In Sittannavasal and Narttamalai near Pudukkottai is the land where Jainism flourished for over fifteen hundred years, from 3rd century B.C. to 12th century A.D. This is the region that is rich in varieties of Jaina antiquities such as natural caverns, rock-cut shrines, fresco paintings, structural temples, rock-cut sculptures and statues of different deities of the Jaina pantheon and inscriptions in the Brahmi and Tamil alphabets30. Sittanavasal has acquired worldwide renown as the venue of Jain paintings comparable to the Ajanta frescoes. The whole theme of the painting is remarkably Jaina in its conception and the schemes depicted present a pleasing variety of Jaina religious art.



The Sittannavasal paintings constitute an important link in the art traditions of the Indian continent and Sri Lanka and deserve to be studied in relationship with the chronological series of the Ajanta and Bagh cave frescoes and the Sigiriya frescoes of Sri Lanka, all ascribed to the period between the 4th and the 7th centuries A.D. Sittannavasal art may stand in good comparison with the art of Ajanta and Sigiriya. The frescoes of Sittannavasal furnish the earliest specimen of Jaina painting in South India and, from the Jaina point of view, they are the solitary instance of the early Jaina art on fresco31. In the survey of Jaina antiquities, it must be noted that there were a large number of sculptures carved on the rocks of hills and natural caverns.

The Jaina sculptures lie at a higher altitude and are carved in relief on the smooth surfaces of the overhanging rock. Kalugumalai was one of the greatest centres in the whole of India. The Mahavira representations are wonderful. Kalugamalai is truly a paradise of Jaina art in the Tamil country. Kalugumalai may also be regarded as the Nalanda of the Tamil country so far as Jaina education was concerned.



The early Jaina teachers imaginatively selected natural caverns in the mountains and the tops and the slopes of hills as suitable places for their austerities and religious activities. In the early stages of their faith, shrines and monasteries were mostly confined to the hills. Sculptures representing different deities of the Jaina pantheon were incised in small niches on the rocks of hills, and these served the purpose of shrines and temples. Some of them are the sculptures on the rock like the one at Amadamangalam, the seated figure of the Jina and golden Yakshi at Panchapandavamalai, the unique sculptures of Kalugumalai and the ancient images carved on the rock of the hill Tiruchcharanam33.

The next important place of interest is the cave temples. Arivar Koil is a cave temple excavated in the rock. Mahendravarman I was the originator of cave temples in Tamil Nadu. One unique aspect of the cave temples is its paintings. Originally, the temples must have been picturesquely painted all over34. The cave temples were brick less, timber less, metal less, and mortar less mansions35.

Jaina art thus had its genesis in religion and carried its philosophical and spiritual cannons into artistic creations quite faithfully, sometimes even to the detriment of its own growth. The very simplicity and uniformity in the execution sometimes gave less credit to the skill of the artist, yet in many cases it brought out the inherent physical strength and the calm and dignity of the Tirthankaras in a superb manner.

Jaina architecture was undoubtedly influenced by the tenets of Jaina religion. The requirements of the ascetics and other believers had a natural effect both on its location and purpose.

Jaina Architecture is divided into two distinct categories.

  1. Domestic architecture or ghara derasaras
  2. Stone and wooden temple architecture

A number of dwelling houses with wood-carvings of either a Tirthankara image or mangala chinha [auspicious sign] are known. This is a special feature of Jaina community.

Temple architecture is essentially an offshoot of icon or image worship, which has been prevalent amongst the Jainas from very early times as in the case of several other religions. From about the fourth century B.C., evidence is available of the existence of cave temples and structures resembling shrines and temples36. The Jaina contributions to Indian art and architecture, to the preservation and enrichment of Indian literature and to the cultivation of languages both Aryan and Dravidian are praise worthy. The religious instincts inculcated by Jainism left an abiding impression on many aspects of Indian life.

The rock-cut sculptures on the Kalugumalai hill present a glowing picture of the religious order and artistic excellence attained by the adherents of Jainism in Tamil Nadu. The richness of imagery, the wealth of detail and refinement of execution will ever stand as a unique contribution of Jaina culture in South India.


  1. A. L. Bahsam (ed.), A Cultural History of India, Oxford University, (New Delhi 1989) p. 100.
  2. Ibid, 101.
  3. M. S. Ramaswami Ayyangar, “Studies in South Indian Jainism”, Sri Satguru publications (Delhi 1982), p. 1. Com. History of India, Vol. I. p. 165.
  4. Indian Antiquary, XXI, pp. 59-60.
  5. B. Seshagiri Rao, Studies in South Indian Jainism (Part II), (Delhi 1982), p.8.
  6. Ashwin Kumar Chatterjee, Comprehensive History of Jainism, part I, Firma Klum Private Ltd., (Calcutta 1978) p. 119.
  7. M. W. Carr, (ed.), The Seven Pagodas, p.113.
  8. S. Mylai Scenivenkatasamy, Samanamaum Tamilum, pp. 35-40.
  9. “Pallan Koil Copper Plates” st6; Tirumarai 3:39:6.
  10. P. B. Desai, Jainism in South India, p. 28.
  11. K. V. Raman, Tolliyal Aiuugal, 147-55.
  12. Raj Pruthi and Bela Raw Sharma, Encyclopedia of Women, Society and Culture, p. 96.
  13. M. S. Ramaswami Iyengar, Studies in South Indian Jainism, pp. 53-56.
  14. R. Gopalan, History of the Pallavas of Kanchi, p. 90.
  15. Annual Report of South Indian Epigraphy, 1923, p 4.
  16. The Digambara Jain Work, Lokavibhaga, expounded in the Kanchi area was copied by one Sarvanandi in Pataliputra of the South Arcot District, R. Gopalan, op. cit, p. 11.
  17. Annual Report of South Indian Epigraphy, 382 of 1929.
  18. Ibid, No. 381 of 1929.
  19. Annual Report of South Indian Epigraphy, (1909), Appendix B Nos. 81-84.
  20. Epigraphica Indica, 4. p 137.
  21. A.R.E., 1958-59.
  22. Epigraphica Indica, IX, p 231.
  23. Annual Report on South Indian Epigraphy, 1900, Appendix B. No.53.
  24. South Indian Inscriptions.
  25. Manual of Pudukkottai State, 41, Part II, p 1093.
  26. South Indian Inscriptions 3, Part 3, No 92.
  27. South Indian Inscriptions Vol. 14, No 22.
  28. K.A.N. Sastri, The Pandya Kingdom, p 84.
  29. M.S. Ramaswami Ayyar, op.cit, pp. 665-67.
  30. P.B. Desai, op.cit, p. 51.
  31. Ibid, p.53
  32. S. Thiruvenkatachari, Jain Monasticism in Tamil Country, p. 22.
  33. P.P. Desai, op.cit.
  34. Manual of Pudukkottai State, II, pp. 1094-97.
  35. Susan L. Huntigton, The Art of Ancient India, Weather Hill, Tokyo 1985, p. 292.
  36. O.P. Tondan, Jaina Shrines in India, Publication Division, Government of India, 1986, pp. 5-7.


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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