Buddhism in KERALA : BUDDHIST TEMPLES (c.200 BC to 800 AD)
Buddhism was introduced in Kerala by the missions sent out by Emperor Ashoka from Besnagar (Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh). During this period, the Emperor`s son Mahindra headed a Buddhist mission to Sri Lanka. For more than 700 years, Buddhism flourished in Kerala. The Paliyam Copper plate of the Ay King, Varaguna (885-925AD) shows that at least in South Kerala, Buddhists continued to enjoy royal patronage even until 1000 AD.
Many Hindu temples were once Buddhist shrines, including Vadakkunathan temple of Thrissur, Kurumba Bhagawathi temple of Kannur and the Durga temple at Paruvaserri near Thrissur. A large number of Buddhist images have been discovered in the coastal districts of Allapuzha and Kollam; the most important of these is the famous Karumadi Kuttan near Ambalapuzha.
Revival of Hinduism by Brahmin scholars in 800-1000 AD gradually wiped out Buddhism from Kerala. Royal patronage by the Vaisnavite Kulashekara dynasty hastened this process. Many Keralites, like the Ezhavas (from Ezham, Tamil term for Sri Lanka), who were most likely Buddhists once, got absorbed in the mainstream Hindu fold.
However the legacy of nearly a 1000 years was not so easily forsaken. Pallikudam or Ezhuthupally - the schools opened by Buddhists near their monasteries - continued to impart education (Pally is the Buddhist term for school). Buddha continued to be worshipped as Sastha or Ayyappa. Popular invocation of these deities, even today, hark back to Buddhist times - Buddham Sharanam became Swami Sharanam!
While replacing old Buddhist shrines with new Hindu temples, the Brahmins, respecting sentiments of the neo-converts, relocated the older gods nearby, but away from the sanctum and outside the Pradikshina-patham or circumambulatory pathway.