Oct 23, 2011

Kung Fu and Kanchipuram -the secret connection


Kanchipuram. A small old temple-town in South India that always bustles with Hindu pilgrimage tourists and that is known for its silk saris. Kung Fu. A Chinese martial art that is practiced for self-defense and mental strength, primarily by the Buddhist monks at the Shaolin monastery in China. What could be common to Kanchipuram and Kung Fu? Nothing at all?! You should think again, or should flip some historical accounts- well, not Indian, but Chinese or Japanese accounts! What could that secret connection be??



When you think of Buddhism, all that comes up in mind is the Buddha, in a meditative pose, sometimes with long earlobes and tiny, wide eyes. Oftentimes red-robed, head-shaven peaceful Chinese monks also cross the mind. Contrary to this, Buddha was actually an Indian Prince, and we know this fact. However, seldom would we dare to think that Buddhism had its flourishing times in Tamil Nadu! (What?? Most of the Tamilians were Buddhists?!Is this what you’re thinking right now?) In fact two out of the Five Great Epics in Tamil (Aymperumkaapiyangal) were on Buddhism (none of those were on Hinduism!). Between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD, Buddhism was at its height in Tamil Nadu, and thus it splashed some beautiful hues on the vast and elaborate canvas of Tamil and South India’s history. As centuries rolled on, people started embracing different religions and thus culture and literary works evolved along. Now there is literally no trace of Buddhism here. Well, now what would be even more surprising is to know that a Tamil Prince from Pallava dynasty in Kanchipuram was the 28th father of the Buddha line, and also the Zen master, who taught Kung Fu (Shaolinquan) martial arts to China!




You might have known that the world-famous shore temple in Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu was built by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman. But we have forgotten another mighty one from the Pallava heir line- Bodhidharman. He was born in Kanchipuram as the third son to the Pallava King. After wearing the red robe and becoming a Buddhist monk, he travelled the seas for 3 years and reached China during the 4th-5th centuries AD. He was the 28th patriarch of Buddhism, with the lineage tracing back to Gautama Buddha himself. In most of the art forms- be it Chinese, Japanese or Vietnamese- he is portrayed to be a profusely bearded and ill-tempered person always, as opposed to the tranquil-looking Gautama Buddha. After being in Liang dynasty in Southern China, he proceeded north, where he taught Shaolin Kung Fu martial art techniques to the monks in the Shaolin monastery. Staring at a wall, he continuously meditated for 9 years in a cave near Mt. Song (which is a famous holy pilgrimage spot in China today). After that he died at the banks of Luo River when he was around 150 years of age. Some claim the death was natural, some say his leg atrophied after the long meditation, and some say he was a victim of a mass execution!


One of the most intriguing incidents happened when an official in the kingdom spotted Bodhidharma walking on a mountain, three years after his death. When questioned, he claimed to be returning “home”, and also predicted the impending death of the Kingdom’s ruler. He also noticed him carrying one sandal in his hand. Bodhidharma’s prediction came true soon after that; and when his tomb was dug open, all that remained was the other sandal!





Bodhidharma was the first patriarch of Zen. According to Zen, you become a Buddha (you attain enlightenment) when you attain “self-realization”. It also emphasizes that Zen is a special transmission out of scriptures, and cannot be “taught” by anyone. All that someone could teach is just the method to achieve Zen.


Japanese Daruma doll & Tamil Chettiar dolls

While China, Japan, Vietnam and other countries revere and follow Bodhidharma, Japan has intertwined him with its culture and tradition. Daruma dolls are the famous hollow, round, red-colored Japanese dolls that depict Bodhidharma. These dolls are believed to bring luck, and have been in place since the 18th century in Japan. The interesting thing is that the eyes of the doll are just blank when sold. After someone buys it, one eye is drawn in black, upon making a wish. Once the wish is fulfilled, the other eye is supposed to be drawn. Moreover, these dolls always return to an upright position when tilted, symbolizing persistence (oh yes, these are very similar to the good old “Chettiar dolls” and the bobblehead “Thalayaati bommai” of our tradition that you threw out, when you dusted your store-room last year!). It’s a pity, when it’s a big tradition in Japan to reminisce and celebrate a great man from our land while here we are crazy about buying those Chinese “Laughing Buddha” dolls for homes!

Had we remembered Bodhidharma’s work and recognized him to be from our land much earlier, it would be of no surprise if the Hollywood blockbuster animation movie Kung Fu Panda’s plot was set in Kanchipuram- as if Po, the panda amuses with its usual antics while roaming in the quaint streets of Kanchipuram, intermittently uttering Tamil words and fighting atop the grand golden gopurams of Kanchi Kamakshi temple! This could be difficult to imagine for a few, but such a thing would have been definitely adorable, in its very original form. Well, anyways, that’s a trivial offshoot of a much more humongous yearning.



Now what’s the “secret connection”? The Enlightened Niche blog takes pride to be the truth-revealing “Dragon Scroll” here. But there is no “secret” connection. This whole thing has been a well-known fact to the rest of the world. It’s just us, who forgot a great soul from our land, failed to recognize him, his life and his work, and let him out of our history.  Know not who to complain. Sheer indifference perhaps.

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