Looking for Jina Kanchi

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Once a stronghold of Digambara Jainism, this Kanchipuram quarter today bears little resemblance to its glorious past

“Cross the Kanchipuram Collector’s office, go straight, take right. It’s there,” Rajkumar Jain, a retired PWD engineer, instructs over the phone when I ask the directions for our rendezvous point — Thiruparuttikundram, 5 km from Kanchipuram, also known as Jina Kanchi.

But finding Jina Kanchi is not straightforward. Unless I dive right into the annals of history, I am not going to discover the part of Kanchipuram where Tamil Jains once lived in large numbers.

“Kanchipuram once had four parts: Vishnu Kanchi, Siva Kanchi, Jina Kanchi and Buddha Kanchi, and each had a large population of followers of the respective religions,” explains Rajkumar.

In his writings, Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang mentioned the presence of a large number of Buddhists and Jains during his visit to the Pallava country in 7th century AD. He might have been one of the last people to chronicle the region’s sramana sects, or those whose beliefs have no basis in the Vedas. Buddhists and Buddha Kanchi have vanished without a trace; my aim is to find out what is left of the Tamil Jains and Jina Kanchi.

We drive past the many Vishnu and Siva temples at the heart of the town and are back on the highway. Rajkumar is leading the way on his motorbike. We finally take the right he told me about.

After driving for a while on a potholed road along a stream, I see the outline of a weather-beaten Jain insignia built as a signpost, where we turn into a narrower lane. At the end of the lane are the Trailokyanatha Temple and the smaller Chandraprabha Temple, the only vestige of Jina Kanchi which was once the famed seat of South Indian Digambar Jainism or a vidhyasthana sacred to the Jains.

The Last Jains

Guarding the Dravidian-style temple is perhaps the last and only Tamil Jain household in the entire area. The Jains are almost gone from Jina Kanchi.

Septuagenarian Padmakanthi, and Purushothama, 63, and Chandrakanti, 68, are way past their prime and are only titular caretakers of the temple. They have lived in this house, which belonged to their father, the former caretaker, since they were born. Chandrakanthi looks frail and the deep lines on her face quiver as her tiny eyes size you up, but she is indignant when she says, “Seven generations of my family have taken care of the temple. This is all we have.” None of the siblings is married, and their lineage will end with them.

Rajkumar opens the doors to the temple. ~Photo: Mahima A. Jain

Rajkumar gets the keys to the temple, which is under the purview of the State Archaeology Department, and opens the large wooden gates. Ironically, this Jain temple, along with 17 others in the State, is under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Act. Initiatives to restore control to the community are stuck in a bureaucratic logjam.

Accompanying us to the temple are four Tamil Jains from Kanchipuram. The three men in the group are retired government officials, and the only girl is an engineering student.

“We open the temple when someone wants to visit, and keep it open every day for a couple of hours for the Jains in the nearby areas. We also offer at least one major puja every month,” says Rajkumar as we greet everyone with a ‘Jai Jinendra’. We step into the temple compound crossing a small gopuram above us.

Divinity in detail

~Photo: Mahima A. Jain

The afternoon light streams through the stone pillars, leading the way to three small vimanas with two main shrines in their womb. As we walk toward the main shrine, the murals on the ceiling of the 24-pillared mandapa loom large. It is like walking right into a life-sized retelling of Jaina tales. A white panel serves as backdrop for earthy hues of rust, ochre, brown and green and covers a major portion of the stone ceiling of the two mandapas. Painted above us, like in a celestial narrative, are tales of Tirthankar Neminatha, Krishna’s cousin; of Mahavir, or Vardhamana, the principal Tirthankar of the temple, and of Adinatha, or Rishabhadeva, the first of the 24 Jain Tirthankars.

Tirthankars (literally mean “ford makers”) are those who have attained nirvana and made a passage from this world to the next. The murals painted here tell the stories of such journeys. The life histories and hagiographies illustrating the journeys of the Tirthankars occupy much of the mandapas.

Ruchika Jayant, an MFA from Sir J.J. School of Art who has studied these paintings, says, “The pillars were also painted once. And the original murals were much more refined than the restored ones but even the restored murals are absolutely stunning and beautiful. You can keep looking at them. I am surprised it is not a popular site, there is so much beauty in these murals and the temple’s history is so fascinating.”

The temple is believed to be 1,500 years old, its structure layered with a series of architectural embellishments by various local rulers and the laity spanning the last 1,000 years. From a modest beginning in the Pallava period in the 6th Century AD, the temple was expanded during the Chola rule. In the 14th and 17th Centuries, during the Vijayanagar rule, the grand murals were added by a minister. There is rich inscriptional evidence inside the second shrine, the Trikuda Basti, with information on the development of the temple, and the contributions of various donors over the centuries.

“At one point, at the beginning of the last century, there might have been 200-300 Jain families living around the temple,” says Appandairaj, a Tamil Jain, resident of Kanchipuram.

The last major event in the 20th Century was a kumbhabhishekam, or consecration, that took place in 1906, adds Rajkumar.

Since then there was a steady exodus as Tamil Jains gave up farming and left for cities in search of better prospects. The emigration of Tamil Jains to urban areas in their quest for a lucrative future, ironically, brought with it misfortunes for the once glorious temple and the flourishing Jain neighbourhood.

A long journey

Sukumaran, a Tamil Jain who hails from nearby Karandi, says, “I have seen this temple since I was a child, and I have served in Thiruparuttikundram as a Village Administrative Officer. At one point major portions of the temple were in ruins, the State Archaeology Department took it over in 1988. But the conservation and restoration began only after 1996.” Sukumaran is now retired, and lives just outside Kanchipuram.

The temple was re-consecrated in 2006, a hundred years after the last event. Tamil Jains from the neighbouring area converged on the temple for the festivities but left soon after. The residential quarter of Jina Kanchi is now merely a thing of the past.

For the community, the problem lies in their small and scattered population. Liberal estimates put the population of Tamil Jains at 30,000-40,000. The total population of Jains in Tamil Nadu is 85,000 or 0.13 per cent of the population as per the last census. This, of course, includes Jains from Rajasthan, Gujarat and other States who reside in the Tamil Nadu.

“Most Tamil Jains are either teachers or take up government jobs, very few are still farmers,” says Sukumaran. He adds that the younger generation, in keeping with the times, is entering the engineering and IT sectors.

Many Tamil Jains living in the cities still own arable land in their villages that is either leased out or taken care of by a family member. In Sukumaran’s case it is the latter.

~Photo: Jinesh A. Jain

It is almost impractical to expect such a scattered, marginalised community with little resources to take care of a vast heritage that ranges from temples to texts. The temples at Tiruparuttikundram were among the lucky few to have received funding for restoration. In Kanchipuram district, apart from Tiruparuttikunram, Jain vestiges have been found in villages such as Arpakkam, Magaral, Karandi, Tirupuanmur and Venbakkam. Over the years there, Jaina idols have been unearthed from fields and river-beds across the State. Structural heritage is threatened by neglect and vandalism.

Rajkumar, an engineer with the PWD in the 1990s, was at the helm of affairs at Thiruparuttikundram when the State Archaeology Department intervened to save the temple from the brink of complete destruction.

“The compound wall was gone and the temple was being vandalised. The gopuram had fallen, and the vimana had also suffered. Major portions of the temple and the murals were restored based on old photographs. We numbered all the stones, brought down the compound wall and had to rebuild it brick by brick, in the exact way it would have been before.”

The history of the Tamil Jain community is much like the story of the temple: From dominant presence and fame in the Tamil region, to a steady decline and near-complete marginalisation in the last few centuries. But the question is whether the community can successfully rebuild its presence in contemporary society.

“People think we no longer exist and are always confused when I tell them I am a Tamil Jain,” says Anandhavijayan, an IT professional and resident of Kanchipuram.

Identity crisis

Tamil Jains are as rooted in the region’s history, just as Gujarati or Marwari Jains are in the history of Gujarat and Rajasthan. While they might have a shared Jain philosophy, their cultural identity is distinct and unique. It is well known that of the five Tamil epics, three were authored by Jains and a lot of more minor epics have deep Jain influences. From influencing the literature and architecture to playing a part in shaping the Tamil identity, the Tamil Jains have played an integral role. But in popular imagination, they are a mere historical aberration. Most people fail to recognise them as a living community.

“Many even ask if I have converted! For those who are interested, I explain who the Tamil Jains are, but some just can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that we are real,” explains Akshaya, an engineering student, also from Kanchipuram.

Imagining a Jain as a Hindi-speaking trader from the North is a result of stereotype and ignorance, and arises out of a complete lack of understanding of the history of the region and the religion, and the failure to grasp the complexity of the various groups constituting Tamil culture and society.

“There are around 250 Jain families in the town of Kanchipuram but these are either Tamil Jains from other areas settled in the city or North Indian Jains settled here,” says Appandairaj.

Sukumaran (left) and Rajendra Prasad, who belong to the some of the last members of the Tamil Jain community. ~Photo: Jinesh A. Jain

These Jains visit the temple regularly, but it is still not enough to keep ‘Jina Kanchi’ abuzz. Around 100 km from Kanchipuram is Mel Sithamoor, which rose in importance as the seat of Jainism in Tamil Nadu just around the time Kanchipuram was shedding its Jain links. The ‘Mel Sithamoor Jina Kanchi Jain Matha’, the spiritual overseer of all Digambar Tamil Jains, is situated in Mel Sithamoor but its name betrays the nostalgia and reverence the community has for the holy city of Kanchipuram.

The village has a matha and 35-40 Jain households surrounding a large Jain temple. Mel Sithamoor wears a forlorn look on most days of the year but its festive spirit comes alive during festivals, when Tamil Jains from Chennai, Tindivanam, Vandavasi and other areas congregate here.

While such festivities are held in Kanchipuram every month, Jina Kanchi itself has lost its sheen. Like the temple, the Tamil Jains are hiding in plain sight, camouflaged by modernity and hegemony.

Jina Kanchi is perhaps splintered forever. From the two temples in Tiruparuttikundram to the vestiges unearthed around the district, and from the Jains living in Kanchipuram to the matha at Mel Sithamoor — Jina Kanchi is now everywhere but nowhere.

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