About Tamil Jains

Rediscovery of Jainism in Tamilnadu- A kaleidoscopic picture

The forgotten history of the sacred jaina land- brought to you in a series  

Dr.Kanaka.Ajithadoss Jain and P.RajendraPrasad Jain

Once spread throughout Tamilnadu Jainism is the oldest living religion of Tamilnadu;

It  was a popular religion of the masses ( very much attested by inscriptions,literature, monuments, relics,paintings and  adoption of its philosophy & thought  ).Jainism played a vital role in molding the culture , art of Tamil people;Jainism left indelible mark on the thought and life of Tamil people;Jainism’s contributions in the sphere of language, literature, art, architecture, paintings, education, medicine, charity, social service, etc., have no parallel in the history of any country

Antiquity of Jainism in Tamil country

Reference in valmiki Ramayana ( 8th BCE):

there is a reference about Rama while wandering  in the forest met jaina Ascetics    indicating  even before the arrival of Acharya Badrabhahu  (3rd BCE) to the south  Jainism was prevalent in Tamil country .

Reference in Mahavamsa; a Buddhist chronicle

There is a reference in Mahavamsa about  the presence of jaina ascetics in 4th BCE in Srilanka. A king called pandukapaya ( 377- 307 BCE) established in his capital Anuradhapura  several jinalayas. This very clearly indicates that Jainism  spread to Srilanka through tamil country  as early as 4th BCE.

Tamil  Literary works  ( 2-3rd BCE to 2nd CE)   amply attest  the antiquity of Jainism in Tamil country .  References in Pattinappalai, Madurai Kanchi etc. In Ahananuru  (1st CE)jaina ascetics  are very much praised;

Dravida sangha in Madurai: Devasena , the author of Darsanasara, a prakrit  work written in 853 CE states that Vajra nandhi, the Pupil of celebrated digambara Achrya Pyjyapada , founded Dravida sangha in Mathurai in the South  in vikram era 525 ( 468- 69 CE). this Dravida Sangha was so famous that it is referred to  in Kannada inscriptions from Karnataka.

Tamil Brahmi inscriptions  ( from 3rd– 2nd  BCE ): All Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions are  jaina inscriptions only,   indicating the antiquity of Jainism that is unchalengeable

Existence of Jaina antiquities on a large scale  in all parts of Tamil nadu ; the survival of good many Jaina  works  of high classical standard in Tamil literature ; influence of Jaina thought and philosophy in the life of the fellow country men etc; speak immensely  for the  popularity of the Jaina faith in the Tamil country at one time. This popularity rested not so much on  the patronage  it received   from the royal families and high officials  of the state  as on the voluntary  devotion of the common  citizens  who welcomed its teachings  and followed them in practice.

Proof of popularity of Jainism in Tamil country ?

 attested by Tamil Brahmi  inscriptions; (  from 2BCE)and  literary  evidences   from 1st CE)

Inscriptions record the endowments made by  the royals, merchants,  commoners

Royals  :  Relative of Pandya Emperor Neduncheliyan  ( inscription at  Mangulam- ) etc.

 Tamil Brahmi inscriptions of Chera  kings-  making  a cave shelter for a Jaina Ascetic Pugalur

Record of three generations of Chera lineage; in a rock shelter  for a Jaina ascetic by Ilam kadumko son of , Pernkadunko  son of Atan cel Irumporai.

Merchants-  gold smith ( pon Kolvan), ( Alagar Malai-1st  CE ), Trader in plough share ( Kozhu vanikan)-Alagar Malai (1st CE), Cloth merchant ( Aruvai vanikan)( Algar Malai-1st CE),Salt merchant (uppu vanikan ( Algar Malai-1st CE)

Commoners :(Thanman,  Kasapan)- Tamil- Brahmi inscription  in Alagar Malai-1st CE)

The early Tamil-Brahmi cave inscriptions in Tamilnadu  are the earliest lithic records of the Jaina faith in India, as the Mangulam inscriptions of the time of Pandya king Neduncheliyan  appear to be earlier than the jaina Prakrit inscription at Madura and those of King Kharavela of Kalinga.

2000- 3000 years old    Tamil- Brahmi Jaina  inscriptions are found in  Mangulam, Alagar Malai. Anai Malai, Siththannavasal,  Jambai,    Mannar koil etc.

Ancient Literary evidences  Maduraikanchi – About a Jaina Palli in Madurai

  • Pattinappalai Jaina Palli in Kavirip poompattinam
  • Jaina Poets of Sangam period: Vulochanar, Nigandan kalaikkottu Thandanar,  Kaniyan   Poonkundranar, etc.

Jaina  Sanghas (Associations) ; references in literature about Mula Sangam Sangam, Dravida Sangam  Nandhi Sangam;Countless number of Jaina ascetics  in ancient Tamil country attested in inscriptions:

Some of their  names: Chandra Nandi, Kanaka Nandi, Maakanandhi, Naganandhi, Vajranandhi,  ,

Bhavanandhi.  Ajja Nandi, Devar, Vudhisi devar, Thiruthakka devar , etc.,

There was no period in the history of Tamilnadu during which Jainism was in non existence

The proof?

Large number of monuments




Cave shelters

Literary works

Grant of pallichnadam ,endowments ( tax free land grants to jaina monasteries, jaina

establishments  )

Development of script for Tamil  language

Even today Samanam  (Jainism in Tamil land ) is a little known or unknown   religious  entity and “Samanars” (the native Tamil jains) are  the invisible, voiceless  community  for     majority of Tamil population and also for Jains living outside the borders of Tamilnadu as well those who migrated from outside and settled in  Tamilnadu either recently or several  decades  earlier.  There are two reasons  for presenting the story  of Jainism in Tamilnadu  with reference to native Jains   called Samanars ;

  1. With the  recent discovery by ‘Ahimsa walk’ – an organisation  formed  to discover, and protect  the  abandoned Thirthankara sculptures jaina relics, monuments, in many villages    towns, hillocks   more and  more individuals ,  students, archaeologists, historians, linguists, epigraphists, travellers  Tamil writers ,journalists show keen  interest   in  knowing  about various phases and facets  of Jainism in Tamilnadu particularly its origin  here in Tamil land ;
  2. The history of  native Jains of Tamilnadu and their rich contributions  to Tamil language, literature, Culture and    development   of script  has to be retold    from time to time  not only  to jains  outside the borders of Tamil nadu  but also those who settled   here as they know very little  or  nothing about Tamil jains and the  ancientness of    their history  spanning several  thousands of years; the dawn of civilization is the date of birth of Jainism in Tamilnadu; the glorious history of Tamil jains of bygone era is a mystery for many of them; this will clearly show , bring out the unique character and value of the ancient culture  and civilization of the Tamil land that followed the ideal of Ahimsa as preached by the Thirthankaras.

Previously a brief  outline was provided to understand the antiquity  of Jainism in Tamil land. Now let us go in to the  origin of Jainism   in Tami land;

Migration theory of Jainism into the South and particularly  Tamil land

Is Jainism alien to Tamil land?

Was the arrival  from Karnataka, of Visakacharya a disciple of  Srutha Kevali Acharya Bhadrabahu,  with a large followers into Tamilnadu  responsible for the introduction of Jainism in Tamil country?

Was it the initial factor?

Did Jainism enter  into Tamilnadu from Andhra?

Did it originate from   two  frontiers – Karnataka and Andhra?

Is Jainism as older as the dawn of civilisation in Tamil land?

To trace  the antiquity of Jainism in Tamil land one has to seek the evidence/s both   within the borders of Tamilnadu as well outside it; the sources are diverse which include ancient inscriptions, literature,  chronicles of history, and puranas etc.;

Jainism  in Sravanabelagola (Karnataka) at the time of arrival of Acharya  Bhadrabahu

Jainism was a popular religion in Sravanabelgola at the time of   arrival of Sruthakevali Acharya Bhadrabahu; the arrival of that great Jaina ascetic from North   is an unassailable fact attested by several inscriptions in Sravanabelagola, and    Sanskrit literary works such as  “Brahatkathacosa”  of Harisena (931CE), “Bhadrabhahucharitha Munivamsabyuthya” of  Sidhdhantha (1680CE) and Kannada work “Rajavali saritham” of Devachandra (1833CE)   )

Several oriental as well the western  scholars are of the opinion that  Jaina religion was introduced into Tamilnadu after  the arrival  of Jain sangha into Sravanabelagola (Karnataka) under the leadership of the great Jaina Acharya  Bhadrabahu (317- 297BCE) along with thousands of followers and ascetics, the prominent ones were the ascetic   Visakacharya   and the ascetic turned emperor  Chandragupta (322- 298 BCE) ;

The question is this : Did Jaina religion  already exist   in Sravanabelagola-  Karnataka at the time of arrival of  the highly revered  Struthakevali Acharya Badhra bahu   ?

The answer is  ‘yes’; this conclusion is based on the following valid assumptions:

Srutha kevali Acharya Bhadrabahu  Sangha consisting of several thousands of ascetics would not venture to enter into an alien land if they were not sure of respectful   welcome based on agamic traditions  and sympathetic  reverential support by the ruler and  sravakas (house holders who know all about entertaining   Jaina ascetics); the rules of practices in  Jaina ascetic life in the distant past were very severe and strict and there is no exemption in practicing the austere life; a Jaina society who are well versed in rules and practices  of entertaining jain  ascetics   alone can serve the ascetic community; in other words   jain ascetics  will not be able to practice  ascetic life in a hostile environment; this makes us to conclude that Srutha Kevali Acharya Bhadrabahu chose a right place in the south where Jainism was  the popular religion of the land.

Dawn of Jainism in Tamil land

The question as to the  origin of Jainism in Tamilnadu, Did Tamilnadu wait for Vishakacharya’s arrival  to get Jainism introduced in the Tamil land? The answer is  ‘NO’;  at the time of the arrival of Vishakacharya  with a large group of ascetics and followers  in Pandyan country      (Tamilnadu) in  about 3rd century BCE, Jainism  was a popular religion followed by the royals, merchants and the masses ;

One of the reasons for arriving to this conclusion is  that to support  a large number of Jaina ascetics and followers  the people of  host country must be  knowing all the  do’s and don’ts of principles  of Jaina ascetic as well the householders life which are   based purely  on Ahimsa dharma,  equality and social justice; Had an   unreceptive and hostile  conditions  prevail  at the time of arrival of Vishakacharya, he would not have ventured  to put his  foot on the hostile soil; the best example is 6th and 7th century Madurai and the Pandyan, Pallava countries; a hostile environment was  designed and brutal   atrocities were executed    by the  Vedic religious extremists who unleashed terror  on  Jain population  and   ascetics in Madurai and Pandyan country;   the terrorized  jaina house holders    and ascetics of Madurai (and the Pandyan country )   not  getting  proper support and security ,and  could not    withstand the hostile environment    migrated out; this account has been recorded by the Vedic  religious fanatics    themselves in their literature; the conclusion is that  Jainism was already a popular religion at the time of arrival of Vishakacharya  and thousands of ascetics and followers of Vishakacharya were  able to travel in Pandyan country strengthening the principles of Ahimsa in the minds of the people

References on Jainism in Tamil land in the ancient period   Valmiki  Ramayana  ( 8th century BCE)

An inscription of Sravanabelagola (7th cent. CE.) tells that Acharya Bhadrabahu instructed His disciple ascetic Acharya Visaka to continue his vihar   to Tamil country and Visakacharya  travelled to Pandya country;   this had happened in about  end of 3rd or beginning of 4th cent BCE. But   Valmiki Ramayana  (8th century BCE) has another story to tell; when Rama came down to South  to spend his forest life  he met many Jaina ascetics in Tamil country. This indicates that even before the arrival of   Vishakacharya with  a large number of ascetics   (3rd /4th BCE) into Tamilnadu,  Jainism was prevalent in Tamilnadu.


Reference in Kambaramayana

Exactly  a   message  similar to  what recorded in Valmiki Ramayana is reflected in “Kamba Ramayanam”  a highly revered by the Vaishnavites  and universally acclaimed Tamil literary work   by Kavi chakrvarthi Kambar.

Kambar describes through the character Sugrivan  about  the high ascetic qualities of sky clad  (Nirganth) Jaina ascetics performing meditation; at the time of  departure of Hanumaan  and Angathan  to Srilanka  in search of Seetha,  Sugrivan advises them  to bow and  pay their reverence  to great Jaina ascetics performing  very tough austerities   at the foot of   Venkata mountain. This indicates that during the Ramayana period   Jainism was prevalent in Tamil country;

This gives  another very important information that  Jainism was well established in the northern part of Tamilnadu as indicated in Kamba Ramayana – the mountain Venkatam was the Northern boundry of Tamil country as indicated in Tholkappium – a 2nd or 3rd century Grammar literature – the oldest, ancient Tamil work extant  by a Jaina ascetic Tholkappiyar (generally it is held that after the setback to Jainism in Pandyan country due to the militant and conversion activities of Vedic, Animal sacrifice promoting,   bhakthi movement during 6th &  7th centuries, Jains  moved to the north and settled; but according to Kambar, during Ramayana period Jainism was flourishing in the northern part of Tamil Land )

The ancient Tamil country with Tamil Sangha  (Tamil  Academies)

From ancient times, Jain poets  along with others participated in the literary activities  of Tamil land; the assemblage or group of poets is called sangha. (academy) (Tamil : Sangam);  in the ancient Tamil land there were three such Tamil academies. when  examined closely the conception of an assembly of intellectuals  and the name ‘sangha’  both  owe their origin to the leaders of Jaina religious  movements in Tamil country;  in the  ancient period  Jaina intellectuals  and ascetics  formed themselves  into  well constituted ascetic group as Sangha, Gana and Gachcha; Mula sangha, Nandhi sangha, Dravida (Dramila) sangha etc.;

Researches on the ancient land of Tamil Land show that the present Tamilnadu had  an extensive area  called “Lemuria  Continent” to the south of Kanyakumari, the southern tip of Indian landmass; this Lemuria Continent of Tamils ruled by Pandya kings  with a capital city called “Kapatapuram” was  supposed to have been   submerged by sea; events related to the submergence of land mass are vividly described in “Silapathikaram” – a masterpiece  Jaina Tamil epic by Ilankovadigal – a Jaina ascetic; because of  two catastrophic  oceanic  events (Tsunami?)  occurred one after the other  a sizable land mass of the ancient Tamil land  got separated and became   what is now  known Srilanka (Swarna Dwip) ;  Pandyan kings created and fostered two Tamil Academies   called  first and second Tamil sangams; when the Lemuria continent was swallowed by the sea Pandyan shifted his capital to the present Madurai; the period of existence of these Tamil academies   was much earlier to that  of    arrival of Visakachariya  into Tamilnadu; it  should be noted that the  Jaina ascetic “Tholkappiyar” (about 2nd/ beginning of 3rd century BCE), the author of the  ancient Tamil grammer work, was one of the members of the two Academies ;

Jaina Tamil – Brahmi inscriptions  dated from 2nd century BCE to 4th  century CE

Epigraphical evidences  assignable  to the 2nd  century  BCE, at Mangulam, Arittapatti, Thiruvathavur, Kilavalavu, Anai malai etc. clearly indicate that   Jainism   already enjoyed the privilege of a popular faith in Tamil land even before the visit of Visakacharya (end of 2BCE or beginning of 3rd BCE ). To date  more than 80 Tamil – Brahmi  inscriptions related to Jainism  dated from 2nd  century BCE   to 4th century CE    are  found in 30 places    in Tamil nadu;  A detailed account of these Jainism related ancient writings  on rocks will be given later;

Ancient Tamil classical writings ( dated around 3rd or 4th BCE to 2nd CE)

Several ancient classic literary works furnish a good deal of information as to the ancientness of Jainism  and prevalence of it in Tamil land  even before the arrival of  Vishakacharya  from Karnataka .

To know about this period  Sangam literature  forms the basis; “Madurai Kanchi” – a sangam literature  gives an elaborate  description of Temple for Thirthankara; another sangam literature – “Pattinappalai“ describes about a temple for Arugan in “Kaveripoompattinam” A sangam poet called “Nigandan kalaik kottu Thandanar”  has written a poem in Natrinai – a sangam literary work – here the name “Nigandan” refers to a Jaina  ( Nirganthan = Nigandan – sky clad ); another poet “Ulochanar” was a Jain as the name Ulochan  indicates the practice of plucking of hair by  Jaina ascetic – These evidences are comparatively  of early date; one cannot discredit the solid evidence provided by literature, inscriptions;

The Hathikumbha inscription  of  the famous Jaina King Kharavela –  a friend Pandyan King – (2nd  century BCE)

The famous 2nd century BCE Inscription of King Kharavela recorded the participation of Pandya king in the celebrations conducted  by Kharavela

on the occasion of recovery  of Kalinga Jina ( Thirthankara statue) from Magadha King; the inscription   describing the events recorded the participation of Pandya King with horses, elephants, jewels and rubies as well as pearls in hundreds  as presents to King Kharavela. Also we find a reference that Kharavela  dismembered  the confederacy of the T[r]amira (Dramira)  (dramila – tamil) countries of one hundred and thirty years, which has been a source of danger to (his) Country (Janapada).

From this  2nd century BCE inscription of Jaina King  Kharavela can infer that The Pandyan king was either an adherent of Jainism or a patron of  Jainism. It should be noted that when the inscription talks about the confederation of Tamil kings mainly Chera, Chola and Pandya, it is  Pandyan king only attended the celebrations conducted by Kharavela – a Jaina king. Thus at the time of the visit of Vishakacharya to Pandyan kingdom  Jainism was already in existence and popular  in Tamil nadu with the support of masses  and the King .

Inscriptions from Andhra (4th century BCE)

The discovery of inscription of  Mahamehavahana King Sada  at Guntappalli  indicates that Jainism was prevalent in Andhra  in 6th century BCE; there is a view that Jainism in Andhra  made a foot hold in  northern part of Tamil land;

Mahavamsa account of  Jainism in Srilanka   (4th century BCE) – diffusion from Tamil land

Mahavamsa, a Srilanka chronicle  undisputedly recorded the presence  of Jainism in Srilanka  in 4th  BCE; according to Mahavamsa, Srilankan King “Pandukabaya”  (BCE-377-307) when he established  a new capital at Anuradhapura    temples and places for ascetic life  for Jaina ascetics were constructed; to quote English translation of  Mahavamsa as far as Gamani – tank, a hermitage was made for many ascetics; eastward of that  the ruler Pandukabaya built a house for the Nigantha Jotiya; in that same region dwelt the nigantha named Giri and ascetics of various heretical sects; and there the lord  of the land built a chapel for the Nigantha Kumbhanda; it was named after him;  there lived five hundred families of heretical beliefs; on the further side of Jotiya’s house and on this side of Gamini –tank he likewise built a monastery for wandering mendicant monks—  ( Nigantha – Nirgrantha – sky -clad  ascetics – Digamber Jaina ascetics) – ( English rendering of  Mahavmas  by Geiger). From this  one can infer that  Jainism was  prevalent in about 4th  BCE  in Srilanka  with the support of  the King Pandukabaya;

The pertinent question is how did Jainism found foot hold in Srilanka?

What was the route through which it travelled?

Jaina ascetics should  not cross or travel over sea;  such is the rules and practices ordained for a digamber Jaina ascetic; hence  they could not have travelled through the sea from North India or Kalinga country where Jainism was a popular religion at that time; the only passage available to Srilanka   for jaina ascetic was land route –  the present Srilanka    was once a  part and parcel of ancient Tamil country;  after the catastrophic oceanic disturbances it was separated with a narrow  and shallow sea lane or a strip of land ; Jaina ascetics and most probably Jain merchants  might have used this  land connectivity;  it should be noted that the epic Ramayana vividly describes the construction of a bridge  between the   Tamil land and northern part of  Srilanka, called Ramar bridge;

This very amply proves that even before the  arrival of Vishakacharya Jainism was  prevalent   in Tamil country  and  from  there it spread into Srilanka;

Reference in Mahapurana of Acharya Jinasena and Acharya Gunabadra about the rule of  Jaina  Vidhyadara King Ravana in Srilanka  

The highly revered Jaina  Mahapurana  describes the life of 24 Thirthankaras, 12 Chakravartins, 9 Baladevas, 9 Vasudevas and 9 prathi Vasudevas; In that  part of Mahapurana  describing  the life story of   Munisuvratha Thirthankara (20th Thirthankara)  a detailed account of Ravana – the prathi Vasudeva – the Jjain vidhyadara king  of Srilanka is given;  Ravana’s birth, establishment of kingdom in Thrisigari  in the ocean island of Srilanka  by his ancestors etc are given;  it is interesting to note that there a famous mountain  by name “Thirikuta giri’  (  Thrisigari of Mahapurana) with a foot print at it’s   crest is present in SriLanka. Nowadays it is claimed by Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims as their sacred place!!!  Worshipping the foot prints of the emancipated souls is the practice of Jains from time immemorial!

Thus there   is no element of improbability, there is no room for doubt about the fact that Jainism – the religion of Ahimsa has  been   the home religion  of Tamils from  the distant past. Thus there is no question of introduction of Jainism into Tamil land;    It has been a native religion of Tamil land  from the time of Lord Rishabha whose ‘Dhivyadwani’  (divine preaching) was heard in 18 major languages, one among them was  Tamil.

(to be continued)