“Religion is the only friend which keeps company even after one’s death,
All the rest is destroyed with the body”

Jainism is an Indian religion and is still a living faith in some parts of the country. The number of its followers is just over two million. Its contribution to the Indian heritage is more significant than might be expected of its numerical strength. As an institutionalised religion, it has held its ground all along. It has sometimes enjoyed royal patronage and has produced worthy monks and laymen of whom any society could be proud1. But the Jaina church has shown quite a modest yet steady progress2.

Bhadrabahu, after becoming an Acharya, led a great migration to South India during the days of Chandragupta Maurya, and thereafter important and fruitful consequences happened. The main incidents regarding the advent of this Jaina sage to Mysore are graphically narrated in the Sravanabelgola Inscription No. l. The story is told that Bhadrabahuswami “who by virtue of severe penance had acquired the essence of knowledge, having by his power of discerning the past, present and future, foretold, in Ujjain, a period of twelve years of dire calamity and famine, the whole of the sangha living in the northern regions took their way to the south”3. Jain migration is important as it furnishes us the starting point for an account of the Jains in the south, as otherwise, we would be left in the dark as to the cause, and course of the Jain migration. Dr. Leumann says that this migration of the Jains to the south is the initial fact of the Digambara tradition. It is from this epoch that the Jain community, which was undivided before, separated in to two sects, the Digambara and the Svetambaras4.

Jaina colonists coming down to south India, in large groups, sometimes of 500 each, selected for their residence beautiful river banks and deep forest recesses redolent with the fragrance of creepers and flowers and rich with beauties of variegated landscape, so that they might imbibe their balm and assimilate themselves to the creative forces of nature as a first step to their gradual assimilation to the Arhants5.

Before discussing the state of Jainism in different parts of the Tamil country, it is important to find out the exact date of the advent of Jainism in the Tamil country. According to Mahavamsa, the king of Ceylon Pandukabhaya constructed houses and temples for the Nigantha ascetics at Anuradhapuram. King Pandukabhaya is placed in the fourth century B.C. The Jains might have migrated to Ceylon from the Tamil speaking areas of South India. The evidence of the Pali texts referred to above indirectly shows that the Jainism reached the land of the Tamils before the end of the 4th century B.C. In the earliest extant literature of the Tamils, we have enough indications to prove that Jainism was popular in quite early times in the regions south of the Kaveri. It should here be emphasised that the Jain monks of Bengal and Orissa were responsible for the early propagation of Jainism in Tamil Nadu6.

The Kurumbar had embraced the Jaina religion brought to them from the north7. According to some late Karnataka literary traditions, Bhadrabahu, the Jain monk who had led the migration of Jains from Mahada to Karnataka, appointed on his death in 297 B.C. his disciple Visakacharya as the leader for a group of monks, with instructions to propagate the faith in the Chola and Pandya countries8. In the subsequent centuries, the Jain monks mastered Tamil and carried on their proselytizing mission among the Tamils dividing themselves into numerous ganas (groups)9.

The Brahmi cave inscriptions of Pudukkottai, Madurai and Tirunelveli districts suggest that a few of the caves were the hermitages of Jain monks, dating from the 3rd century B.C.10 and were excavated by Pandya monarchs, local chieftains and well to do merchants and gifted to them11 in recognition of their great erudition in Tamil. That many Jain monks lived in rock-cut caves is mentioned in Naladiyar. According to literary evidence available from classical works both in Tamil and Sanskrit, the antiquity of Jainism in Tamil Nadu could be fixed between one thousand five hundred or two thousand years before the birth of Christ. This period is generally called the pre-historic period12. All these evidences show that Jainism had established itself in Tamil country by the fourth century B.C. or even earlier.



A large number of caverns containing beds carved out in the rock have been discovered in the hills and mountainous regions in the Pudukkottai area, Madurai and Tirunelveli districts of the Tamil Nadu State. These rocky hermitages on the hills must have been at one time occupied by ascetics, monks and recluses who wanted to spend their lives in secluded retirement far from the habitations crowded by worldly people.

It was the privilege of the Jaina faith to claim the patronage and support from royal princes and princesses of many a distinguished ruling family of the Tamil Country. Jainism was more widespread in the Tamil country than Buddhism in the age following the Kalabhra interregnum13. Before Pallava imperialism was established, Jainism had consolidated itself and was passing through its most active period. Naturally, the Pallavas recognised the religion as a powerful factor until Saivism got the upper hand.

Mahendravarman, one of the most famous emperors of South India adopted Jainism as his religion for some years and, until his conversion to Saivism by Appar, he gave the religion his best attention and support14. Before the reign of Mahendravarman, Jain monasteries had been flourishing everywhere in the Tamil, Telugu and Karnataka territories of the Pallava Empire. The two temples dedicated to the Jaina deities at Tirupparuttikunram near Kanchi, namely the shrines of Vardhamana and Vrishabhanatha Tirthankaras are believed to have been founded by a Pallava king at the instance of the teachers Vamana and Mallishena15. It is not unlikely that this Pallava king was Mahendravarman I. Nandivarman Pallavamalla might have constructed the Chandraprabha Jain temple. The presence of a Jain temple may always be taken as an indication of the existence of a flourishing Jain colony. Tirupparuttikkunram, popularly known as Jinna Kanchi, has preserved a Jaina shrine to this day. The presiding deity of this shrine is Lord Vardhamana. It is the biggest temple, adorned with artistic splendour in the Kanchipuram taluk. The monastery in Tirupparuttikundram played an important role in the conversion of Mahendravarman I to Jainism. In Jain tradition, Kanchi was one of the four primary centre of Digambara Jainism16.



To be continued…

 Dr. D. Janaki
Reader in History,
Quaid-E-Millat Government College for Women, Chennai

Source: Journal of Indian History and Culture, March 2000

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