Tryst with Jainism in a cave

The rains come down and the peacocks shriek in delight .We could count more than a dozen in the twilight hour, perched on the rocks or flitting in the trees. As Lord Muruga’s favourite vehicle, they gather in hordes near the Thirupurankundram shrine, a cave temple located almost 7 kms away from Madurai.

From madurai


Our tale however is not about the Subramanya shrine, which seems almost carved inside the mountain. We are looking for another small cave temple behind the Thirupurankundram shrine , carved in the same mountain called Thenparankundram. And there is no one here except for the loud peacocks and the monkeys enjoying the rain as they stare at the new visitors.

From madurai

What we see in front of us mesmerised us. A cave temple dedicated to Umai Andar stands on the rocks as a small flight of steps take you up the mandapam or the hall which has some ancient sculptures. There is Nataraja and his consort Sivakami. Ganesha and the three Saiva saints on the outer walls.

From madurai

It is dark and slowly our voices echo our curiosity. A torch lights up as a local guide walks in and explains that this is Lord Shiva in the form of `Arthanareeswarar’ .We follow the light from the torch to see the human forms of man and woman carved together in one sculpture. Protected by the ASI, this Pandya shrine was probably a 1st century Jain cave which was later converted according to the rock inscriptions near a tree.

From madurai

The temple apparently served as a monastery for the Jain saints who lived in these hills.More inscriptions refer to the 13th century Pandya ruler, Sundara Pandiyan and it says that a Saiva saint under the patronage of the king converted this Jain monument into the temple and named it Sundara Pandian Eswarar’ Temple after the monarch .

From madurai

Jainism has thrived in and around Madurai many centuries ago and there are more than 25 such cave temples with inscriptions in and around the city.Some of them are located in Samana Malai., Kongarpuliyankulam, Vikramangalam, Anaipatti, Anaimalai, Meenakshipuram, Arittapatti, Alagarmalai, Karungalakudi, Keezhavalavu, Tiruvadavur, Kunnathur and Tirumalai . These Jain caves have epigraphic records in the Brahmi script and they indicate that these were probably holy residences of the Jain monks during the 1st to 4th century .The records also indicate the names of the monks who lived in these stone beds .

From madurai

The rains became heavier and made the rocks slippery. The peacocks merged with the night sky .We hurriedly left Thenparankundram to visit the abode of Muruga in Thirupurankundram. We merge with the crowd which is a melange of devotees, tourists, vendors and beggars. As we waited in the rocky corridors, looking at the divine sculptures, I realized how little we knew about our own heritage and culture. And I came back with one single thought. I need to return here again .

18 Comments

  • Nandan Jha says:

    There you are back, after a real long sabbatical.

    This is not the usual travel story, and I think you summed it so well in the end. At least I am really one of those who know so less of our own history and culture, even though I come from the land where Buddhism as well as Jainism took birth and prospered. A Jain temple/cave far south is probably not something which many would be imagine.

    Be around Backpakker. You make us learn so much.

  • tanya says:

    a cave temple..carved in a mountain ….interesting!

    I have never been to a cave temple…but would like to go after reading your eperience….

    and I agree with Nandan..never thought of jainism flourishing in the southern part of india.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Good to see you back, after a long interval and that too with an amazing write up.

    I just couldn’t imagine about the presence of a Jain Temple in a cave carved in the mountain called Thenparankundram. Presence of another 25 caves around the area is another captivating revelation. Honestly, I had a misconception that the Jainism is basically a North-West Indian religion.

    You are very correct – we know very little about our mystic country.

    Thank you for taking us to this astounding journey.

  • lakshmi says:

    Nandan, Tanya, Ram Dhall

    Thanks so much .. I know its been a while and Im just tired of writing usual been there, done that kinda travel story..Jainism has flourished in South india several centuries ago and down south several temples, caves, monuments still exist and are worshipped..Some of them, have been demolished by the dynasties that ruled soom after..Some are these that remain are famous tourist destinations as well..

  • Patrick Jones says:

    Unbelievable but true. Buddhism and Jainism reached South in the 3rd century BCE and quickly established among animistic Dravidians, long before Aryan invasion (or migration, as it is now known). It continued for another 10 centuries. The 10th century monolith Gomateshwara, the Tamil epic Chilapathikaram etc. shows the influence of these religions.

    Jainism had a strong presence in northern Kerala whereas Buddhism was widespread in the southern parts, centered around Kollam. It is said that many of the now famous Hindu temples were originally Buddhist/Jain temples. A Buddha statue known as Karumadikuttan can still be seen at a place near Alapuzha. Unmistakable Jain influence can be seen in many of the temples of northern Kerala.

    With the arrival of vedic Brahmins in 8th century CE, Vaishnavism began to spread in Kerala. Tradition says that six outstanding Brahmins came and defeated Buddhist leaders in public debates. Later supported by Adi Shankaracharya, Hinduism took its roots slowly overshadowing everything else (And we talk about conversion now!).

    Thanks, Backpakker.

  • lakshmi says:

    Thanks Patrick for the long comment..and the great info about Kerala….Conversions have been there whenever the kings decided the faith their subjects should follow .I think universally this has been going on…ever since the Crusades or even before…just been reading – William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain and hence the above thoughts..

    nevertheless coming back to Jainism..Shravanbelogola has great significance as this was a town from Chandragupta Maurya’s period..The Hoysala dynasty has its origins in jainism … Moodabidri near Mangalore is another place renowned for jainism..Ive blogged abt a 1000 pillar temple there ..recently I saw a 2000 year old renovated jain temple near Hyderabad . besides Tamil Nadu was a stronghold of jainism..caves with jain paintings are still there in Madurai , Sithanavasal -though the paintings are now gone and Kanchipuram was once a university town aka Nalanda patronised by the Jains..many more..

  • Patrick Jones says:

    But isn’t Nalanda in Bihar?

  • lakshmi says:

    yes..I meant like nalanda was a university town..so was kanchipuram under the jains

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Laksmi, Patrick Jones – I would fwd this post to some of my Jain friends, more to embarrass them on their knowledge around Jainism then anything else.

  • Sudhir says:

    This is a revelation. I knew Jainism existed in South, but did not know it had such a big influence here. So much to learn and understand about our history and culture.

    Thanks for the nice post, and the pics have come out very well.

  • Celine says:

    Wow. Interesting history about the 1st – 4th century Jain residences. True, we know very little about our heritage and culture and it is posts such as these that educate us.

    Thank you for an informative post Lakshmi.

  • manish khamesra says:

    Very interesting Lakshmi.

    First of all a correction – The statue of shiva is not Arthanareeswarar but Ardhnareeswarar. Ardh meaning half.

    I don’t think Jainism is a separate religion, its way of worshipping. So I don’t think it was ever a conversion. Almost all Jains worship other many form of God and Goddesses – just like other Hindus do.

    I fully agree with you that in those years, people used to follow religions as followed by their ruler. But I don’t think that it was ever forced or was followed only for some minor gain. I think it was mainly because people used to find so little difference between them. The basic principles were the same. But again my knowledge of history is so less that I can’t say that my feeling is historically true.

    As far as I read, Buddhism vanished from most of the Indian part at the time of Chanakya and Chandragupta, esp after the violent aggreesion from Mongols and inaction of then Buddhist rulers. But how Jainism survived and why only in pockets, surely an interesting subject to study :)

    Thanks for this thought provoking article that has already started an interesting insight.

    On your blog, I also saw that you have several articles published in print. Can you keep us updated on ghumakkar too about it. We will be very proud to read about them and probably some of us will like to buy those magazines/books too.

  • lakshmi says:

    Sudhir – Thanks..there is a lot of Jain influence in South..and Im still learning, reading about it and visiting the places

    Celine – Thanks..the more we delve, the more we realize how little we know

    manish – thanks for the informative comment…I will update the articles from time to time..though Im just a beginner ..the spelling difference that u brought out is an pronunciation issue..in Tamil, ” dha” and ” tha” is the same , unlike Hindi …so I tend to either…:)

  • nandanjha says:

    Actually its more. For all the communications (postal mails, no e-mails then) which I recd from our Madras (it was Madras then) office, I was referred as ‘Nandhan’, how hard I try :)

  • lakshmi says:

    yup..like sharad will always be sharath in south and laxmi will be lakshmi :)

  • Penny Auctions says:

    Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch as I found it for him smile Thus let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

  • Sundar says:

    The early Tamil, Kannada works were done by Jains. Thiruvalluvar is said to be a Jain. Even Tholkappiar (disciple of Sage Agathiar-Agasthiya) is said to be a Jain who wrote Tamil grammer. His true is name not known, he got the name Tholkappiar because he is the author of Tholkappiam; thol- old , Kappiam -epic. All the authors of the five great Tamil epics (Silappathikaram, Manimegalai, SeevagaChintamani, Valaiyapathy, Kundalakesi) are Jains. Naaladiyar was written by a Jain. Like great Silk route, there was great Jain route between Shravanabelagola and Madurai. Same culture was observed in the regions. Not only South Indians, the entire Indians lost their identities in other religions with the decline of Buddhism and Jainism.

  • Sundar says:

    The great Sages or Siddhas (Siddhargal) are also said to be Jains.

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