Stories in stone

Print edition : October 24, 2008

This bas-relief at Kazhugumalai has three rows of Jaina Tirthankaras seated on lotus pedestals.-Photos: K. GANESAN

Kazhugumalai is a virtual treasure trove of Jaina art and culture dating back to the 8th century.

WE were completely unprepared for what awaited us as A. Gangadurai, the caretaker, opened the locks of the single gate near a barbed wire fence and led us down a flight of narrow steps hewn out of a hill at Kazhugumalai.

On the rock surface, frozen in time, was a superbly sculpted Jaina Tirthankara seated in the ardhapariyankasana pose on a lion pedestal, with a triple umbrella above his head. Around the enlightened one were celestial maidens, dancing inside coils of creepers or playing the flute or a percussion instrument. Their merry abandon signified the occasion of his attaining kevalagnana, or enlightenment. On either side was a chowrie (flywhisk)-bearer. Below them, two devotees stood with flowers in their hands.

The sculpted panel also had two fish-headed makaras, with a warrior coming forth from the mouth of each. Other warriors, on horseback, were there to see the great soul attain enlightenment. On top were the carvings of Surya and Chandra, and Indra on his elephant Airavatham. Below this bas-relief was an inscription in Tamil vatteluttu (a rounded script).

Every image in this sculpture is rich in details. Every figure is richly carved while the Tirthankara himself looks so plain. This is a sculpture of unsurpassed beauty, said V. Vedachalam, retired Senior Epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology, whose forte is the study of Jaina sites in the State. With the ease of an expert, he read the vatteluttu inscriptions below the bas-reliefs.

Kazhugumalai in Tamil means a hill inhabited by eagles. A small town in Thoothukudi district in Tamil Nadu, it is about 100 kilometres from Madurai and 25 km from Kovilpatti.

The name Kazhugumalai is of relatively recent origin about 200 years old. The original name was Ilanelchuram, meaning area full of fertile paddy fields. It was also called Araimalai or Tirumalai.

In this bas-relief, Tirthankara Parsvanatha is shown with snake hoods over his head. The yaksha Dharnendra is seen protecting him, and Kamdan, who tried to kill him by throwing a huge piece of rock at him, is seen as surrendering. Yakshi Padmavathi is also depicted in the sculpture.-

The hilltop offers a breathtaking view of paddy fields interspersed with palmyra trees. There are ponds on either side of the hill. A church spire jabs the sky on one side and around the church is the small town.

Vedachalam explained: Kazhugumalai was an active centre of Jaina learning for 300 years from the 8th century A.D. It was a place of worship, a monastery and a college. Jains from Tirucharanam and Kottaru [both in present-day Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu] came to Kazhugumalai to teach and learn. There were women teachers also here.

The male teacher was called kuravar and the female teacher kurathi. The inscriptions here give the names of a number of kurathis.

Monks were also called Battarar, said T. Arun Raj, Deputy Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (Chennai Circle). Nuns called kurathis came to Kazhugumalai from different Jaina centres such as Tirunarungkondai, Tirucharanam, Tirukottaru and Tirumalai [near Vellore] in the Tamil country.

Kazhugumalai is a treasure trove of indescribably beautiful Jaina sculptures. An amazing sight confronted us as we clambered up the hill. On a long rock surface were three rows of bas-reliefs of Tirthankaras, all seated in pedestals made of two rows of lotus flowers. Blossomed lotuses formed the upper row while inverted lotuses formed the lower row.

At an Ayyanar temple, hidden inside the sanctum sanctorum, are these sculptures of Tirthankaras seated in ardhapariyankasana. The temple, which came up about 100 years ago, obscures some of the bas-reliefs.-

R. Champakalakshmi, former Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, in her essay titled From natural caverns to rock-cut and structural temples: the changing context of Jain religious tradition in Tamil Nadu, calls the three rows of Tirthankaras a unique group of the 24 of three kalas, or ages, i.e., Trikala Caturvimsati Tirthankaras. The essay has been published in Airavati, a felicitation volume brought out by in honour of the epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan in August 2008.

A few hundred metres from the rock surface is Vettuvan Kovil, a monolithic temple hewn out of a hill. The late C. Sivaramamurti, who was the Director of the National Museum in New Delhi, in his book Kalugumalai and Early Pandyan Rock-cut Shrines, describes it as by far the most beautiful rock-cut temple of the Pandya period a half-finished free-standing monolith which recalls the famous temple of Siva at Ellora. The Jaina sites at Kazhugumalai and Vettuvan Kovil are under the State Department of Archaeology.

Apart from Vedachalams articles in the Kalvettu magazine published by the State Department of Archaeology, Kazhugumalai finds considerable mention in the work of scholars such as Champakalakshmi, A. Ekambaranathan (Professor, Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, University of Madras, and author of a book in Tamil on Kazhugumalai) and S.M. Ganapathi (retired Curator, Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology and author of a book in Tamil titled Kazhugumalai, Vettuvan Kovil).

Jaina settlements came into being in the Tamil country around Madurai in the 3rd century B.C. with the arrival of monks from the north. Pandya kings and merchant guilds patronised these monks.

In the 7th century A.D., with the rise of the Bhakti Movement led by Saivite saints such as Tirunavukkarasar and Tirugnanasambandar, Jainism suffered a setback in the region. It also lost royal patronage with the Pandya king Kun Pandyan and the Pallava ruler Mahendravarman embracing Saivism.

In this bas-relief, celestial beings visit a Tirthankara attaining enlightenment.-

However, there was a revival of Jainism in the Tamil country after the 8th century A.D. From a non-theistic religion, where monks lived in natural caverns, it became a theistic religion, absorbing rituals on the way. Several structural Jaina temples came up during this time.

There were more than 100 Jaina sites in the Pandya country (comprising the present-day districts of Madurai, Virudhunagar, Sivaganga, Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Kanyakumari in southern Tamil Nadu).

The most notable among these were the sites at Madurai, Kazhugumalai, Kurandi (near Aruppukottai) and Nagercoil (Kottaru).

It is not true that Jainism was rooted out of Tamil Nadu after the 7th century A.D. A good example of the revival of Jainism in the Tamil country after the 8th century is Kazhugumalai, said Vedachalam.

Arun Raj said important Jaina sites in the southern districts were Tiruparankunram, Anai Malai, Azhagar Malai, Mankulam, Arittapatti, Kizhavalavu, Vikramangalam, Mettupatti, Muthupatti, Kongarpuliyankulam and Karuvalangudi. Jainism also flourished at Sitthannavasal in Pudukottai district. In northern Tamil Nadu, there were Jaina sites at Tirunarungkondai, Tirunatharkunru, Mel Kudalur, Mel Sithamur, Jambai, Tirumalai, Thondur, Paraiyan Pattu and Thalavanur.

Structural Jaina temples came up at Agazhur near Ginjee, Veedur near Villupuram, Peramallur and Mel Sithamur (both near Tindivanam), Tirunarungkondai near Ulundurpet, Melmalayanur, and Tiruparutikunram, 3 kilometres from Kancheepuram.

Of all these sites, the largest number of Jaina bas-reliefs is found at Kazhugumalai. There are more Jaina sculptures here than even at Tirumalai. The sculptures here have richness and variety. They are not monotonous, said Vedachalam.

On top of the Kazhugumalai hills is an Ayyanar temple, which is about a hundred years old. The temple obscures some of the basreliefs behind it. The sanctum sanctorum of the temple is inside a natural cavern. As the priest lit a lamp to show us the roof of the dark cavern, three bas-reliefs of Tirthankaras came into view near the Ayyanar image.

Two of them sat side by side and the third was a few feet away. They were seated in ardhapariyankasana, under a triple umbrella. It is difficult to say whether these Jaina carvings have been documented.

A bas-relief of remarkable beauty in Kazhugumalai depicts the legend of the yakshi Ambika. The sculpture shows a tall and elegant Ambika, with her two children and her husband, a simha (a lion) and a kalpavriksha. The husband seems to be in a state of sheer awe, for one of his hands is raised in a state of shock.

Legend has it that Ambika violated a religious canon by giving away food she had cooked for her pitrus (ancestors) on a day of remembrance. When her relatives who had come to take part in the ceremony had gone out, a Jaina monk came to her house seeking food.

In this long frieze on the vimana of Vettuvan Kovil ganas can be seen dancing and playing musical instruments.-

When the relatives returned home and found that she had given away the food to the monk, they were enraged with her and drove her out. She sought out the monk and asked him to help.

The Yakshi Ambika with her children, the simha (lion) and kalpavriksha. Her husband is shown with a hand raised and his face has no detailing so as to depict his awe and the glare from her "golden appearance" falling on him.-

He pleaded helplessness and suggested that she go back to her husband. Scared of her husbands wrath, Ambika, committed suicide. She reached heaven and became an attendant, that is, a yakshi, of Tirthankara Neminatha.

But Ambika was unable to forget her past and Indra granted her a boon that she could return to earth and live with her husband while at the same time being a yakshi. Back home, her husband demanded that she show him her golden appearance to prove she was a yakshi.

When Ambika revealed her true self, the husband was taken aback by the dazzling halo. That is why his hand, in the sculpture, is raised and the face, with the glare, perhaps, is not deliberately sculpted.

There are sculptures of the yakshi Ambika at Sitharal [near Nagercoil], Anai Malai and Samana Malai [both near Madurai] and Tirumalai. But this one at Kazhugumalai is the masterpiece, said Vedachalam.

Another masterpiece is the sculpture of Bahubali (Gomatesvara) standing in meditation in a forest, with creepers entwining his legs, and his sisters Brahmi and Sundari telling him to shed his ego. Bahubali was one of the two sons of the first Tirthankara, Adinatha. (Bahubali himself is not a Tirthankara.)

THE VIMANA OF Vettuvan Kovil shows Dakshinamurti playing the mridangam. He is generally shown playing the veena.-

Adinatha split his kingdom between his two sons, Bahubali and Bharatha, before renouncing the world. A conflict between the two brought their armies against each other. But not wanting lives to be lost, Bahubali and Bharatha decided to settle it between themselves.

Bahubali won two of the three combats but when he was about to kill his brother in the third, he had a change of heart. He renounced everything. He went to the forest to meditate, but was not able to shed his ego. So Adinatha sent his two daughters, who told him to get rid of the elephant in his head.

A third carving depicts the story of the Tirthankara Parsvanatha with snakehoods over his head, Kamdan throwing a huge piece of rock to kill him, the yaksha Dharnendra protecting him, and finally Kamdan surrendering to him. Yakshi Padmavathi is also seen.

Sivaramamurti has written that the panel of standing Parsvanatha with the snakehoods over his head is a gem of early Pandya art.

Kazhugumalai is also famous for its surfeit of vatteluttu inscriptions. There are inscriptions below many bas-reliefs they are called label inscriptions.

Bahubali, or Gomatesvara, stands in meditation in a forest, with creepers entwined around his legs. His sisters Brahmi and Sundari are seen as telling him to shed his ego.-

There are 102 inscriptions at Kazhugumalai said Arun Raj. Of them, 100 relate to Jainism and the remaining, Saivism. The Jaina inscriptions mainly talk about the Tirthankaras and the donors who paid for sculpting their bas-reliefs. The donors included local merchants, carpenters, teachers, students, and so on.

The bas-reliefs were made in memory of dead relatives, too. The vatteluttu inscriptions mention the name of the Pandya king Maran Sadayan, who donated 17 bas-reliefs. The inscriptions also talk about the Pandya kings Parantaka Nedunchezhiyan (A.D. 765 -A.D. 815), and Parantaka Veera Narayanan of the 9th century.

The inscriptions, according to Vedachalam, provide another interesting piece of information: to protect the hill and its sculptures, there were two groups of warriors called Tirumalai Veerar and Parantaka Veerar.

An illegal wall that has come up at Kazhugumalai obscures intricate bas-reliefs.-

Kazhugumalai had a chief Jaina monk called Gunasagara Battarar. The philosophy of Jainism was taught here. An inscription mentions this in Tamil: Samana sidhandham uraikkum vairakkiar

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