Thirumalai – a hidden gem

The unassuming town of Thirumalai, just 85 km south of Vellore, is abundant with significant temples hidden away amidst rocks and boulders.

Driving around the dry and barren landscape of the Thiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu, we are looking for the ancient shrines, caves and carvings of Jain monks who spread Jainism in South India several centuries ago. As we trace the entry of Jains into Tamil Nadu, I learn that the Tamil Jains settled in and around Madurai, Kanchipuram and Thiruvannamalai and are today considered an indigenous community. Our guide was Dr. R .Venkatraman, Retd Professor of Art History, Madurai Kamaraja University ,who in his late 70s,  seems to be the youngest in the group, as he beams with energy and enthusiasm and explains to us the legacy of Jainism in Tamil Nadu . He tells us that Jainism in Tamil Nadu dates back to ancient times as some of the old epics in Tamil Literature were believed to be penned by them.

We finally reach our destination after driving for more than three hours from Chennai. It is a rather hot afternoon and we land amidst the rocky terrains of Thirumalai. The sun is rather merciless as we climb up a hillock to see an 18-foot monolith of Neminatha, the 22nd Tirthankara. “Born as a prince, he is believed to be the cousin of Krishna and you would always see a conch or a chakra with him,” explains the professor, narrating this story. “Krishna had arranged for his wedding, but Neminatha could not accept the fact that his wedding feast would lead to the slaughter of goats and he therefore renounced the world.”

A circular rock stands precariously on the hillock as we circle it and climb further and see another temple dedicated to Parshvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankara  .“Mahaveera and Parshvanatha were considered historic, while the rest of the 22 Tirthankaras were mythical,” explains the Professor. A lone flowering tree emerges from the rocks, as if it was planted just to bloom for the deities.  As we stand atop the hill, we can see the feet of several monks engraved on the rocks.

We continue walking in the heat and enter the portals of a beautiful old temple. The trees around us are flowering. All of a sudden, a group of children arrive from nowhere and just as they are surprised to see us, I wonder where they live as we can hardly see any village in the vicinity. Only rocks and boulders fill the view with a smattering of vegetation around. We enter the temple and see shrines dedicated to the Tirthankaras.

We do not normally associate the Cholas with the Jains. But an inscription at a Jain temple in Thirumalai, indicates that Kundavi, sister of Raja Raja Chola had given grants to this 1000 year old shrine. Even today locals refer to it as Kundavi Jainalaya.

Looking at the vast expanse of boulders and rocks strewn around with patches of fields, we realize that there is more to Thirumalai than just Kundavi’s Jainalaya.  The ancient Jain heritage site is filled with cave temples, paintings, monoliths, temples on hillocks and carvings – all probably dated between 10th – 15th century, patronized by various dynasties and rulers.  The caves had been the haven for several monks and it is believed that Kunda Kunda Acharya, a revered Jain seer had visited here as well.

Descending down the hill, we visit another shrine dedicated to Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara. There are several shrines close by with more carvings. We enter a narrow dusty cell which opens into flight of steps that leads to a cave. It is almost like a different world out here, a world that is painted in rich tapestry of colours, even in the dark and dingy corners of the cave. This was probably where the Jain monks had lived. The rocks part ways opening into small chambers and tunnels, though not everything around us is dark and dusty. Some of the rooms had windows which open out to let the sunshine enter, so that we see the art around us. The walls are painted with rich colours, depicting deities, symbols, their ideologies through flowers, animals and human forms. My head hits the low ceiling, but as I look up, the roof is painted in various hues, although some of them are slowly fading away.

I stand there amazed as the art breathes life in these caves. Only the professor’s voice breaks the reverie. “The literature, art, paintings, temples, carvings – the Jains have left behind a rich legacy for us here, waiting to be discovered”. Thirumalai I realize is just one of them, while many such heritage sites are hidden away amidst rocks and boulders.


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