Archeological Department conducts an inspection, a lot of such sites could be identified. Once the Thalaivetti Muniappan sculpture is restored to the (original) Buddha idol, we will discuss with fellow Buddhism followers and take the next steps to restore the rest of the identities in the district,” said C Murugan, president of the Ambedkarite Party of India from Salem.

On July 19, the Madras High court directed the TN Archaeological Department to take control of the Thalaivetti Muniappan Temple after an inspection report revealed that the sculpture depicts several mahalakshanas (key features) of the Buddha. The court passed the order on a writ petition filed by P Ranganathan from Salem in 2011.

Also read: Main idol of Hindu temple in Salem, TN, is that of Buddha, rules Madras HC

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Single-minded pursuit

Ranganathan, a Buddhist, died a year ago. His friend Murugan shared that Ranganathan was keen on pursuing the case to restore the identity, even if it took several years.

“The efforts of Ranganathan were commendable. He collected every piece of document that would point out that the Thalaivetti Muniappan idol was originally a Buddha sculpture. He had the documents of other places with Buddhist identities, but later appropriated by different people,” Murugan said.

“But, before proceeding to other places of Buddhism identity, the first step would be to successfully implement the Madras High Court order,” he added.

Also read: Tamil Nadu home to most temples in India, says survey

Even though the Madras High Court has ordered the restoration of the idol to its original Buddha form, believers of Buddhism foresee challenges in converting the place from a temple to a Buddha statue.

Thalaivetti Muniappan Temple
The Thalaivetti Muniappan temple in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district.

“The High Court published the order on July 19 and only a couple of days ago, the news came out. This being the case, government officials in Salem claim ignorance over the order. We understand the sentiments of people, but, for Buddhism followers like me, we need our place to worship and chant the texts of Buddha,” said Seevagan, an engineer who embraced Buddhism around four years ago.

Joining hands

Seevagan also felt that there is a need to organise people together to restore and reclaim the identity of Buddhism. “It would not be possible without the support of the people. Only if we get the support of the people, we can explain things to them, educate them and restore our identity,” he said.

Historian Rajavelu felt that it may not be an easy task to restore the Buddha statues in the state. “Restoring the Thalaivetti Muniappan idol to a Buddha sculpture may be a little easy because of the court’s order. But, for people to restore other such places, it may not be easy,” he said. The locals are likely to object due to their faith in the Hindu temple built over the Buddhist sculpture, he added.

A senior official at the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department in Salem, who did not want to be named, said he and colleagues are waiting for the government’s call on the Madras High Court’s order. “Since the idol has been worshiped by people over there for so many years, it’s difficult to suddenly stop them from worshiping. So, we are waiting for the government decision on the Madras High Court order,” the official said.

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