Kazhugumalai, rife with Jain sculptures, is a treasured document to the existence of an ancient unique culture. Shubashree Desikan

It is not every day that you get a chance to spend a leisurely afternoon in a place steeped in history, art, architecture and lore.

My visit to Kazhugumalai with a group of artists was one such rare, prized coming together of the above factors. Kazhugumalai is not more than 25 km from Kovilpatti in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu. The object of focus in this town is a rocky hill with a large number of Jain sculptures on top and an eighth century Pandya temple, Vettuvankoil, situated halfway up the hill.

At the approach to the hill was a bridge over a canal. During the monsoon, water would flow over the bridge and the whole area would be green, but that day, in September, the sun was gloriously up and the smooth hill glowed, striped and daunting like rock tigers. Steep steps had been cut that went right up to the top. We took the other, circuitous route that went first to Vettuvankovil and then sloped more gently upwards.

Pandya architecture

The similarity between Ellora rock temple and Vettuvankovil, carved out of the rockface in the hill, has been remarked upon. Yet, on reflective examination, Vettuvankovil testifies to the excellence and originality of Pandya architecture.

A careful study of the vimana shows many differences. Shiva is shown playing an udukkai or drum, and not with a veena as in the former. Perumal, or Vishnu, is shown with Chandra and Surya on either side, with the latter accompanied by the consorts. A traditional pattern is followed with respect to the direction faced by these gods, for instance Shiva faces east. Also, the three-tier structure, with eight sculptures in the first tier is typical of Pandya architecture. The Pillayarpatti temple and the one at Tirupparankundram are Pandya temples built in this style.

There is a story told of a father and son, sculptors working on this temple. The father was sculpting the rock at the top, while the son who was sitting at the bottom of the hill, listened to the sound of the chisel travelling downwards and following it, made a sculpture that was of extraordinary beauty.

Lore has it that the father slew the son in a fit of jealousy, thereby giving the temple its name, Vettuvankovil, “temple of the one who cut”. Bloodcurdling, but that is the way of folklore.

We then followed the pathway to the top of the hill where a beautiful banyan tree casts its shadow over a row of Jain tirtankaras, frozen in time.

Setting a date on sculptures is a very tricky job and depends much on the interpretation of history. A deep insight into the culture and times is required. According to Pa Ramachandran, sculptor and scholar in Asiatic studies, the Kazhugumalai Jain sculptures must have been sculpted during 8-10 century CE. The statues of Parsvanatha and Adinatha, which are similar to the work in Vettuvankovil, must have been built during the time of Pandya ruler Parantaka Nedunjadaiyan in the eighth century and the rest, over a period of time in the ninth and tenth centuries, during the time of Parantaka Viranarayanan.

Kazhugumalai is also important because it holds many inscriptions that shed light on the prevalence of Jainism in the Pandya country. There is a belief that Jainism was rooted out from the Tamil country in the sixth century by Saivism and was revived much later on by the digamber saints who came from North India. However, the Kazhugumalai sculptures bear evidence that it continued to exist in the Pandya regions in the 8th to 10th centuries.

Religious harmony

The proximity and diversity of the Jain sculptures and Vettuvankovil show that the two religions may have coexisted, while still not interfering with each other. Also, the indigenous and independent nature of this religion is evidenced by inscriptions that state that there were many women teachers and saints. This is not practice in the form which came from the North at a later period. So the Kazhugumalai site is a treasured historical document to the existence of a whole unique culture.

We spent about four hours there. A family came to pray at the Ayyanar temple erected there. As we feasted on ragi stew, which one of our friends had brought, using the fallen leaves of the banyan as plates, the family collected some firewood and made up a stove on which they cooked pongal to offer their deity. It was an experience that would stay in our minds until much later.