The Jain bas reliefs found in the caves at Keezh Kuyil Kudi tell a fascinating story.

Madurai was refreshingly cool and pleasant and it seemed to be a shame to stay indoors with an energetic five-year old. Getting back from a Kodaikanal trip, we were missing the mountains and when scholar Santalingam suggested a trip to Keezh Kuyil Kudi, we jumped to the opportunity. Keezh Kuyil Kudi, about 15 km from Madurai, is today called the Samanar or Jain hill. The setting could not have been be lovelier… a large pond choked with lotus flowers, a huge old banyan tree and a temple for the village god, Karuppanasami.

A short walk around the massive stone hill leads to a flight of stairs that reaches a small cave. The steps are shaded by trees and it is a short, pleasant climb. The cave is ideal for playing hide-and-seek, because of little crevices and tunnels, and it’s easy to miss the big attraction.

There’s a stunning bas relief of Mahavira with two attendants on one side and further inside, several others and a Yakshi, a spirit nymph in Jain mythology. Today, Yesakki and Petchi are common names in southern Tamil Nadu and both are modifications of this Sanskrit word – they have become Hindu names now but bear an ancient link to the country’s Jain past.

The inscriptions here are from the 9th-10th centuries and mention the names and details of the donors for the bas reliefs. We learn from these of a great Jain school – Palli – that existed in nearby Kurandi. Gunasena Devar was an important teacher in that school and his students were instrumental in commissioning these bas reliefs.

The longer climb of over 100 steps would have led us to a small spring with more bas reliefs and a stunning view of the city but would have been strenuous for a young child. Further up from the spring, recently a Brahmi inscription was discovered from the crevice in the rock, by a young student.

Beside the spring are several holes on the floor and a vertical rock face, indicative of pandals that were created with wooden poles and thatched roofs. These would have been places for the school that existed in the village. Inscriptions list more names of students who commissioned the bas reliefs. Close by, was once a stone temple of which only the foundation remains. It received a gift in ACE 889 during the reign of Veeranarayana Pandya from his queen Vanavan Mahadevi. One wonders who owns the land in the Konkarpuliaykunram village that the queen gave to this temple today! The oldest inscription on the hill records the creation of a stone bed by a native of nearby Thenur in 2nd century BCE, which however, requires a climb not for the faint hearted!

At the foothills is an Ayyanar temple. It has been heavily modernised, but if you look closely at two deities, fancifully called after mythical Pandya kings, you will find the heads of early pre-9th century Pandya sculptures of attendants, who would have formed part of the Jain temple that once stood on the hill. They have not been vandalised, but giving stucco or concrete bodies and incorporated into the pantheon of deities inside the living temple, a good lesson for us on how to look after antiquities!

The presence of large boulders and rocky outcrops in the Pandya country must have no doubt attracted several Jain monks to the area and led to the widespread popularity of their religion. Public support for the monks from all sections of society – farmers, traders and the kings -- was powerful since they offered food, medicine, education and sanctuary as their outreach to society. Perhaps the geography of the Chola country – devoid of such rocky outcrops suitable for caves, saw a greater acceptance of Buddhism rather than Jainism, which thanks to the seafaring nature of the Cholas was helped by taking the religion to the shores of South East Asian countries.

Despite just vestiges, Samanar Malai continues to have a distinct charm – its natural setting and a little bit of imagination on seeing several young 9th century Jain monks running around and over the rocky hill can make one smile, though their lives must have been spartan and serious.

Keezh Kuyil Kudi is 15 km from Madurai on the Nagamalai-Pudukottai Road.