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Home > The Tamil Heritage - History & Geography > The Vallipuram Buddha Image - Peter Schalk
The Vallipuram Buddha Image
In January and February 1991, Government newspapers in Ilam# flashed the news that the Vallipuram Buddha image which had been donated to the king of Siam in 1906 by Governor Sir Henry Blake from close to the Visnu Kovil in Vallipuram (in the Tamil speaking Vatamaracci area of Yalppanam##) may be rediscovered in Thailand and transported back to Lanka .
The statue had been kept in the Old Park of Yalppanam - today training centre and centre for parades of the LTTE - up to its taking away by Sir Henry Blake.
Another article in the media tells the public that the Vallipuram Buddha image has been found and that the President has made an appeal to King Bhumibol of Thailand to gift back the image to Lanka. The President is reported to have said that the Vallipuram statue is of
great historical and religious significance to Lankan Buddhists . The Vallipuram Buddha image has been discovered. It stands in a central Buddhist vihara in Bangkok, in Wat Benja, that is known by Western tourists as the Marble Temple. The present author has visited
the place in January 1994.The Wat is one of the most visited by tourists in Bangkok - even a commercial bank for money change is placed just outside the entrance - but the budddha image has no central placement and is therefore not easily observed.The guards and
professional tourist guides do not know even that an image called Vallipuram Buddha image is there. In the annexed monastery, not even monks who have spent a life time there, know about this image by this or any other name.
It is placed in a corner on the backside of the Wat well protected from rain, and from theft and vandalism, by an iron curtain. A small wooden board says in Thai and English that this image depicts the Buddha dispelling evil from the island of Ceylon. No reference to Vallipuram is made. A yellow transparent schal has been wrapped around the statue and at its feet are placed pots with incense. The corner is made into a place of veneration, but it cannot compete with the other statues in the Wat that are placed strategically along the main walk of tourists and venerators.
A replica has been made and was in January 1994 ready to be sent to Colombo on the request of Sri Lankan authorities . It is a lifesize statue in stone. The Buddha is depicted as standing. The right hand of the sculpture has been replaced by a new hand and its fourfingers of the left hand have been repaired. My interpretation of the mudra  of the right hand is therefore a conjecture, but a reasonable one (see below). The Buddha is not
surrounded by anybody from the Buddhasfollowers. Let us now give an impressionistic description of this statue.
The usnisa  on top is very small and low. The hair is curled in small curls that are indicated as small dots in relief. It is difficult to make out in which direction the curls are going. The face is round and fleshy like the whole of the body. The eyes are rather crudely formed in almond shape. The front is highbrowed. The eyebrows are high-flown. There is no urna  visible now and it seems there has never been one. No iris is visible and gives therefore the impression of a blind man. The nose is big and broad and the lips are thick. There is an indication of a smile. The ears are much prolonged. They reach down to the lower part of neck and reach almost the shoulder. They end up in knotty lobes. The neck is that of a fat man with indications of a trippel chin.
There is no antaravasaka  visible under the uttarasangha  that falls in heavy, loose pleats. It is not possible any more to determine if the
original right hand mudra is abhaya .The hand is replaced. The new hand is either badly done or the restorers consciously tried to imitate asisa mudra . That is a variant form of the abhaya mudra, but it is known to be typical for Sinhalese Buddhist iconography as
we know it from theAvukana statue from the 5-7 century.We have just to disregard this recent restoration and stick to the paradigm that these standing buddhas from Amaravati have the common abhaya mudra. The left hand holds up the fall of the uttarasangha that covers even the feet except for the toes that are indicated. The absence of penis
is indicated by the fall of the uttarasangha along the front side. He has a narrow waist, but broad shoulders that give an athletic look, and large hips that associate to a woman.
We may find his look as rather rustic, but the parallels to this statue were royal statues of the Satavahanas dynasty in Andhra and the following Iksvaku dyanasty. The former ruled between the ca 230 BC. to the 3rd century AD. followed by the Iksvaku in Andhradesa
proper. It is during their rule in the second half of the 3rd century AD. that we hear in inscriptions about a Sihala vihara for the accomodation, - not of Sinhalese monks, - but for monks from the island called Sihala, and of a caityaghara  that was dedicated to
the fraternities of Tampapanni.This information fits then perfectly well to the time and place of establishing a buddha statue in Vallipuram inspired by Andhra art.
We should of course not think of Vallipuram of today being a centre for Vaisnavism lying rather isolated in the hot dunes of Vatamaracci. Vallipuram has very rich archaelogical remains that point at an early settlement. It was propably an emporium in the first centuries AD. It is part of a route for traders and pilgrims that went along the Eastern coast of Ilam. Vallipuram is also close to the Nakapattinam coast with easy access from Andhra coast.
The stylistic place of origin of the Vallipuran image is quite clear - the Dravidian area of Amaravati that together with finds from Bhattiprolu, Jaggayyepeta, Ghanatasala, Nagarjunikonda and Goli was one creative centre in Andhra for Buddhist art from about 2nd century BC to 3rd century AD. under the Satavahanas and Iksvakus.
The Buddha image appears there only from the end of the 2nd century AD. replacing symbols for the Buddha, and lasts throughout the 3rd century. From already dated stones with which we compare this Vallipuram statue, we can conclude that it falls in the period 3-4 century AD. During that period, the typical Amaravati-Buddha sculpture was developed. It was inspired by the sculpture of Gandhara and Mathura and spread to South India, Ilam and Southeast Asia, but not before the 4th century AD.
The returning attributes for this standing buddha in stone are - he is more than life size, he holds the end of the uttarasangha in the left, the right hand is lift to abhaya mudra, the curls of the hair are flat, the face is round, the usnisa is low and small and the uttarasangha is falling in pleats.
The expression Anuradhapura school seems to indicate that there was a Sinhala school in Anuradhapura that was formative for the development of the buddha images. So, one expects to hear that the Vallipuram buddha image is influenced by the Anuradhapura school. What is the Anuradhapura school? It falls into two phases, the first up to Dhatusena in 459 AD. and the second to the abandonment of Anuradhapura in the 10th century AD.From the first period very little is left regarding buddha images, and what is left follows the ideal of Amaravati. The oldest known buddha image in the Sinhala area from this period is from Maha Illupallama in the district of Anuradhapura. It is six feet high, of white marble probabaly imported from the Vengi region. It is an example of Amaravati art.
Another old buddha-image is from Medavacciya dated to the 4th century AD., a bronze statue of 46 cm. It is reminiscent of the Amaravati school, both in the attitude and in the way the robe is adjusted. It is then only in the second phase that the Anuradhapura school
develops specific features for what we can call Anuradhapura or Sinhala Buddhism. In the first phase this school was just receiving influences, like South India and Nakattivu in northern Ilam. In this first phase it was the heir and descendant of the Amaravati school like South India, Nakattivu and, not to forget, Southeast Asia.These statues,one of which is the Vallipuram statue, we all date stylistically to about about 3rd-4th century AD. Their setting up is hardly possible before the 4th century AD.We have to see the Vallipuram image as a result of a wave of Buddhist sculpture initiated in Amaravati.
In connection with this Buddha image it must also be mentioned that in 1936 a gold plate with an inscription was found in Vallipuram with references to a King. This inscription was found beneath the foundation of an ancient structure on the land belonging to the Vishnu kovil where also the image originally was found.
In that inscription the building of a vihara  is mentioned in the area. The Buddha statue is propably one of the remains of this vihara of which is nothing left today on the surface. We have to look a little closer at the inscription (see below) that is also important from another point of view. It finally confirms that the historical Nakattivu (Nagadipa) is Yalppanam.
We are told that the inscription was written in old Sinhalese and allegedly had a reference to King Vasabha from Anuradhapura. All statements come from S. Paranavitana  who made the official interpretation of this in inscription , and ever since his interpretation is quoted. E T Kannangara also has paved the way for political exploitation of the statue. He states that ruins of a Buddhist Vihara, foundations of buildings, old bricks, and damaged images of the Buddha were found in Vallipuram. These finds evidently prove that this village in the past was a Sinhala settlement .
Paranavitana himself said in 1936 that Vatamaracci, where Vallipuram is situated, is now densely peopled by Saiva Tamils. There have been found remains of the Sinhalese Buddhist civilisation which flourished in this extreme northern district of Ceylon during earlier periods of
history, as it did in the rest of the island. His conclusions of his analysis of the Vallipuram Gold Plate are worth to be quoted because they have influenced the intellectual debate for decades.
Paranavitana wrote - "This inscription on the Vallipuram Gold Plate also proves that Nagadipa was governed in the second century by a minister of the Anuradhapura king, that Sinhalese was the prevailing language, and that Buddhist shrines were being built there. In such
references as there are to Nagadipa in the chronicles, as well as in other Pali writings of Ceylon, there is no indication that in early times this are differed, as it does to-day, from the rest of the island in the nationality of its inhabitants and their language and religion. In fact there are indications that the extreme north of the island played a very important part in the political, religious, and cultural history of the ancient Sinhalese people. This continued so
right down to the end of the Polonnaruva period, though it is likely that the proportion of the Tamil element in the population was greater here than in the rest of the island and gradually went on increasing. "
In another paper on the Vallipuram inscription he summarises - " It is hardly necessary to say that at the date of this inscription and up to the thirteenth century, Nagadipa was as much Sinhalese territory as any other part of the island. " What concerns us really is if the the factual statement that the inscription contains Sinhalese is correct.
The great value of the Vallipuram inscription is that this nakadiva is mentioned. In Pali in the Mahavamsa it appears as Nagadipa, in Prakrt it appears as Nakadiva and in Tamil as Nakattivu. We identify this area with the peninsula, with the present Yalppanam district. In
Tamil, we also find the word Nakanatu in for example the Manimekalai . Manimekalai herself visits a shrine called Manipallavam in Nakanatu, according to a Buddhist epical tradition. In a Sinhala-Buddhist tradition as transmitted by the Mahavamsa, the Buddha
himself visited Nagadipa. In the 5th century, when both the Mahavamsa and the Manimekalai were written, there were evidently strong legendary Buddhist traditions about Nakattivu, on the Tamil as well as on the Sinhala side.
Having gone through the words in this inscription and having seen the Tamil background of several terms, we question the statement by Paranavitana that the language is old Sinhalese conforming, in general, to the grammatical standards followed in other documents of that period. We can see that there is a Tamil substratum and that there are some rather crude Prakritisations of Tamil words in the text.
Vallipuram belongs to the Tamil speaking cultural area, and evidently it did so as far as we can come back in history with written documents. The document above is not what Paranavitana says, a document of Sinhala settlements in Nakattivu, but is a document of
Tamil settlements possessed as a fief by a man who has a Tamil name. Actually,the Vallipuram inscription is one of the better documents to verify early Tamil settlements in the North that in their court culture had close relations to South India.
We wish to remind the reader at this stage again about an important passage in the Manimekalai. It makes clear that there was a perception in Tamilakam in the 5th century that Nakanatu was a separate administrative entity, distinguished from Ilankatipam, also
referred to as Irattinatipam. There was Ilankatipam (Irattinatipam) and there was Nakanatu. Nakanatu was a natu . The Manimekalai does not say Nakattivu. Natu is a technical administrative term that could refer to a kingdom, at least to an autonomous administrative region.
The author of the Manimekalai, Cattanar, reflects probably in the 5th century what was a political reality then - Nakanatu was conceptualised as being separate from Ilankatipam, the island of Lanka. Even if the great King mentioned in the inscription owned Nakanatu,it was technically bhogga in Pali, a fief, and it was its chieftain who was responsible for the building of the vihara, not the King. The King is yet unidentified, whatever Paranavitana says.
In this fief was evidently Buddhism flourishing. That is indicated by the building of a new vihara, that probably housed the Vallipuram Buddha-image. The language of the text , the palaeography of the text and the Buddha image itself point as source of inspiration
towards Amaravati- again. Vallipuram was then part of South Indian Buddhist culture. A lower limit for both the inscription and the image is the 2nd century AD. and an upper limit is the 4th century AD: It is quite possible that Nakanatu as a fief under the leadership of a Tamil feudal lord under a King enjoyed royal patronage to fortify Buddhism. That was related to the art school of Amaravati.
The initiative came evidently from a Tamil feudal lord mentioned as Isiki-rayan in the inscription. Rayan is the Tamilised form of raja. That gives us a second thought. It fits well with what has been said about Nakanatu as a natu.
All Tamils who are born after 1906 have never seen the Vallipuram
buddha image, provided they have not visited Wat Benja i Bangkok. I
am happy to show it to the Tamils now.They are invited to travel to
Wat Benja to admire this beautiful master piece of the Dravidian
cultural heritage. One day in the future, they may get the original
back from the King of Thailand. The replica made for political
exploitation by the Sinhalese can just be disregarded by silence. I
wish that they set up the original statue from where it was taken,
from Old Park in Yalppanam. From there it can dispell all evil from
Ilankatipam, and from Nakattivu also, by all means.