Jainism in Kerala: A Historical Perspective

in Overview
Published on: 14 September 2019

Abey Thomas

Abey Thomas received his PhD from the Center for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His Doctoral thesis is on the S̅raman̟ic Religions in Early and Medieval Kerala. He currently works as the Assistant Professor at the Department of History of the University of Calicut.

Jainism and Buddhism have often been clubbed together as religious traditions with similar worldviews, especially in their rejection of Vedic rituals. In comparison to Vedic religion, heterodox religious traditions, among them Jainism and Buddhism, emerged from a more urban milieu in early North Indian society. These religions represented the rising spiritual aspirations of the new mercantile elite groups. However, present-day Jain groups in Malabar include settled agriculturalists. It appears that there is a longer and more complex story to be told.

We begin with the question: who were the Jains? And what makes certain groups or communities Jains and not Buddhists? The communities ought to be seen in their historical contexts. Religious identities are at best provisionally constituted and exist only in relation with other identities. Jains, by definition, are those who follow the teachings of Jina or the conqueror.

The most important sectarian division in the Jain religious world is between Digambara and Shwetambara. To the Digambara sect, nudity is an essential prerequisite for mendicant life. Another fundamental issue is regarding the question of women’s capacity for moksha. According to the Digambara sect, moksha or liberation cannot be achieved in a female body.[1] Jain traditions in South India are predominantly Digambara. There is another, lesser-known, Jain sect called Yapaniya that emerged in South India, which adopted relatively liberal attitudes towards female renunciants.[2]

The early antiquity of Jainism in South India is associated with the Bhadrabahu legend. According to some versions, a famine at the end of Chandragupta Maurya’s reign in around 300 BC spurred an exodus of Jain monks to South India under the leadership of Bhadrabahu. He is revered as a patron saint of South Indian Jainism.[3] One must also note that Jainism in Tamil Nadu shared an intimate association with Jain traditions in Karnataka and continued to look upon Sravana Belegola as the principal seat of their religion.[4]

With that introduction, we shall now primarily focus on the historical evolution of Jainism in the distinctive regional cultures of Kerala. In comparison to Buddhism, Jainism has had a continuous historical life in this region, at least from the early medieval era onward. In the case of Buddhism, traditions are not unbroken. There are a few Jain settlements in Kerala in the districts of Palakkad and Wayanad. The 1891 Travancore Census Report gives the figure of the Jain population as merely three.[5] The physical presence of Buddhism, mostly in the form of Buddha idols, is found in Southern Kerala in the districts of Kollam and Alappuzha. In contrast, the relics of Jainism are principally present in Northern Kerala, in the districts of Palakkad, Kozhikode and Wayanad. The geographical division shows the historical influences that shaped the two religious and cultural formations.

The significant presence of Jainism in Northern Kerala might reveal a pattern of Jain migration from Karnataka. Two entry routes are considered possible for Jain migration to Southern and Central Kerala: one through Aramboli pass from Tirunelveli region which was in the southern part of the peninsula, while the other route was through the Palghat Gap from the Kongu region.[6] Thus, the prominent Jain centres in Southern and Central Kerala such as Kallil in Perumbavur and Chitrāl̟ in Kanyakumari district seem to have more Tamil Jain connections. On the other hand, Jain centres in Wayanad in Northern Kerala were clearly patronised by Jain communities and centres in Karnataka which is the centre for Jains in South India. The Varadur inscription from Wayanad, for instance, shows that Jains in late medieval Kerala were immigrants from Karnataka through South Canara;[7] the inscription is in Kannada script and language. Wayanad seems to have an early presence of Jains, at least from the early medieval period onward. The geographical proximity of Northern Kerala with Karnataka enabled such early interactions.

Jainism in Early Tami̟l̟akam
Evidence for the early influence of Jainism, in what was known as Tami̟l̟akam, is provided in Sangam literature. Present-day Kerala was an integral part of this historical region. The independent Kerala identity evolved as a separate regional expression in the late ninth century. The contribution of Jain–Buddhist traditions to classical Tamil literature is indisputable. A few Tamil Brahmi inscriptions record merchants’ patronage of Jain ascetics.[8] Many of the early Tamil texts that have survived are credited to Jain authors, including Tamil epics like S̄ilappatikāram and Civakacint̠a̅man̟i. As pointed out by George L. Hart, it is possible to clearly discern that many Jain–Buddhist themes were present in Sangam anthologies.[9] Looking more closely, Sangam poems contain interesting descriptions of city life and suggest that Jain–Buddhist groups were part of the same city life in the Tamil region. The Pat̟t̟inapalai, for instance, provides graphic descriptions of town life in Kaveripattinam where merchant vessels come from faraway lands.[10] It states that merchants of Kaveripattinam were persuaded by Jain–Buddhist monks to eschew animal slaughter and practice vegetarianism. Post-Sangam texts like Naladiyar are also influenced by the Jain ideas of the transitory nature of reality, the virtues of renunciation and so on.[11]

S̅ilappadika̅ram could be regarded as the most faithful source for understanding the historical conditions of Jain–Buddhist religions in early Tami̟l̟akam of which Kerala was an integral part. The merchant affiliation of the text is striking. The author, heroes and central characters all belong to mercantile communities. The story of S̅ilappadika̅ram evolves through various South Indian topographies. Notably, the last sequence of this tale happens in a place known as Vanchi. As tradition has it, Il̟aṅkō At̟ikal̟, the author of the text, was a younger brother of Cēra king Cēran Cenkuttuvan. The territory ruled by the Cēras is understood to be roughly coterminous with present-day Kerala. According to the text, Il̟aṅkō At̟ikal̟ resided at Kun̟avāyirkōt̟t̟am after his renunciation.[12] Some scholars have identified Kunavayirkottam as Trikkaanamathilakam, near modern-day Kodungallur in Kerala.[13] Adding to this, there is epigraphical context to assume that Tirukunavay or Trikkanamathilakam was a model for other Jain temples of Kerala in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries.[14]

We find many references to Jain communities in early and medieval textual sources. Their presence in Kerala society has been fairly established in early textual traditions, particularly from S̅ilappadika̅ram and Ma̟nimēkalai. There are descriptions of Jain centres in Vanchi (a place coterminous with present-day Kerala) in these texts as well.

If the S̅aiva conversion stories are to be trusted, Jains had to face serious hostility from the S̅aiva sects in the seventh and eighth centuries and they were widely persecuted during this period. According to the standard narrative, the intense conflict with rival religious sects eventually resulted in the downfall of Jainism in the Tamil macro region. But the conflict presumably did not last long, as there is evidence of continued Jain presence in the Tamil region from the ninth century onwards. However, fearing further persecutions, they began to flee to the hill-tops of Chitra̅l̟, Kazhugumalalai, Kallil and so on.

During this period, temples emerge as complex institutions in the region with clear socio-political functions. Temple inscriptions from different regions in Northern Kerala—Tazhekkav, Tiruvannur, Alathur, Kinalur—show that temples played a significant role in integrating different sections like trading groups, local chieftains, militias and even kings into the temple-centred social structure. In these inscriptions, some groups were referred to in terms of numbers and these groups were seen to be protectors of Jain temple properties.[15]

Inventing Traditions
Before the pioneering work of Gopinatha Rao on Jain–Buddhist vestiges in Travancore in 1915, in the Travancore Archaeological Series, the long association this region has had with Jain–Buddhist traditions was neither known nor explored. For long, there seemed to persist confusion among scholars in differentiating between Jain and Buddhist traditions. Like some other scholars of his time, Ramanatha Aiyyar felt that Chitra̅l̟ was a Buddhist temple. Moreover, he cited the Maharaja of Travancore, Vishakam Tirunal, in defence of this observation. According to Aiyyar, Brahmins appropriated and adapted the Chitra̅l̟ Buddhist temple. And he saw the ‘idols in and around the Chitra̅l̟ as evidence of Buddhist sculpture’.[16] Ramanatha Aiyyar was not alone in holding ‘such scandalous views’; Nagam Aiyya, author of the three-volume Travancore State Manual, published in 1906, too reiterated this mistaken assumption on the Jain temple.[17]

After nearly a decade, Gopinatha Rao was the first scholar who made careful analysis of this cave temple. Jain association with the Chitra̅l̟ temple is clearly established in his study. A Jain image at Pal̟l̟iyil Bhagavati shrine in Paruvassery was also once regarded as a Buddhist figure by scholars.[18] It is also worth noting that, like many other Jain–Buddhist centres in Kerala, this place bears the name Pal̟l̟iyil which may have been derived from the word Pal̟l̟i. The term Pal̟l̟i denotes a place of worship for Jain–Buddhist communities.[19] There was early recognition of Jain vestiges in Kerala by colonial scholars and administrators, but they were ambiguous about exact religious affiliations as well.

We come across episodic references to Jain–Buddhist communities in the textual traditions of Kerala in the fourteenth century. According to Kōkasandes̄a, a fourteenth-century Man̟iprāval̟a text, Kun̟avāyil or Kun̟aka was a large centre for the Vaniyar community ‘where they cheat each other in trade’. It further states that it was considered ‘inauspicious for Brahmans to have a direct gaze at the lord of Kun̟avāyil’.[20]

Due to a combination of factors, Jainism underwent a serious decline in the Kerala region after this period. In addition to the bitter hostility they faced from Purān̟ic Hindu religion, there was also a shifting of royal patronage. And, consequently, their traditions and places of worship were absorbed or taken over by Purān̟ic Hindu religions as has been seen in the cases of Kallil, Chitra̅l̟ and Paruvas︡s︡ery temples. S̄raman̟as had largely disappeared from Kerala, probably by the fourteenth century. But, as noted above, a few Jain traditions and communities continue to survive, miraculously, in some parts of Northern Kerala.


[1] Jaini, Gender and Salvation.

[2] Desai, Jainism in South India, 164.

[3] Rao, Jainism in South India, 58.

[4] Champakalekshmi, Religion, Tradition and Ideology, 363.

[5] Aiya, Report on the Census of Travancore, 724.

[6] Varier, Jainism in Kerala, 14.

[7] ibid., 33.

[8] Mahadevan, Early Tamil Epigraphy, 325.

[9] Hart, The Poems of Ancient Tamil, 70.

[10] Chelliah, Patthupattu-Ten Idylls, 41.

[11] Pope, TheNaladiyar, 38.

[12] Dikshitar, 85

[13] Narayanan 1977: 67

[14] ibid.

[15] In the inscriptions of this period, presumably trading was referred in terms of numbers such as Nalpettennayiravar, Ezhunuruvar, and so on.

[16] Aiyyar 1903: 129

[17] ibid., 270

[18] Achan, 1981

[19] Jain affiliation of the Chitral and Paruvassery can be inferred from the Tirthankara images. Though they resemble Buddha idols, some sculptural signs are distinctively Jain and help to identify them, including the three-tiered canopy and other such specific symbols. Chitral is presently a well-known Jain centre.    

[20] Achuthan and Varier, 2007: 60


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