Ayyo (BH:D188)

February 7, 2012

Seeing the amazing photographs of the Tamil play, Mulakupodi, performed by Chennai Katiyakkari troupe yesterday at the Karthika Thirunal Theater, both Achan and I regretted not going for it. We don't want to repeat the mistake today. So as soon as I finish typing this, we will be off to see Usha Ganguly directed adaptation of Tagore's Chandalika.

According to the Hindu rulebook, Manusmriti, a Chandala is someone who is born to a Shudra (lowest caste) father and Brahmin (top caste) mother. A slightly better caste is Nishada produced by Brahmin dad and Shudra mom. Manusmriti has a long list of of all possible caste and subcaste combination thus created that are together grouped under Panchamavarna or the fifth caste. But despite having nothing to do with the intercourse of the colored Hindu castes, all the Buddhists and Jains living in Kerala were enblock transferred into Chandala category for refusing to submit to Brahminaical lordship. 

I am reading Dr. Sugathan's work on Buddhism in Kerala from the 3rd century BC to 12th century AD. Since the author is both a medical doctor and a PhD, the book comes with neat list of 132 references. It is so much better to read such books compared to the divine revelations that pass for history here mostly. At the book fair yesterday, I did come across several tomes packed with "facts" that seem to have come directly from the heavens. 

Dr. Sugathan presents two amazing chapters on the connection between the ancient languages of Pali and Prakrit and Kerala's Malayalam. The representative list of words that Malayalam has borrowed from Pali is by itself enough proof of the profound influence Buddhism had in the state before its wipe out and deliberate erasure from history books. The most commonly used words in Malayalam like Achan (father) , Amma (mother), Ambalam (temple), Palli (these days for mosques&churches), Pallikoodam (school), Kallu (toddy), Purikam (eye brow), Thadakam (lake), Vattam (circle), Pattika (list), Chanthi (butt), Chakkara (jaggery )and even Onam (the festival) all have their roots in Pali language which came to Kerala first with Mahayana Buddhists, then Theravada Buddhists and finally the Vajrayana (Tantric) ones.

My favorite in the list of borrowed words: Ayyo! It will certainly be the most commonly used word in Malayalam. Ayyan (from which Ayyappan also comes) is the derivation from Ajjan, the Pali word for Buddha. Thus the call/exclamation 'Ayyo' becomes equivalent of 'Dear God!'. "Allo" and "Karthave" are similarly used by Muslims and Christians respectively in the state. It is interesting that the unknowingly the Malayalee invokes the Buddha in states of pain or pleasure. Unwittingly, in his witless attempt to mock south Indians, even Shah Rukh Khan kept repeating the word 'Ayyo' in his recent film. 

The famous temple at Sabarimala (from chavarimala because of the presence of chavari deer) has the idol of Dharmasastha. With 'Sastha' being a Sanskritization of 'Chaathan' and Dharma closely associated with Buddhism, it is pretty clear what this temple used to be. Even today the devotees climbing the hill shout 'Sharanam', a Pali word famous in the slogan "Buddham Sharanam, Dharmam Sharanam". Not to mention the 'Mandala' season, abstinence etc associated with the pilgrimage. Once I finish the book, I will write a detailed note about the converted viharas, idols and worship procedures in Kerala that have their roots in Buddhism.

I was sitting completely lost in thought about the most frequently used word in my vocabulary, Ayyo, when Amma returned from the short trip to Sri Lanka. She was held up for an hour on her way from the airport because both the communist party and a local temple had blocked the road with their processions in the morning. 

She brought me three gifts: a small marble Buddha, a miniature elephant and a bowl made from coconut wood. "You can use this as your Bhikshu's begging bowl," she joked. Ayyo indeed!

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