There is a tendency to conflate different facets of minorities’ identities—particularly their religious, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic aspects. For instance, when one thinks about Jains, Marwaris and Gujaratis come to mind immediately. But Jainism is not just the religion of these two regional and cultural groups. A look at the history of Jainism and its spread sheds some light on the diversity of Jains today, and helps us understand who the Tamil Jains are.
Jainism emerged around the fifth or sixth century BCE (about the same time as Buddhism), in present-day Bihar. Vardhaman Mahavira, the 24th and last Jain tirthankara (one who has attained nirvana), was born in Vaishali, Bihar, around 2,614 years ago. The religion spread across most of north India, and in the third century BCE made its way to the south. The movement to the south also marked the division of the religion into the Digambara (sky-clad) and Shvetambara (white-clad) sects. In its early days, the religion was widely followed and was popular; today, however, Jains constitute just around 0.4 per cent of the Indian population, and they are scattered across various regions.
The religion seems to have one common narrative across regions and sects—of a rapid expansion in the first millennium CE and a decline in the second. However, because Jainism had spread to different parts of the country during its height, the socio-cultural and political history of each region played a key role in shaping the future of the Jain community in that region. As such, the Jain community in each region is a distinct minority with a unique history. Today, the Jain community is spread across Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Punjab, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. Most of these states have a Jain population that is indigenous to it and whose identity is rooted in the respective state. The Jains settled in other parts of India—for instance, Kerala or Sikkim—hail originally from one of the other states mentioned above.
According to the 2001 Census, there are around 89,265 Jains in Tamil Nadu, constituting about 0.12 per cent of the population of the state. According to the 2011 Census, there are two different groups: Tamil Jains and North Indian Jains. First, Tamil Jains or Samanars are those whose ancestors have lived in this region for over 2,000 years and who speak Tamil and share the region’s culture and heritage. According to estimates, there are 25,000–35,000 Tamil Jains in Tamil Nadu, settled primarily in the districts of Kanchipuram, Tiruvannamalai, Tiruvallur and Villupuram, and Chennai. Second, the north Indian Jains are mainly Gujaratis and Marwaris, who have settled here over the course of the last 100 years.
The presence of Digambara Tamil Jains in the Tamil region dates back to the third century BCE. They are integral to Tamil history—at some points in the first millennium CE, at the height of their power, they even enjoyed fervid royal patronage. Tamil epics—such as Valayapathi, Cilappadikaram by Ilango Adigal, and Civaka Cintamani by Tirutakkadevar—as well as numerous rock-cut monuments stand testimony to the glory of this bygone era. Today, most Tamil Jains engage in agriculture, and they continue to reside in rural areas. According to the Jina Kanchi Jain Matha, the religious overseer of Tamil Jains, and resident of a small village called Mel Sithamoor, the community is spread across not more than 120 villages in northern Tamil Nadu.
Tamil Jains fight numerous battles every day to protect their places of worship, gain access to finance and education, and demand recognition in day-to-day life. When their minority status was granted in 2014, the Tamil Jains finally felt heard. Since then, there has been excited activity within the community to spread the word on the protection of religious sites and on financial aid and educational grants.
The Tamil Jains consider themselves an educated, endogamous farming community, that is now, with great difficulty, climbing the social ladder. Many Tamil Jains, especially young men, have migrated to cities to pursue careers as teachers, or in the IT sector; some have even set up businesses. It is estimated that there are 1,000–1,500 Tamil Jain families in Chennai. These families are spread across the city and blend so well into the milieu that they are easy to miss.
Furthermore, since Independence, there have hardly been any Tamil Jains in key bureaucratic or legislative posts. Given their small numbers and dispersal over a large geographical area—often in remote regions—they lack agency in the public sphere. To address this lack of a cohesive voice, the community has organised many public gatherings over the past few years, in which learned members of the Tamil Jain community conduct seminars for people of all ages. These can be lectures on religious tenets, tours of Jain monuments in a particular district, or even renditions and performances of the Cilappadikaram
The community also has intra-community magazines, newsletters, and Facebook groups, which feature discourse on issues pertinent to the community. Gurukuls (boarding schools) for Tamil Jain children are another means to fostering a shared identity. These schools not only impart primary and secondary education, but they also teach the philosophy, principles, and practices of Jainism.
In recent years, the community has also actively worked towards preserving and protecting its monuments. According to the findings of a recently concluded survey by the French Institute of Pondicherry, there are nearly 450 Jain sites across Tamil Nadu, with the majority in the districts of Madurai, Thiruvannamalai, Villupuram, and Kanchipuram. While many sites are protected, there are also several that have either been abandoned or are under the care of local communities. Many of these sites have been damaged by vandalism and granite quarrying; some have been ‘converted’ into Hindu places of worship. The community has also been asking the Indian Government to hand over the 17 Jain temples that are currently under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department. Battling cultural and religious hegemony to maintain their unique identity and history has perhaps been one of the community’s biggest challenges.
Note: This is an edited overview of the one published on South Asia @ LSE in 2015. Used with the permission of the author and the site.
Ayyangar, M.S. Ramaswami and B. Seshagiri Rao. 1922. Studies in South Indian Jainism. Chennai: Viziangaram Maharaja’s College Publication.
Byres, T.J. and U. Patnaik. 2011 . The Making of History: Essays presented to Irfan Habib. New Delhi: Tulika.
Deshpande, M.N. 1974. ‘The Background and Tradition.’ In Jaina Art and Architecture, vol. 1, edited by A. Ghosh, 21. New Delhi: Bhartiya Jnanipith.
Long, J. 2010. Jainism: An Introduction. London: I. B. Tauris.
Thapar, R. 2002. History and Beyond. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
———. The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to 1300 AD. New Delhi: Penguin.
Banks, E. 1999. ‘Women and the "Arahant" Issue in Early Pali Literature.’ Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 15.1: 57–76. Online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/25002352 (viewed on February 27, 2012).
William, R. 1966. ‘Before Mahavira.’ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/25202894 (viewed on February 27, 2012).
Census of India. 2015. Online at: http://www.census2011.co.in/data/religion/state/33-tamil-nadu.html.
DHAN Foundation. 2014. Tourism for Development Site. Online at http://www.developmenttourism.in/.
Ohio University, S. (2010). Glossary. From the Huntington Archives. Online at http://kaladarshan.arts.ohio-state.edu/resources/downloads/COBGlossaryA-L.pdf (viewed on March 15, 2012).
Captain Lyon Collection, vol. 3, 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.