Svasti - Essays in Honour of Prof. Hampa Nagarajaiah: Some Thoughts on the Identification of Jaina Images in Tamilnadu

Published: 11.12.2010
Updated: 30.07.2015


Some Thoughts on the Identification of Jaina Images in Tamilnadu          

In the Jaina pantheon, the twenty-four Tīrthaṅkaras of the present aeon, commencing from Ādinātha to Mahāvīra, form the pivotal object of veneration. Although all the twenty-four occupy equal position in the pantheon, some of them like Ādinātha, Pārśvanātha, Mahāvīra and Neminātha have been popularly worshipped by lay devotees.  As a result, their images occur more frequently than others in almost all the parts of peninsular India.

In iconographic parlance, all the Tīrthaṅkaras except Pārśvanātha and Supārśvanātha are represented more or less identical, either seated in ardhaparyaṅkāsana or standing in kāyotsarga pose.  Distinctive personal attributes (weapons, ornaments etc.) as in the case of the Hi.ndu deities have not been endowed to the Tīrthaṅkaras.  However, they are attributed with a cognizance each in order to facilitate their identity.  Besides, each Tīrthaṅkara is attended by a pair of yakṣa and yakṣī, whose presence at the foot level also reveal the identity of their Masters.  The practice of carving emblems or attendant deities on the pedestal of the Tīrthaṅkara images is a common feature almost throughout India.  But in Tamilnadu, such a practice has not been adopted till about the 18th century A.D., in consequence of which the possibility of identifying earlier images remains uncertain. An attempt has been made, therefore, in this paper to identify some of the Jaina rock-cut images belonging to the 7th-10th centuries with the help of literature, epigraphical records, local traditions and art conventions.

Single Tīrthaṅkaras

Several Jaina caves in Tamilnadu are embellished with beautiful iconic depictions of a single Tīrthaṅkara, but most of their identity remains unsettled.  Among them, those figures found in places like Panchapandavamalai, Valutalangunam and Arittapatti can be identified with Ādinātha on the basis of epigraphical corroboration.

The Panchapandavamalai cave temple, near Arcot town, contains a diminutive carving of a seated Tīrthaṅkara, surmounted by a triple umbrella and flanked by chauris.  This 8th century icon is referred to in a lithic record as “Tiruppanmalai Dever[1] i.e. the lord of the milky white mountain.  In conformity with the Purāṇic tradition of Ādinātha attaining nirvāṇa on the snow-clad Kailāsa mountain, here his images are elegantly styled as “Tirppanmalai Dever”, and thereby its identity is made clear.

The excellent portrayal of a seated Tirthankara adorning the overhanging rock of the Valutalangunam cave, 14 km. North-East of Tiruvannamalai, was known as “Marutupirasuradever.[2]  Although this epigraphical name is incongruous, it appears to mean the Deva born of Marudevī which denotes Ādinātha.

Arittapatti near Madurai has a fine carving of a Tīrthaṅkara seated on a double-lotus pedestal, flanked by two lamps and canopied by a trichatra.  This exquisite early Pandya specimen of the 9th century A.D. was commissioned by the revered monk Ajjanandi who was the foremost Jaina revivalist in the Pandya country.[3]  The clue for its identification lies in the name of the hillock, “Tirruppunaiyanmalai[4] which means the hillock of that Tīrthaṅkara who served as a saviour or as a life-buoy in order to protect human beings when the bhoga-bhūmi lost all its charm and wealth. Obviously, Ādinātha is indirectly alluded to  in this epithet “Tiruppunaiyan”.

It may be added in this context that similar single sculptures commissioned by Ajjanandi, found at Alagarmalai, Kongarpuliyankulam and Karungalakkudi - all within a radius of 20 km. from Madurai may also represent Ādinātha.  Their identity with Ādinātha is not improbable even though confirmatory evidence is conspicuously absent.

First and last Tīrthaṅkaras

It was an art convention to depict the first and last Tīrthaṅkara 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 initially prompted craftsmen to represent only Ādinātha and Mahāvīra together and finally it became an accepted norm symbolizing the Caturviṃśatimūrtis.  Examples of these two Tīrthaṅkaras shown together are reported from the caves at Karuppankunru, Eruvadi, Aluruttimalai, Muttuppatti, Uttamapalayam and Vallimalai. Among them, those sculptures from Eruvadi, Muttuppatti and Vallimalai deserve special mention.

On the eastern face of the twin hillock (Irattai pottai) at Eruvadi in Tirunelveli district, more or less identical reliefs of Ādinātha and Mahāvīra, each crowned by a trichattra, find place. The renowned monk Ajjanandi[5] commissioned these two images in the 9th century A.D. His choice of the twin hillock to sculpt the figures of the “Twin” Tīrthaṅkaras is praiseworthy, and it was apparently more prompted by intent and less by chance. Perhaps, Ajjanandi visualized the two hillocks as symbolic forms of Ādinātha and Mahāvīra.

The specimens from Muttupatti near Madurai are remarkable for their elegance and refinement. Ādinātha is accommodated within a curvilinear - topped niche, while Mahāvīra in a rectangular one. Moreover, the image of Mahāvīra is stouter and sturdier than Ādinātha.  His shoulders possesses a horizontal contour while that of Ādinātha is sloping. This difference, either in the shape of the niche or in the stature of the body, is also clearly discernible in the image of Mahāvīra from Melapparaipatti, Uttamapalayam, Eruvadi, Kilavalavu and Vallimalai.  The Western Ganga sculptures representing Ādinātha and Mahāvīra at Vallimalai in Vellore district are shown seated without the halo behind the head and the triple umbrella above. They are flanked by Sarvāṇha Yakṣa and Ambikā Yakṣī, which is a common feature in Western Ganga art.  Here again, Mahāvīra’s sturdy physique and horizontality of shoulders differeiate him from Ādinātha.

Jina trios

In the case of triple sculptures of Tīrthaṅkaras seated alike, as at Sittannavasal, Chettipodavu and Kalugumalai, Mahāvīra occupies the last place. Besides his physical features are sturdier than the first and second image.  Stranglely enough, the sculptured group at Kalugumalai in Tuticorin district has Ādinātha, Neminātha and Mahāvīra accommodated in separate niches and the first two images contain depictions of a dharmacakra and a flaming conch respectively on their pedestal, revealing their identity. Perhaps the sculptor did not intend to show the lion emblem on the pedestal of Mahāvīra whose identity could be easily understood from his physical features and the last place assigned to him in a group of sculptures. The presence of lāñchanas on the above images is believed to be due to the impact of the Western Ganga art idiom in the Pandya Country.[6]

The boulder accommodated in the shrine of Malainatha temple at Chittamur, 16 km., north-west of Tindivanam, has a row of sculptures representing Bāhubali, Pārśvanātha, Ādinātha, Mahāvīra and Ambikā Yakṣī.  Although Mahāvīra is portrayed in the fourth place, the convention of depicting him next to Ādinātha is followed here.  Besides, his anatomical features differ from that of Ādinātha.

Apart from the above sculptures of Mahāvīra along with others, individual representations of the same Tirthankara are also met with in the caves at Chettipodavu, Kalugumalai, Tirunatharkunru, Tirumalai etc. In these icons, Mahāvīra is shown seated in ardhaparyaṅkāsana with a well-built body and broad shoulders.  The bold conception of the physique and horizontality of shoulders are true reflections of Vīrasvāmī’s (Mahāvīra) great strength.  These features are fully manifest in the hefty sculpture at Chettipodavu near Madurai. In fact, it is because of the presence of this bold image of Mahāvīra who, according to local belief, resembles a ‘Chetti’ or a stout-wealthy merchant, that the cave is called Chetti-Podavu.

It may not be out of context to state that the single rock-cut images of Mahāvīra at Chettipodavu, Kalugumalai, Anaimalai and Vallimalai are carved facing the southern direction. Whether these sculptures were intentionally commissioned facing south or merely a coincidence cannot be ascertained precisely.

Some scholars have tried to identify certain images with that of Mahāvīra on the basis of the three front-facing lions carved on the pedestal, mistaking them for his cognizance.[7]  These lion figures are suggestive of the simhāsana and not of the lāñchana of Mahāvīra.  In fact, these motifs occur on the pedestals of the other Tīrthaṅkaras (well identified) also, hence, the presence of lions is not a criterion to identify the sculptures of Mahāvīra.

Neminātha, the twenty-second Tīrthaṅkara, is popularly known as Sikhamaninatha in Tamilnadu. Here, the convention of carving his image between the sculptures of Ādinātha and Mahāvīra has been adopted in places like Sittannavasal, Kalugumalai, Uttamapalayam, Chettipodavu, Kuppalanattam, etc., where they are shown in a group of three Tīrthaṅkaras.  At Kalugumalai, the central figure has a depiction of the conch emblem on its pedestal, the presence of which proves the identity of Neminātha. At Uttamapalayam and Anaimalai, the niche containing his image is fashioned like the whorl of a conch, which feature also adds credence to his identification.  Sometimes, the presence of Ambikā Yakṣī to the right side of a Jina image is also taken to be an indication of his identity with Neminātha, as at Ananthamangalam.[8]  But this cannot be strictly considered as a rule for his identification. Tirumalai has a unique 16 feet high colossal image of Sikhamaninatha carved on the vertical surface of a huge rock.  The very idea of sculpting this imposing figure in the 11th century A.D. is believed to have been inspired by the Bāhubali colossus of Sravanabelgola.[9]

Pārśvanātha, Supārśvanātha

Pārśvanātha is the most popularly worshipped Tīrthaṅkara, who figures prominently in the sculptural art of Tamilnadu. As his image is iconographically different from the stereotyped form of the other Tīrthaṅkaras, it captivated the imagination of the artists more than others. As a result, almost all the cave temples in Tamilnadu possess at least one image representing him.  In places like Kalugumalai, Uttamapalayam Pechipallam, Kilavalavu, Ananthamangalam and Vallimalai recurrent versions of Pārśvanātha are commissioned, revealing the popularity of his worship.

Pārśvanātha’s identity can be easily resolved by the presence of a five-hooded serpent canopy above his head.  Besides, the serpent’s body is shown descending down in zigzag manner behind the Jina. However, a solitary specimen from Uttamapalayam contains a seven-hooded serpent above his head, similar to the sculptures from Karnataka.  In rock-cut panels, due to the availability of sufficient space, Pārśvanātha is accompanied by Padmāvatī to his left and Dharaṇendra or the kneeling Kamaṭha to his right side. The boulder-wielding Kamaṭha is also shown at the top corner. The kneeling figure to the right side of Pārśvanātha  is mistakenly identified by scholars with that of Dharaṇendra.  But it actually represents Kamaṭha repenting for his sin of causing disturbance to the penance of Pārśva.[10]  Although the practice of sculpting Dharaṇendra with folded arms on the right side of Pārśva is common in other parts of India, he is replaced by kneeling Kamaṭha in Tamilnadu.  However, it is only at Karuppankunru, near Madurantakam, that Dharaṇendra, having a serpent hood on his crown, is seen with his arm held in añjali.  Here, the serpent canopy reveals Dharaṇendra’s identity.

Supārśvanātha, the seventh Tīrthaṅkara, also resembles Pārśvanātha in form, but his image in Tamilnadu is shown canopied by only a three-hooded serpent above the head. Supārśva is hardly represented in the rock-art of Tamilnadu. Only very few modern bronzes representing Supārśva are reported from the Jaina temples under worship in and around Vandavasi, Ginjee and Tindivanam. Apart from the above identifiable images of the Tīrthaṅkaras, several sculptures of the Jinas, either shown seated or standing are also found in many cave temples.  But they cannot be definitely identified for want of any supportive evidence.

Yakṣas and Yakṣīs

Among the twenty-four yakṣas, only Sarvāṇha and Dharaṇendra appear in the rock art of Tamilnadu. Similarly, only Ambikā and Padmāvatī, among the yakṣīs, figure in the cave temples.  The earliest example of Dharaṇendra, dated to the 8th century A.D., is seen in the Chokkampatti unfinished rock-cut temple in Tirunelveli district.  Here, he is portrayed like a Dvārapālaka, with the right arm raised above (for holding a flower bud or to express tarjanimudrā) and the left placed on a mace.  A three-headed serpent adorns his crown.  This image differs very much from the later standardized figures of Dharaṇendra, hence differently identified as a Nāga king or simply a king by scholars.[11]  Other sculptures of Dharaṇendra are represented in rock art as a five-hooded serpent sheltering the head of Pārśvanātha. Sometimes, he appears in therio-anthropormorphic form, holding cāmaras in his arms, above the head of Pārśva. Such specimens are reported from Kalugumalai, Anaimalai and Pechchipallam.  At Karuppankunru only, he is shown as a five-hooded serpent as well as in complete human form with his arms held in añjali to the right side of Pārśvanātha.

Sarvāṇha is rarely represented in the early art of Tamilnadu.  It is only at Kalugumalai and Vallimalai that his images are seen accompanying the Tīrthaṅkara.  In the former place, he is depicted as a stumpy figure on the pedestal of Ādinātha, while in the latter he is shown seated on the mastaka of his elephant mount to the right side of Ādinātha and Mahāvīra group of sculptures. This 9th century Western Ganga specimen from Vallimalai has been mistakenly identified by scholars with Mātaṅga Yakṣa due to the presence of the elephant vehicle.[12]  Sarvāṇha and Ambikā enjoy the unique position of accompanying all the Tīrthaṅkaras till about the 11th century A.D. throughout India, and the same is followed at Vallimalai also.  Apart from Dharaṇendra and Sarvāṇha other yakṣas do not appear in the 7th-10th century art of Tamilnadu.

Among the yakṣīs, Ambikā occupies the pivotal position and Padmāvatī comes next in the order of priority. The remaining yakṣīs do not appear in rock art at all. Jaina caves at Chitral, Kalugumalai, Anaimalai, Cholpandiapuram, Vallimalai, Tirumalai, Chittamur etc. have lovely images of the goddess datable to the 8th to 10th centuries.  She is generally shown seated or standing with her two children and lady attendant in diminutive form at her foot level.  The lion vehicle is also carved by her side or on the pedestal.  In some places as at Kalugumalai, Tirumalai, Anaimalai and Panchapandavamalai, her husband in the previous birth (Somaśarman) is also portrayed admiring the golden form of the yakṣī.

The excellent sculpture of the golden yakṣī (Ponniyakki) at Panchapandavamalai near Arcot town was caused to be made by the monk Nāganandi in the year 780 A.D.[13]  This image has been mistakenly identified by scholars with Siddhayikā and Jvālamālinī.[14] But the presence of her two children, a lady attendant and the lion vehicle at her foot level and her husband Somaśarman on the right side proves beyond doubt her identity with Ambikā Yakṣī.  Moreover her name”Ponniyakki” mentioned in the 8th century lithic record refers to Ambikā only as evidenced by literature as well as local tradition.[15]

A rare form of a yakṣī, shown as a warrior goddess riding on a lion and fighting with a person on elephant’s back is met with in the Chettipodavu cave near Madurai. This 9th century low relief is also mistakenly identified with Siddhayikā by some scholars.[16]  Actually, it stands for Ambikā Yakṣī as Siṃhavāhinī, holding a bow and an arrow in her arms and getting ready to fight with a wicked person mounted on an elephant.  The same episode is preserved in the Tottiratirattu,  a Jain workof the late medieval times.[17]  Very likely, it was based on some local tradition,  the sculpture had been carved unusually so as to gain popular appeal.

Padmāvatī Yakṣī is accorded a lesser position than Ambikā, even though her iconic form was introduced in art a little earlier than the latter.  Generally, she is represented as an accompanying figure of Pārśvanātha and sometimes as an independent cult deity also.  Independent images of the goddess are sculpted in a few places like Chokkampatti, Vallimalai, Kalugumalai and Ayirimalai.  The unfinished 8th century rock-cut specimen at Chokkampatti depict her like a dvārapālikā with her right arm raised in añjali and her left one hanging down. The projected part above her crown was intended for a snake-hood.  This image had been variously identified by earlier writers as a queen or a lady-donor.[18] But her identity with Padmāvatī is certain as the other side of the entrance contains an image of Dharaṇendra, her husband, who is also depicted like a dvārapālaka. The 9th century Vallimalai sculpture of the yakṣī, seated in sukhāsana, possessing aṅkuśa, pāśa, lotus and a fruit in her four arms and adorned with a serpent canopy above her crown, is also wrongly identified with Śrutadevī by scholars like C. Sivaramamurti and I.K. Sharma.[19] The iconic features and attributes of this goddess are in conformity with the textual description of Padmāvatī only.  At Kalugumalai, she is more elegantly portrayed than the above specimen and endowed with four arms carrying an aṅkuśa, pāśa, lotus and fruit.  Her head is decorated with a five-hooded serpent canopy, arranged conically to accommodate her tall crown.  Besides, she is flanked by two lady cāmaradaris having a single serpent hood on their crowns.  In the case of Padmāvatī as an accompanying figure of Pārśvanātha, she is generally shown holding a long-handled umbrella extending over the head of the Jina.  In some panels, she simply stands to the left side of Pārśva with her right arm raised in añjali while the left hangs down.  Yakṣīs other than Ambikā and Padmāvatī do no appear in the rock-art of Tamilnadu between the 7th and 10th century A.D.


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SVASTI - Essays in Honour of

Prof. Hampa Nagarajaiah
for his 75th birthday 7.10.2010

Editor: Prof. Dr. Nalini Balbir.

Publisher: Dr. M. Byregowda
K.S. Muddappa Smaraka Trust
Krishnapuradoddi #119, 3rd Cross,
8th Main, Hampinagara
Bangalore - 560 104 Karnataka
Ph: 080-23409512

Edition: 2010

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  1. A. Ekambaranathan
  2. Body
  3. Bāhubali
  4. Delhi
  5. Deva
  6. JAINA
  7. Jain Art
  8. Jaina
  9. Jaina Art
  10. Jaina Temples
  11. Jainism
  12. Jainism in South India
  13. Jina
  14. Karnataka
  15. Kāyotsarga
  16. Madras
  17. Madurai
  18. Madurantakam
  19. Mahāvīra
  20. Neminātha
  21. New Delhi
  22. Nirvāṇa
  23. Padmāvatī
  24. Pārśva
  25. Pārśvanātha
  26. Seated Tirthankara
  27. Sholapur
  28. Space
  29. Supārśva
  30. Supārśvanātha
  31. Tamil
  32. Tindivanam
  33. Tirthankara
  34. Tirunelveli
  35. Tiruvannamalai
  36. Tīrthaṅkara
  37. Tīrthaṅkaras
  38. Yakṣa
  39. Yakṣī
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