A walk to Jain beds in Keezhavalavu brings forth the urgent need to conserve heritage sites

“What a massive destruction!” exclaims an elderly man. “Where are the mountains?” wonders a small boy. “That one is cut like a cake,” he points to a rocky half-hill that stands aloof jutting amongst the rubble around. The 200 other people in the group echo similar expressions. They are atop a hillock in Keezhavalavu, a small hamlet near Melur in Madurai district, a place that hit the headlines recently for the infamous granite mafia. “From here, you can see the extent of damage caused. A number of hillocks have vanished,” announces A. Muthukrishnan, the founder of Green Walk, an initiative that has been taking people on visits to various historic places in and around Madurai, for the past one year.

Last Sunday was a learning experience for students, research scholars, home-makers, kids, bloggers, writers, photographers and nature-enthusiasts who walked up the hill in Keezhavalavu to the Panchapandavar Padukai, a 2000-year-old Jain site. “Thanks to the Jain beds because of which this hillock was saved from granite mining. Though the illegal activity got exposed, it didn’t get the required media attention like in the case of Bellary iron-ore mining,” says Sundar, an active blogger. He has documented all the Green Walks in his blog ‘Madurai Vaasagan’.

“The aim of every Green Walk is to spread awareness about the historic richness of our region and to create a sense of belonging and value for these lesser-known places. In such group activities, you watch, learn, discuss and realize,” says Muthukrishnan. “Apart from the big temples and palaces that are on the tourist map, these Jain beds and sites should also be included. These are the places where there is record of history.” The Green Walk team including bloggers, writers and poets have been reaching the message to the common people through various media.

The panoramic view of the damage evoked voices from the participants. “Though I have seen the granite destruction on news and TV, I am deeply disturbed seeing this sight in real,” says Velmurugan, who has come all the way from Virudhunagar to take part in the walk.

Ilanchezhian, another blogger, asserts, “We should not have let this happen. I am going to write about it in my blog.” For Sriram Janak, a photographer, the rocks in Keezhavalavu is of art value. “I am fascinated by their formation and shapes. They are naturally artistic,” he says.

Seeing the sad scene from atop the hill, reminded Murugesan, of Sirumalai hills. “It’s a similar story that’s happening there. In the name of development, the forest area in the Sirumalai foothills is being destroyed. I have been posting about it in social networking sites,” he laments.

Keezhavalavu is as old as the Sangam Age, according to C. Santhalingam, Retired Archaeological Officer. “This is an important place in all the Jain beds circuit. One of the six Thirthankara statues here has been painted upon. Smudged images of kuthuvilakkus and an umbrella drawn on the top can be seen. This counters the notion that Jains were against fine-arts,” observes Santhalingam. “The Jains have contributed much to the educational and social development of our region. In a place like Madurai, where they once flourished, there are not many left today.”

Muthukrishnan shares, “In a recent trip to Kanchipuram, we found a small Jain village that has over 25,000 Jain people. They still continue to follow their practices. Most of them are well-versed in Tamil literary works. In fact, Tholkappiam is supposed to be a Jain literary work. It’s saddening to note how these places are lying in neglect today.”

“The archaeological department has fenced the area for 300 meters from the foothill, else, this would have also suffered under the granite sharks. However, there is no evidence for any heritage site being destroyed so far. Thankfully the Tamil Brahmi sites are still intact,” says Santhalingam.

“Green Walk is highly useful to gather lesser-known historical facts,” feels Sumathi, a Tamil research scholar. “References from literature can be seen and deciphered from such places. They must be protected. Vandalism like graffiti writing and carving should be restricted. Offenders must be punished.”

Pena Manoharan, a policeman-turned-poet has been a witness to the reckless granite plundering that happened in Keezhavalavu. Manoharan who took part in the walk, shares, “I was the Deputy Superintendent of Police in this region for over three decades and have seen the hills in full-splendour. And I also know how they vanished into rubbles and dusts. All the hills were brought down indiscriminately and we were helpless,” he regrets. Manoharan has compiled his poems into a book called Katrarindha kaakaigal out of which he read out a piece on Keezhavalavu hills.

The next phase of Green Walk, according to Muthukrishnan is to bang the doors of the administration. He says, “We will soon be filing petitions with the ASI for removing the graffiti on Jain beds. Members of our team are already working towards conserving the existing history.”

Historic facts:

Panchapandavar Padukai has five Jain beds and eight thirthankara figurines carved on the rocks.

It is one of the few places where both Tamil Brahmi and Vatteluthu inscriptions are found.

Keezhavalavu has been a trade pocket as it was located on ‘peruvazhi’ (important trade routes) that connected Chola and Pandya capitals.

The Jain site is believed to have come up during the second phase of revival of Jainism, where the religion adopted sculpting and painting as modes of communication.

It also functioned as a residential school apart from being a hospital where the sick were treated. It has also been a rest house for Jain monks on pilgrimages.