Tirthankar Images in Tamilnadu

Published: 07.02.2011
Updated: 18.02.2011

Tirthankar Images in Tamilnadu

Dr. A. Ekambaranathan, Professor, Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, University of Madras, Chennai, is a renowned scholar in the field of ancient India history and Iconography. He has completed a thorough research of Jain Heritage in Tamil Nadu. His book "Jaina Iconography in Tamilnadu" has recently been published by Sri Bharatvarshiya Digamber Jain (Teerth Sanrakshini) Mahasabha, with special efforts of Shri M. K. Jain Chennai,  working President (South Zone). Dr. Ekambaranathan describes the different patterns of Tirthankar Images in first chapter of his book as given below. The book, is essential for scholar and teachers of the subject.


Adinatha alias Rishabhanatha, the first and foremost Tirthankara, was born to Nabiraja and Marudevi, the king and queen respectively of Ayodhya. When he grew into a handsome youth, he was married to Yashaswati and Sunanda, the sisters of princes Kachcha and Mahakachcha. Later, Adinatha was coronated as king on the throne of Ayodhya and thereafter, Nabhiraja retired from the active concerns of kingdom. One day, when the court dancer Nilanjana displayed her skill in the art of dancing, unexpectedly, she fell down and breathed her last. Consequently, realizing the ephemeral nature of mundane life, Adinatha took to asceticism. After performing severe austerities for a long time, he got enlightenment. Finally, he attained parinirvana on the summit of Ashtapada or Kailasa mountain.

The worship of Adinath could have taken roots in Tamilnadu coeval with the spread of Jainism a few centuries before the advent of Christian era, but contemporary evidence to corroborate the prevalence of his worship is conspicuously absent. The mention of "Adibhagavan" in the invocatory couplet of Tiruvalluvars Tirukkural, the foremost did active work of the 1st century A.D., is taken to be synonymous with the name, Adinatha,  of the first Jina. He is said to be the primordial one just as the vowel "A is the first of all aksharas."

The jaina epic Silappadikaram of the 3rd century A.D., describes an image of the Tirthankara who came into existence first and attained kevalagnana. Accordingly, it was shown seated under the shade of a tree (Pindi) with a prabhamandala around its head and triple umbrella above. Even though the Jina is not referred to by his proper name in this context, unmistakably, it stands for Adinath's image only. However, it could have been either a stucco or a wooden figure only, as stone was not preferred for image of deities by the Tamils till about the 6th century A.D. The above description, evidently, reveals the knowledge of the iconography of Tirthankaras as early as 3rd century A.D. But the earliest extant image of Jaina in Tamilnadu is datable to the 7th century only.

Natural caverns resorted to by Jaina recluses between 3rd century B.C. and 6th century A.D. were not embellished with figure of Tirthankaras, as iconic worship received little importance during the early period. Moreover, aversion for the use of stone for making icons of deities also prevented the early Tamils from encouraging stone sculptural art till the 6th century A.D.


Image of a Titrthankar (Tamilnadu)

Jainism received a temporary setback in the 7th century A.D., consequent to the rapid growth of Saivism and Vaisnavism fostered through the bhakti movement. Ruling classes' support to large scale building of brahmanical temples also affected Jainism to a considerable extent. However, soon it recovered from reverse and tried to counterbalance the growth of brahmanical religion by adjusting itself to the changing circumstances. As its sequel, anthropomorphic worship of Tirthankaras and their attendants formed an integral part of Jainism. This change could be seen from the early bald cave shelters metamorphosising into veritable museums of sculptures since the 8th century A.D.

Image of Rishabhanatha have been reported from many such cave temples which once again began to bristle with religious activities. In some places, his sculptures are represented alone, while in others he is accompanied by one or more Tirthankaras images. Therefore, for the convenience of our study, they are classified into single sculptures and figures in a group of two, three, four and five.

Single representations of a Tirthankara are commonly found in several Jaina caves throughout Tamilnadu. But most of their identity remains uncertain as they do not contain lanchanas. However, in some places local traditions, epigraphical corroborations and circumstantial evidence come to the rescue.

The cave temple at Tiruppanmalai near Arcot contains a diminutive relief of Adinatha, carved above the entrance. Itis sown seated in dhyana posture, surmounted by a trichatra and flanked by chauries on either side. This simple image, exhibiting the 8th century Pallava idiom, was known as "Tiruppanamalaidevar" i.e., lord of milky-white mountain. In conformity with the puranic tradition of Rishabhnatha attaining nirvana on mount Kailasa, here, the image is elegantly styled as "Tiruppanamalai devar. "Lataraja, a local chieftain, allotted some taxes collected from Kuranganpadi village for conducting worship to his image.

A number of Jaina caverns around Madurai gained a fresh lease o life in the 9th century A.D. due to the ceaseless efforts of renowned monks like Ajjanandi, Gunasena, Kanaganandi, Kanagavira, Gunasagara and others. As a result, the earlier bare caverns were provided with beautiful icons of Jaina deities. The Arittapatti cavern has a fine carving of Tirthankara within a semi-circular niche, shown seated on a raised lotus pedestal in ardhapadmasana, flanked by two lamps and canopied by a triple umbrella in diminishing tiers with a finial atop. Its tall and slender body, tonsured head, receding forehead, half-closed yes and calm countenance portray the typical 9th century Pandya style. This exquisite specimen was caused to be made at the instance of the revered Ajjanandi. Sravakas of the nearby Vaniyakkudi village agreed to protect this image by making provision for its worship. The clue for its identification with Adinatha lies in the name of  the hillock, on which the image is carved. It is epigraphically referred to as 'Tiruppinaiyan malai, which means the hillock of that Tirthankara who emerged as a Saviour in order to rescue humanity when Bhogabhumi lost all its charm and wealth. Obviously, Adinath is indirectly-alluded to in this attributive epithet 'Tiruppinaiyan.

Similar single sculptures commissioned by Ajjanandi find place at Alagarmalai, Kongarpuliyankulam and Karunkalakkudi, all within a radius of 20 kms, from Madurai. Their identity with Adinath is not improbable as they had also been consecrated by Ajjanandi. Kilavalavu, about 40 kms from Madurai, also has a fine image of a Tirthankara, locally believed to represent Adinatha. It is seated on a lotus pedestal in dhyana and surmounted by a curvilinear chatravali in diminishing tiers. Two lamps and two chamras flank the Jina on either side. This sculpture was commissioned by one Sankaran Srivallabha who also made some endowments for daily offerings to the image and for a lamp toe lighted in front of it.

An excellent portrayal of Adinatha in ardhapadmaasana and flanked by flywhisk bearers adorns the huge asectic resort at Valutalangunam, near Tiruvannamalai. It has a sturdy body, calm countenance, half closed eyes, descending earlobes etc., exhibiting the 9th century style. It was known as 'Marutupirasurai devar' i.e. the deva born to Marudevi, thus, its identity with Adinatha is resolved.

Some more Jina caverns which served as places of worship as well as abodes of monks contain sculptures of a Tirthankara carve alone, but their identification remains uncertain for want of supportive evidence.


Rock cut images of seated Tirthankars (Tamilnadu)

Adinatha with Mahavira

It was and art convention to depict the first and last Tirthankaras together instead of all the twenty four in a single composition. Non-availability of space to carve the entire group at one place could have prompted, initially, craftsmen to represent only Adinatha and Mahavira. Finally, it became an accepted norm symbolizing the chaturvimsatimurtis in sculptural art.

The earliest sculpture of Adinath with Mahavira comes from Karuppankunru hillock, near Madurantakam. Seated in Ardhapadmaasana, it possesses a slender body and flexible limbs. Two chauri bearers gracefully stand in adoration on either side. Being the earliest attempt to show Adinatha with Mahavira, the sculptor had unintentionally left a gap of  twelve feet between them, and this mode of depiction does recur in later times. These images exhibit the 8th century Pallava style of art.

Eruvadi in Tirunelveli district has an interesting example of 'twin' sculptures. On the eastern face of the twin hillock (irattai porrai) here are carved more or less identical relief's of Adinatha and Mahavira, each with a triple umbrella. Other accessory figures are omitted in this panel. These images, commissioned by Ajjanandi in the 9th century A.D., were taken care of by the members of the local assembly who agreed to make necessary arrangement for the conduct of their worship. Ajjanandi's choice of the twin hillock to carve the two Tirthankaras is praise worthy, and it was apparently more prompted by intent and less by chance.  Perhaps, Ajjananci visualised the twin hillock as symbolic forms of Adinatha and Mahavira.

Melapparaipatti, near Koilpatti town, has two bold relief's of Adinatha and Mahavira, seatedalike in dhyana and surmounted by a trichatra each. Other accessory motifs, as at Eruvadi, do not find place in this panel. Owing to the fragile nature of the rock, these 9th century figures are badly worn out. Aluruttimalai, near Pudukkottai, also contains two medium-size relief's of Adinatha and Mahavira carved on the overhanging boulder of a cave. Ichnographically and stylistically, they are similar to those examples from Eruvadi and Melapparaipatti.

Jina caves at Muttupatti, Uttamapalaym and Kilavalavu in Madurai district also have 9th century sculptures of the two Tirthankaras together. Among them, the Muttupatti specimens are remarkable for their elegance and refinement. Adinath, majestically seated on a pedestal with contemplative calmness of the face, it accommodated with in a curvillinear-topped niche, while Mahavira in a rectangular one. The former was caused to be sculpted by the monk Manakaviraperiyadigal and the latter by Maganandi acharya.

At Uttamapalayam, two miniature figures representing the first and last Jinas are carved in specially cut semicircular niches. A more or less similar sculptural group, having Mahavira by the  side of Adinath is met with at Kilavalavu near Melur. But the shape of the niches differ from one another, probably to facilitate correct identity of the two Jinas. The first image was sculpted at the instance of Lokabhanuattaraka and the next by Srikatti, a lay devotee.

When the northern fringes of Tamilnadu came under the sway of the Western Gangas of Karnataka, king Rajamalla II,  converted some natural caverns at Siyamangalam and Vallimalai into Jaina temples and embellished them with fine sculptures. Among them, a shallow cave at Vallimalai contains bold relief's of Adinatha and Mahaviraseated in meditative posture. Both are massive and sturdy in appearance and flanked by erect miniatures of chamradaris at their shoulder level. But the usual features like triple umbrella and prabhavali are omitted. Although these images appear to be more or less identical, some difference in their physical stature could be observed, besides the slopping and horizontal contour of the shoulders respectively of Adinath and Mahavira. The whole group on its flanks, has Sarvahna yaksha on elephant's back and Ambika yakshi with her lion mount at her foot-level.

Adinatha in a group of three

Rock-cut sculptures of Adinatha shown in a group of three Tirthankaras are found at Sittanavasal, Siyamangalam Kilavalavu and Kalugumalai. In this category, images at the flanks are invariably Adinatha and Mahavira, while the middle one may represent anyone of the other Jianas. The central one's identification largely depends upon local tradition and popular belief. The famous Sittannavasal rock-cut temple near Pudukkottai contains in its shrine a row of three seated figures, clumsy in appearance, with a flat trichatra crowning their heads. No other decorative feature is seen in this group. Iconographic ally, Adinatha, the others. On stylistic grounds, it is assigned to the 9th century A.D.

The natural cavern at Siyamangalam near Vandavasi was modified into a temple by the Western Ganga king Rajamalla II (870-907 A.D). While doing so, the overhanging boulder of the cavern was embellished with small figures of Adinatha, Parsva and Bahubali, arranged in a row. The first image, representing Adinatha, is shown seated in meditative pose, while others are in Kayotsarga. Contrary to the usual iconographic tradition, here, Bahubali has replaced Mahavira.


Group of three Tirthankars from Sittanavasal

Among the panoramic array of sculptured panels adorning the Kalugumalai ascetic- abode, a group of three images representing Adinath, Neminatha and Mahavira deserves special mention. The first curvillinear niche accommodates Adinatha seated in ardhapadmaasana pose on a simhasana, flanked by fly-whisk bearers gratefully leaning in adoration towards the Jina. The simple curls of his hair, smiling countenance, half-closed eyes, melting contour of his body and attenuated hip add charm and life to this 9th century masterpiece. A trichatra in diminishing tiers crowns his head. The register above the triple umbrella is exuberantly decorated with creeper designs in the form of circles having miniature gandharvas playing musical instruments and celestial damsels rhythmically dancing in accordance to their tune. Further above are Surya, Chandra, horse riders, yali riders, a snake and the celestial elephant Iravata. The elephant, emerging from the background, is beautifully portrayed with its trunk rolled, ears winnowing and head turned in semi-profile, as if listening to the exposition of Adinatha. It is noteworthy that a dharmachakra, the emblem of Jain Dharma is carved on its pedestal, which also helps to confirm his identity.

  In modern period also images representing three Tirthankaras in a group have been cast in metal and donated to temples as votive offerings, but generally they are depicting three Chakravarty Teerthankaras Shantinath, Kunthunath and Arahnath.

Adinatha in a group of four

The rock adjacent to the main cave at Tirumalai,near Arani, contains four sculptures depicting Ambika, Bahubali, Adinatha and Parsvadeva. In this panel, Adinatha occupies the third place and Mahavira is replaced by Parsva. Besides, except Adinatha, other are shown standing. Sinnavai, a royal lady, is said to have gifted a lamp to the perpetually lit before these images.


Rock cut images of seating Tirthankars from Kalugumalai (Tamilnadu)

An isolated huge boulder at the foot hill of Tirakkol, north west of Vandavasi, has carvings of four Jinas on its four sides. Adinatha, among them, occupies the eastern side as in the case of most of his sculptures. He is shown majestically seated in meditative pose with a circular halo behind and a trichatra above the head. Two flying Vidyadharas offer worship to him at the top level.

Adinatha in a group of four five

Rock-cut specimens of Adinath in a group of five images find place at Chittamur and Chettipodavu. The Malainatha temple at Chittamur, near Tindivanam, has a boulder containing image of Bahubali, Parsva, Adinatha, Mahavira and Ambika yakshi, sculpted during the reign of Adityachola I (871-907 A.D). Although, Adinatha occupies the third place, the tradition of sculpting him by the side Mahavira is maintained here. The Jina is portrayed with a muscular body, smiling countenance and long limbs gently placed one over the other.

The circular halo, triple umbrella and creeper design are typical of the 9th century style. Inside a cave at Chettipodavu, near Madurai, is seen a row of thin relief's depicting Ambika, Adinatha, Neminatha (?). Mahavira and another yakshi, arranged in the same alignment. Ichnographically, the Tirthankara are shown similar, except Mahavira having a horizontal contour of shoulders. These specimens, seated in yogic posture, were caused to be made by the monk Gunasenapperiyadigal in the 9th century A.D.


Rock cut images of seated Tirthankars from Kalugumalai (Tamilnadu)



Compiled by PK

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  1. A. Ekambaranathan
  2. Acharya
  3. Adinath
  4. Adinatha
  5. Ayodhya
  6. Bahubali
  7. Bhakti
  8. Body
  9. Chennai
  10. Deva
  11. Dharma
  12. Dhyana
  13. Digamber
  14. JAINA
  15. Jain Dharma
  16. Jaina
  17. Jaina Temples
  18. Jainism
  19. Jainsamaj
  20. Jina
  21. Karnataka
  22. Kayotsarga
  23. Kunthunath
  24. Madras
  25. Madurai
  26. Madurantakam
  27. Mahasabha
  28. Mahavira
  29. Melur
  30. Neminatha
  31. Nirvana
  32. PK
  33. Rishabhanatha
  34. Rishabhnatha
  35. Shantinath
  36. Sittanavasal
  37. Space
  38. Sravakas
  39. Tamil
  40. Tamil Nadu
  41. Tindivanam
  42. Tirthankar
  43. Tirthankara
  44. Tirthankaras
  45. Tirthankars
  46. Tirunelveli
  47. Tiruvannamalai
  48. University of Madras
  49. Yaksha
  50. Yakshi
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