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.


  1. With regards to the above article, click here for a quick profile of the 5 Great Epics of Tamil (Aiymperum kaapiyangal):

    2 out of 5 were Buddhist works!

  2. yes anna i like this article veryy much... we forgot our important person who taught the rest of the world The Famous Shoalin Kung-Fu .. We had all the techniques , science, Maths , physics , religion, culture etc in our olden days , But now we have only Facebook, Mobile Phone, working for our luxuries expenditure etc..

    We were the largest continent in the world Lately ( KUMARI KANDAM ) where we started the society of TAMIL LITERATURE ( Tamil sangam I and II ) .. we had everything but now we have nothing ...

    P.S Viewers wish : i wanna know more about KUMARI KANDAM and Wanna Know What we Lost in KUMARI KANDAM

  3. Semma article brother. I too heard of something about it. Actually it was said that we had something known as "KUTTHU VARISAI" in our olden days. Before some thousand years. In that kutthu varisai we had many games in it, like "kalari" "silambaatam" and hell alot of things. Most of those were totally vanished. And it has been said that our "Dharman" was very well good in all those art. And while he was traveling to china, he just implemented kuthhu varisai by the things which he saw. And thus he gave a new version of Kutthu Varisai, now we call as kungfu . The story which i heard was "After reaching china, he saw that the monks in china where very weak and many of them were getting beaten up or killed by the ruler of that country. So he decided to teach our "kutthu Varisai" to them and to make them strong. And Thus Kung fu was started in China. And we cant say that bodhidharmar was the only one who taught kungfu to them. But we can surely say that Dhramn was the only guy who started to teach them. Later on many of them implemented their own styles and gave a shape to our "kutthu varisai" which is now people call as KUNG FU. so lets see how 7aam arivu is going to make an impact to our people. Idhula irundhu enna theriudhuna, Thamizhnaatla irundhaa, nammala yaaarum madhikamaatanunga. :D :D :D Annaivarukkum deepavali nalvaazthukkal

  4. Hemanth,
    'Japanese Daruma doll & Tamil Chettiar dolls' - Hands down- its an eye-opener to me.. This article made me google all key work(d)s.. History is fading because of gross negligence - Pat on the back to you - from, Nithya :)

  5. Elango PrahaspathyOctober 24, 2011 at 9:17 AM

    Hemanth, a fantastic narration. of course we always forget the worthiness and richness of our tradition and being amused by the western traditions. Had we stuck with our basic tradition we could have ruled the world. Hope we all realise this and follow a few old traditions atleast. INIYA DEEPAOLI THIRUNAAL NALVAZHTHUKKAL

  6. i liked this narration..I learnt a lot today. I will help spread Tamil culture's glory..

  7. Brilliant, good collection of informations. Well done.

  8. But what I learned from a mere attempt to know about Bodhidharma, is this. Bodhidharma might be a Buddhist follower but lived during the decline of Buddhism in India. Pallava rulers Simhavarma and Trilochana are known to have destroyed Buddhist stupas and have had Hindu temples built over them. Bodhidharma might have left India for survival and transformed into a Zen Patriarch en-route.

  9. Good One....Thank You So Much For Highlighting Our Rich Tradition...GOD Bless You....

  10. Yes in remind of bhodhi dharma we have only one one art...that is Varmakalai-Rajendran Krishnaraj(varmanian@gmail.com)

  11. well hemanth, again jaw dropped here, wowwwww simply superb, myy its like i hav to reread tamil history, get every detail.....happy nd proud to be ur follower. Great job hemanth, keep rocking, God bless u.

  12. அருமை நண்பரே அருமை!!! வாழ்த்துக்கள்!!! அரிய தகவலை அறியக் கொடுத்தமைக்கு மிக்க வந்தனம்!!! அன்புடன் கே எம் தர்மா...
    http://keyemdharmalingam.blogspot.com /

  13. @Aero-soul: Thank you! Glad that you liked the post. And yes, of course the loss of Kumari Kandam is humongous! I've already published a post on Kumari Kandam! :)


    @Sathya: Great insights, brother! It's interesting to think if "Kuthu Varisai" turned into "Kung Fu" because Bodhi dharma was called by the Chinese people as Bodhi- "DA MO". To them, it was difficult to pronounce the Indian name. Well, yeah, your theory is not so far-fetched, and could have been a fact!

    @Nithya: Glad you liked it!! Thanks for the continued encouragement, and would strive for more such "pats on the back:! :))

    @anonymous: thank you! Please take the joy of spreading the glory! :)

  14. @ thank you, Arjun! :)
    @ sidharthan: Oh yes, it's likely for such a thing to have happened. Looking back at Tamil Nadu's (which comprised of today's TN state, Kerala, Karnataka and Southern AP) history, especially during 200 AD to around 600 AD, Hinduism was almost replaced by Buddhism and Jainism. People got converted to these religions, prominent Tamil literature were on these religions, and the Kalabrahs (Kalapirar) ruled. And there had always been fight between Hindu Shaivites and Vaishnavites. With the Arab merchants' advent, we had Muslim conversions. With St. Thomas and Portuguese colonies, we had Christian conversions. We've had violences during most of these times. Read for more interesting insights in my earlier post:


    @anonymous: thanks a lot! :)

    @Mrs.Charmila: thank you!! glad that my blog had been an eye-opener! It also strives to make us realize how important it is for the future generations to be well-aware of our grand history and culture, unlike how the indifferent old generations were!! (so that we don't still let our traditions and extant history-wisdom disappear!)

    @andkm: mikka nandri, anbarey! :)

  15. Hemanth,

    Apart from your narration( it's exceptional), It shows your distinct responsibility of one to his ethnicity.

    The people who are wasting their wonderful leisure in useless entertainment( like me who almost watches 10 out of 10 movies in top 10 for three years) must learn from you.

    One more thing to quite amaze on your work is your dedication. I was very keenly waited, how you going to narrate as its very complicated to get the lucid style which has to be different from wiki-source.. yeah you proved it Hero.

    Since you are getting such appreciation... You got more responsibility... As, we tamizh people lacking to elevate our Historical Importance in the World History. You suit in it, We hope on your Caliber

    My hearty wishes for your hard work.

    Let me have a one more look on your post, Have a nice day


  16. Dear Hemant,

    Great article. I really loved it reading. I think the recently released Tamil movie 7aum Arivu is based on Bodhidharma. Only after seeing that I searched more on him and came to read your excellent article.

    Thanks for giving such article to know about our culture.

    Best regards,
    Senthil A Perumal,

  17. i feel sad we have lost our very own "kutthu varisai".if it had lived at present our movie heroes will fight like jetlee & jackie . i'm eager to learn kung-fu .
    thanks for the article ! bhodhi dharma

  18. bro, I am from Malaysia. Malaysian Tamilan, it is a great disappointment when the Indian goverment doesnt research and doesnt reveal or publish any kind of research on Tamil history. More and more great Tamil lengends are still not revealed to the world. China gvment are funding the Nat Geo to do research of their hisory and publish while Indians always shown as barbarian. Great Cholas, Pandya, pallava, cheran is still not known of any even they ruled quarter of the world (south east asia and other) once before. And i think only through Tamils later India exist. And the real old kingdom of India is Tamilan and no any north Indians (Hindian) and that is the reason why Indian goverment doesnt bother of revealing the old kingdoms. Our times exist many thousands years ago, there were none wud be exist at anywerelse when we had our 1st Tamil Sangam at Madhurai. I hope at least we realize now and appreciate this Tamil Culture include the language, and all the aspects and make use of it in our daily life. VANAKAM

    1. Hey vayu putra,

      if you are so proud of your tamil culture then you must know that your ancestors were kicked by aryans toward south! they ran away instead of fighting for their land. Even alexander said about your so called tamilians that they are born to be slaves n not have any integrity n all!

  19. yep, was agreed with Vayuputra, bit dissappointment from the oth side how come such a great historical can been missing...now im juz worried that could be alot of our indian historical that had been arised those days been missing from our eyes or for our thoughts!....ungallin research meendum-meendum valarga enudiya prathenei

  20. @Mr.Elango Prahaspathy: Very well said! Can't agree more.

    @Kalidasan: I'm flattered. Thank you very much!! :)

    @Senthil Alagu Perumal: Thank you! Glad that you liked the blog post! Share and enlighten your friends as well!

    @venkadesh: thanks! :)

    @vayuputra: Very true! But it's my strong belief that Govt taking steps is the next stage. The first stage is that, WE people should feel and understand the importance of our history, culture and tradition first! Once this happens with a majority of the people, then Govt would automatically take steps. After all, Govt is made of people! :)

    And, what Enlightened tries to do in this mission, is the first stage. :)

    @Chandra: thank you very much!!!

  21. hi hemanth thanks for enlightening me .kasirani

  22. india!>>south india>>tamilnadu.from the prehistoric era, our land is divided in this order only. our culture is as old as rome, greece,etc. our land is filled with lot of resource. from A.D our land is looted by innumerable kings, and it is continuing till today. in spite of this still our land is filled with treasures and historical monuments.
    u can appreciate this, only when u go abroad, where they show some stones and trees telling that they are 500 years old.
    since everything here is in excess,like treasure, persons, monuments, philosophers, political systems,we dont see these, with due respect. we have thousands of bhodhi dharmas,hundreds of religous persons, enough historical kings.
    the problem with us is, do u want to be a indian or south indian or tamilian

  23. @Kasirani: thank you! :)

    @Prabaharan: thanks for you comment! You are absolutely right. "..U can appreciate this, only when u go abroad, where they show some stones and trees telling that they are 500 years old..."

    It's always boils down to this common human nature- we typically don't know much about the town/city that we live in, but we travel around exotic places and become knowledgeable about those places! We always need to take a step back and see the nature of our own surroundings, and appreciate its innate qualities!

    Could be a bit philosophical- but this can also be extended to individuals! Try taking a step back and get to know yourself before paying attention to others' qualities! :)

  24. hemanth what is the connection between meenakshi temple?please explain

  25. Nice blog Hemanth...being an ardent devotee of Kanchi paramacharya, your blog gained all my attention with this post...would like to pin this to my favs list...

  26. one suggestion...the black background is too tough on eyes...you may want to make it more pleasant for the readers...

  27. @anonymous- there is no connection with Meenakshi temple.

    @Hari- thank you! Glad that you like it. Please keep following the blog. The black background is to resonate with the blog's brand and tag line.

    @Manju- thanks!! :)

  28. Hi hemanth,

    Good information, .......... http://www.bodhidharma.co.in

  29. Our aim is to reach more people to get awareness about Meditation... http://www.bodhidharma.co.in
    keep regular visit then get more info..

  30. I have heard that Bodhidharma's teacher was a woman--Prajnatara. Do you know anything about this? Hard to find the history. In gratitude.

  31. this is an excellent article. the Bodhidharma it was in the english dictionary in computer but not in the tamil people minds. today about everybody in china follows his martial arts but tamilans have forgetton the great bodhidrama. and only some of the tamilans knew martial arts. so, i think the govt should pass a law that compulsory coaching of martial arts in their school education.

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  34. There are many references to an Indian, the son of a king, who is called by various names, one of which is Bodhidharma, in the ancient Chinese literature.

    That this is the prince from Kanchi is only "established" by repetitions of the hypothesis that was essentially powered by the assertions of Tamil ancience (which in turn was a political expression of identity and exceptionalism on behalf of Tamil people).

    Along with the breakdown of Aryan/ Dravidian theories which formed the basis for a false "nationalism", all these theories too will be consigned to the dustbin of history. For example, if Orissa were to suddenly be seized by the disease of nationalism, it would also behave just like the Tamils did a few decades ago - banish Hindi, publish thousands of "consanguineous" PhD theses each supporting the other's "proof" of Odiya being pre-prakrit in history, being the first language of the whole world, the actual site of the first human, the root of African languages, etc etc.


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