Tamil Jains and their rise and fall in 24 centuries

Even before the time of Ashoka in the 3rd century, the Jains had already begun to travel down south. They did not take the coastal route since it was already taken by the Buddhists.

Pradeep Chakravarthy August 13, 2022 12:54:24 IST
Tamil Jains and their rise and fall in 24 centuries

Tirumalai Jain Temple

In the 7th century, the teenage Saiva saint is in Madurai and asks Shiva, "Oh, Elder one! You stripped the frenzied elephant off its hide and draped it on yourself. You are the Lord of Tiru Aalavai. These Sramanas who pretend to meditate, should I defeat them in debate? Tell me, what does your sacred heart say?"
Tevaram (3.47.2).

And later, in about the 8th century, the Vaishnava saint, Tirumangai Alvar, while in Kadalmallai or Mahabalipuram (or Mamallapuram as it should be called) observes a shift and sings, "These Sramanas who wave their peacock feather fans about, They have their God of knowledge but instead of him, They come to our Lord at Vekha, and Kadalmallai. Anyone who is devotee of Kadalmallai ought to be our master!" Periya Tirumoli (2.6.5).

The Saiva and Vaishnava Saints of the Bhakti movement were certainly effective in their aim of converting Jains and Buddhists to Hindus. The Tamil Jain population today is miniscule and still worship at their ancient temples. Buddhism however was completely obliterated. The texts have survived, broken images in museums and in quiet corners of the village. The animosity is long gone and any image of a Jain or Buddhist temple unearthed today is usually brought into the local Hindu temple and revered as a “holy man”.

The story of the Tamil Jains and their extraordinary contribution to the richness of Tamil needs to be told. Their sites seldom receive visitors and they certainly deserve a pilgrim’s trail by not only the Jain community across the globe but other history lovers.

The origins of Jainism are shrouded in mystery. Like Buddhism they appeared as an alternative to Sanatana Dharma (as Hinduism ought to be referred to) which was almost entirely monopolized the school of Mimamsa which focused more on rituals than the other five equally important darsanas or interpretative schools.

Even before the time of Ashoka in the 3rd century, the Jains had already begun to travel down south. They did not take the coastal route since it was already taken by the Buddhists. The missionary activities of Ashokan Buddhism were at their peak in the Deccan. The Jains made a beeline for Sravana Belagola in Karnataka that continues to be an important center for the Jains and from there further south to Kanchi and then Madurai. Central Tamil Nadu was largely untouched by Jains for two reasons.

One, the Buddhists were already a particularly numerous in the regions and two, the central region of Tamil Nadu is flat unlike the areas they preferred, namely northern and southern Tamil Nadu that have several rocky hills with natural caves that gave the monks and nuns place to quiet meditation and even perform the Sallekhana vow where the Jains would voluntarily fast to death. Mannargudi (near Thanjavur) is an exception - it still has a Jain temple. Coastal traders supported Buddhism financially and traders inland supported Jains. Their bequests often mention
the trade that the donor performed and we get a sense of how important trade in salt, grain, honey,  metals and cotton was.

Jains had neither the missionary zeal nor the royal patronage Buddhism enjoyed. Yet those who came south, both men and women must have had extraordinary faith and a sense of purpose. They used education (through schools), medicine (hospitals) and safe places of asylum for those being persecuted to convert many locals into Jainism. They stressed on the importance of health and education.

Some scholars like C Santalingam have even proposed that it was at this time that they and the Buddhists wrote several moral and ethical works which transformed the less inhibited, free Sangam Tamil culture to become more conformist and rule based. The 3rd to 6th Centuries were the best times for the Jains. The entire region was ruled by the Kalabhara who came from Karnataka. Some colonial historians have seen this as a “dark age” but this is arguable the five great Tamil epics are from about this time. Silapadikaram related the story of Kannagi and Kovalan and mentions all the three religions. Jeevakachintamani is a Jain epic and Manimekalai a Buddhist epic. Valayapathi (possibly Jain based on surviving stanzas) and Kundalakesi have been sadly lost but it is these and other works including the Tirukural (which many contest may not be Jain or Buddhist) that have helped Tamil become a classical language and we owe our gratitude to these early settlers from the north who took pains to not only learn the local language but mastered it to create engrossing and timeless epics.

The sweep of Bhakti and shifting royal and mercantile patronage reduced their numbers by the 10th century. There are later Shaiva stories of Jains instigating a Pandya king to impale the Hindus and the king after conversion meting out the same treatment to the Jains. However, there are no specific epigraphic references to any armed hostile conflicts. Several Shiva temples like those in Madurai and Suchindram still have a ritual enactment of the Shaiva version of the conflict. The Udayendiram copper plate inscriptions of Pallava King Nandivarman II refer to confiscation of land but this too has no mention of the circumstances under which the land was taken away from those who did not follow the Vedic texts.

Jains in Tamil Nadu continued to maintain close links with Sravana Belagola. Jain caves and temples in Samanar Malai (near Madurai) and Melpadi (near Ranipet) are examples to this. Kundakundacharya in the 1 st Century ACE spread Jainism in Tamil Nadu but much later Samantabhadra, Pujyapada and Akalanka were important Karnataka Jain teachers who spread the word in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Jainism has always been of the Digambara subsect.

The Jains from about the 6th century realized the growing importance of the Hindu temple as a representative of royal power in the community and an organization of social, economic, political and cultural relevance. They too began to build temples that in many ways resembled the Hindu temple. The Buddhists do not seem to have done this which maybe one more reason for their disappearance.

The Bhakti movement was however a powerful tool to convert Jains and Buddhists back to Hinduism. The use of music, personal example, key phrases and words all converted a few kings and this rapidly changed to the disadvantage of the Jains by the 8th century. The derision of the Shaiva and Vaishnava saints is powerful. Jains are chastised for wandering about naked with a rolled-up mat under an arm, for pulling out their hair, being overtly fond of curd rice, bullying others with unnecessary and illogical arguments. The intense rivalry between Jains and Buddhists did not help either.

Tamil Jains and their rise and fall in 24 centuries

Tirumalai Jain Temple

Several Jain temples were converted into Shiva temples. Buddhist temples destroyed or converted into Shiva or Vishnu temples. Fortunately, a few like Tiruparutikundram in Kanchi and Tirumalai near Tiruvannamalai survive even to this day. Most Jain temples have shrines for Goddesses who must have been created/modified from the mother goddess worship tradition of Tamil Nadu. Jwalamalini, Padmavati, Ambika, Kusumandini are all goddesses you will find in Tamil Jain temples.

Tamil Jains and their rise and fall in 24 centuries

Tiruparutikundaram

In the Vijayanagara times, temples that had been ravaged by earlier Muslim invasions were restored and some changed spectacularly. Jain temples also benefited modestly with basic structures being restored. By this time, they had learned to quietly live with other more popular religions. By the 19th century, U Ve Saminatha Iyer, affectionately known as the “Grandfather of Tamil” was still able to find Jains living in Kumbakonam who helped him collect and publish the ancient epic Jeevakachintamani. U Ve Sa as he is popularly known was an ardent devotee of Shiva and would have been very familiar with all the uncomplimentary references to the Jains by the Shaiva saints.

Thankfully, that did not prevent him from rescuing these Jain and Buddhist works from total destruction. Today most Jain temples are in remote parts of the state and seldom visited. The landscape is probably untouched since the 2000 years or more they have been in existence. If you are fortunate to know a Tamil Jain, do share a meal with them, their dishes are an interesting modification on local Tamil dishes! Some of the temples receive funding from wealthy Jains from west India and continue to wait for more visitors.

Tamil Jains and their rise and fall in 24 centuries

Tirumalai Jain Temple

The more you read the old texts and place them in the context of the Jain temples today, the more one wonders why we tend to argue over religion, aim to convert others instead of just accepting that at the end of the day, everything is truly transient and there are many ways to be at peace with oneself and those around us!

Pradeep Chakravarthy, co-translator of “Essays of U Ve Sa: The Man who revived Ancient Tamil Literature”, looks at how we can alter our behavior based on the study of history.

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