I first set my eyes on the gopuram of the Vallipuram Vishnu temple on a warm Sunday morning in early March. Named after the nearby village, the temple complex looks like a small oasis among the surrounding sand dunes, which are dotted with clumps of grass and coconut trees. The dunes continue till the coast that fringes the northernmost part of the Jaffna peninsula of Sri Lanka. The temple is, in fact, not far from where the Palk Strait and the Bay of Bengal meet. This sangam of sorts – where the shallow coral reefs of the Strait end abruptly, and the deep waters of the Bay take over – is stunning. It is unlike what lies across the waters in Kanyakumari, where the crush of crowds makes the experience of being at the southern edge of India entirely underwhelming.

Choosing to visit Vallipuram on a Sunday was intentional. My Jaffna mentor and guide, Professor Krishnarajah Selliah of the University of Jaffna, recommended the day since it is usually on Sundays that hordes of worshippers congregate at the historic Vishnu shrine. Ratna Raman, an old friend and travelling companion, is a temple-going Tamilian like Selliah and she too thought Sunday worked best.

My own interest in Sri Lanka had nothing to do with visiting historic Hindu temples. My goal was to survey the visible markers of Buddhism in the region, particularly those related to a famous Buddhist family from India. I wanted to look at how memories of King Ashoka persisted on the island, largely through two of his children – Mahinda and Sanghamitta – who had travelled to Sri Lanka and made it their home. Those two are perhaps the most celebrated ancient Indians – apart from the Buddha himself – that Tamraparni (as Sri Lanka was called at the time) fondly remembered.

The Vallipuram temple gopuram. Photo credit: Nayanjot Lahiri.

Since they were ordained Buddhists, the honorific prefixes Maha-Thera and Theri were added to their names, “Maha” alluding to Mahinda’s greatness as a preacher monk. They arrived in Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE – the brother came first and was followed by his sister. Mahinda, it is believed, converted King Devanampiya Tissa, along with several others, to Buddhism, while Sanghamitta carried a branch from the original Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in Bihar and began a Bhikkhuni order in Tissa’s kingdom.

While there are still questions over the veracity of this story, what matters from the modern-day perspective is that there exists a transregional sacred geography around the siblings. Places across different parts of the island – from Jaffna to Mihintale and Anuradhapura – form part of pilgrim trails where Buddhist worshippers continue to remember Mahinda and Sanghamitta and offer obeisance to their memory. They include brick stupas in which their physical remains were entombed, larger-than-life paintings and images of Sanghamittha and Mahinda and the blest Bodhi tree.

So what does Vallipuram have to do with the search for the siblings?

According to Sri Lanka’s Mahavamsa, a chronicle from around 5th century CE, Sanghamitta landed at a place on the Jaffna coast called Jambukola Patuna, several kilometres north of Jaffna town. As the chronicle goes, “the king of men” Devanampiya Tissa himself came to receive “the king of trees” and its bearer. A temple was built there by the king to mark the occasion. Today though, there is nothing visibly ancient there. Its visible heritage is a modern fabrication in the form of a stupa, statues of Sanghamitta, paintings that pictorially narrate her landing, and even boats that prompt visitors to imagine how the daughter of India’s most famous Buddhist ruler arrived in the land of Sri Lanka’s first Buddhist king.

The question arises: are there any traces of ancient Buddhism in Jaffna? If yes, then they are one way of providing a historical frame for the Mahavamsa narrative.

The Vallipuram temple area, as it happens, is home to relics with unmistakable Buddhist affiliations. One of these is a 2nd century CE gold plaque that is now in the Colombo National Museum. Its four lines attest to a Buddhist temple called Piyanguka being built by a minister of a king. A Buddhist stone image that was found here may have been part of that temple. The image can no longer be seen in Sri Lanka because in 1906, the Buddha was presented by the British governor to the king of Thailand.

Diverse strands

The Buddhists were not the first to inhabit the strip of land where the Vishnu temple stands today. Before them, there were people who constructed megalithic burials. One such early grave yielded a pot in a cist and pottery, including black and red ware that were found strewn beyond the burial as well. Sacred places across the world are frequently marked by religious structures of different faiths that appear in the excavated strata as successive overlays or sometimes standing adjacent to each other. So it is unsurprising that an ancient burial site became the place where a Buddhist vihara was set up, followed by the construction of a Vishnu temple in the 13th century CE. In fact, it was these Buddhist connections of the Vallipuram complex that had brought us to the temple that Sunday.

The Vallipuram gold plaque. Photo credit: Nayanjot Lahiri.

The temple is approached through a towering gopuram. I was keen to go through it as quickly as possible to reach the spot from where the Buddhist gold plaque had been recovered. But Selliah insisted that we pause at the gopuram and scrutinise it minutely. And with good reason. While the gateway bore much that was similar to others that front Vishnu temples – especially its pyramid-like structure decorated with various Vishnus, his avatars, and musicians, apsaras, animals and holy men – it was also unique. Amidst this crowd of colourful divine and living beings, one thing stood out for its sheer incongruity: an image of Mahatma Gandhi. Though he had been unassumingly integrated into the temple architecture, what made him stick out was the fact that he graced a gopuram.

Gandhi was easily recognisable because of his trademark dhoti, glasses and bald pate. Muscular legs and an animated expression on his face gave him a youthful appearance. He had a stick in one hand and what appeared to be a newspaper in the other. His shawl was missing, and instead the tiranga was wrapped around his shoulders. He appeared to be looking down gingerly, almost suggesting that he was worried by the height at which he stood.

Why the Mahatma?

For all its idiosyncrasies, it is this image of Gandhi that makes the Vallipuram gopuram arrestingly novel. I wondered whether the Mahatma occupying the same space as ancient gods was entirely unusual or if it was part of a larger phenomenon. After all, Tamil Nadu’s J Jayalalithaa was sometimes represented as a goddess, with giant cut-outs that showed a halo around her head or were propped against an even larger gopuram. Still, Gandhi’s representation at Vallipuram is different. Unlike the Vishnu avatars on the gopuram, he does not wear a crown or ornaments. He is shown as a human, not a god.

Mahatma Gandhi on the gopuram. Photo credit: Nayanjot Lahiri.

Was Gandhi’s depiction inspired by the fact that he was born in a Vaishnava family? This seemed unlikely since there was nothing about Gandhi’s appearance that alluded to either his religion or his caste. He was shown, as he had chosen to appear later in his life, in minimal clothing. The national flag as his shawl, I imagine, was inserted as a device to remind viewers that this man was the maker of modern India.

A more probable context that helps frame Gandhi’s presence could be the fact that he spent some weeks in Sri Lanka in November 1927. His indefatigable secretary Mahadev Desai’s book With Gandhiji in Ceylon provides a day-to-day account of those weeks, and from it, we learn that he spoke at several public meetings in Jaffna.

Some of what he said would have displeased Buddhists and Hindus equally. He described the Buddha as a “Hindu amongst Hindus” and stated that “Hindu culture included Buddhist culture”. He urged Tamilian upper castes to get rid of untouchability, exhorting them to open the doors of their temples to excluded brethren and abolish the institution of Devadasis. It is no wonder that the labour class of Sri Lanka saw Gandhi as their saviour. In his book, Desai recounts the conversations that he had with labourers who had come to see Gandhi in Hatton.

“I met groups of them trying to get a glimpse of Gandhiji above the vast sea of human heads surging before them.

‘Why have you come here’ I asked.

A woman who was angered at the absurdity of the question answered with a counter question: ‘Tell me why you have come.’

Another meanwhile took up the conversation and said: ‘Don’t you know? We have come to see our god.’”

Gandhi in the house of the gods that they worshipped would certainly have made eminent sense to them.

But the gopuram was not made in the aftermath of Gandhi’s visit to Jaffna. Its foundation was laid in 1983 and it was completed by 1990. This was a brutal time in the history of Sri Lanka and, to me, it was ironic that a man who personified non-violence was integrated into a historic Tamil shrine in the stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam at the bloody height of the civil war.

The Mahatma is known to have detested the idea of statues being made of him, but if showcasing a man of peace at a time of violence is what the designer of the gopuram had in mind, Gandhi may well have approved of this one.

A poster featuring Mahatma Gandhi in Jaffna. Photo credit: Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons [CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license].