A small village in Tamil Nadu will come alive on April 13, as Tamil Jains celebrate Mahavir Jayanti.

The road to Mel Sithamoor, 139 km south-east of Chennai, disappears into a single-track of tar, snaking away into rural wilderness. Mel Sithamoor (also known as Melchitamur) in Villupuram District, is home for the community of Tamil Jains or Samanars.

There are no boards to direct you to Sithamoor or the Jina Kanchi Jain Matha. All year round the village, with just 35 houses lining an old temple complex, is silent and empty. The doors of the houses, shut to keep away the fierce summer heat, bear the Jain insignia (a crescent, three dots and the swastika) painted on the doors.

The gopuram, vimanam and the temple compound loom large all of a sudden. There are six temples within the complex. The main shrine is dedicated to Parsvanath, the 23rd Tirthankar, with the smaller shrines for the yakshas and yakshis (worshippers and protectors of the Tirthankars). Several inscriptions inside the temple complex record the additions and alterations made to the temple 19 centuries ago.

Next to the temple complex is the one-storey Jina Kanchi Jain Matha, which was shifted here from Kanchipuram a few decades ago, and which maintains the temple. It is, in fact, the figurative overseer of all Tamil Jain temples and institutions in Tamil Nadu.

The altered village

As Mahavir Jayanthi approaches, (it falls on April 13), the village metamorphoses. Devotionals in Tamil loudly announce that Sithamoor is not far away. At the helm of affairs is the head of the Matha, the bespectacled Laxmisena Bhattaraka Swamigal, in saffron robes, a peacock feather in one hand and a book in the other. He is accompanied by a pujari, who chants in front of the metal idols of Tirthankars and yakshis, which glitter in the light of oil lamps.

More than a dozen men and women sitting on either side of a low room-length table chant in Tamil, making offerings of fruit when instructed. On Mahavir Jayanthi , Mel Sithamoor comes alive with festoons, decorative lights, saffron-robed monks, men in sparkling white dhotis and women swishing in silk saris.

This year’s celebration marks the 2,612th birthday of Vardhaman Mahavira, the last Tirthankar. Rajalakshmi, a schoolgirl in her teens, has come from Chennai ahead of the festival, which she has not missed since she was a child. “This is a time of joy and devotion for Jains and all the villagers. Teenagers look forward to this event,” she says.

“On Mahavir Jayanti, we bring out the temple chariot,” says the Swamiji. The chariot carrying a Tirthankar idol, is decorated with miniature elephants, horses and floral motifs, and brought out in the wee hours.

“More than a hundred people push the ther around the village, going from door to door and each household performs a puja. It takes three hours or more,” says Rajalakshmi. On the last day of the 10-day celebration, 1008 pots of consecrated water are poured over the silver and panchaloha idols just outside the temple.

The Tamil Jains are a small community, scattered in north Tamil Nadu. The Swamiji says that Tamil Jains once lived in 122 villages, but most of them have migrated to other places. Literary, epigraphic and archaeological sources point that during 1 millennium AD, Jainism was a popular religion throughout India, even Tamil Nadu. It had a large following and often enjoyed political support.

Mel Sithamoor that houses the Matha, itself has a very small Jain population. The head of the Matha is unanimously selected from within the laity. The one chosen is not an ascetic but, during his tenure as the matha head, takes a vow of celibacy, lives alone and is conferred the title, Swamiji. The matha today hopes to bind the Tamil Jains together, as it does during important festivals.

As another Mahavir Jayanthi approaches, for the Tamil Jains, all roads will lead to Mel Sithamoor.