The streets of North Chennai, on Thursday morning, witnessed an unusual kind of festivity, one that was in marked contrast to the hustle and bustle one usually associates with this hub of business.
Several women, dressed in white, holding brushes made of cloth, walked alongside students from different schools and colleges while older men and women sang songs about nature and the importance of ‘live and let live.' Most of them were barefoot and some had a white cloth placed over their mouths. An attempt at talking to a woman was politely, yet vehemently brushed aside. “It is her maun vrat (vow of slience) today, for the prabhu,” another woman walking next to her pointed out.
Others held aloft a banner that proudly displayed the image of Maharana Pratap and also messages of Mahavir, the guru of the thousands of Jains across the world, whose birth anniversary was celebrated with great gusto by the community here. “Prabhu (Mahavir) reformed us and took us away from the clutches of violence,” said Prerak Bothra (82), who hails from Rajasthan, and has been here all his life.
The Jain community, one of the more recent migrants to the city (having arrived from both Gujarat and Rajasthan), has a huge presence here today. The first members of this community came to Chennai around 150 years ago to provide ration supplies to the military. Members of this community are mostly into business and money lending, and also run various educational institutions. “But nowadays, children do not want to get into business,” said Padma Bohra, a mother of a doctor and an advocate.
“The earlier generations lived in St. Thomas Mount where the British army was stationed. Then, we moved to other places. Sowcarpet was initially where most stayed, but now you find us in Vepery, Vyasarpadi, T. Nagar, Kilpauk, everywhere,” said Pravin Mehta, vice-president, Jain Maha Sangh.
There are Jains in every community, even among the Punjabis although the Marwaris form a considerable chunk. “It is easier for us to adjust here because Tamil Nadu has a rich, ancient, Jain heritage. We share a lot of traditional knowledge with Tamil Jains here,” Mehta said.
Over the years, the Sangh has been trying to promote vegetarianism, one of the core principles of Jainism, in the schools of Chennai. “It is not just about what you eat but also how you live. It starts with, say, encouraging students to wear canvas shoes instead of leather ones,” said Mr. Mehta.
Most of them, even today, prefer to continue the joint family system or choose houses in locations close to others in their community. Right from maintaining stringent fasts to ensuring dining in the household is done by 6 p.m., as instructed by the religion, maintenance of traditions is given great importance. “We eat roti-sabzi everyday and make sure our children speak our language at home. But, we cannot imagine going back to Rajasthan. Even my relatives back home are not this connected to each other,” says Sangeetha Katariya, a home maker from Perangalathur.