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Unexploited vestiges of Jainism


A rock caving of Mahavir at Nagamalai near Madurai.

MADURAI HAS been hailed as the `Athens of the East' for its rich culture. Besides being a patron of art and literature, the city has also been a unique confluence of religions in the past. Saivaism, Vaishnavism, Jainism, Christianity and Islam flourished here, though at some point of time, there had been conflicts over establishing the supremacy of one religion over the other.

By and large, the practice of different religions by the people belonging to this region at different moments in history has enabled this ancient city inherit a rich tradition and culture.

Till recently, tourists from all over the country used to visit Madurai and surrounding places to have a glimpse of Jain architecture. That flow has now come to a trickle. There are numerous stone inscriptions, dating back to the third century B.C., in the Jain caves around the city. Archaeologists have so far located 14 popular Jain abodes around Madurai.

They are: Tiruparankunram, Samana Malai, Kongarpuliyankulam, Vikramangalam, Anaipatti, Anaimalai, Meenakshipuram, Arittapatti, Alagarmalai, Karungalakudi, Keezhavalavu, Tiruvadavur, Kunnathur and Tirumalai.

The five Tamil epics — `Silappathikaram, Manimekalai, Seevagachinthamani, Valayapathi and Kundalakesi' — contain references to the life of Jains in this part of the country.

Historic references point to the spread of Jainism under the reign of several kings in the past. But `kazhuvetram', the impalement of Jains in the seventh century, came as a setback for the spread of Jainism and forced the monks to lead a cloistered life, far removed from the masses.

In the city, Tamil Jains are far and few now, though a significant presence of the natives of Rajasthan and Gujarat is there.

Several centuries ago, Jains had outnumbered Hindus in Madurai, historians say. A Tamil book, `Enperunkunram', authored by V. Vedachalam, speaks of the close ties between the Jains of Madurai and their counterparts in Sravanabelagola in Karnataka between the 1st and 13th century A.D.

The treasure trove, in the form of Jain caves, stone and rock carvings and the stone beds of monks, has not been fully exploited to attract tourists to the city. While the Archaelogical Survey of India has managed to safeguard the rock carvings in Nagamalai, located on the outskirts of the city, precious Jain caves have been lost in nearby Samanar Malai, due to the impact of indiscriminate quarrying.

Nagamalai, as a relic of the Jain culture in this region, holds immense potential as a popular tourist destination.

By S. Annamalai

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