Saraswathy Nagarajan treks up to Chitharal and learns a few lessons in ancient history

The signboards to Chitharal, a small village near Marthandam in Kanyakumari district, are, at best, confusing. Asking for directions is mandatory. The shadows are long and there is a nip in the air when we reach Marthandam, about 7 km from Chitharal.

Milkmen, early risers sipping hot tea at a wayside teashop, and a few labourers stare at us curiously as we ask, in what we hope is rudimentary Tamil, the way to Chitharal. The reply is in fluent Malayalam. Our pronunciation is wrong, and the rock-cut cave we hope to explore is known as ‘malai kovil' (rock temple) in local parlance. So at the next place, we speak in Malayalam but are met with a volley of instructions in Tamil. Here at Marthandam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala meet in a seamless blending of languages and culture.

A part of the erstwhile Travancore kingdom, the district was merged with Tamil Nadu in 1956 when the states were reorganised on the basis of language. Names of places such as Idichakaplamoodu (the literal translation would be ‘root of a jackfruit tree') and Padanthlamoodu hark back to an agrarian past and some places still bear worn out signs in the old Malayalam script. The entire district is a treasure trove of scenic locales and places steeped in history.

Finally, a winding, weathered ribbon of a road that goes through lush paddy fields, lotus ponds, and green plantations of rubber and plantain takes us to Chitharal and malai kovil. The hills are enveloped in mist and serenity at 7 a.m. Snatches of bhajans from nearby temples and solemn church bells fill the gaps between choruses of bird song. Tranquil scene but the hill seems forbiddingly high!

A local encourages us to trek up. He assures us it is only a kilometre to the caves. And so we begin ascending the gentle incline that takes us to the rock-cut caves, of which not even a glimpse can be seen. Cashew nut trees and country almonds line both sides of the paved path. Not a soul to be seen! Deep red Xenora and fluffy pink flowers of touch-me-nots, resembling cotton candy, dot the path and add a dash of brilliant colour to the predominantly green and brown landscape.

Soon we are huffing and puffing and yet there is no sign of the caves. But crudely carved signs on the rocks tell us that Palani, Godwin and many others had visited the place much before us. Marvelling at their tenacity and fitness levels, we trudge up, resisting the temptation to sit on one of the stones benches. A peek to the right reveals a silver strip of the river Tamiraparani graciously meandering along through an expanse of greens of all shades. A turn and a few steps later, the view changes to one of a verdant landscape of coconut palms and fields.

At long last, after an hour or so, we see the caves! Perched precariously on the rock, the temple is carved into a natural overhanging rock facing the west. You fall silent watching the roughly hewn steps and the narrow entrance between the rocks that lead to the temple. Also known as Tiruchchanattu malai, the monument is estimated to be built in the ninth century when this region was under the influence of Jainism. Believed to be built by the Digambara sect in the ninth century, the temple or monastery must have been cut off from everything else. Engravings answer a few questions but many more remain unanswered, even today.

Historian T.A. Gopinatha Rao, who edited the seminal The Travancore Archaeological Series, had visited the place in 1920-21. According to him, the inscription says that the temple was built during the reign of the king Vikramaditya Varaguna. It was erected at Tiruchcharanam at the behest of a Jain priestess called Muttavala Naranakuttiyar, who also presented the temple a metallic lamp stand and a golden flower.

The Travancore Archaeological Series explains that Tiruchcharanattu malai seems to the correct name of the hill and it means the hill holy to the charanas (Jain ascetics) or where Jain saints lived in large numbers. In its heyday, the place attracted Jain scholars and saints from Tanjavur and other Jain centres in South India. These scholars and ascetic have left votive images cut on the rock with inscriptions under each of them, giving the name of the individual who caused it to be sculptured.

The cave now has a mandapa, a verandah and a bali pita. Carved in half-relief, the figures of the Tirthankaras and attendant deities indicate that this was once a Jain monument. The central shrine has three chambers. In the middle is the figure of Mahavira Tirthankara and on the left, Parsvanatha Tirthankara, and to the right, Padmavathi. Above the central shrine is a brick gopura, a portion of which was apparently destroyed by lightning.

Sometime in the 13th Century, this place was converted into a Hindu temple. Another flight of steps takes us to the ruins of a temple-like structure right on the peak of the hill. Dark clouds on the horizon warn of rain and so we descend to the caves below. Another flight of steps leads down to a calm, dark green natural pond, surprisingly clean and free of plastic.

Dr. Cherian of the Kerala Council of Historical Research says Chitharal is an extremely important historical link and material evidence of the reach of Jainism and Buddhism on the south-western coast. “These might have been part of trade routes which took Buddhism and Jainism to different parts of peninsular India, and Sri Lanka too. Most of these places were supported by wealthy patrons. Much of that legacy has been lost forever in South India, especially in Kerala,” he explains. KCHR aims at exploring and documenting the Jain-Buddhist traditions in Kerala.

A board at the foot of the hills declares that the site is a protected monument of the ASI and gives some details about the monuments and the people who made it happen.

By now, the temples and the churches at the foot of the hills are filled with people and worshippers. Long ago, malai kovil also attracted devotees who trekked the hill in search of spiritualism. Today it is a destination for curious tourists, history buffs and devotees who try to trace the progress of the medieval Jain pilgrims of South India.

Getting there

Take NH 47 from Thiruvanathapuram to Kanyakumari. At Marthandam, turn left to reach Attoor and then left again. If you keep your eyes open, you will see a sign that indicates the road to Chitharal. It is best to ask locals for directions to reach the caves, which is about two km away.