The majestic Pandya rock-cut Shiva temple looks like a scale model of the Kailash temple at Ellora with rows of magnificent Jain bas-reliefs also present.
Near the tip of India, in the district of Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu lies a hill called Kazhugumalai (‘zh’ is to be pronounced as ‘L’ but with the tongue being taken further inwards) that is home to a majestic monolithic rock-cut Shiva Temple called Vettuvankovil together with Jain Reliefs. Kazhugumalai is a rocky hill near Kovilpatti town that has seen architectural pursuits traceable from the 8th Century CE. The Pandya kings ruled South Tamil Nadu during the 8th Century with their capital at Madurai. It is the same era that saw the Pallavas with capital at Kanchipuram reaching its zenith in the field of creating magnificent rock-cut temples and rock art. Kazhugumalai has attained prominence not only for the magnificent Shiva Temple but also for the fact that the same hill-houses rows of Jain reliefs and inscriptions have survived the vagaries of time and history. This ensemble is the best sample of Jain art in Tamil Nadu.
Vettuvankovil has been called the Ellora of the South due to its similarity with the Kailash Temple at Ellora. It is said to have been built by the Pandya rulers of South Tamil Nadu and is also said to predate the Kailash Temple at Ellora. The Pandyas reigned supreme in Southern Tamil Nadu and were a stable and strong force during the 7-8th centuries. This massive attempt to cut a side of a rocky hill and shape it into a temple with carvings all around was an extraordinary feat. The monolithic rock-cut rathas, carved rock temple structures and massive bas-reliefs at Mahabalipuram made by the Pallavas are a precursor to this Pandya feat. The difference being that the Vettuvankovil surpasses all the Rathas in size, conceptualisation and the fact that this massive feat was the first of its kind. To cut a vast section of a rocky hill from the top area and to work ones way down to make a temple is remarkable. The temple is sadly unfinished but the realistic sculptures leave lasting memories.
[Photo was taken from the raised side of the Kazhugumalai that hosts the Jain wall reliefs and Jain beds. From this height, one can see at the centre of the picture a small circle inside a hollowed rectangle. This tiny circle is the top of Vettuvankovil.]
One has to walk up this hill from the roadside(the walk is quite easy). As one keeps walking, there are signboards that direct one to the temple. This rocky left side (east side of the hill) is more of a raised flatbed of rock. The right side has an upward incline that leads one to the Jain reliefs on the face of the hill. Walking towards the left, one suddenly reaches a place from where the top of a temple wherein the surrounding rock has been cut and removed can be easily spotted. This first glimpse definitely leaves the onlooker in awe. One has to view the temple from this top area to get a good view of the temple Shikhar and the carvings on all sides.
[View of Vettuvankovil from the top area]
One can view the area of rock that has been cut out from the hill. It is not easy to imagine how the task was done as the workmanship is incredible. The temple structure is rectangular with the front area housing the Garbhgriha. The Vimana has a square base with a semi-circular Shikhara on top. The Vimana has a close resemblance to the Arjun and Yudhishthira Ratha and also the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram. The Kalash on top of the Shikhara is missing. There are different levels of carvings. The topmost part of Vimana has a lotus that would have formed the base of the Kalash. There are floral designs all around this semicircle top area with eight horseshoe-shaped protruding Toran designs. Just below this dome structure, there are four Nandis on all four corners of the upper level of the square base. These humped Nandis instantly remind the onlooker that this is a Shiva Temple and ‘Öm Namah Shivaya’ is what comes to mind.
The relaxed Nandis sitting at the corners highlight that this is a Shiva temple but the four sides of this square area has beautiful divine depictions of not only Shiva and Shiva Parvati but also Narasimha and Brahma. The top square level has The Trinity and Shakti. As we take a clockwise walk from above the hill area we see Lord Shiva depicted with matted hair, sitting in a relaxed pose with his left leg on an Asura. The backside of this level depicts the Narasimha avatar of Lord Vishnu. The lion face along with Vishnu’s Shankh and Chakra are also clearly visible. The other side has Lord Brahma depicted with three faces, sitting on a lotus pedestal with two elephants at his feet.
[Lord Shiva, Lord Brahma and Lord Narsimha]
The front side face is difficult to view from the top. This face depicts Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati sitting casually as if in conversation. This is a beautiful depiction of the divine couple.
[Shiva and Parvati in conversation]
There are steps cut into the rock that helps one reach the base of the temple. At this point, the unfinished part of the structure hides the real beauty. From here one can view the image of Shiva and Parvati on the front side of the top square area of the Vimana. Shiva and Parvati appear to be in conversation and very relaxed.
[The front view of the Temple]
When I saw pictures of this temple, I knew that I had to visit this archaeological wonder as the deities carved onto the rock appear so real that you want to talk to them. When you stand in front of the Vimana faces and view the Gods and his attendants, there is an overwhelming feeling of actually being with them and in conversation. All the Gods, humans, ganas, and other beings are looking at you and drawing your attention. The temple is not very big but even then you will spend a long time in conversation with or admiring all the beings. You are so close to the divine. Here, beauty appears absolute!
[The amazing exquisite sculptures on the sides of the Vimana]
From the entry area at the base of the temple, we take a clockwise parikrama to view all the sculptures and carvings. The deities and beings are just a foot above eye level.
Lord Shiva is depicted with four arms and sitting in a rather relaxed fashion like a human in conversation with someone close. His ganas are sitting on both his sides. A Kirthimukha with a horseshoe Toran is depicted above his head. There are swirls of artistic clouds on both sides. The semi-circular dome on the top also depicts Lord Shiva on this same side. The area above the Lord’s feet has been left incomplete.
[Lord Shiva in a relaxed pose]
On the backside of the temple, Lord Vishnu sits in a relaxed pose with one leg resting on a pedestal and the other semi folded. He holds a Shankh (conch shell) and a Chakra (discus) in his rears arms. The chakra has been depicted in a three-dimensional form that is one of a kind made by sculptors. Lord Vishnu wears a Mukut on his head and gives a regal cum divine look. The image is damaged at places. The Kirthimukha above his head has broken off. The swirling clouds on the sides are dramatic. To his left, there is a torso and the head of a man whose lower body blends in with the swirling floral clouds. To Lord Vishnu’s right, there is a maiden whose lower body also blends in with the swirls. These are intriguing works of art. The ganas are seen in different poses. Just above the barrel-shaped area, there is a level where numerous ganas are seen in animated forms. Some are playing with a snake while others are dancing. There is life and happiness everywhere one looks. Near the feet of Lord Vishnu are a row of mystical lion heads. This reminds one of the Pallava lions and the same type of lions are visible in rows even in Chola temples that were built a few centuries later.
[Lord Vishnu surrounded by exquisite depictions]
On the next face of the temple, Lord Shiva sits with divine calmness. This is a better sculpture than the one created on the opposite face. Lord Shiva holds the folds of his lower garment in his right front hand. It looks so natural that one forgets that the images have been carved out of granite rock.
[Another relaxed and smiling Lord Shiva]
There are various beautiful images of attendants, Apsaras and ganas. All sculptures resonate life and calmness. A striking sculpture is that of a beautiful maiden, who sits in semi-padmasana and one leg folded on which rests an arm. She wears numerous bangles and armbands, huge disc-shaped ear-rings and other jewellery.
On the backside of this Vimana, there are two attendants flanking Lord Vishnu. These attendants have both been depicted in semi-padmasana and one leg kept on the floor below with feet resting on pedestals. They both wear crowns and give a divine calm look. The Kirtimukhas are elaborate and so are the Torans. There are many more beings that are depicted from the torso upwards, as if floating from a higher level.
Towards the elongated frontal area of this temple, one can see how the work was being done in stages and for some reason stopped without finishing the structure. Looking at the beauty of the majestic creations by the sculptors, one feels that the actual hands of God must have assisted in giving this rock such fluid and realistic features.
[Ganas galore in the unfinished frontal portion]
The Garbhgriha (sanctum)
From the front entrance, one can enter the sanctum of this temple. The scouring marks on the rock surface are clearly visible. There is a room followed by the inner sanctum that was to house the deity. As the temple had been left incomplete, it was not consecrated. Only in the recent past, a stone image of Lord Ganesha has been consecrated as the deity. There is a temple priest who takes care of the puja and related rituals for Lord Ganesha.
In the Jain belief system, great importance is attached to the liberation of the self from the cycle of rebirth. The path to this stage lies through a peaceful and disciplined life and self-contemplation. Jina and Tirthankara play a central part in this religion. Jina are persons who have controlled their passions and have attained the ultimate knowledge freeing themselves from the bonds of Karma and rebirth. Tirthankaras are the revered leaders in their tradition who have attained this knowledge and help others to achieve this enlightenment. There are 24 Tirthankaras as per the Jain tradition with Lord Mahavira being the 24th and last one. He was a contemporary of Lord Buddha.
The reliefs on the large rock face
The history of Jainism in Tamil Nadu goes back at least 2200 years. When the Maurya emperor Chandragupta Maurya came to south India after renouncing his kingdom, he was accompanied by 12,000 Jains led by Bhadrabahu. They settled in Shravanbelgola and from there Jains came to various regions in Tamil Nadu including the southernmost parts. Even classics of Sangam literature have strong Jain links. Jains had royal patronage also and Pandya kings supported their religious activities. They had settled in and around hilly areas as they preferred solitude to practise their austerities.
Jains had a natural affinity to hilltops and most of the proof of their presence is retained as stone beds and carvings on these hilltops. The Madurai area has multiple such locations in the hills all around the modern metropolis of Madurai, but the most impressive sculptures are here in this Kazhugumalai hill, just a stones throw away from the mysterious Vettuvankovil rock cut temple. These carvings have been date back to the reign of Pandya King Parantaka Neduncheziyan (760-800 CE). There are 5 different sets of bas-relief carvings and the main set consists of a large number of Tirthankaras, Yakshis and devotees.
[View of the carved rock face]
Right at the start of this set of carvings, there is a cave like overhang of rock where the carvings are made on the inner naturally protected area. There are three Tirthankaras at the centre flanked by two standing figures. These standing figures represent Parshwanath, the 23rd Tirthankara and Gomateshwar who is also known as Bahubali.
[Three Tirthankaras flanked by Parshwanath and Gomateshwar]
The right side of the flat rock face carvings has the beautiful depiction of a seated Tirthankara with elaborate foliage surrounding him. The iconography shows dancers within the foliage, horse riders and elephants emerging from the stone, and this pattern is repeated at other places as well. There is a separate panel representing a Yakshi, Padmavati, with her own attendants. The importance given to female figures is a unique aspect of these Kazhugumalai bas-reliefs. There is a devotee shown just below the Tirthankara panel which is the only such panel which shows a layperson. All other images show either a Tirthankara or a Yakshi.
[Tirthankaras and Yakshi Padmavati]
There are a large number of seated figures with parasols above their heads. These are the representations of Tirthankaras. The inscriptions below them are in a script called Vattaeluttu and can be dated to between the 8th to 12th centuries. These inscriptions are a record of donations which made them possbile and helped in their upkeep as well. There are separate donations mentioned for teachers, family members and saints with donors belonging to all strata of the contemporary society including potters, smiths, carpenters and cultivators. The prominent places where Jains lived during that era are also mentioned in some of these inscriptions, showing the importance of this place for the Jains during this period. This whole set of sculptures are protected by a single horizontal drip ledge on the top of the carvings. This simple but ingenious solution looks like an eyebrow above the sculpted area and protects them from erosion by diverting the rainwater away from the carvings. The success of this design is evident from the splendid condition of these carvings, despite being out in the open, even after almost a thousand years.
Many of these inscriptions include the word Kurathi, which denotes a female teacher. There are multiple such mentions of different female teachers, which is a unique aspect of the Jain tradition at this place. As if to underscore this importance, at the far end as well there is a separate panel with a Yakshi, Ambika, accompanied by a lion. She has been associated with the 22nd Tirthankara Neminath and is shown here with her children and husband (with the missing head). Like in the panel with Padmavati, in this panel also, prime importance is given to the female deity and there is no reference to the Tirthankara. There are square holes above these sculptures indicating provisions for creating temporary shelters which may have been used to house the monks or devotees.
The Jain Reliefs behind the Ayyanar Temple
Right in the front of the rock face with the sculptures is a recent temple of the local village deity Ayyanar. It hides a portion of another group of images which have some outstanding examples of standalone panels of prominent Tirthankaras apart from the rows of standard seated Jina images.
A noteworthy fact about these Jain reliefs is that the natural rock faces, the ledges, the contours have not been disturbed. All the carvings have been done and adjusted within the natural contours of the rock faces. This is unlike other rock art where the rock face is first made even and then sculpting is done. This is an example of incredible understanding of natural surroundings and how to give respect to their Tirthankaras and Jinas.
Jainism has a set of iconography that differentiate the depiction of one Tirthankara from another. This makes it easier for archaeologists to identify Jain carvings. The lion is associated with Mahavira and Naga with Parshwanath. Similar iconography has been maintained at other such sites in the southern part of the Indian peninsula.
There are a set of 3 large panels with independent sculptures of main icons associated with Jainism. The innermost standalone panel has a beautifully ornamented sculpture of Lord Mahavira, the final Tirthankara of the Jains. He is seated in the standard meditation pose, Padmasana with his hands on his lap. This site has been clearly identified with the Digambar sect based on the lack of clothes in all the images. Mahavira is usually associated with lions and his seat has lions on both sides. The style of these lions matches the lion motifs depicted by the Pallavas, Pandyas and Cholas. Above his head, there are looping floral patterns and some celestial beings depicted within the loops. On the top, an elephant and rider seem to be emerging out of the stone, flanked by horse riders on both sides.
In the centre is the sculpture of Bahubali (Gomateshwar) who is shown accompanied by two associates called Vidyadharis. He is not a Tirthankara but treated as a Kaivalyan or a person who has attained the ultimate knowledge. He is one of the most respected figures in Jainism and he is said to be the son of first Tirthankara Rishabhanath (Adinath). He had meditated for a long time and it is said that vines had intertwined with the lower parts of his legs. This is the reason that all representations of Bahubali has this unique feature and it is the same in Kazhugumalai also.
[Large relief of Bahubali]
The outermost panel shows the 23rd Tirthankara Parshwanath in his iconic form with the Naga king as the companion. Parshwanath and Mahavira are the only two Tirthankaras for which confirmed historical references are accepted as per official history. The other Tirthankaras go back hundreds/thousands of years earlier as per Jain traditions. In this panel, the unique aspect is that the Naga protecting Parshwanath is shown in semi-human form instead of the traditional serpent hood form. This attendant acting as a guardian deity has been identified as Dharanendra, the Naga King. On the top left corner, the demon Sambara is trying to hurl a rock on Parshwanath. The effect in this image is such that the ledge of the original rock becomes the boulder that Sambara attempts to hurl and hence a separate boulder was not carved out. There is so much awareness and aesthetic sense of the sculptors displayed in this rock art. The consort of the Naga king is a Yakshi called Padmavati, who is shown standing to the right side in this panel.
There is another set of hidden panels at a short distance from the ones behind the Ayyanar Temple. These are not accessible as a locked gate prohibits passage near it. Here again, we see Tirthankaras depicted in the Padmasana or lotus meditative postures. Most are depicted with chhatris (parasols) above their heads.
Reliefs at a higher altitude on this rock face
Away from the other images, on a level higher than them, is the lonely image of Mahavira in a niche carved out of the rock. It is approached by a very narrow stairway cut into the rock and there is no way anyone other than a really slim person can reach this place. This is the only place which can be used for offerings and worship as the ledge can be used for placing offerings. There is a small space in front of this image where a small group can gather for worship. The square niches cut into the rock above this alcove may have been used to erect temporary roof structures above this place. The iconography is exactly similar to the image of Mahavira depicted behind the Ayyanar temple – Mahavira seated on a lion throne, Looping foliage scenes with dancers within the whorls, musicians playing instruments, celestial beings hovering on both sides and elephants emerging out of stone.
[Mahavira depicted on the higher area of the rock face]
Depiction of Tirthankaras and Jinas means that Jain monks would have frequented this hill for meditation and retreat. These monks would have needed a place to rest in the night. Therefore it is but natural to find Jain beds in spaces on the hill that is protected from rain and wild animals. One set of Jain beds are found in a cave just behind the Ayyanar Temple.
[The cave behind the modern temple]
These are natural caves but the beds have been made by cutting and smoothening the cave floor into rectangular spaces demarcating one bed from another. Remember that these are Digambar monk dwellings and so there is no space for any kind of comfort apart from the bare minimum – a safe floor to sleep on.
The first room leads to a dark chamber that again leads to another chamber deep inside the cave. These small chambers are in perpetual darkness and one can only marvel at the thought of monks living here. These natural caves point to the fact that a number of Jain monks stayed on this sacred hill during its hey day.
[The cave area that leads to the third chamber]
Water arrangements are also seen to be done in a natural way. There is a natural rocky cleft on the side of the man-made walkway that was used for storing water by the monks. An example of humans doing the best they can without altering or disturbing nature.
[Natural water storage]
Kazhugumalai is the largest site in Tamilnadu with such a profusion of splendidly carved bas-reliefs. Most other sites have a much smaller number of carvings. This place was known as the school for Jain monks and it seems that the art spread from this place to other locations. For hundreds of years, this site prospered under the benevolent support of Pandya kings. It is also known as Samnar Palli, Palli being the Tamil word for school. There are chances that Samnar is the derivative of the word Shraman, which was used to denote the order of ascetics, right from the early Vedic period of Hinduism and Jainism.
[The ASI board at the site showing it as Samnar Palli]
The site at Kazhugumalai was in use for many centuries and it was finally abandoned after the 12th century. It is interesting to note that despite Jainism getting out of favour in the Madurai area, this place continued to get patronage from successive Pandya rulers. Inscriptions refer to the names of warriors who were tasked with the protection of this site. It is a perfect example of the complex interrelation between Indic faiths in these tumultuous times when Bhakti movement was growing to have a great say in social life across India. Despite being a Jain site, these inscriptions mention a deity called Araimalai Alwar and there was a tradition of lighting of lamps and offering of food to the deity like a Hindu temple. It is a unique experience to visit this site located so deep in the south. It shows that even 2200 years ago, there was a lot of intermingling between people throughout the Indian landmass.