Thiruparankundram , Madurai - rare ancient Jain heritage monument in the caves!

Thenparankundram rock-cut cave temple, Madurai,TN

Thiruparankundram Jain hills, Madurai, Tamilnadu

umai andavar temple

Madurai  has been a center of  different faiths  for more than 1300 years and they flourished in the past under different rulers. Madurai and the surrounding area once formed a safe haven for followers of Jainism and the city still  today retains the cultural confluence despite changing political scenarios, · 

Thiruparankundram  and Samanar hills near Madurai city, Tamil Nadu  have lots of carvings of images of Jain munis, inscriptions, etc on the rocky walls in the caves on the hills. They are declared protected heritage monuments being managed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Thiruparankundram town, a suburb of Madurai city, about 9 km from the city center, is a sacred place for Jains and  Hindus. Lots of Hindu pilgrims come to the hill on pilgrimage to get blessed by God Subramanya.  It is one of the six abodes of God Muruga  (Karthikeya). Equally famous is  Kashi Vishwanath & Subramaṇya Swāmi Temple. Both are located on the hillock made of granite, etc of Archaean age- more than 3.5 billion years, first formed on the upper crust of the earth. This post is about Jain rock carvings and inscriptions found on the hill. 

umai andavar temple

The  natural caves  with a series rock-cut beds of great antiquity got the attention of the wondering Jaina  monks  who took advantage of serene ambiance and used the caves  for stay,  meditation and. chaturmas.  They occupied these caverns on the western face of the  hill in the pre and post Christian period. Their presence and culture are confirmed by engravings in the rock inscriptions written in Tamil Brahmi script. . The four Tamil Brahmi inscriptions of 1st century BC-1st century AD are inscribed on the front side or head of the stone beds and also on the ledge above the row of stone beds. 

From about 2nd century BC to 5th century AD Jainism saw its heyday and glory . The early Pandya rulers  along with   Pallavas of Kanchi and the early Western Chalukyas of Badami were powerful rulers of the early medieval South India and their contribution to the region was vast. For many reasons from 7th CE onward Jainism had begun to decline replaced by  Brahmanical/Hindu rock-cut temples   toward the end of  8th century AD.

Bas relief and  inscriptions in caves suggest Jainism flourished between 2BC and 12 CE in this region. The monuments are close to the bus stand and 9 km from Madurai. The numerous caves in the rocky terrain gave them security and protection from the sun, rains and wild animals, Apart, inscriptions mention they use the natural caves as monastery, residence and for meditation and prayer.  There are 2 cave temples excavated on The northern and southern faces of the huge hill have 2  excavated cave temples and both Jain & later Hindu monks had  rock-cut reliefs and temples built around 1st century BC-15th century AD.  Located on the southern slopes of the Thiruparankundram hill  is rock-cut cave called 'Umai Andar' cave  with three layers of carvings.  A few Jina reliefs, said to have been  carved between 1st century BC and 5th century AD are on the outer wall.  On all sides of the hill  are found Jain rock-cut beds, Tamil Brahmi & Vatteluttu inscriptions and  stone carved  Jain statues 

Two jain Tirthankara images dated back to 9th to 10th CE  in standing posture -Kayotsarga are engraved on the rock face at an   inaccessible level near Saraswathi Theertham on the way o Kasi Viswanathar Hindu temple.  One of them Parsvanatha with hooded serpent over the head flanked by Dharmendra protecting the lord with an umbrella. The other Tirthankara in bas-relief is in standing posture with deities attending. In the Palani Andavar temple one can see Jain sculptures and inscriptions on a huge boulder. . 

 At top level there  are natural rock cut beds in the caverns, quite suitable for monks or guests to sleep and relax. From Tamil Brahmi inscription found on the pillow side  of the bed, dated 2nd to 1 BC we understand it was done through donation by  one shravak who was a resident of a place in old Sri Lanka  called 'Irukattur.'  The Jain monks (Siddhars), also  practised  medicine.This place was initially the center of Jainism. During the late Pandya period  the conversion of the rock cut temple from Jainism to Hinduism  seemed to have taken place. On the façade of the rock cut cave one can see -sculpted images  of  Bhairava, Ganesa, Saiva saints like Appar, Sambandar, Sundarar and Manikkavasagar and Rishi  proclaiming that this cave is dedicated to Saivism. Inscriptions  also point out  Maravaram Sundara Pandian (1256 AD)  captured Madurai from Kulothunga Chola III and in 1250 AD, he had converted these Jain caves into Hindu Shiva temples. Three Jain statues and inscriptions on this hill are still  in the Hindu temple  'Pandi andavar temple'. One monk seemed to have attained nirvana by Sallekhana (fast unto death).  For the first time that a Tamil-Brahmi script, referring to a Jaina monk who fasted unto death had been discovered in Tamil Nadu in the recent past. 

During raids and looting by the Delhi Sultanate' army(thereafter  Madurai Sultanate was formed) led by Malik kaufer in the 1300s the base and  top of the Samanar hills were damaged. Ruined Karuppu Sami temple (dedicated to Vishnu)'  jagati (base platform) only survived. Thiruparankundram temples were also  targeted by Alauddin Khilji's treacherous army.