WE were completely unprepared for what awaited us as A. Gangadurai, the caretaker, opened the locks of the single gate near a barbed wire fence and led us down a flight of narrow steps hewn out of a hill at Kazhugumalai.
On the rock surface, frozen in time, was a superbly sculpted Jaina Tirthankara seated in the ardhapariyankasana pose on a lion pedestal, with a triple umbrella above his head. Around the enlightened one were celestial maidens, dancing inside coils of creepers or playing the flute or a percussion instrument. Their merry abandon signified the occasion of his attaining kevalagnana, or enlightenment. On either side was a chowrie (flywhisk)-bearer. Below them, two devotees stood with flowers in their hands.
In this bas-relief, Tirthankara Parsvanatha is shown with snake hoods over his head. The yaksha Dharnendra is seen protecting him, and Kamdan, who tried to kill him by throwing a huge piece of rock at him, is seen as surrendering. Yakshi Padmavathi is also depicted in the sculpture
The hilltop offers a breathtaking view of paddy fields interspersed with palmyra trees. There are ponds on either side of the hill. A church spire jabs the sky on one side and around the church is the small town.
Vedachalam explained: “Kazhugumalai was an active centre of Jaina learning for 300 years from the 8th century A.D. It was a place of worship, a monastery and a college. Jains from Tirucharanam and Kottaru [both in present-day Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu] came to Kazhugumalai to teach and learn. There were women teachers also here.”
The male teacher was called “kuravar” and the female teacher “kurathi”. The inscriptions here give the names of a number of kurathis.
“Monks were also called Battarar,” said T. Arun Raj, Deputy Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (Chennai Circle). “Nuns called kurathis came to Kazhugumalai from different Jaina centres such as Tirunarungkondai, Tirucharanam, Tirukottaru and Tirumalai [near Vellore] in the Tamil country.”
Kazhugumalai is a treasure trove of indescribably beautiful Jaina sculptures. An amazing sight confronted us as we clambered up the hill. On a long rock surface were three rows of bas-reliefs of Tirthankaras, all seated in pedestals made of two rows of lotus flowers. Blossomed lotuses formed the upper row while inverted lotuses formed the lower row.
In this bas-relief, celestial beings visit a Tirthankara attaining enlightenment
However, there was a revival of Jainism in the Tamil country after the 8th century A.D. From a non-theistic religion, where monks lived in natural caverns, it became a theistic religion, absorbing rituals on the way. Several structural Jaina temples came up during this time.
There were more than 100 Jaina sites in the Pandya country (comprising the present-day districts of Madurai, Virudhunagar, Sivaganga, Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Kanyakumari in southern Tamil Nadu).
The most notable among these were the sites at Madurai, Kazhugumalai, Kurandi (near Aruppukottai) and Nagercoil (Kottaru).
“It is not true that Jainism was rooted out of Tamil Nadu after the 7th century A.D. A good example of the revival of Jainism in the Tamil country after the 8th century is Kazhugumalai,” said Vedachalam.
Arun Raj said important Jaina sites in the southern districts were Tiruparankunram, Anai Malai, Azhagar Malai, Mankulam, Arittapatti, Kizhavalavu, Vikramangalam, Mettupatti, Muthupatti, Kongarpuliyankulam and Karuvalangudi. Jainism also flourished at Sitthannavasal in Pudukottai district. In northern Tamil Nadu, there were Jaina sites at Tirunarungkondai, Tirunatharkunru, Mel Kudalur, Mel Sithamur, Jambai, Tirumalai, Thondur, Paraiyan Pattu and Thalavanur.
Structural Jaina temples came up at Agazhur near Ginjee, Veedur near Villupuram, Peramallur and Mel Sithamur (both near Tindivanam), Tirunarungkondai near Ulundurpet, Melmalayanur, and Tiruparutikunram, 3 kilometres from Kancheepuram.
Of all these sites, the largest number of Jaina bas-reliefs is found at Kazhugumalai. “There are more Jaina sculptures here than even at Tirumalai. The sculptures here have richness and variety. They are not monotonous,” said Vedachalam.
On top of the Kazhugumalai hills is an Ayyanar temple, which is about a hundred years old. The temple obscures some of the bas–reliefs behind it. The sanctum sanctorum of the temple is inside a natural cavern. As the priest lit a lamp to show us the roof of the dark cavern, three bas-reliefs of Tirthankaras came into view near the Ayyanar image.
Two of them sat side by side and the third was a few feet away. They were seated in ardhapariyankasana, under a triple umbrella. It is difficult to say whether these Jaina carvings have been documented.
A bas-relief of remarkable beauty in Kazhugumalai depicts the legend of the yakshi Ambika. The sculpture shows a tall and elegant Ambika, with her two children and her husband, a simha (a lion) and a “kalpavriksha”. The husband seems to be in a state of sheer awe, for one of his hands is raised in a state of shock.
Legend has it that Ambika violated a religious canon by giving away food she had cooked for her pitrus (ancestors) on a day of remembrance. When her relatives who had come to take part in the ceremony had gone out, a Jaina monk came to her house seeking food.
The Yakshi Ambika with her children, the simha (lion) and kalpavriksha. Her husband is shown with a hand raised and his face has no detailing so as to depict his awe and the glare from her "golden appearance" falling on him
He pleaded helplessness and suggested that she go back to her husband. Scared of her husband’s wrath, Ambika, committed suicide. She reached heaven and became an attendant, that is, a yakshi, of Tirthankara Neminatha.
But Ambika was unable to forget her past and Indra granted her a boon that she could return to earth and live with her husband while at the same time being a yakshi. Back home, her husband demanded that she show him her “golden appearance” to prove she was a yakshi.
When Ambika revealed her true self, the husband was taken aback by the dazzling halo. That is why his hand, in the sculpture, is raised and the face, with the glare, perhaps, is not deliberately sculpted.
“There are sculptures of the yakshi Ambika at Sitharal [near Nagercoil], Anai Malai and Samana Malai [both near Madurai] and Tirumalai. But this one at Kazhugumalai is the masterpiece,” said Vedachalam.
Another masterpiece is the sculpture of Bahubali (Gomatesvara) standing in meditation in a forest, with creepers entwining his legs, and his sisters Brahmi and Sundari telling him to shed his ego. Bahubali was one of the two sons of the first Tirthankara, Adinatha. (Bahubali himself is not a Tirthankara.)
Bahubali, or Gomatesvara, stands in meditation in a forest, with creepers entwined around his legs. His sisters Brahmi and Sundari are seen as telling him to “shed his ego”
There are 102 inscriptions at Kazhugumalai said Arun Raj. Of them, 100 relate to Jainism and the remaining, Saivism. The Jaina inscriptions mainly talk about the Tirthankaras and the donors who paid for sculpting their bas-reliefs. The donors included local merchants, carpenters, teachers, students, and so on.
The bas-reliefs were made in memory of dead relatives, too. The vatteluttu inscriptions mention the name of the Pandya king Maran Sadayan, who donated 17 bas-reliefs. The inscriptions also talk about the Pandya kings Parantaka Nedunchezhiyan (A.D. 765 -A.D. 815), and Parantaka Veera Narayanan of the 9th century.
The inscriptions, according to Vedachalam, provide another interesting piece of information: to protect the hill and its sculptures, there were two groups of warriors called “Tirumalai Veerar” and “Parantaka Veerar”. FPRIVATE
An illegal wall that has come up at Kazhugumalai obscures intricate bas-reliefs
Kazhugumalai had a chief Jaina monk called Gunasagara Battarar. The philosophy of Jainism was taught here. An inscription mentions this in Tamil: “Samana sidhandham uraikkum vairakkiar…”.