A couple of weeks ago, I saw this magnificent 11th century Buddha from Nagapattinam at the Art Insititue, Chicago, and I feel compelled to write a few words about the things he might have witnessed.

11th Century Nagapattinam Buddha


Nagapattinam was a Buddhist enclave in the Hindu kingdom of the Cholas. The Pallavas, before the Cholas, were the first important kingship in Tamil Nadu. Their relationship with the ocean is self-evident from the shore temples of Mahabalipuram, from where ships once sailed to Southeast Asia. One of the Pallava emperors, Nandivarman, was for all means a Vietnamese prince, born and brought up in Champa before being called to Kanchipuram and offered the throne. The Cholas had their capital first at Uraiyur, and then Tanjavur, both of which are further inland than Kanchipuram. But it’s the Cholas’ naval expeditions to Kadaram and Srivijaya that’s remembered today, and it was the Cholas who were the most aggresively expansionist.

Under the Cholas, there is evidence of an active Tamil diaspora spread across Southeast Asia, all the way up to China, especially in the Chinese mercantile port of Quanzhou. Consider this itinerary recorded in the Chinese sources1. Rajaraja Chola, or his son Rajendra Chola, sent a contingent of fifty-two courtiers to Song China, led by a Chola Samudran. The party, in a leisurely fashion, first travelled from Tanjavur to Nagapatinnam, then onwards to Sri Lanka; then to Rammanadesam in Burma, onto the Malay peninsula and to some of the cities of Srivijaya before arriving  in Southern China after three years. This is where Chola Samudran spent the rest of his life, and this is where he died. The Chinese emperor is said to have sent an official to offer libations at the grave.

At every port along the way, Chola Samudran and company would have found Tamil speaking merchants such as the Nakarattar Chettis who turn up in an inscription from 1088 CE in Sumatra. This must be how Chola aesthetics and religion spread through SE Asia, through merchant guilds like the Five Hundred.

By the end of the 13th century, after a few centuries of Tamil school masters, ship builders, merchants, temple architects establishing their presence in Southeast Asia, we find a Tamil temple with bilingual Tamil-Chinese inscriptions, dedicated to Shiva, in the same port of Quanzhou.2

One of the revelations I have had over the past year is that cosmopolitanism is not something that arose in the wake of modernity in the West. Consider this: In the cities of Southern China in the 12th century, one could hear Tamil voices - fighting, haggling, selling - along side Chinese and Arabic. Ibn Batuta, and Marco Polo, both would spend time in Quanzhou. Where there are trade networks there are cosmopolitans.


Chola Empire Between 10th and 11th Century The extent of the Chola empire between the 10th and 11th centuries.

Back to Nagapatinam. There was a substantial Southeast Asian presence here, and through the Coromandel coast. A famous Buddhist vihara was established here by one Srivijaya king, Maravijayottungavarma3. Grants were added to the maintenance of the vihara by Rajaraja I and Rajendra Chola. The Chinese sources also mention the establishment of a “Chinese Pagoda” there in 1267. This survived till the 19th century, when it was pulled down under orders of the Governer to build a missionary school. Before the British, the Dutch East India Company made Nagapattinam their new headquarters after wresting it from the Portugese. With its abundant rice fields, and away from military operations and famines4, Nagapattinam was also close to Sri Lanka, another Dutch conquest from the Portugese. This must be around when our Buddha found himself displaced from his native lands.

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  1. This is from Tamil: A Biography by David Shulman and also found in K.A. Nilakanta Shastri’s History of South India. 

  2. Tamil Merchant Temples In India And China, by Risha Lee 

  3. I wonder if this is the vihara that our hero, Arulmozhi Varman, spends time recuperating in, in Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan. 

  4. The Dutch Company had a settlement in Masulipatnam on the Andhra coast in early 17th century. They moved further south because of political frictions at Golkonda, and the disruptive conditions caused by almost uninterrupted military campaigns conducted by the Deccan Sultanates, the Marathas and the Mughals.