We don’t normally associate the Cholas with the Jains. But an inscription at a Jain temple in Tirumalai indicated that Kundavi, sister of the great Raja Raja Chola had given grants to this 1000-year-old shrine. Even today locals refer to the Tirumalai Jain Temple as Kundavi Jainalaya. It was a rather hot afternoon and we were a small group of students walking around the rocky terrains of Tirumalai, located in the Thiruvannamalai district, looking for Jain caves and Jain sculptures. Our guide was the late Dr. R. Venkatraman, Retd Professor of Art History, Madurai Kamaraj University who explained to us the legacy of Jain temples in Tamilnadu. We had just finished a course on Jainism in Tamilnadu. Tirumalai or Arhasugiri, called “The Holy Mountain” is home to two Jain temples, three Jain caves besides several inscriptions. It is believed that thousands of monks had meditated here and we could see the footprints of some of the seers who had attained nirvana here.
The sun was rather merciless as we climbed up a hillock where the Tirumalai Jain temple was built, to see a 17 feet monolith of Neminatha, the 22nd Tirthankara. Born as a prince, he is believed to be associated with Krishna and he is apparently seen with a conch or a chakra with him. According to the legend, Neminatha could not accept the fact that his wedding feast would lead to the slaughter of goats and he, therefore, renounced the world. The monolith is believed to be the tallest carving of Jain sculptures in Tamilnadu
A circular rock stood precariously on the hillock as we circled it and climbed further and saw another temple dedicated to Parshvanatha, the 23 rd Tirthankara I learnt that while Mahaveera and Parshvanatha were considered historic, the rest of the 22 Teerthankaras were mythical. A lone flowering tree emerged from the rocks as if it was planted to bloom for the deities. I realized that the legacy of Jainism in Tamilnadu is hidden in these remote destinations
Looking at the vast expanse of boulders and rocks strewn around with patches of fields, we realized that there was more to Tirumalai than just Kundavi’s Jainalaya. While the Tirumalai Jain temple was historic, the ancient Jain heritage site was filled with several Jain sculptures inside the Jain caves. One of the large caves had over 30 chambers and it housed several carvings. There were cave temples, paintings, monoliths, temples on hillocks, and carvings – all probably dated between the 10th – 15th centuries, patronized by various dynasties and rulers. The Jain caves had been the haven for several monks and it is believed that Kunda Kunda Acharya, a revered Jain seer had visited here as well. As we stood atop the hill, we could see the feet of several monks engraved on the rocks.All these sites eventually became sacred Jain temples in Tamilnadu.
Descending down the hill, we went to a temple 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 that led to one of the Jain caves filled with Jain sculptures. This was probably where the Jain monks had lived. The walls were painted with rich colours, depicting deities, symbols, their ideologies through flowers, animals and human forms.Some of the paintings include Parshvanath, Samavasarana, Ambika among others. The Tirumalai Jain temple is known for several inscriptions and the one at Kundavi Jainalaya, which recorded the offerings made by the Cholas, including Rajendra Chola. Another inscription referred to the site as Vaigai Malai, referring to the neighbouring village Vaigavur. These inscriptions help us to understand more about Jainism in Tamilnadu and the Jain temples in Tamilnadu,
Jainism in Tamilnadu dates back to ancient times as some of the old epics in Tamil Literature was believed to be penned by Jains. The Tamil Jains settled and around Madurai, Kanchipuram, and Thiruvannamalai and they are an indigenous community. There are several Jain caves in Madurai especially in remote hillocks like Samanar Hills Madurai. As I walked around aimlessly. I realized that there is so much of literature, art, paintings, temples, carvings, and a rich legacy left behind, waiting to be discovered in the Jain temples in Tamilnadu.