On the scenic National Highway 544 from Palakkad to Thrissur, it’s easy to admire the greenery, grumble about the rising apartment blocks coming up on empty fields and romanticise about the lives of our ancestors who lived in the villages on this stretch, while forgetting about the historic significance of these places. Travellers often exit the highway at the town of Alathur to buy its famous banana chips. The town, like the highway that passes it, has a long history and has had human settlements since at least the 10th century CE.
The Kongu belt, comprising some parts of eastern Kerala, southeastern Karnataka and western Tamil Nadu, was once a major centre of Jainism. It was through the Palakkad Gap that traders travelled from Kongu lands to important ports such as Kozhikode and Ponnani.
In 1908, a 10th century Jain inscription was found near Alathur that contained references to traders from the second Chera period (9th to 12th centuries CE). Other treasures found near Alathur include two Jain statues. One of them is of Mahavira in the paryankasana pose. This statue depicts a naked Mahavira with the lanchana (symbol) of two lions and two Gandharvas (celestial beings). The other statue is of Parshvanata, in a kayotsarga pose with a three hooded cobra above his head.
In Perumals of Kerala, historian M G S Narayanan said there was evidence of the spread of Jainism in Kerala even during the Sangam Age, which ended in the 3rd century CE.
“The first Chera king, Utiyan Cheral Atan, is stated to have courted death by starvation through Vatakkirikkal, a practice which reminds one of the Jain Sallekhanavrata,” Narayanan wrote. Sallekhanavrata is the religious practice of voluntarily fasting to death by gradually reducing the intake of food and liquids.
Narayanan refers to the Tirukkunavay temple, which was built in the village of Mathilakam, a village that is close to Kodungallur. The temple and Jain vihara were founded in the beginning of the 8th century. Historians believe it was converted into a Shiva temple in the 15th century. “The Kokansandesam of the 15th century describes Tirukkunavay as a Shiva temple, but adds that Brahmins are not allowed to see the Lord of the temple,” according to Narayanan. “This is indeed a strange practice and could be explained by the fact that it was a Jain temple taken over by the Hindus at a later stage.”
Several Jain statues that were discovered in Kerala were initially mistaken for being Buddha statues.
Some of the older Jain temples were converted into Bhagwati temples. The 9th century Chitharal complex that is located in the Kanya Kumari district in Tamil Nadu, has one rock cut Jain temple with outer wall reliefs and a Bhagawati temple next to it. The Hindu temple is a combination of rock-cut and stone, which was built as the complex was expanded.
“It lay outside the Chera country proper, and within the Ay territory,” Narayanan wrote. “It contains a number of votive figures of Jain deities carved on the hill side with short inscriptions giving the names of the donors.” Carved on an overhanging rock resting on another rock, it was transformed by masons into a structural temple.
The Jain community that built these great shrines declined after the trade routes to the Kongu belt were disrupted after the end of the Perumal dynasty.
Waves of Jain migration
Migration of Jains to Kerala, which began in the 3rd century BCE, continued in waves over the centuries.
In a paper submitted to the Indian History Congress 2006-07, K Rajan mentions the migration of Jains to Kerala from Karnataka in the 15th century. Jainism came under severe strain in Karnataka from the 13th century onwards. Rajan names four merchants who moved to the Palakkad district to escape persecution from the Raja of Mysore in the 15th century. They were welcomed by the ruler of Palakkad, who allowed them to buy land and establish settlements.
The 15th century Jainimedu Jain temple, which is close to Palakkad town, was built by a family of diamond merchants. Jainimedu, at one time was home to more than 400 Jain families. After facing years of neglect the temple was renovated in 2013 and is fully functional.
Jains also built temples in other parts of Kerala, such as Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad district. Built in the Vijayanagara style in the 13th century, the temple was occupied by Tipu Sultan’s army in the 18th century and converted into an arms and ammunition base. It is now a protected heritage monument that is under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Media reports suggest that the temple was a den of criminals and alcohol and drug addicts before it was taken over by the ASI. The underground tunnel that was carved out by Tipu Sultan under the temple to connect it to Mysore is now permanently closed.
The more the construction activity in Kerala, the greater the chance of Jain statues, inscriptions and remnants of temples being discovered. It’s important to maintain the state’s Jain heritage sites and also look deeper into the role the community played in forging the destiny of Kerala. One of their greatest contributions to ancient Kerala was the popularisation of elementary education in the countryside, where Jain monks did the heavy lifting.
“The word palli is found in association with place names in Jain centres,” Narayanan wrote. “This may perhaps indicate that a large number of places having ‘palli’ at the end of their names had some connection with Buddhism or Jainism in ancient Kerala.” What an exciting thought to know that some places that may seem ordinary in contemporary Kerala could have a deep and hidden history behind them!
(The writer is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana')