HIDDEN 100 History & Culture

Between myth and reality

Frozen in time: A view of the Chandrapraba Tirthankara temple, one of the oldest Jain temples in the Kongu region. Photo: M. Balaji   | Photo Credit: - M_Balaji

Some 10 years ago, when the doors of the Chandraprabha Tirthankara temple were thrown open for puja, the main deity was found missing. “It was stolen, along with four other idols,” explains Manjula, the priestess as she performs aarti to an empty pedestal. Her voice bounces off the walls.

The empty pedestal is adorned with flowers, and there are traces of murals on the wall. Time has taken its toll. “We don’t know what stories they are trying to convey,” says R. Jegadeesan, an epigraphist with the Vanavarayar Foundation, Coimbatore. Look closely, and you can make out the outline of an anna paravai, yakshis and a few Tirthankaras.

It’s such untold stories that make the temple special. Built around the 16th Century by Harihara II, a Vijayanagara king, it is said to be one of the oldest Jain temples in the Kongu region. The temple has been declared a monument by the Archaeological Survey of India.

In the temple’s courtyard stands an unfinished edifice, believed to be a shrine for the first Tirthankara. Again, this structure is a mystery. No one knows why the construction was stopped. “Our ancestors say that there was some thadai (obstacle),” says Manjula.

According to Jegadeesan, the temple was a ‘perum palli’ or mutt that was frequented by Jain monks during the 10th Century. Vijayamangalam, he adds, was once called ‘Vaagai Puththur’ (Vaagai — victory). For it was here that the Jains successfully established a centre in Kongu Nadu, which was then a tribal area with very few settlements.

The temple has inscriptions at every turn. Look closely, and you can read about the ‘nila kodai’ (land donation) given by local administrative bodies to the temple. The first Tirthankara’s life history, right from his birth till the time he attained mukthi, is carved on a panel in the upper walls of the mandapam at the entrance. One inscription says Kulothunga Chola offered a donation to the temple. Another inscription talks about Puliammai who travelled all the way from North India to Vijayamangalam to give up her life as part of a ritual. Jegadeesan says it was in Vijayamangalam that Kongu Velir wrote Perum Kadhai, the Tamil version of Udayanan’s Jain epic in Pali.

Inside the dimly-lit ante-chamber leading to the inner shrine, there are stone idols of a few other Tirthankaras. “Our family has been carrying out the rituals for seven generations now,” says Manjula and tells the story of how Soorayya, one of her ancestors would take an underground passage to reach a temple nearby. While some say that the story is mere folklore, Manjula believes that it actually exists. After all, she knows the history of the place like the back of her hand.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 11:48:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/between-myth-and-reality/article3918000.ece

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