Seeking hidden sculptures in centuries-old rocks

In all my travels, never once did I hear about the prominence of Jainism many centuries earlier in Tamil Nadu. I am aware of the extent to which it had spread in Karnataka since I visited Shravanabelagola and heard about Karkala, Moodabidre, Dharmasthala and Gommatagiri. But, to my knowledge Jainism in Tamil Nadu never existed—that was until I made a trip to Madurai.

The origin of Jain philosophy in Tamil Nadu is a much debated topic among literary scholars. Mr.Nagendran Natarajan, Head of History department at Vivekananda College, Madurai— whom I had the privilege of meeting—however feels that Jainism was introduced in Tamil Nadu after the end of Sangam period. To support his theory, some Jain inscriptions on centuries-old rocks around Madurai date back to 4th century AD.

“The 2000-year-old rock carvings at various sites in Madurai and Kalughumalai are rich archaeological source of information for history of Tamil Nadu,” he told me.

Having heard so much, my host and I decided to see the intriguing evidences for ourselves. 120 km from Madurai reaching Kalugumalai on a pleasant day was not difficult, but climbing 600 ft above the town was. The steps straight up lead to a small shrine housing a Ganesha idol. Confused, we retraced our steps and mid-way turned right only to find another temple, one that of Lord Murugan. Right then, what we almost missed was, the centuries-old Jain relief sculptures well hidden behind temple walls.

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View from the top of Kalugumalai

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On taking a closer look, I noticed series of sculptures—of Jain deities on unimaginably huge boulders. They exhibited great detail and most of the sculptures have remained unscathed bearing the brutality of extreme weather over many centuries (also owing to the fact that rock formations at the top of the hillock has remained unaltered) There were approximately 150 relief sculptures and as per records they are dated as 768-800 AD. Some interesting sculptures were—independent Jinas on lion throne with fly-whisk attendants, standing devotees, triple chattra, halo and a tree, statue of Gomateswara with vines encircling his legs and statue of Jina Parasvanatha.

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Sculptures of Jinas

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A board by the Department of Archaeology explains that most of the sculptures were commissioned works of patrons.  It is speculated that they traveled long distances to complete the commissioned works here, making Kalugumalai an important Jain site for Jain communities in Tamil Nadu. According to it, the sculptures and epigraphs at Kalugumalai are assigned to the reign of Pandya Parantaka Nedunjadaiyan.

Another interesting part is how some sites in Madurai—Mangulam, Kizalavalavu, Puliakulam, Anamalai still bears witness to Jain ascetics’ harsh way of life. After walking for hours I was treated to the sight of carved out, polished boulders that were used as sleeping places, shallow pond that collected rain water for drinking, hole on the rock surface that aided in grinding medicinal leaves when necessary, and rock cuts that prevented rain water from entering their living spaces. According to Nagendran Natarajan, patrons who sought blessings of ascetics assisted them in making their abode suitable for living. To be noted—every work undertaken had the patron’s name inscribed right next to it.

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Epigraph of the patron’s name at kizhavalavu

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Boulder beds at Mangulam

At the end of four days, having toured much of the Jain sites in Madurai, it is to me not only a temple city and a birder’s paradise, but it is a city with overwhelming historical wealth. I am convinced that Madurai and Kalugumalai undisputedly deserves its rightful place at the top of any travelers list.

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24 thoughts on “Seeking hidden sculptures in centuries-old rocks

    • I had to climb between rocks to get a decent shot. Some of the photos I think might have looked better if I had zoomed out a little. But with little space between me and the sculptures, I could not do so. Glad you liked them 🙂

    • Yes Jitin. They are incredible! I am glad that my friends when they find someplace interesting, they immediately let me know. Then I make plans to see it. If not for them, I would not have come across these sites.

    • Isn’t it Kat?! I am amazed too. But I was furious looking at the damage done by some people at the other sites. Wish I could share those photos with you. Though now it is all declared as protected monuments, it does not prevent some people from causing more damage.

      • Sad to say that if it’s in Malaysia, such sites would be damaged. There were ancient ruins found a few years ago and property developers wanted to destroy the ruins! That’s why when I come to India, I’m so in awe of the numerous ancient sites still preserved and intact. Let’s hope the present and future generation continue to preserve them.

  1. It sounds like a fascinsting collection of carvings of amazing historical significance. Speaking as a traveller though, part of what minimises the attraction of visiting temples and other sites, is the lack of deep understanding /as/ to their stories, and therefore seem just like another set of stone carvings. What you’re documenting and sharing through this blog though, changes that, piece by piece 🙂 thank you. The worlds you are uncovering and investigating here, are remarkable and priceless.

    • You are very right when saying deeper understanding of any place (especially temples and other archaeological sites) improves the experience. I try my best to learn about these places as much as I can because I love stories in any form. I am glad you liked the post Taasha.

  2. Great post and pics. I thought your comment about not being aware of Jainism in TN was strange, considering luminaries like Thiruvalluvar and Ilando Adigal are widely considered to be Jains.

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