How Gandhi ended up on a Vishnu temple entrance | Daily News

How Gandhi ended up on a Vishnu temple entrance

* Mahatma detested the idea of statues being made of him, but he may well have approved of this one.

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.

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.

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 Ceylonprovides 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.

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.


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