A visitor to Nagapattinam, with its large Hindu temples and proximity to the important Christian pilgrimage town of Velankanni, may find it difficult to believe that the small town in coastal Tamil Nadu was once a major Buddhist pilgrimage centre of southern India. Over a thousand years ago, when the town was under the Cholas, it was an important entry point to the Indian subcontinent for travellers and traders from Sri Lanka, Burma, the Malay Peninsula, Java and Sumatra.

Dutch art historian Jan Fontein, who served as the curator of Asiatic art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, called Nagapattinam “the last stronghold of Buddhism in South India.” In a 1980 article for the museum’s bulletin, he said, “It is quite possible that the port’s foreign contacts and its proximity to the flourishing centres of Buddhism in Sri Lanka helped to prolong the survival of Buddhism as a distinct religion in Nagapattinam long after it had ceased to exist in most other parts of India.”

The town witnessed the arrival of royal envoys from South East Asia who would combine diplomacy with pilgrimages. One of them, the Sumatra-based Srivijaya Empire, which enjoyed friendly relations with the Cholas, took the initiative to build a large Buddhist monastery in Nagapattinam. Behind the initiative was Cudamanivarman, a shrewd member of the Sailendra family of the Srivijaya Empire whose reign reportedly lasted from 988 to 1004 CE. Cudamanivarman approached Rajaraja Chola through an envoy for permission to construct the monastery, which he wanted to be an important centre for Asian pilgrims and the dwindling members of the once-thriving Buddhist community in southern India.

Renowned for his religious tolerance, the Shaivite Chola emperor – whose reign was from 985 to 1014 CE – supported the idea of a new Buddhist monastery in the coastal town. “Rajaraja is said to have permitted Cudamanivarman, king of Kataha [Kedah in modern-day Malaysia] to build a Buddhist shrine at Nagapattinam to which he himself made a grant of the village of Anaimangalam,” noted historian TV Mahalingam in a 1948 paper titled Buddhism in the Tamil Country in the Medieval Period. “The construction of the temple appears to have been begun by Cudamanivarman before the 21st year of the reign of Rajaraja I, and was completed by his son Mara Vijayottunggavarman.”

A mural depicting Rajaraja Chola found in the Brihadisvara temple, Tamil Nadu, 11th century. Credit: Venu62/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Cudamanivarman, who had needed the help of the Chinese to stave off a 10th-century Javanese invasion of the Srivijaya Empire, made it a point to inform the Liao dynasty emperor about the monastery’s construction in India. The Srivijayan ruler sent an embassy to China and “asked for the blessings of ‘His Celestial Majesty’ for the new vihara that he built and obtained from him approval of the name and the ‘presentation of bells,’” Dravidologist and historian S Krishnaswami Aiyangar wrote in his 1941 book Ancient India and South Indian History & Culture.

Centre for worship

The Chudamani Vihara, named after Cudamanivarman, was opened to the monastic community in the first decade of the 11th century. Almost from the beginning, it became one of the most important centres for Buddhist worship in southern India.

Most of what we know today about the vihara, which no longer exists, comes from the so-called Leiden plates in the possession of Leiden University in the Netherlands. These are 21 copper plates held together by a bronze ring that bears the Chola seal.

“The larger Leiden Grant issued by the Cholas in 1006 refers to the ‘lofty shrine of the Buddha in the Chulamanivarma vihara, which the ruler of Srivijaya and Kataha Mara Vijayottunggavarman of the Sailendra family with the Makara crest had erected in the name of his father’ in Nagapattinam,” academics Geok Yian Goh and John N Miksic wrote in a 2016 book titled Ancient Southeast Asia.

The Chudamani Vihara is also mentioned in Kalki Krishnamurthy’s historical fiction novel Ponniyin Selvan (Son of Ponni). The five-volume book, which is being adapted into two cinematic parts by Mani Ratnam, tells the story of Arulmozhivarman, who later became Rajaraja Chola. In the novel, Arulmozhivarman is saved from a lethal flu by Aacharya Bhikku, the head monk of the Chudamani Vihara. This story is probably one of the fictional parts of the book, since construction work on the monastery began when the emperor was in the second decade of his reign. It is, however, possible that Rajaraja Chola received the medical assistance of a Buddhist monk when he was younger, and that this could have had an impact on the way he viewed the small Buddhist community in southern India.

A sculpture of Buddha found in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu. Credit: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License]

Westward invasion

By the time envoys sent by Cudamanivarman’s son Mara Vijayottunggavarman arrived in Nagapattinam, the Cholas had already conquered parts of Sri Lanka. But even then, there were few signs of the Tamil empire looking to conquer lands around the Malacca Strait. It was only in 1025 CE that the Cholas under Rajaraja’s son Rajendra I invaded the Srivijaya Empire. By this time, Mara Vijayottunggavarman’s son Sangrama was the emperor.

The historian and Dravidologist Aiyangar linked the invasion to the Chola conquest of Kalinga seven years earlier: the royal families of Kalinga in Orissa and the Srivijaya were related as both belonged to the Sailendra vamsa (lineage), according to Aiyangar. Another possible reason was the threat posed by the westward expansion of the Srivijaya empire. As Aiyangar pointed out, “Tamil states in the east were being absorbed by the ruler of Sri Bhoja [Srivijaya] in the course of his imperial expansion.”

There was, however, no religious dimension to the successful Chola invasion of Srivijaya. Rajendra I continued to maintain a good relationship with the Buddhist community in Nagapattinam, according to Fontein. He even backed the construction of another major Buddhist prayer complex there.

The Chudamani monastery continued to thrive after the death of Rajendra I in 1044 CE. And Buddhism survived in Nagapattinam well after the decline of the Chola Empire. The town even had a large Chinese Buddhist pagoda that was probably built in the 13th century. “It was also known as the Puduvelligopuram, the Old Pagoda and the Black Pagoda,” Mahalingam wrote.

A sculpture of Rajendra Chola I being crowned by Shiva and Parvati. Credit: Nittavinoda/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0].

The Chinese pagoda found a mention in the writings of Marco Polo, who arrived in modern-day Tamil Nadu at the end of the 13th century. What did not find a mention was the Chudamani Vihara, which was probably abandoned by the time of his visit.

Two centuries later, Burmese priests from Pegu visited Nagapattinam and wrote about its Buddhists. The priests mentioned one “Padarikarma” monastery, which had an image of the Buddha in a cave that was apparently built on the command of a Chinese emperor. The image was placed on the same spot where the tooth of the Buddha was temporarily kept before it was transported to Sri Lanka.

Buddhism all but vanished from Tamil Nadu in the 16th century. “In the course of the subsequent period, Nagapattinam lost its importance as a Buddhist centre,” according to Mahalingam.

The town’s Buddhists were believed to have been absorbed into the Hindu fold. “By the time the first Europeans set foot ashore in Nagapattinam in the 17th century, however, the local Buddhist traditions had been assimilated into the Brahmanic mainstream of South India religious life,” Fontein wrote.

In the mid-1850s, some Buddhist bronze statues were found under the roots of an old tree. Since that discovery, over 350 Buddhist images dating from the 11th to 16th centuries have been found in the vicinity of Nagapattinam. “Most of them are crowned by a flame on top of the ushnisha (protuberance on the head of the Buddha), which is one of the hallmarks of Nagapattinam Buddhist sculpture,” the Dutch art historian added.

The ruins of the Chudamani monastery and other Buddhist structures were demolished by Jesuit priests of the St Joseph’s College to be used for the construction of their institution. This act of demolition in 1867 wiped out the last traces of Nagapattinam’s Buddhist past. Once an important gateway to India, the sleepy town which has a population of just over a lakh is now a centre for tourism and fishing industries.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.