Chithral is part of the itinerary of the Naanjil Naadu tour, organised by INTACH, Tamil Nadu, as we set out to explore heritage among caves and hillocks. Dr V Vedachalam, Retired Senior Epigraphist from Tamil Nadu State Archaeology Department explains to us that the site was known as Thirucharanattumalai in the ancient times.
“Jains believe that this is the abode of the monks who had lived in the natural caves here. In fact “charanathar “according to Jainism refers to those celestial beings who fly in the skies and are seen in places of worship which could be mounds or mountains, sometimes inside towns and living spaces too,” he says.
We continue to trudge along a bit until the rocks part ways and create a narrow tunnel like approach for us. And then we see it. The rocks are carved with bass relief sculptures depicting Thirthankaras and yakshis.
There is the serene Mahaveera, the snake hooded Parshvanatha along with Neminatha, the yakshis – Padmavathy and Ambika, also known as Dharmadevi looking out into the open. Hillocks surround us in the distant horizon as we see pools of water reflecting the colours of nature.
Dr Vedachalam says that the sculptures date back to the 9th-10th centuries as inscriptions refer to the patronage of the AY dynasty ruler, Vikramaditya Varaguna who reigned around the period. More inscriptions written in “Vattaezhuthu “ (one of the oldest Tamil scripts) refer to monks and nuns who have lived here and also speak about a well known Jaina monk Akshanandi, who was a donor and a patron.
Right atop the cave is a small structural temple dedicated to Bhagavathy deity. Dr Vedachalam says that it was earlier a Jaina temple as the yakshi cult gave way to the Bhagavathy cult over the passage of time. A later 19th century inscription in Malayalam belonging to the Travancore king Moolam Thirunal Maharaja refers to the shrine here.
As we sit in the cave, gazing at the sculptures, Dr Vedacahalam points to the carving of yakshi Ambika or Dharmadevi and narrates the story about her cult. “It was believed that Ambika was an ordinary housewife who was thrown out of the house by her husband as she had given away all the food to the Jaina monks. As she walked away with her children, people noticed her divine powers and started worshipping her.
One version says that the trees flowered and gave her fruits and even a dry reservoir suddenly filled up with water, while another version mentioned that a “kalpavriksh” or a wishing tree gave her all that she desired. When her husband got to know about her “ divine powers” he came over to call her back, but she out of fear committed suicide and became a yakshi ,” says Dr Vedachalam adding that today one can always see Ambika as a yakshi with Neminatha and she is usually flanked with her children and a lion, which is her vehicle. Inscriptions in vattaezhuthu had been found here with references to the yakshi cult as well.
We spend more than a couple of hours here, losing ourselves in a world of arts and cults, completely cut off from civilisation. For miles and miles around, the mountains and forests circle us as we wonder if the celestial “charanathars” are watching over us as we walk downhill.