Jainism spread to South India a few centuries before the advent of the Christian era. In its early phase, it was simple and puritanic, and it inculcated mainly moral and ethical values in the mind of the common man.
Much emphasis was laid on ahimsa, asteya, satya and aparigraha for the betterment of humanity. Benevolent bestowal of four-fold charity to the poor and the needy was directly beneficial to the society at large.
These social welfare measures coupled with the ceaseless efforts of the ascetics in spreading the message of the Tirthankaras to the public gained wider acclaim and popularity to Jainism in early Tamilnadu.
Ancient Tamil society, other than the brahmanas and ruling clans, consisted of mainly occupational groups like agriculturists, cowherds, weavers, traders, smiths, carpenters, potters, fishermen, hunters etc.
1 Even among these groups, some kind of social hierarchy would have existed, although contemporary sources do not specify it. However, when Jainism permeated to the south, people from the above occupational groups embraced it, which inturn enabled them a higher social status.
Admittance of these occupational groups without discrimination into its fold gained Jainism a wider social basis and got transformed it into an influential religion in early Tamilnadu. The new adherents organized themselves into a socially and religiously conscious group and 113
faithfully followed the sravakadharma. Concommitantly, monastics of the Jaina Sangha played a vital role in consolidating religion and in upbringing lay followers to a higher level.
This upward socio-religious trend is also reflected in the early brahmi epigraphical records. For instance, the natural cave at Alagarmalai near Madurai was transformed into an ascetic-abode with stone beds collectively by people like a salt merchant, a goldsmith, suger merchant, a seller of plough-shares, cloth merchant and many others in the 2nd century B.C.
2 At Pugalur near Karur, similar benefaction was made by a gold merchant, an oil-monger and others.
3 Besides, members of the merchant guild of Tiruvellarai,
4 some kaviti-title bearing officials,
5 a few upasakas
6 who performed religious rituals and more than fifty lay followers
7 whose occupations are not known, also made some contribution to the ascetic-abodes all over Tamilnadu.
Jaina friars were organised into Sanghas, which were headed each by a chief monk. Generally, early brahmi inscriptions contain names of chief monks and rarely of their disciples. Gani Nanta, Attirai, Senkasyapa and Venkasyapa were some of the chief monks who figure in early epigraphs. Gani Nanta and Attirai
8 were renowned monks whose religious activities centred around Madurai. Senkasyapa of Arrur was a very senior monk who looked after the monastic establishments at Pugalur.
9 The area around Tirunelveli witnessed the activities of Venkasyapa
10 while Tondur and its neighbourhood (Gingee area) was benefited by the services of Ilankasipa.
11 Nuns also had their due share of contribution to the growth of Jainism. One Sapamita (Sapamitra) was associated with Alagarmalai
12 and Sekkanti and her mother Sekkantannai with Neganurpatti near Gingee.
13It may be added here that the epic Silappadikaram glorifies the nun Kauntiadigal as a reputed person endowed with all virtuous qualities.
14 The yeoman service rendered by these monks and nuns was of no small measure and as a result, Jainism emerged into an influential religion in early Tamilnadu.114
The increasing influence of Jainism on Tamil Soceity also led to an intellectual spurt in the form of didactic works during the 3ni and 4th centuries A.D. These didactic compositions, in turn, had a profound impact on the socio-cultural life of the early Tamils.
In the religious history of Tamilnadu, the 7th century witnessed the rapid growth of brahmanical religion, undermining the influence of Jainism and Buddhism. The bhakti-movement spear-headed by the Saiva Nayanmars and Vaishnava Alvars coupled with the temple-building activities of the Pallava and early Pandya rulers brought about an unprecedented growth of Saivism and Vaishnavism.
15 The bhakti saints strengthened their religion by consolidating people from different social groups, roused their religious feelings with devotional hymns extolling the greatness of Siva and Vishnu, and at the same time, vehemently condemned the customs and practices of the Jainas and Buddhists.
16 Religious disputes to assert the supremacy of Saivism over Jainism seemed to have taken place at Madurai, Palaiyarai, Tirvarur and Tiruvottur.
17 Thus, the bhakti-movement and royal patronage to Brahmanism adversely affected the growth of Jainism in the 7th century.
But soon, Jainism recovered from adversities and gained a new lease of life and vigour by adjusting itself to the circumstances and by accommodating some elements from Brahmanism without affecting its core. In this process of assimilation, importance was given to iconic and ritualistic worship of the Tirthankaras and their attendant deities.
18 Prominence was given to the worship of yakshis like Ambika and Padmavati. The early Jaina caves which lost importance in the wake of bhakti movement were embellished with splendid iconic forms of Tirthankaras and yakshis, to which regular ritualistic worship was arranged.
The awakened sravakas began to make a number of endowments in the form of land, gold, paddy, sheep, etc. for the upkeep of these newly transformed monastic-cum-temple establishements.
19Simultaneously, construction of structural temples, dedicated to Tirthankaras, was promoted in urban and semi-urban centres. While doing so, care was taken to follow the existing local Dravidian style of architecture without any change.
However, these temples differed only in their sculptural content from their Hindu counterparts. Festivals were also celebrated periodically, which integrated lay followers even from farflung Jaina centres. In all these endevaours, the ascetics consciously played a predominant role in setting the balance at equilibrium.
A galaxy of renowned monks like Vajranandi, Ajjanandi, Uttanandi, Naganandi, Kanaganandi, Arishtanemi, Pushapanandi, Gunasagaradeva and many others
20 had undertaken effective steps to propagate the gospel of the Jina throughout Tamilnadu, encouraged setting up of images of Tirthankaras and yakshis and thereby, accelerated the growth of religion. Thus, Jainism attained strength and wide popularity in the 8th and 9,h centuries, to the extent of catering to the spiritual aspirations of the elite and the religious ferver of the lay followers.
In medieval rock art of Tamilnadu, priority was given to Parsvanatha, although all the Tirthankaras are held equal in Jaina pantheon. As his iconic form (also of Suparsva) differs from the stereotype form of others, his images served as an effective visual medium to gain popular appeal amidst Jaina followers and to assuage the ill-feelings of the Vaishnavites.
(Vishnu’s head is canopied by the five hooded Sesha, Padmavati is Vishnu’s consort). Moreover, the Kamata-eipsode also captivated the mind of the common man.
That was why almost all the Jaina caves in the 8th – 9th century were sculpted with atleast one image of Parsvanatha, illustrating the Kamata-episode. Besides these, centres like Kalugumalai, Uttamapalayam, Kilakuyilkudi, Chitaral, Anantamangalam and Vallimalai have recurrent versions of Parsvanatha carved on the facade of caves at the instance of monks. It has been rightly pointed out that the reason which
compelled Jaina acharyas to encourage such image worship was to gain popularity among Jaina adherents, and at the same time, to remove brahmanical hatred against the Jainas.
21 In order to overcome the adversity faced by Jainism in the 7th century, some conscious efforts were taken by Jaina adherents to localize certain myths centering around yakshis and to popularize their cults. Although yakshis were accorded a minor position in the early period, since the 8th century, they were assigned an exhalted position.
In this regard, ascetics themselves promoted the worship of Ambika and Jvalamalini and encouraged setting up of their images.
The life story of Ambika yakshi is dealt with elaborately in the Kannada works, Ambikadevikalpa and Punyasravakalha.
22 The very same story, was localized by the Tamil Jainas and is said to have taken place at Tirumalai, the celebrated Jaina centre in Tiruvannamalai district. This localization of the Kannada myth was a sequel to the commissioning of a fine rock-cut image of Ambika at Tirumalai by the ascetic Arishtanemi acharya.
23Another Ambika-myth connects Akalankacharya of the Mulasangha with Karantai near Kanchipuram.
It is stated that when Akalanka found it difficult to defeat the Buddhists in a polemical deate, Ambika yakshi residing in the Karantai temple, came to his rescue to win over the opponents.
24 Apparently, this myth was introduced with the aim of popularizing Ambika cult.
The Kannada treatise, Jvalamalinikalpa composed in 939 A.D. narrates that Helacharya of the Dravida Sangha instituted the worship of Jvalamalini yakshi on Nilagiriparvata at Hemagrama in order to ward off a Brahmarakshasa who afflicted the acharya’s lady disciple.
25 It is interesting to observe that this Kannada myth was suitably modified and associated with Ponnur near Vandavasi, mainly to popularize the worship of Jvalamalini.
Apart from localization of yakshi myths, splendid images of Ambika were carved in most of the caves in the 8 th, 9th and 10lh centuries all over Tamilnadu. Structural temples also contain either her stone images or metal icons.
The image of Jvalamalini was consecrated in temples, first at Ponnur and then at other places. It deserves special mention that localization of yakshi-myths and introduction of yakshi images in caves and temples acted as catalysts not only to popularize their cults, but also to gain a wider social basis for Jainism and to sustain it at the time of adversity.
Moreover, popularization of yakshi cult was found to be desideratum to cope up with the growth of Amman cult in Hindusim.
26 During the medieval period, every Jaina temple was endowed with some kind of donation for its upkeep. Among the various types of donation, land grant was considered to be very important as it determined the economic power of the temple. In fact, after the 7th century A.D., in order to survive against brahmanical animosity, it was found necessary to rejuvenate Jainism and strength its institutions through a conscious attempt of receiving land grants.
27 Although lithic records are replete with land donations, important Jaina temples at Tirupparuttikunram, Nagercoil, Chittamur, Tirunarungondai and Tirumalai received the maximum number of land grants.
28 Sometimes, entire village was donated in favour of temples. For instance, the Vardhamana temple at Tirupparuttikunram and temple at Dharmapuri were donated the whole of Amanserkai village and Buduguru village respectively.
29 In case of Appandainatha temple at Tirunarungondai, three villages such as Arrur, Enadimangalam and Ullur were granted in addition to several small land donations.
30 The Chola king Vikrama chola munificently donated lands situated in more than twenty five villages in favour of the Chittamur Parsvanatha temple.
31Besides land grants, sheep, cows, gold, money etc. were also gifted to Jaina temples. The Kattampalli at Kurandi was118donated with 155 sheep,
32 the Kalugumalai temple with 50 sheep
33 and the Tirunarungondai temple with 96 sheep and 40 cows.
34 Milk, curd and ghee obtained from these cattle were utilized for sacred ablution and for lighting lamps.
Land grants and other donations made in favour of temples were generally entrusted with ascetics who had supervisory control over religious institutions. It deserves special mention that most of the temples in medieval period were under the control of monks and they were assisted by some officials and temple-servants.
Consequent to economic empowerment of temples, some social welfare measures could be undertaken in their localities. Income obtained from the temple-lands was utilized for construction of tanks, canals, sluices etc.
35 and thereby regular water supply was provided to cultivable lands. This, in turn, enabled increase of agricultural productivity. Sometimes, renovation and repair works were carried out to temples from the revenue accrued out of the donations.
The contribution of the Jainas for the upliftment of Tamil societywas undoubtedly substantial and the same is testified to by archaeological evidence. The Jainas had deep faith in providing four-fold charity such as aharadana (food to the needy), aushadadana (medical help), sastradana (imparting education) and abayadana (offering protection) to the poor and needy people.
Feeding of the poor people is always considered to be great service to humanity. Jainism laid special emphasis on providing food to the ascetics as well as the poor people. Although feeding of the poor is not explicitly referred to in inscriptions, provision made for feeding ascetics is commonly met with in them. It has been rightly said that “the life of the ascetic strongly appealed to
the imagination of the people, and one of the common forms of religious charity was to provide for feeding, regular or occasional, of ascetics in temples or mathas”
36.The Kalugumalai monastery had a large gathering of monks and nuns headed by Gunasagaradeva. In the 865 A.D. some lands were donated to it for providing food to ten Siddhanta bhattarakas and Vairagis of the monastery.
37 Yet another donation was also made in the same year for feeding five Vairagis and bhattarakas.
38 Similar provisions were also done in the temples at Kiraippakkam
40 Besides, arrangement was also made to feed regularly itinerant monks who were not attached to the regular establishment of the temple as at Kilsattamangalam.
41When the nunnery at Veda! was not in a position to accommodate a very huge gathering of lady disciples and nuns, the Jaina adherents of the village came forward to provide food for all of them.
42 Madavilagam near Tindivanam had a Jaina temple with a feeding house attached to it. Inorder to maintain this feeding- house, some tax-free lands were donated in 1128 A.D.
43 In all probability, this feeding-house served the purpose for those who came to the temple during festivals and on specific occasions.
The Jaina community extending medical help to the public is not alluded to in epigraphical records. However, the presence of circular pits cut into the live rock by the side of the ascetic abode at Melkudalur discloses that these were used to pound or grind medicinal herbs.
44 The polished inner surface of these pits would bear testimony to their regular use as mortars for preparing medicines. Similarly, shallow depressions with polished inner surface, as seen at Kalugumalai, should have served as querns to grind medicinal herbs.
45-“1 Presumably, disciples of resident monks of the caves involved themselves in the preparation of herbal
medicines for the benefit of the public. Besides these ascetics, professional physicians (Maruttuvar) existed in villages and towns and they rendered medical service to people. One such physician lived at the village Pugalalaimangalam and his son Naranan is said to have setup images of Ambika yakshi and the preceptor Naganandi in the Jaina cave at Panchapandavamalai near Arcot town.
46 The aforesaid evidence, though not numerous, stand in support for the medical help rendered by the Jainas to the public.
The natural caves occupied by Jaina recluses, were generally known as pallis, which term literally means abodes of monks as well as schools. These caves became centres of learning in the early and medieval periods.
As the chief monk imparted religious education to his disciples, these caves were designated as pallis. A huge stone-bed or a square seat cut within the cave served as platform (sila-dala), wherefrom the preceptor expounded Jaina-sastras to his disciples. Such specimens are reported from caves atSittannavasal, Melkudalur, Uranitangal and Sarakkumalai. Parasena and Simhanandibhattara were the presiding monks at Uranitangal and Sarakumalai respectively.
47 Vasudeva Siddhantabhattaraka, an expert in Jaina-Siddhanta was associated with the monastic establishment at Karuppankunru.
48The Kalugumalai monastery, presided over by Gunasagaradeva was an important religious and educational centre in Southern Tamilnadu, to which a large number of monks and nuns even from far-flung Jaina villages thronged in the 9th and 10th centuries.
In order to expound Jaina principles to the disciples and lay followers, this monastery had ten Siddhanta- bhattarakas.
49 Obviously, these Bhattarakas together with the chief monk had dedicated themselves for the promotion of religious education.
Sometimes, sheds were specially erected in front of the caves for the convenience of the large gathering of Jaina adherents who assembled there to listen to the expositions of monks. Rows of
post-holes cut into the open rock surface by the side of the caves as at Anantamangalam and Atchipakkam, both near Tindivanam, testify to the erection of sheds to accommodate lay followers.
50 The Malainatha temple at Melchittamur had a specially built mandapa known as Otturaikkum mandapa for expounding Jaina texts to the laity. Such expositions were held during evening hours and hence, provision was made for lighting a lamp in the same mandapa.
51Apart from these, Jaina monasteries existed at urban centres like Tiruppatiripuliyur (Cuddalore) and Tirupparuttikunram (Kanchipuram). The renowned monk Sarvanandi is said to have completed the Digambara text, Lokavibhaga in the Tiruppatiripuliyur matha,
52 The Saiva saint Tirunavukkarasar (Appar) in his early days was a Jaina and learnt Jaina-sastras in the same monastery.
53 The Tirupparuttikunram matha was presided over by Vajranandi in the 6th century A.D. and subsequently a succession of monks of the Nandisangha order continued to play a leading role at this place. Later on, reputed ascetics like Chandrakirtidevar, Mallisena, Pushpasena and others adorned the pontificial seat of this matha.
54 In about the 16th century, it was re-established at Melchittamur, and it continues to exist even now. These Vidhyasthanas promoted the cause of regligion and education throughout the period of their history.
Jainism gave much importance to education of women also. An educational institution exclusively meant for women existed at Vedal near Vandavasi in the 9th century. Actually, it was a nunnery presided over by the chief-nun Kanagavirakuratti. Initially, it functioned from a cave and subsequently, it was enlarged with structural additions.
Being a unique institution, it had as many as four hundred women-ascetics (tapasvins) and five hundred women-students (manakki) on its roll. But as it was not sufficient to accommodate all of them and meet their food-requirements, the inhabitants of Vedal undertook to provide food for all of them in 885 A.D
55 122Although the above mentioned caves and mathas served as educational institutions, the various subjects expounded to the disciples and laity do not find epigraphical corroboration. However, lithic documents from Karnataka testify to imparting of subjects like philosophy, logic, didactics, medicine, mathematics etc., by learned acharyas to dispciples.
56 The Jainas had munificiently setup asylums in some villages in order to offer protection to those who were affected by natural calamities, epidemic diseases, war, etc. These asylums were known as “anjinan pukalidam ” . Jambai, near Tirukkoilur, was declared as an asylum for the distressed people in the year 1152 A.D. by the ascetic Neminatha who was in-charge of the local Jaina temple.
57 Similar asylums existed at Nallur near Tirumalai.
58 and at Pattinam near Palladam. Buildings of the Pattinam asylum were repaired and renovated by some members of a merchant guild. Besides, some donations were also given to the same asylum for its maintenance.
59 Even though inscriptions refer to the existence of asylums for the distressed people, their nature of functioning, measures undertaken to redress the grievances of the affected people etc., are not known from them. However, it may be inferred that those people were given shelter, free food and medical help till they were relieved off from miseries.
An appraisal of archaeological sources reveals that Jainism spread to Tamilnadu around the 3rd century B.C. Soon, it became a fairly influential religion due to the concerted efforts of ascetics and it accommodated traders, artisans craftsmen and others in its fold without discrimination.
While the ascetics adhered to severe austerities, the house-holders faithfully practised a simple and dharmic life. Royal support to Jainism was extended by a few members of the ruling families of the Pandyas, īrumporai branch of Cheras and chieftains like Atiyaman Nedumananji of Dharmapuri
area and Kaniman of Mamandur area. Madurai and its neighbourhood became the hub of religious activities in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. The growing influence of Jainism led to a spurt of intellectual activity, reflected in the form of didactic works and one of the twin epics Silappadikaram, composed by Jaina poets.
With the passage of time, Jainism suffered a severe setback in the 7th century A.D., consequent to the tremendous growth of brahmanical religion in the wake of bhakti-movement and extensive royal support to it.
Besides, the large scale building of brahmanical temples by the Pallavas and early Pandya rulers provided a strong institutional basis for their religion.
Despite these, Jainism could regain from adversities and had a new lease of life in the 8th century A.D. The Jaina response to the brahmanical challenge was successfully met with by adopting iconic and ritualistic forms of worship and by transforming their temples into a socio-religious institutional base. Thus, “the religion of severe austerities transformed into one of devotional cults and rituals which had the capacity to incorporate popular elements and adapt itself to new socio-religious contexts.”
60The Jaina monks consciously promoted the fortunes of religion and encouraged setting up of images of Tirthankaras and attendant deities, particularly the yakshis.
The popularization of yakshi cult, land grants and other donations made to temples by the laity, patronage extended by some Chola monarchs and their feudatory chieftains etc., accelerated the growth of Jainism. The economic empowerment of temple not only strengthened the religion but also provided a consolidated social basis for Jainism till the close of 13th century A.D.
(Paper presented at the National Seminar on “Social Consciousness of the Jainas”, organized by the Department of Jainology, University of Madras, 2011).
1. K.K. Pillai, A Social History of the Tamils, pp. 190-220.
2. T.S.Sridhar (ed.) Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions (in Tamil), I. Mahadevan, Corpus of Early Tamil Inscriptions, pp.46-53.
3. I. Mahadevan, op.cit., Pugalur, No.9, 10.
4. Ibid., Mangulam, No.3
5. Ibid, No.3
6. T.S.Sridhar (ed.), op.cit., pp.25,27,28.
7. Ibid., pp.17-18.
8. Ī.Mahadevan, op.cit., Mangulam, No.1-3, Mettupatti, No.l
9. Ibid., Pugalur, No.2,3.
10. T.S.Sridhar, op.cit., p.31.
11. M.Chandramoorthi, “Tondur Brahmi inscriptions”, Kalvettu. quarterly, No.34, 1992.
12. Ī.Mahadevan, op.cit., Alagarmalai No.7
13. S.Rajavelu, “NeganurpattiTamil-Brahmi inscriptions”, Avanam, (in Tamil), No.6, 1995, pp.7-8.
14. Siappadikaram 5 10: 192-208.
15. A.Ekambaranathan, Iconographic concepts and Forms of Siva in Tamil Country, (unpublished Ph.D.
Thesis, Madras University), 1981, pp. 130-132.
16. Sambandar Tevaram, 72:10, 107:10, 114:10, etc.,
17. Periyapuranam, verses, 2756-2774, Tevaram, 297:2-9.
18. A.Ekambaranathan, Jaina Iconography in Tamilnadu, p. 15.