The Tamil word “ Samanar padukkai ” can roughly be translated into English as “Jains’ bed”. Jainism in Tamil Nadu is as old as 2nd century B.C., though the current population percentage of Jains in Tamil Nadu is less than 1. There are several monuments, inscriptions and scriptures which convey us information about ancient jains.
The religion is believed to have entered Tamil Nadu under the influence of people from north. This pushed the native Hinduism aside for at least a few centuries. Later Jainism and Buddhism were slowly made to disappear from the land of Tamils, and thus bringing Hinduism back on track.
When Jainism was widely followed in Tamil Nadu, the Jain monks used to stay in caves. The stones were flattened to form a bed. Such beds were called as “samanar padukkai”. Several such rock beds still remain even after a few thousand years. The sculptures carved out of stone in such caves explain Jain practices in detail. The prevalence of Jainism in and around Tamil Nadu is also recorded in ancient Tamil texts such as Manimegalai.
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Rise and fall of Jainism in Tamil Nadu
It is believed that Jainism entered Tamil Nadu around 2nd century B.C. when Chandra Gupta Maurya ruled north India. He was a Jain and followed a Jain monk called Badrabahu. They preached Jainism in south India where Vedic Hinduism prevailed for a long time. These fragments of information are available in several ancient texts.
The culture of north Aryans and south Dravidians did not mix easily. It took a long time for these religions to mingle along with the native religion of south. Eventually Jainism mixed along with the Vedic religion and created a mix of religious traditions. When the Jain monks preached their religion, they would approach the ruler first.
As the famous Tamil proverb states, “The way of King is the way of people”, people followed the footsteps of their ruler. Mahendra Varman I and Koon Pandiyan are two of the few Jain converted kings. Sources state that Koon Pandiyan converted back to Hinduism later.
As centuries passed by, Jainism lost its popularity due to the advent of Buddhism, revival of Hinduism and other socio-economic factors. Nevertheless, there are interesting rock cut monuments and caves, still speaking volumes about the strong presence of Jainism in the ancient past.
Jain monks and their stone beds
The Jain monks used caves as their dwelling place. Such caves contain rich stone carved art and other similar structures. There are several rock cut temples associated with Jainism. There were several Jain schools promoting the studies of Jain principle where female students were also believed to be active participants. Some of the Jain caves contain paintings depicting their religion and culture. A number of such caves are maintained by archaeological department and promoted for tourism.
Samanar padukkai – A few to name are Kalugu malai, Sittanavasal, Thirumalai, Samanar hills etc. All these rocky places contain Jain beds, Jain temples, structure of Jain figures etc. Sittanavasal is the most famous Jain cave among others, due to its amazing paintings. Though they are of high quality, matching those of Ajanta caves, Sittanavasal paintings are underrated. The paintings are made from natural mineral dyes and parts of them still exist. The cave also includes a temple and a few Jain sculptures.
Sittanavasal caves are located in Pudukkottai district and maintained by Archaeological Survey of India. These caves and other samanar padukkai caves contain rich information about religious diversity in ancient Tamil region. Such monuments must be preserved with extreme care, as they deserve to be cared.
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