Hallowed hollows

ON THE road to Madurai, a hill that is shaped like an amoeba comes into view. Its bald formlessness had always made me think of it as just another blob of earth. Only much later, when I visit this hill, which is located in Thirupparankundram near Madurai, do I realise that it is a place where archaeology, religion and tourism are melded in an interesting package.

Unlike other RLTs, where I invariably set out on my own, this time I travel as a part of the Madurai Taj Garden Retreat tour of places around the town. I am not the only journalist on this trip, but it throws up an RLT where I least expected to find one.

The hill is known by the hollow formations in it, three of them. Jain Caves offered Jain monks a retreat from the world. Legend has it that some of them would live in these hollows without food and water for months, or until they had crossed over into the other world. Even today, these rocks seem to exude a sense of quiet.

Interesting inscriptions

The three caves are part of many more that exist in this district — all situated close to Madurai town. Brahmi inscriptions suggest that they go back to the 2nd or 1st Century B.C. The first lies in the foothills, a neatly scooped out hollow that bears inscriptions on the rock face. Some of them refer to the customs prevalent during the times of the Pandya kings.

A flight of stone steps leads up to the next cave. As you enter this one, you find the hollow leading on to an open terrain. Here, what appears to be a tear in the rock has a body of water, green with algae and teeming with tilapia. The water runs many metres deep and the `tank' never goes dry. People of all religions come here to feed the fish and say their prayers.

According to legend, in order to be freed from a curse, two demons had to abduct 1,000 people who were lax in their religious duties and shut them up in prison. They managed 999 in no time, but could not get hold of the last. Frustrated, they took a short cut. They bound the Tamil poet Nakirar hand and foot and shut him up. The poet sought divine intervention and was released. Lord Muruga drove a wedge into the rock and out sprang holy water in which Nakirar bathed and washed off the defilement caused by the demons' touch. This is said to be the same water body that exists today.

Parallel to this cave, but on another projection of the hill, lies another, which houses a mosque. This place of worship was built 300 years ago in memory of Sikander Badshah, a Muslim holy man. As we depart and the hill appears on our rear view mirror, I tell myself that it symbolises religious pluralism.