Inside story — The Jain connection

A sculpture of Mahaveera PHOTO: LAKSHMI SHARATH   | Photo Credit: mail pic

We don't normally associate the Cholas with the Jains. But an inscription at a Jain temple in Thirumalai indicates that Kundavi, sister of Raja Raja Chola, had given grant to this 1,000-year-old shrine. Even today, locals refer to it as Kundavi Jainalaya.

It was a rather hot afternoon, and we were a small group walking around the rocky terrains of Thirumalai in Thiruvannamalai. Our guide was R. Venkatraman (retired professor of Art History, Madurai Kamaraja University), who, at the age of 77, seemed to be the youngest in the group, as he beamed with energy and enthusiasm and explained to us the legacy of Jainism in Tamil Nadu.

The sun was rather merciless as we climbed up a hillock to see an 18-ft monolith of Neminatha, the 22nd Tirthankara.

“Born a prince, he is believed to be the cousin of Krishna. You'll always see a conch or a chakra with him,” explained the professor. “Krishna had arranged for his wedding, but Neminatha could not accept the fact that his wedding feast would lead to the slaughter of goats, and he renounced the world.”

History and myth

A circular rock stood precariously on the hillock as we went around it and climbed further. We saw another temple; one dedicated to Parshvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankara. “Mahaveera and Parshvanatha were considered historic, while the rest of the 22 Tirthankaras, mythical.” A lone flowering tree emerged from the rocks, as if blooming for the deities.

Looking at the boulders and rocks strewn around with patches of fields, we realised there was more to Thirumalai than just Kundavi's Jainalaya.

The ancient Jain heritage site was filled with cave temples, paintings, monoliths, temples on hillocks and carvings — all probably dating between 10th and 15th Centuries, patronised by various dynasties and rulers. The caves had been the haven for several monks, and it is believed that Kunda Kunda Acharya, a revered Jain seer had visited the place as well.

As we stood atop the hill, we could see what are said to be the impressions of the feet of several monks, engraved on the rocks.

Walking down the hill, we went to a shrine dedicated to Mahaveera, the 24th Tirthankara. There were several shrines close by with more carvings. We entered a narrow dusty cell that opened into a flight of steps leading to a cave. This was probably where the Jain monks had lived. The walls were painted in rich colours, depicting deities, symbols, their ideologies through flowers, animals and human forms.

Epics by Jains

Jainism in Tamil Nadu dates back many centuries, so much so some of the epics in Tamil are believed to have been penned by Jains. Jains settled in and around Madurai, Kanchipuram and Thiruvannamalai, and are an indigenous community.

“The literature, art, paintings, temples, carvings — they have left behind a rich legacy for us here, waiting to be discovered,” summed up the professor, as we reached the Jain mutt for a simple meal.

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2021 8:05:16 AM |

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