Mystery of the smiling Buddha that arrived as a gift from the tsunami

Times Online, June 3, 2005

Mahabalipuram, India -- The little Buddhist sage sits underneath the tree only yards from the sea from which he was plucked, a whimsical smile upon his face. Villagers gather before him with offerings of incense and food.

?We must look after him,? Gajendram, a fisherman, said as he knelt to light a candle. ?He was sent 1,000 miles across the sea to protect us and he will stay with us for ever.?

A few miles up the coast at Mahabalipuram, a group of daytrippers marvel at the weathered carvings on a huge rock sitting in the middle of the beach. To one side lie the ruins of a temple in the sand. ?We used to come here many times but we never saw these before,? Vinod Kumar, a student, said. ?It is a gift of the tsunami.?

When the giant wave crashed into coastlines across the Indian Ocean, it took thousands of lives with it, erasing villages, destroying bridges, roads and fishing fleets.

But on this little stretch of the Tamil Nadu coast, it brought treasures too, unearthing ancient ruins and sending unfamiliar idols into the arms of the faithful.

At Mahabalipuram, when the tsunami fell back from the shore it took with it tonnes of sand from the beach, laying bare the forgotten ruins of a 7th-century temple and a rock covered with beautiful carvings of tigers, elephants and horses.

Archaeologists say that the new find indicates a ?giant superstructure? that once stood on the beach, dating from the Pallava period from which Mahabalipuram?s other temples also date.

While important, however, they are causing nothing like the fuss of the other tantalising glimpse into the past that villagers here believe the tsunami showed them.

As the waters of the sea receded 500 metres from Mahabalipuram?s beachfront temple, mesmerised observers say that they saw very clearly on the ocean floor a series of pagoda-like temples apparently swallowed up by the sea in the past few hundred years.

?I saw them there as clearly as I see you here now,? Krishnan, a shell vendor, said. ?We stared in awe and then we ran for our lives.? Archaeologists believe that the ruins could be part of the mythical city of Mahabalipuram, which legend says was so beautiful that the gods sent a flood that engulfed six of its seven temples.

The myth was first written down by J. Goldingham, a British traveller who heard the story when he visited in 1798.

Experts have long been divided between those who believe in the ancient city and those who think it is a myth.

But the sightings, claimed by scores of witnesses, have led to a treasure hunt. Underwater photographs show stone structures covered in algae and barnacles, lending credence to the story. Those who say they saw it, however, have no need for science.

?After seeing it I thought God is doing something wonderful to save our lives,? Krishnan said. ?I knew then we would survive.?

But no one is more convinced of the hand of God at work than the villagers of the tiny fishing village of Meyyurkappam where the little Buddhist idol arrived so unexpectedly ten days after the tsunami struck.

Fishermen were gathering on the beach that morning to survey the wreckage of their boats when they spotted an unusual structure bobbing on the waves, a raft with a cagelike structure above it. Curious, nine of the fishermen piled into the one undamaged boat and paddled out to investigate. Bolted to a plinth aboard the raft, they found the little brass figure with his curious smile, gazing up at the sky.

They dragged the raft ashore and put it under the tree where they lit it with candles so everyone could see. ?We didn?t know what it was,? Sakthivel, a fisherman, said.

No one here had ever even heard of Buddha.

Soon an expert arrived to tell them that the little idol was a Buddhist sage, Jalagupta, who was mounted on a raft and sent off to sail along coastal villages to bless and protect them from the sea. And his home was Burma, more than 1,000 miles across the sea.

?It was a gift from God and it came so far to protect us,? Ramesh, a fisherman said. While many other communities nearby were hammered by the tsunami, only 12 people out of a population of 1,000 died in Meyyurkuppam. ?We believe that it saved us from death.?

Government officials arrived in the village soon after, demanding that the statue be handed over to a museum. But the villagers refused. Instead they want to build a temple to put it in where they can worship it properly. As soon as they start fishing again, they say, they will earn the money to start building it.

?We don?t know any Buddhist prayers so we say the Hindu prayers instead and hope that Buddha will understand,? Ramesh said. ?We must pray to it because it chose our village, none other, so we know we are blessed.?


# The temples of Mahabalipuram were built by the Pallava kings in the 7th and 8th centuries

# The temples are among the earliest known examples of Dravidian architecture

# Most of the temples are dedicated to the Hindu gods, Shiva or Vishnu

# The most famous is the Shore Temple built by Narasimha Varman II

# Mahabalipuram is also famous for its intricate bas-relief rock carvings