July 23, 2017

Tirumalai Jain Complex

Tirumalai is an ancient Jain center located near Arni town in Tamil Nadu state of India. There are few other places called Tirumalai in South India. The famous Tirupati Tirumala temple and a Murugan hillock temple near Tenkasi are also named as Tirumalai. This Jain center is not to be confused with them. This has no connection with other sites with the similar name.

Tirumalai, which is also called as Arahanthagiri, is located in Tiruvannamali district. Today, we could hardly find Tamil speaking Jains. The Jains in Tamil Nadu state are mostly from Rajasthan or Gujarat states. The marble temples of Jain Tirthankaras that are found all over Tamil Nadu are built by them in the last one or two centuries. However, in the ancient times, Tamil Nadu was full of Jains. In fact, most of the oldest Tamil texts which are available today, were either directly or indirectly related to Jainism. Similar to the granite temples of the Hindus, the Jain temples were also built with grand towers, beautiful vimanas, attractive sculptures and other architectural elements. Not many people in Tamil Nadu realize that such ancient Jain temples exist. Tirumalai is one site where we could find such ancient Jain symbols in large numbers. In the olden days, it was called in different names such as Vaigavur and Srisailapuram. It is believed that the Jain monks lived in the hills of the village right from the 7th century CE. This article would focus on all those ancient Jain sites of Tirumalai village.

Neminath Sculpture

Few group of shrines are located atop the hill and few other temples and caves are located at the foothills.

Climbing up a flight of around 150 steps and few sloppy rocks, we would reach the Neminath shrine. It enshrines the impressive 18 feet tall rock cut carving of Neminath. It is the tallest Jain image in Tamil Nadu state. It is believed to be a Chola period work (12th century CE). (I could not find any record to proove that it was done by the Cholas, though). The sculpture is simple and plain without any ornamentation. The 22nd Jain Tirthankara is found naked and in the standing posture.

Parshvanath Shrine

Further going up, there is a big boulder which reminds us the famous butter ball rock of Mamallapuram, due to its similarity.

A small shrine for Parshvanath is located there. A small stone idol of Parshvanath, the 23rd Jain Tirthankara, is found in the standing posture and a five hooded serpent is upon his head.

The period of the temple is not recorded anywhere, to my knowledge. I believe the idol must be much older than the later period structure of the shrine.

Holy Footprints

Further up on top of the hill, there are three holy footprints (Padams) engraved on the rocks are found. A rare variety of Devaalari tree is found nearby. It has been planted in such a way that the flowers from the tree fall directly on one pair of holy footprints.

It is said that three Jain monks sacrificed their lives without taking food or water on this hill. To commemorate them, the holy footprints of those monks are engraved. There are some later period inscriptions found near the footprints. The one inscriptions was done by ASI in 1930s.

From top of the hills, we could get the aerial view of the entire town and importantly the impressive towers and vimanas of the Jain temples at the foothills.

Vijayanagara Period Jain Temple

A beautiful three tiered tower, a more beautiful three tiered vimana on top of the sanctum, impressive sculptures on the Maha Mandap - all these belong to a Vijayanagara period temple at the foothills. Structure-wise, it looks more impressive that the Kundavai Jinalaya (the Chola period Jain temple) which is located beside this. It must have been built in the 16th century CE. 24 Tirthankaras adorn the vimana, whereas different Jainism related images adorn the tower.

The sanctum enshrines a feet tall lime mortar image of Mahavir, the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism. The Yaksha and Yakshinis are found on his either sides. The backside wall and the ceiling are full of fresco paintings of Jainism images, which were done probably during the Vijayanagara period or later.

Outside the temple tower, there is a small shrine enshrining Panchaparameshti.

The temple has a front side small Maha Mandap. The Chola period inscriptions are also found on the boulders which become part of the temple complex now.

A small stone idol of Mahavira in the sitting posture is found in the Ardhamandap and another idol of Mahavir is found in the Maha Mandap. In the prakara, a serpent stone idol is located.

Kundavai Jinalayam

Behind the temple of Mahavir, the Jain temple called Kundavai Jinalayam is located. It is believed to have been built by Kundavai, the sister of Raja Raja Chola, in the 10th century CE. The presiding deity of the temple is Neminath.

The sanctum enshrines the small stone idol of Neminath. He is found in the seated posture with two disciples on his either sides.

In Ardha Mandap, there is a bigger black marble idol of Neminatha and in Maha Mandap, a small sized white marble idol of Neminath are found. These are all later additions.

In Maha Mandap, there are many beautiful metal idols of Neminatha and few other Tirthankaras and Jain deities are located in a separate shrine.

Brahmadeva, Jwalamalini and few other Tirthankaras are also found in the Mukha Mandap of the temple. The pillars in the Mukha Mandap have some interesting carvings.

Bali peetha and a platform for flag staff or deepa stambha are located facing towards the sanctum.

In the prakara a peetha is insalled to commemorate the Moksha attained by a Jain monk in the beginning of the 20th century CE. He was Shrivatheebha Simha, who wrote Kshetra Sintamani.

Cave Paintings

Few steps from the Kundavai Jinalayam would take us to caves where the Chola period paintings on the ceiling and the Vijayanagara period paintings on the walls are found. Some portions of the cave could be seen only by crawling.

If we lie down on the floor and look at the ceiling of the cave, it appears as if a colorful carpet is hanged atop. On the walls, the paintings of Dwarapalas and other Jain figures are found. In one cave, the big painting depicting Jain Tirthankara in the middle who is surrounded by women, animals and different varieties of celestial beings is found.

The bas-relief of a Tirthankara is found on the top surface of the rock that takes us to the caves. There are few shrines near by which are dedicated to Kooshmandini seated on lion, Bahubali with Brahmi and Sundari, Adinath and Parshvanath with Padmavati. (When I visited the temple, I could not go to these shrines which were closed).

King's Sculpture

In the interior village, there is a statue of a King (probably Nayaka?) with three consorts and another statue of a king surrounded by four maids. The locals call him as Raja Raja Chola, which is funny.


The inscription on a rock near the tower of Vijayanagara period temple tower dates to the 21st year of reign of Raja Raja Chola. It calls the town as Vaigai Malai.

The inscription on top of hill dated in the 11th year of reign of Rajendra Chola gives a long list of countries won by him.

In addition, there are inscriptions of Rajendra Chola (12th year of his reign), Raja Raja Chola (20th year of his reign), Vira Pandya, Rajanarayana Sambuvaraya and few other inscriptions are also found in and around the temples.

Happy travelling.

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