Jainism has had a long but chequered history over a period of two thousand years in the southern part of peninsular India. It played a dominant role in the cultural mileu of the Tamils and had left indelible marks on the thought and life of the people.
Jaina vestiges in the form of monuments, sculptures, paintings, inscriptions, manuscripts, literature etc., are found throughout the length and breadth of our country. They throw welcome light on the socio, economic and religious life of the Jaina community.
Historians agree in common that by the close of the 4th century B.C. King Chandragupta Maurya and a group of Jaina monks under the leadership of Sruktakevalin Bhadrabahu, anticipating a severe famine in their country, migrated to Sravanabelgola in Karnataka and from there, they spread religious principles to the laity.
Subsequently, after the demise of Chandragupta and Bhadrabahu, their disciples led by Visakacharya moved further south to propagate Jainism in Tamilnadu, and very likely, this could have happened in the 3rd century B.C.’P.B.Desai, Jainism in South India and some Jaina Epigraphs, pp.25-27.
Contemporary epigraphical evidence testifying to the southward movement of the monks and the spread of Jainism from Karnataka to the far south, though absent, the early brahmi records assignable to the 2nd century B.C. found in Madurai, Tirunelveli, Pudukkottai and Ramanaddistricts would certainly indicate the introduction of Jainism much earlier than the 2nd century B.C.
The earliest extant religious vestiges in Tamilnadu are the natural caverns which once served as the abodes of Jaina monks, widely found in most of the districts of the State. More than one hundred such abodes of the wind-clad ascetics have been brought to light so far. These caves were made suitable for habitation by cutting stone beds in them.
The beds were chiseled smooth with one side raised a little to serve as pillow-lofts.. Epigraphic records in brahmi characters, palaeographically assigned to a period from 2nd century B.C. to 3rd or 4th century A.D., mentioning either the names of resident monks or the donors of stone-beds, are incised on them.
The over-hanging rock was cut in the form of a drip- ledge so as to prevent rain water flowing into the cave shelters. It is worthy of note that these ‘holy abodes’ were mostly located near springs of water which catered to the basic needs of the ascetics.
Ancient Tamilnadu was ruled by the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas who are cherished in most of the Sangam Classics. Some of the Chera and Pandya kings and a few minor chieftains seem to have extended their patronage to Jainism.
The Irumporai kings who were of a collateral branch of the Cheras, are eulogized in Patirruppattu. Some of them find place in the brahmi inscriptions from Pugalur near Trichi. It is recorded that Ilamkadunko, who was the grandson of King Atansel and the son of Perunkadungo, when anointed as the heir-apparent (Yuvaraja), caused to be made an abode to the revered monk Senkayapan of Yarrur.Annual Report on Epigraphy, (ARE),347/1927-28,297/1963-64.
The Pandyas of the Sangam age had been very liberal in their religious outlook and Jainism flourished very well during their rule as is evident from a cluster of hill resorts around Madurai. Kadalanvaluti, an officer of the Pandya king Nedunjeliyan, had dedicated a monastery at Mangulam to the reputed ascetic Kaninanta.
It was for the same monk, Nedunjeliyan’s co-brother Chatikan and nephew I lamchatikan caused to be made stone beds.I.Mahadevan, Corpus of Tamil-Brahmi Inscriptions, Mangulam No.l & 2. Though the king had not made any specific gift or endowment, the members of the ruling family had been liberal in contributing to the growth of Jaina monastic establishments.
Atiyaman Nedumananji, the celebrated minor chieftain of Tagadur (Dharmapuri) region, is said to have dedicated apalli to the Sramanas at Jambai in Tiruvannamalai district.Express Magazine, 6.12.1981.
This Atiyaman is praised in the Sangam works as a hero of many battles, a patron of poets and an ardent devotee of Lord Siva. But the fact that he caused to be made an abode to the Jaina monks shows his religious tolerance and reverence to the heretical sect.
Kaniman, a local chieftain hitherto unknown to the early history of the Tamilnadu, comes to light from a Jaina brahmi record noticed at Mamandur in Tiruvannamalai district. He seems to have held sway over a small principality around Mamandur in the 3rd or 4th century A.D.
This chieftain was instrumental in dedicating a cave to Jaina monks and at his instance, the stone mason Chalavan cut the drip-ledge on the upper part of the cave.5.I. Mahadevan, op.cit., Mamandur, No.l.
When Jainism gained wide popularity in Tamilnadu, lay followers started endowing the monastic organizations. Moreover, the members of mercantile groups also played a dominant role in the development of such institutions. The early brahmi records are replete with names of Sravakas who made provisions for the cutting of stone beds, lattice works, canopies, fronds etc.
The monasteries at Anaimalai, Arittapatti, Kilavalavu and Vikiramangalam, for instance, were provided with stone beds by house-holders like EriAritan, Attuvay, Arattakayipan, Natan, Atanvoliyan, Ilavan, Kuviran and Senkuviran.6.ARE, 456/1906,135/1903,56 & 57/1910The keen interest evinced by the merchant community is also evident from many records.
Atan- a goldsmith, Viyakan – a salt merchant, Ilachandan – an iron monger, Ilaya Atan – a cloth merchant of Venpalli and Tevan Sattan – a precious stone merchant had caused to be made stone beds in the monastic establishments at Alagarmalai and Archchalur.Ibid;71-79/1910,280/1961-62.
The members of the merchant guild of Vellarai (Tiruvellarai near Trichy) also patronized the Palli at Mangulam by providing stone beds. Besides, the son of the leader of the same merchant guild had caused to be given a lattice work in the same monastery.I. Mahadevan, op.cit., Mangulam, No.3.
With the rapid spread of Jainism, there arose several settlements of the Jaina community in different parts of Tamilnadu. Though all those ancient centres are not known to us, some of them are referred to in epigraphs.
Madurai, Vellarai, Tondi, Petalai, Tidiyil, Elaiyur, Venpalli, Sirupocil, Nagapperur, Patinur, Nelveli, Nalliyur, Karur, Yarrur, Pakanur, Akalur and KunratturA.Ekambaranathan,
“Early Jaina vestiges of Tamilnadu”, Arhat Vachchana, Vol. 2. 1989, pp.4-5.had been important centres with a sizeable Jaina population, who lent support to the various monastic organizations. Among the aforesaid centers, Madurai, Karur, Pakanur, Tondi, Vellarai, Nagapperur (Nagamalai), Yarrur (Arrur), Akalur and Tidiyil (Tidiyan) retain their old names even to the present day.
The others remain unidentified as their names had undergone change in course of time. It may be said in passing that archaeological excavations in these ancient settlements may throw fresh light on the material culture of the early Jains.
The foregoing account reveals that Jainism gained considerable support from the ruling class and the public in early historical times. The Kalabhra rulers who came to power subsequently also extended patronage to the heretical sects.
TheA.Ekambaranathan, Iconographic concepts and forms of Siva in the Tamil country, Ph.D. Thesis (unpublished), Madras University, 1980, pp. 130-132.Jaina adherents contributed to the welfare of the society by providing food, shelter and medical help to the poor and needy.
People in the lower rungs of society were admitted in Jainism and were imparted religious education. These socio-religious activities gave a fillip to Jainism. But in the 7th century A.D, it had to face stiff opposition from the advocates of brahmanical religion.
(7th ■ 9th Century A.D.)In the religious history of Tamilnadu, the 7th century A.D. represents the revival of brahmanical religion on the one hand and the decline of the heretical sects on the other.
The bhakti movement spear-headed by the Nayanmars and Alwars coupled with the temple building activities of the Pallava and early Pandya rulers made a steady growth of Saivism and Vaisnavism.
The bhakti saints in their attempts at popularizing brahmanical religion undertook pilgrimage to important temples, sang in praise of the presiding deities with their soul-stirring hymns, performed miracles, roused the religious fervour of the common man, admitted all sections of the society into their folds and at the same time, condemned vehemently the customs and practices of the adherents of heretical religions.
10 Thus, the sectarian seeds sown in the fertile Tamil soil started germinating in different parts of the land. Soon, it assumed alarming proportion leading to religious animosity and rancour. Kings like Mahendra Pallava I and Kun Pandya (Ninrasir Nedumaran) who then pursued Jainism, were either converted or re converted to Saivism.
Religious disputes to assert the superiority of Saivism over Jainism took place at Madurai. The Tevaram and Periyapuranam hymns allude even to the persecution of the Jains in places like Madurai, Tiruvarur, Tiruvottur, Palaiyarai etc. Periyapuranam, verses, 2756-2774, Tevaram, 297: 2-9.The Saiva and Vaisnava rock-cut and structural temples of the Pallavas and early Pandyas became pivotal centres having11elegant sculptural forms of gods and goddesses.
Regular pujas, and other ceremonial rituals were performed periodically in temples. All these temple-oriented activities fulfilled the aspirations of the common man and attracted more people into the fold of Brahmanism.
Thus, the bhakti movement and the brahmanical temple-building activities led to the decline of Jainism. But soon it recovered from adversities and came to possess a fresh lease of life by adjusting itself to the circumstances and accommodating some elements from Brahmanism.
In the process of assimilation Jainism admitted ritualistic and anthropomorphic worship of the Tirthankaras and their attendant deities. Sometimes, prominence was given to the worship of Yakshis like Ambika and Padmavati.
The early hill resorts which lost their glamour in the wake of bhakti-movement began to throb with religious activities from the 8th century onwards and came to possess darsanabimbas of Tirthankaras and Yakshis, to which regular ritualistic worship had been performed.
People began to make a number of endowments in the form of land, sheep, paddy, gold etc. for the upkeep of these monastic-cum-temple establishments. Temple building activities in urban and semi-urban centres were on an increase in the Pallava and Pandya domains.
Jaina cave temples at Anaimalai, Arittapatti, Karungalakkudi, Kilakuyilkudi, Kilavalavu, Kuppalanattam, Pechchipallam, Kongarpuliyankulam, Muttappatti, Aivarmalai, Chitaral and Kalugumalai in the Pandya region and structural temples at Tirupparuttikunram, Perumandur, Akalur, Karantai and Kilsattamangalam in Tondaimandalam are the best examples bearing testimony to this new development.
The establishment of Vidyapithas (Mathas) at Tiruppatirippuliyur, Thirupparuttikkunram and Virasangha at Tirunarungondai and the concerted efforts of renowned monks like Vajranandi, Ajjanandi and others accelerated the growth of religion.
12 Jainism, thus, became much more colourful and stronger than before, catering to the needs of the common man and theARE, A-10/1958-59.spiritual aspirations of the elite. Hence, it could easily counterbalance the growth of brahmanical religion.
(9th -13th CENTURY A.D.)The Cholas who attained political sovereignty after the eclipse of the Pallava and early Pandya powers, were devout followers of Saivism. But their staunch adherence to Saivism had not resulted in the negligence of Jainism at all. Infact, a gradual ascendancy of the Jaina religion and the proliferation of its temples could be seen during their rule.
The Chola period also witnessed the occupation of natural caverns by recluses of the Jaina order. Such abodes are metwith in places like Anantamanglam, Atchippakkam, Tirumalai, Valatti, Pudukkalani, Tondur, Cholapandipuram etc.
Most of them were embellished with exquisite sculptures of the Tirthankaras and their attendant deities. Provisions were made for the worship of these images and lighting of lamps infront of them. Liberal endowments were made by the Jaina community for the sustenance of the monks and for the maintenance of the monastic establishments.
Independent structural temples were also built in many parts of the Chola empire. Among them, the temples at Chittamur, Tirunarungondai, Tirumalai, Perumandur, Salukki, Saravananpedu, Ponnur etc., deserve special mention.
Moreover, some of the already existing temples were either renovated or enlarged during the rule of the Cholas. The economy of these temples became strong due to the large number of land grants and other gifts munificently endowed by some monarchs, their feudatories and members of the Jaina community.
Among the Chola queens, Kundavai remains unparalled in the religious history of Tamilnadu. Although an ardent devotee of Lord Siva, she had been generous in endowing Hindu and Jaina13institutions alike. She is credited with building of two Jaina temples, one at Dadapuram and the other at Tirumalai.
ARE, 17/1919, 80/1887.The former Kundavai-Jinalaya, not withstanding the ravages of time, disappeared completely, while the other exists in a good state of preservation at the foot of the Tirumalai hill. The same queen was instrumental in digging a lake, Kundavaipereri, at Tirunarungondai.Ibid., 310/1939-40.
Some Jaina temples in medieval time were named after the Chola monarchs. Eventhough most of them do not exist now, their names and the endowments made in favour of them are recorded in epigraphs of other temples.
The Jaina temple at Pallichchandal which came into existence in the 10th century A.D. was known as Gandaradityapperumpalli, named so after Gandaraditya chola.Ibid, 448/1937-38. The Kunthunatha temple at Karantai, after it’s complete renovation during the time of Virarajendra, bore the name Virarajendrapperumpallī.
Ibid., 141/1939-40.The Thanjavur area also had a number of temples bearing the names of the Chola kings. Such Pallis existed in places like Pallankoil, Avarani and Kuhur. The Pallankoil temple, built in the 10th century A.D. was known as SundaraCholapperumpalli.
17. Ibid, A 29/1961-62.The one at Kuhur bore the name Kulottunga Cholapperumpalli, named after Kulottunga I.Ibid., 288/1917. Besides, temples such as Gangarulapperumpalli,
Sedikulamanikkapperumpalli and Chittiralekhaipperumpalli are known to have existed at Maruttuvakkudi and Avarani respectively. Ibid, 487/1922, 392/1907.
It is not definitely known whether these temples were constructed at the instance of the Chola monarchs or merely named so in honour of them. But one thing is certain that the Chola rulers had been generous towards the Jaina sect, otherwise, these temples would not have been named after them.
14POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS SETBACK (14th – 17th CENTURY A.D.)South India came under the sway of the Vijayanagar dynasty between the 14th and 16th century A.D.
The Vijayanagar kings, in their attempts at preserving Hindu culture from the onslaught of Islam, constantly crossed swords with the Muslim Sultans.
Side by side, they had also to subjugate their revolting feudatories. Adequate measures could not be taken to stall the declining trade and commerce.
All these, incourse of time, led to political instability and disorder, causing great hardship to the people of Tamilnadu. Even under these circumstances, extensive patronage was given to brahmanical religion while very little attention was paid to others.
This situation worsened still under the Nayak agents of the Vijayanagar emperors, and thereby a declining trend set in as far as Jainism in Tamilnadu was concerned.
Soon Jainism had its resurrection in the northern parts of Tamilnadu due to the concerted efforts of the leaders of the Jaina sect and the awakening of the community. As Jainism gradually lost importance in the southern parts of Tamilnadu since the lllh century A.D. its followers migrated to the northern parts at different periods and settled in villages which already had a sizeable Jaina population.
This trend reached its culmination in the 16th century A.D. It was about the same time, Virasenacharya established the Jinakanchimatha at Melchittamur and did yeomen service to the followers of Jainism. He could mobilize the entire Jaina community under one roof and revitalize religious activities in Tondaimandalam.
A.Ekambaranathan, History of Chittamur,(in Tamil), pp.77-78.The successive Pontiffs of the Melchittamur matha continued the legacy of Virasenacharya and15promoted construction of temples in Jaina habitation centres and propagated the gospel of the Tirthankaras every nook and corner. As a result, every Jaina village began to pulsate with life and vigour.
Periodical conduct of ritualistic worship and celebration of festivals on a grand scale were given much importance. Thus, people from all walks of life were drawn easily towards temples and were involved in religious activities.
Melchittamur became the hub of socio-religious and economic activities and its matha exercised considerable influence over all the temples and the Jaina population. Still, it happens to be a continuing tradition and the Jinakanchimatha (Melchittamur) symbolizes religious integrity and social solidarity.