History in the neighborhood

Given the history and culture stretching back to unthinkable time here in India, it is no surprise we stumble upon the remnents close to our urbanised environs. A bunch of us, like-minded enthusisasts, left in the early hours of one cool morning to travel back in time. Breakfast by the farms, in a make-shift shelter meant for farmers to upload the freshly harvested veggies to towns, was enough to propell us away from the city of Chennai and into the past.

1. Mela Chitambur

This hamlet houses a Jain monestery that serves as the head for the faith in southern Tamilnadu state. Since the faith is an off-shoot of Hinduism, the temple here shares several commonalities with Hindu architecture and beliefs.

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Jain temple

2. Thirunathar Kundru

On top of this hillock are couple of inscriptions in Brahmi and Tamil dating back to 6CE and 8CE. The inscriptions are at the spot where couple of Jain monks observed sallekhana, a prescribed practice of fast-unto-death to purge thier karmas. The writing says 57 days of fast before one of them passed on and the other right next says 30 days. A notable feature of this inscription is the presence of probable-root of the letter ‘ஐ’ in the Tamil language. To commemarate the event, a bas-relief of 24 Thirthankars or Jain spiritual masters are carved overhead on a huge rock.

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intense inscription reading

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writing in stone

 

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landscape around the site

 

3. Nehanur Patti

A place of massive stone works carried out by nature. Underneath the adukkankal (Tamil) or what appears like stones piled up one over the other, are brahmi inscription dating back to 4CE and pre-historic cave-painting of roughly 1000 BC. The Brahmi inscription talks of the existence of a Jain school and the name of the founder –

” Perum pogazh sekkanthi thayiyuru sekkanthanni se vitha palli” (sekkanthanni, mother of sekkanthi of Perumpugozh village has built this school)

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adukkankal

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a phallic rock shaped by nature

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a brahmi reader

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the writing that talks about the established school

and the pre-historic cave painting is found in a dugout roof and looks like done by someone of artistic inclination, reclying on the rock surface as a way of relaxing right after his hunting expedition followed by gratifying lunch. They might have been painted with lime as they are white in colour.

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4. Mela Ulakur

Right in the middle of residential houses of this village stands a stone sculpture of Jyeshta Devi, the goddess of misfortune. Jyeshta Devi worship was at its peak in southern India during 7-8CE but soon by 10CE, she went into oblivion. This sculpture dates back to 8CE or may be even earlier as this goddess is bellieved to have existed in India as far back as 300BC. Today though, numerous images exist but not worshipped. It is believed women paryed to her in the past more to keep her away from their homes. Her image too is not one of beauty associated with many Hindu goddesses but of flabby belly, pendulous breasts and her attendants holding broom. As the villagers here not aware of history, continue to worship her in good faith.

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Jyshta Devi and her attendant

 

5. Passumalai

A steep climb on the hillock reveals stone-beds for the Jain monks and a meditative sculpture of their 24th Theerthankara (teacher) Paswanathar on a rocky wall right across their beds so that the monks could be in constant meditation upon their master. The Brahmi inscription here speaks of a man by the name of Mosi made these beds at the request of another by the name of Sangayiban “Sangayiban eva Mosi seida adishtanam” and the likely period is 3CE

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paswanathar

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monk bed

6. Thondur

Here’s the best part of the day – we get down from the bus and walk in single file on the trail, flanked by paddy fields and honestly not knowing what on earth could be lying in wait – viola, our jaws dropped at the sight below –

a huge rectangular sculpture in the midst of rice-fields where in the Hindu God Vishnu reclyning atop Anantha/Adisesha, the serpent that symbolises eternity, surveying the proceedings on the front. It is indeed an awe inspiring sight because of the ambiance, as such sculptures of the gods are generally found inside the temples. The head of Vishnu is rested to our right which is contrary to normal-left and this may be done such for some specific purpose. There is a speculation a nearby battle field had some significance to it as there might have been a belief a Vishnu in reverse would cast misfortune on the enemy. I’m told there are only two such head-to-the-right Vishnus found in Tamilnadu and the other being in the town of Kanchipuram (Sonnavanam Seida Perumal). The ornamental stone work on the front is again a part of the jigsaw puzzle. The dating of the sculpture could be in the period of the Pallava king Nandivarman III (846-869CE). The crown on the head of the sculpture matches with the ones found in Combodia and that could certainly point to the Pallava’s link to Combodia. The popular Ankur Wat was initially built by a Pallava origin King.

It’s inevitable that speculations run high on such trips. Taking the very script of Brahmi – what is the origin – the Ghandara Script Kharosthi or the Semitic Aramaic or the Indus valley script found its way back in different form after the civilisation ended ? Did Brahmi influence another ancient dravidian language Tamil at all ? Outside of what’s written in stone, it’s hard to pin-point the happenings of the past, by the so called historians or otherwise, but there certainly is no dearth of fun in time-travel !

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8 thoughts on “History in the neighborhood

  1. Thanks for taking us thro an enlightening vicarious jouney  —  which we could not have dreamt of, on our own. Best wishes. M.S.Natarajan Chennai

  2. Thanks Anantha for this presentation. Until few years back I had no idea that south has so much of Jain culture in past. I was in Pondy a couple of years back. Wish I would have known about this place. During that time I was fortunate to visit Hassan district and see Bahubali. The history in India is simply endless. Is it possible to live in the place you have described in a non-hotel setting for a month or so to visit. You may write to me at jhthakar@gmail.com.

    • Thanks for your comment Jay. Indeed, you find quite a lot of past-Jain-culture in the south, from Madurai to Pudukottai to these places in the above piece that are around Chennai city. There was immense Jain presence in the 6-7CE. I guess one could probably rent an apartment or a room-share in an apt for non-hotel stay.

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