Kazhugumalai: Abode of the Tamil Jain Past

in Article
Published on: 07 September 2018

Mahima Jain

Mahima A. Jain is a freelance journalist and writer. She has worked as an editor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, 'The Hindu', and the 'Hindu BusinessLine'. She writes on environment, business, and culture. Her research focuses on the history, identity and socio-cultural position of Tamil Jains within the Tamil society as well as their unique place as a minority within the minority Jain community. In 2015, she was awarded the Nehru Trust for India Collection at the V&A (Jain Art) Fellowship to study Tamil Jain heritage through colonial records. She presented a paper on 'Communicating Heritage: Construction of Tamil Jain Identity in Print and Social Media' in 2017 at the European Association for Study of Religion Conference at University of Leuven, Belgium. You can reach her at mhmajain@gmail.com.

Tamil Jains are a minority within a minority. There are just over 25,000 Tamil Jains—this number includes Jains who migrated from north India. Within the state of Tamil Nadu, they comprise around 0.12 per cent of the population (Census 2015). They are not obviously visible in the public sphere today (Jain 2015). However, their presence and influence is evident across the literary, cultural, and architectural landscape of Tamil Nadu (Emmerich 2011; Jain 2016). Out of these, the literary works of Tamil Jains are their best-known contribution—three of the five great Tamil epics were written by Jains. There are also numerous smaller works that were authored by them.


The cultural and architectural contributions of Tamil Jains are, however, less known. Here, we explore the Jain architectural landscape through Kazhugumalai, in Thoothukudi district, located about 120 km from Madurai.


The site at Kazhugumalai, which is accorded a special position by both scholars as well as Tamil Jains, has three main features: an unfinished monolithic Shiva temple dating to the eighth century CE; a gallery of Jain bas-reliefs, and over 102 inscriptions—the highest for a Jain site in south India—created between the 8th and 12th centuries; and more-recently, a century-old Ayyanar temple.



One site, many meanings

Over the past century, numerous colonial records and articles published in journals have explored various facets of Kazhugumalai, which has been the subject of at least three archeological surveys[1] before Independence, and at least six research articles/books.[2] Scholars, researchers, epigraphists, and archeologists have examined the site and written of its importance. However, the quest to understand Kazhugumalai, and the efforts to protect and promote it, remain as relevant today as when it was first written about.


Its place within the Jain community is unique: there are no Tamil Jains in or around Kazhugumalai, yet, the place is crucial to Jains in Tamil Nadu. The nearest Jain family is from North India and lives in Kovilpatti, 15 km away.


Mukesh Jain, who moved to Kovilpatti from Madhya Pradesh in 1983, says that when he settled here, the locals would talk about ‘some Buddha statues’ at Kazhugumalai. Though there had been enough academic work on Kazhugumalai’s Jain heritage by then, the locals remained oblivious of the place’s history.


The site had also fallen off the Jain pilgrimage circuit many years ago, owing to the economic circumstances of the community, as well as their small number and dispersed population. However, in recent years, interest in the site has renewed, both within the community and also among other interested parties.


Over the past two decades, a very small community of Jains from other districts and states have come together to hold Mahavir Jayanti and Diwali celebrations at the site to create awareness that the statues are of tirthankars- pioneers of faith who have learnt and taught the way to others—and not of the Buddha. Some members of the Jain community believe that this will help the locals appreciate the principles of Jainism.


In the last three decades, four Jain ascetics have visited Kazhugumalai. They include Vigyashree Mataji, who stayed at Kazhugumalai for Chatrumas. Praveen Sagar Marasaheb and Nirmal Sagarji, also known as Gujarat Kesari, visited in the 1970s and spent the four months of Chatrumasa at Kazhugumalai. In 1985, Vijaymati Mataji visited each village in the region and saw every scattered Jain statue.


An external impetus to preserve and promote Kazhugumalai’s heritage came when the DHAN Foundation, based in Madurai, initiated a project to empower communities through rural tourism. This was initially started as a four-year pilot project under the banner Endogenous Tourism for Rural Livelihood. With the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Government of India, the programme was able to expand into DHAN’s Tourism for Development programme, adding more villages and sites. The DHAN Foundation programme filled the lacunae left behind by the State Archaeological Society of Tamil Nadu, which focused mainly on the monument and not enough on tourism (DHAN Foundation 2014).


The DHAN Foundation has been operational in Kazhugumalai for more than a decade, and their primary focus has remained the upliftment of local communities. However, by combining it with the vision of ‘Kazhugumalai as a rural destination’, they are able to serve the dual purpose of development and conservation. The DHAN Foundation, along with the villagers, host and receive research scholars, historians, and archaeologists at the site.


The DHAN Foundation also conducts monthly heritage walks in which NSS students, VTDC (Village Tourism Development Committee) members, and Heritage Club members participate. Over the past few years, Tamil Jains and history enthusiasts from Madurai and Chennai have been organising regular trips and history walks to the village.



The features of the site

Kazhugumalai (also called Tirmalai and Araimalai) has been dated back to the period between the eighth and the twelfth century. During the eighth century, this place was also called Tiruneccuram, and was divided into Peruneccuram and Ilaneccuram (Vedachalam, 2011). Agriculture was the main occupation in this perur (a village of more than 500 families). However, since it was located on a key trade route, and due to its proximity to Madurai, the capital of the Pandyas, it was a bustling centre of social, political, and religious activity.


The period between the sixth and twelfth centuries is widely regarded as a period of transition, change, and rapidly-evolving equations involving religion and power—particularly in the southern region. It also marked the decline of the two heretic faiths—Jainism and Buddhism. Until then, the two religions had had a large population among the laity and even the royalty.


An over-simplified narrative that relegates the Tamil Jains to a distant past is as follows: the Jains (and the Buddhists) were present for some years in Tamil society, but the rising popularity of the Bhakti movement in the seventh–eighth century CE reduced them to insignificance. After constant religious persecution and conversion, the community was suppressed and forgotten. In The Story of the Disappearing Jains, Richard Davis (Davis 1998) writes that this ‘standard narrative’ collapses social and religious conflict into a short period and quickens the pace of the end of Jainism at the hands of the Hindus. He also considers Jainism and Hinduism to be ‘cohesive’ with fixed traditions, doctrines, and practices. He argues that this de-emphasises the continued presence of Jainism in Tamil Nadu.


Due to this, while attributing the ‘disappearance of the Jains’ to the downfall of a religion, a lot of importance is placed on the faith of the rulers. Such conversions are indeed important in the course of events, but they are not the only determinants of how things unravelled.


The story of the conversion of Kun Pandya (670–710), a patron of the Jains, by Thirujnanasambandar to Saivism is considered to be a watershed moment. Once the ruler was converted, as the story goes, the masses followed in large numbers. Thus, the animosity between Jains and the Saivites grew manifold. It is believed that the Saivites and Jains challenged each other to a ‘fire’ and a ‘water’ debate, wherein the texts of their respective faiths were tested. If a text was found to be able to float in the water, that religion was deemed superior. Similarly, a text which did not catch fire would be considered the more powerful of the two. When the Jains lost, they were asked to convert, and those who did not were supposedly impaled (Roy 2011). As per these narratives, the mantle of hegemony was transferred from the Jains to the Saivites, who continued to persecute Jain ascetics. Many Jains fled to the Ganga kingdom in Karnataka. However, by 920, the Pandyas themselves were defeated by the Cholas.


While this is a simplistic narrative that compresses timelines and evens out socio-economic and cultural complexities, it gives us an outline of the overarching series of events that transpired in the political background. Whether this directly affected the residents of Kazhugumalai, we aren’t certain. But given Kazhugumalai’s position on a vital trade route, the king’s conversion would surely have affected the Jain monastery, which existed at Kazhugumalai between the eighth and twelfth century.



Deconstructing Kazhugumalai

At the centre of the village of Kazhugumalai is a hillock. At the base of this hill is a pond, and from there, the hillock looks like an imposing but otherwise uninteresting barren granite boulder.  However, as one climbs up the rickety stone steps, a large gallery of bas-reliefs of  tirthankars and yakshis appears on the right side of the hill. It is carved at such an altitude on the boulder that its very presence seems surreal. Rows of tirthankars sit in meditative postures, some parts of the relief breaking away from this motif to illustrate stories of yakshas and yakshis (Lakshminarayan and Kannan 2001).


The three rows, which together represent the 24 tirthankars, are called teen-chowbesi in Jaina iconography, meaning ‘the 24 tirthankars of the three yugas. These carvings were done over five centuries and do not belong to at any particular era. There are stray stand-alone sculptures of  tirthankars flanked by either  yakshis or chowri-bearers all over the hillock.


The entire relief and the stray reliefs are framed by single horizontal drip-ledges on the top. These simple ‘eyebrow’ structures divert rainwater away from the relief, thereby avoiding erosion. There are also holes above the reliefs for erecting pillars to support a thatched roof (Champakalashmi 1974).


Around the 11th century, a trade city called Peruneccurattu Pavithramanickapurm existed around Kazhugumalai, putting the village directly in the path of trade routes (Vedachalam 2011).


The 102 inscriptions, as mentioned before, provide information on the donors who had commissioned the statues and the panels of the tirthankars, including lists of kurathars and kurathis (male and female teachers) and the ruling years of various kings. Only one inscription is in Tamil, while the rest are in Vattezhutthu.


While it benefitted from being on a trade route, Kazhugumalai was also a Jain monastery. A list of inscriptions points to at least 15  kurathisor female monks or teachers, which was rare and unique. Further, the caves on the hill served as resting places for Jain ascetics and teachers. The date of institution of this monastery is unknown, but early Pandyan records starting from the ninth-century were found in the Kazhugumalai Jain palli (monastery), suggesting that it existed back then.


Vedachalam, a retired senior epigraphist of the State Archaeological Society, says that there are a few Vattezhutthu[3] inscriptions from the latter part of the eighth century, which could have been made when the monastery was started. Vattezhutthu and Tamil were used by the Cholas, as they gained control in ninth century. As per these inscriptions, the Kazhugumalai Palli flourished for around 350 years, but just like its inception, its downfall is shrouded in mystery.


A similar mystery clouds the Vettuvankoil, a Shiva temple on the other side of the hill. After climbing eastward on the gently sloping hillock, littered with various warning and proclamation signs by the State Archaeological Society, you reach a fence. The Vettuvankoil sits magnificently at the eastern edge of the hill. Since you have to approach it from the back, it waits there—and it has been waiting since the 12th century—in all its magnificence, with its unfinished lower portion and sanctum. The temple is literally in a stone dig, and the top of the vimana is in line with the stone boundary. One has to climb down to enter the Shiva temple, though it actually does not have a Shiva lingam in the sanctum. There are many stories regarding the construction of the temple, though it is best to take them with a pinch of salt.


One story revolved around a feud between a father and a son. While the father built the temple at the top of the hill, the son built another one at the foot of it. The son boasted that his temple would be more sacrosanct than his father’s. Thus, in a fit of rage, the father killed the son and, yet, the son’s prophecy was fulfilled, and Vettuvankoil remains unused. Interestingly, there is a Subramanyam shrine at the foot of the hill, and though it bears none of the vestiges of an ancient temple, it is an active temple (Sivaramamurthi 1961).


Inside the sanctum of Vettuvankoil is a Ganesha idol, which is barely in worship. In 2012, Gangadurai, a watchman appointed by the State Archaeological Department, doubled up as the pujari and the keeper of keys for various parts of Kazhugumalai.


The Vettuvankoil is called the ‘Ellora of the South’, and Sivaramamurthi compares it to the monolithic temples at Mahabalipuram. The symbols which identify Vettuvankoil as a Shiva site are the four nandis (the bull) on the four corners of the vimana. Another remarkable distinguisher is the Umasahita, where Shiva and Parvati are together (Sivaramamurthi 1961).


How this temple was built, by whom, and for what reasons—considering its proximity to the Jain site—remain a question.


Over the last 100 years, the hill has also become an important site for Ayyanar worshippers, who believe in a guardian deity or a protector of the villages. Their temple is right next to the panel of bas-reliefs. The white-washed concrete sanctum of the temple covers a part of the protected sculptures and bas-reliefs. Inside, it can be seen that some of the tirthankar statues have been re-modelled to look like local deities—called kuladevis or muniyandis. Until a few years ago, the Ayyanars used to perform animal sacrifices, which was unacceptable to many Jains, especially on an important Jain site. However, as I had mentioned earlier, while this site has been important, there are no followers of the religion in the villages nearby. Further, there has been no active worship for many decades. In recent years, renewed interest in the Jain site has led to the end of this practice.


Kazhugumalai, through its variegated canvas, presents the social and religious complexity of our past. It is a prime example which defies the standard narrative. The Jain reliefs and palli appeared only after the Bhakti movement, which according to many, saw the near-complete eradication of Jains in the region. The fact that this site has continued to be in existence till the 12th century shows us how gradual the decline actually was and provides us with new lines of questioning.


When did the Jain community in Kazhugumalai move away? What happened to the Jains in Madurai? Was this a route which Jains would have taken to flee the region in face of persecution? Why was the gallery of tirthankars carved? Who built the Siva temple and why? Why was it left unfinished?


I am asking more questions than I am able to answer but, hopefully, examining sites such Kazhugumalai will provide us with useful keys to unlock a nuanced understanding of this particular period.




Champakalakshmi R. 1974. ‘South India.’ In Jaina Art and Architecture, vol. 1, edited by A. Ghosh, 92–103. New Delhi: Bhartiya Jnanipith.


Davis, Richard. 1998. ‘The Story of the Disappearing Jains.’ In Open Boundaries, edited by John Cort. New York: SUNY Press.


Emmerich, Christoph. 2011. ‘The Ins and Outs of the Jains in Tamil Literary Histories.’ Journal of Indian Philosophy 39.6:599–646. Online at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10781-011-9125-0.


Jain, Mahima A. 2015. ‘The Tamil Jains: Minority Within A Minority.’ Online at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/southasia/2015/12/11/the-tamil-jains-a-minority-within-a-minority/


———. 2016. ‘The Tamil Jains: Fluid Stories in Stone.’ Online at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/southasia/2016/03/21/tamil-jains-fluid-histories-in-stone/


Lakshminarayan, K and R Kannan. 2001. Iconography of the Jaina Images in the Government Museum. Chennai: The Commissioner of Museums.


Roy, Lajapathi T. 2011. Madurai-Mathirai. Madurai.


Soundararajan, K.V. 1974. ‘The Deccan and the South.’ In Jaina Art and Architecture, edited by A Ghosh, 310–323. New Delhi: Bhartiya Jnanipith.


Sivaramamurthi, C. 1961. Kazhugumalai and the Early Pandya Shrines. Chennai: Issac N. Issac.




The Hindu. 2011. ‘National minority status for Jain community.’ The Hindu, January 17. Online at http://www.hindu.com/2011/01/17/stories/2011011763610600.htm (viewed on March 15, 2012).


Subramanian, TS. 2008. ‘Stories in Stone’. Frontline, October 13.


Vedachalam, V. 2011. ‘Jain monastery at Kazhugumalai.’ The Hindu, July 20.




Mr Bharathi, Project Officer of Kazhugumalai stationed at Madurai


Ms Vidya, researcher at Kazhugumalai


Mr Vedachalam, Senior Epigraphist


DHAN Foundation, Madurai


Prof. K. Ajithadoss, Retired Professor of Plant-Biology at Presidency College


Prof. Dhanyakumar, Professor of Botany at Presidency College and editor of Mukkudai


Mr Chari, TAG centre; Prof. Srinivas, Professor of Econometrics at University of Madras


Mr Aravazhi, President of Madurai Tamil Jain Heritage Centre


Mr Rajendra Prasad




[1] Photographs of Kazhugumalai can be found in the Captain Lyon Collection Volume III, 1868; Archaeological Survey of India Collections: Southern Circle 1919–20; and Archaeological Survey of India Collections Madras and Coorg, 1899-1903. Accessed at the British Library, India Office Records, Print Rooms, 2015.


[2] C. Sivaramamurti, K.V. Soundararajan, M.A. Dhaky, A. Ghosh, Leslie Orr, Lisa Owen have all explored different aspects of the site.


[3] A script developed by the Tamil people, originating from Tamil-Brahmi, and found in sites dating from the eighth to the fifteenth century in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.