On the trail of Jain heritage in Tamil Nadu

It all began with a Twitter DM (or direct message) I received from my friend and fellow blogger, Anuradha Shankar.

It was the summer of 2014 and Anu was travelling, or doing a temple run as she preferred to call it, in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. She would send me an occasional update about the temples she was visiting — delight over seeing exquisite murals in one or despair on coming across bathroom tiles in another.

When I received a DM from her that May evening, with a “See this !”, I wondered what was it she had sent me this time and whether it would be a rave or rant ! As it happened, it didn’t matter for the photograph that Anu had messaged me simply took my breath away.

Jain Temples of Tamil Nadu, In search of Jain heritage in Tamil Nadu, Travel, Jainism, Kazhugumalai
Photo: Anuradha Shankar

I messaged back. Jain Art? In Tamil Nadu? Where? What? How? When? Anu replied, Yes. Yes. This is Kazhugumalai, 8th-9th century CE. Rest when I get back. I was stunned for till then I had no idea about the existence of Jain culture — past or present —in Tamil Nadu. I had wrongly assumed that Karnataka was the furthest South that Jainism had spread to.

That one photograph sparked off an interest in Jainism in Tamil Nadu, an interest that continues to grow by the day. From researching about the fascinating history of Jainism in Tamil Nadu to visiting heritage Jain sites in Madurai and Kanchipuram to writing an assignment on reclaiming Jain heritage in Tamil Nadu (as part of the Indian Aesthetics programme at Jnanapravaha Mumbai earlier this year)… the quest into Jain heritage has been an ongoing journey.

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The Jain Temples of Rajasthan: Bhandasar, Jaisalmer, Lodhrava & Ranakpur

The painted ceiling at the kaner, Rajasthan, Travel
The painted ceiling at Bhandasar Temple, Bikaner

“Look at the ceiling and see the beautiful gold leaf work,” the priest-cum-guide at the Jain Temple urges our group.

Everyone obediently looks up at the ceiling appreciatively. Some of them, including yours truly, try to see the finer details of the paintings on the ceiling by zooming their camera lens on it.

“What are the images depicted on the ceiling all about?” I ask.

“Those are our Jain stories,” says the priest-cum-guide.

“What do they say?”

The priest-cum-guide smiles, “Madam, you will not find them interesting. You look at the beautiful frescoes and painted pillars and take beautiful pictures.”

Bhandasar Jain Temple, Bikaner
Painted pillars at the Bhandasar Jain Temple, Bikaner

“But how will I know what I’m looking at if I cannot understand what I’m seeing?” I protest.

“You are a non-Jain and these stories are not important for you. Admiring the beauty of the temple is more than sufficient for you,” calmly responds the priest-cum-guide.

I am rendered speechless with indignation and outrage at this statement. And as I discover during the course of my Rajasthan trip in February this year, it is only the beginning. I have conversations like this at all the Jain temples I visit. There are slight degrees of variations, but all visits go something like this: I am warmly welcomed in (for a fee, of course), have the history of the temple narrated to me, urged to look around and take photographs (except of the sanctum sanctorum), have a tikka applied… But the moment I ask details as to what the art and symbolism of the icons and sculptures mean, there would be these very indulgent and polite refusals to elaborate.

Absence of any kind of literature or accompanying audio guide at the temples only added to the general frustration. While I can say that I have visited certain Jain temples in Rajasthan and know the history associated with it, I have no clue as to what I really saw or know the story behind what I saw.

To write this post, I have tried to recollect what I saw, read the notes I had scribbled, and went through the photographs I had taken. The result is a blogpost that is part rant, part sketchy information, part photo essay, and part observation of some of the Jain temples I visited in Rajasthan: Bhandasar Temple (Bikaner), Parsvanath Temple (Jaisalmer), Parsvanath Temple (Lodhrava or Lodarva or Lodrava), and Ranakpur Temple.

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Sarnath: The birthplace of Buddhism

“What do you know about Sarnath?” Premkumar, the guide, asked me.

“Er… not much. Just school book stuff really. The Ashoka pillar, Buddha…,” my voice trails off in considerable embarrassment.

“ItisaholyplacefortheBuddhists,” I blurt out in a rush.

“Hmm…,” said the guide, eyeing me in much the same way that a teacher may look at a rather stupid student. “Well, then, let’s begin !

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