Anusha Parthasarathy ascends Kazhugumalai and experiences a unique co-existence of Hindu and Jain architecture

I wish I was the eagle that soared above Kazhugumalai's rocky hills, instead of being the tourist with a heavy camera strutting up its stone steps, secretly hoping to be airlifted by the bird that was nowhere in sight. “High, stone steps don't go well with short people,” my friend mumbles as she follows.

Our interest in Kazhugumalai is kindled by the misnomer of a name that it possesses. There are pond herons and kingfishers but no eagles atop this ‘hill of eagles'. Perhaps it stems from the famous Kazhuguchalamurthy temple here. But what we do find on the hill is a stony silence.

The cut-steps swirl around the rocks and end at a metal gate. Look below and a pond with a temple on its banks and children bathing in its green waters paint a vivid landscape. We move past the gate and spot the domed top of a rock temple. An Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) plaque gives details about its history.

Situated about 60 km away from Tirunelveli, Kazhugumalai's (Tuticorin district) historical name is mentioned on the ASI plaques placed around the hill; Aramalai and even Ilanelchuram (land of paddy fields). One of the locals, Siva Gurunathan, shows us around, climbing up the steep rocks with practised ease.

To the east of Aramalai is the Vettuvan (or sculptor's) temple. The domed top of the Shiva temple ends in a panel of intricate carvings and has celestial beings seated at different heights in haloed enclosures.

While some of its arches remain incomplete, the domes and the now-broken statues are examples of Pandya architecture and have even been compared to those in Ellora and Mahabalipuram.

There are rectangular perforations on the surrounding rocks, as if awaiting the sculptor's return.

Built during the 8th Century C.E. by a Pandya king, the Ganesha shrine inside the temple is shrouded in darkness that is natural to cave temples and its stone floors remain cool despite the morning sun's fiery rays falling on it.

The temple isn't the only reason that brings people here. Further up, on Thenpuram hill, by the hanging roots of a great banyan are sculptures etched on a sloping rock; rows of Jain Thirthankaras seated on lotuses. On the sides are Thirthankaras standing with fly-whisk bearers and celestial maidens around them.

These sculptures too, date back to the 8th Century C.E., to the period of the Pandya king Parantaka Nedujadayan. There are warriors on horseback, seated on lion-thrones and riding an elephant, and these sculptures are surrounded by inscriptions in ‘vattezhuthu'. The names of the sculptors are also mentioned.

There is an Ayyanar temple that was recently built on the site, hiding some of these sculptures. We walk to its side and huff and puff our way up steep steps right to the top of the hill, then a few steps down on the other side is the guarded sculpture of Lord Mahaveer.

We sit for a while and enjoy the breeze. Siva Gurunathan says that sometimes the breeze is so strong that you need something to hold on to. That's not the only thing to worry about. We look down and realise it's a long journey back.