When I left Madurai early on a cloudy morning, the car raced smoothly on the four-lane NH 45 towards Trichy. By the time I returned in the evening, my mind was trying to figure the mystery behind the echo of the “Om” in the Sittanavasal cave temple.

I was returning to this 2nd Century Jain cave temple complex in Pudukottai district after a gap of seven years and I found nothing had changed. Once I branched off the national highway and turned right into the state highway from Viralimalai, I found the 16 km stretch up to the caves via Iluppur to be as potholed. The lone man with a disinterested look inside the ASI's tin-shed counter was too lazy to even sell that five-rupee ticket to me.

I tried telling him I am from a newspaper keen to write an article on the famous monument and would, therefore, need some information. Since his mouth was full with the betel leaf he was chewing, he simply pointed his finger towards the hillock and danced his eyebrows. I got the message – explore yourself.

It started to drizzle and the already wet rocks became more slippery. With no cover in sight, I launched myself on the ascent of 287 steps cut into the face of the hill — some flat and small, some wide and some steep. During such arduous climbing assignments, the truth about your fitness level dawns. All along, I had to watch out for the simian brothers, notorious for snatching bags in this rocky retreat.

Once at the top, the wind almost swept me off. Holding on to the railings, I took in the panoramic 360 degree view. Floating clouds above and differently-hued green tracts below interspersed with water bodies. Not a soul in sight. It was lonely at the top. I sat on a rock to allow my eyes a longer feast.

Sittanavasal, a distortion of Sit-tan-na-va-yil in Tamil, which means the abode of great saints, is located on a prominent rock that stands 70m above the ground. It has a natural cavern, known as Eladipattam, at one end and a rock-cut cave temple at the other.

The steps lead to a narrow alley with a gorge on one side and fenced cavern on the other. Behind the fencing, you can see 17 rock beds marked on the floor. The stone berths are aligned in rows. They are said to have served as a Jain shelter since 1st Century BC.

The largest of these ascetic beds contains a Tamil-Brahmi inscription that dates to the 2nd Century BC. There are more inscriptions in Tamil from the 8th Century AD, bearing names of monks. It is believed they spent their lives in isolation here and Eladipattam served as a site of penance. Vandalism, however, has taken its toll: over these ancient inscriptions are now scratched love messages and names.

The wind offered some solace as I took a closer look at the inscriptions before the descent again. To get to the rock-cut temple, named Arivar Koil, on the north-western side, one has to go down and again climb up from the other end.

It is a 20-minute walk between the two rocks and you cross a small lake with boating facilities, a children's park and an amphitheatre, both under construction, and a picnic spot grandiosely named the Tamil Divine Park, with green landscaping, fountains, statues and play equipment for kids.

This one is a mini-climb compared to the first and the moment I step inside the cave temple, the clouds burst open. The façade of the temple is simple, with four rock cut columns.

Excavated in the early Pandya period, in the 7th Century A.D, it consists of a hall in the fore called the Ardhamandapam and a smaller cell at the rear, which is the Garbha graham.

Paramasivan, who wore a broad smile, checked whether I am carrying a camera. Photography is strictly prohibited here. For the last 13 years, he told me, he has been on duty here, showing and explaining to tourists about the remnants of the exquisite frescoes from the 7th Century.

“Look at these murals, madam, painted with vegetable and mineral dyes. They resemble the frescoes of the famous Ajanta Caves. Look at the pictures of the cow here, fish and duck there, people gathering lotuses from the pond, the apsaras, the monks, the king and the queen…” he said, shining his torch on the ceiling and the columns. My eyes tried hard to trace the lines. Much of the green, yellow, orange and blue have faded.

“The ASI took over only in 1958. And only two decades ago the cave was covered and the entry of visitors regulated. Till then villagers used to worship here, which caused damage to the paintings,” he said. He also pointed to the bas relief figures of Teerthankaras on the left wall of the hall and acharyas on the right before we entered the inner chamber, the sanctum sanctorum.

There, he asked me to stand under the protruding lotus carved in the middle of ceiling of the garbha graham and take a deep breath. I followed and took several deep breaths. Nothing happened. He stood in my place and took a single deep breath and within seconds the chamber was echoing with his breath. The stones came alive. Paramasivan repeated the act by chanting “Om”. Each time, his voice had the same resounding effect.

I tried again but failed to create an echo. Paramasivan consoled me: “You have to do it with lot of bhakti. The sound should come out of your navel. I have been doing pranayama for the last 20 years.”

I took leave of him wondering why my “Om” didn't work. Did anybody else's work?

GETTING THERE:

Pudukkottai is 135 km from Madurai and 60 km from Trichy. The right turn from Viralimalai towards Iluppur on State Highway 7 will take you straight to Sittanavasal Caves.

WHAT NOT TO MISS:

Apart from the twin historic caverns atop the hill, the surrounding areas have numerous dolmens and stone circles, pre-historic megalithic burial sites, more caves and small rock-cut temples