The Great Tirth: Jainism in India


On the occasion of Mahavira Jayanti, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY trace the roots of Jainism in India and its impact on art, architecture and philosophy

Gwalior Fort_Jain statues at Gopachal Parvat IMG_4992_Anurag & Priya

India’s Jain legacy extends from celebrated cave shrines at Ellora and Badami to Udayagiri-Khandagiri in Odisha, exquisitely carved temples at Dilwara and Ranakpur to Gomateshwara statues at Karkala and Shrvanabelagola. Though stone sculptures may erode and paintings might fade, Jainism’s impact goes beyond art and architecture to more fundamental concepts.

The five cardinal principles of satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness), represented by an upturned palm with a wheel encircling the word ahimsa, is a defining symbol of Jain faith. The wheel or dharmachakra represents the resolve to halt the cycle of reincarnation through relentless pursuit. Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology of satyagraha was partly inspired by his correspondence with Jain saint Shrimad Rajchandra; eventually freeing India from centuries of slavery.

Rajasthan_Jaisalmer Fort Jain temple idol IMG_2592_Anurag & Priya

The roots of Jainism

Jains consider their religion anadhinidhan or timeless, with no origin or end, occasionally forgotten by humanity and revived by a succession of tirthankaras (ford-makers, who help cross the Ocean of Life). One of the world’s oldest religions, Jainism predates Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism (the 24th and last tirthankara Mahavira was a contemporary of Buddha). Like Buddhism, Jainism too originated in the Indo-Gangetic plains.

When human civilization was still in its infancy, Rishabha, the first tirthankara, was born to Nabhi Raja and Marudevi at Ayodhya. People were illiterate and it is believed that Rishabha taught them seventy-two sciences including arithmetic, agriculture, tending animals, cooking, poetry, art, sculpture, song, dance, art of lovemaking, rituals for marriage, funerals and festivals. Even the extraction of sugarcane (ikhsu) juice was taught and the Ikshvaku dynasty claims lineage from it. Rishabha divided his kingdom between his hundred sons, making Bharata, the eldest, king of the north and Bahubali in charge of the southern capital at Paudanapura. Rishabha left to meditate in the forest, gained kevala gyana (supreme enlightenment) and became the first jina (conqueror), deified as Adinath (the first lord).

Rajasthan_Lodhruva Jain temple idols IMG_9344_Anurag & Priya

Over time, Bharata expanded his dominions and became a chakravartin samrat. Some historians claim that India was named Bharatavarsha or Bharat after him and not the Kuru king in Mahabharata. Everyone accepted his rule, except his brothers. They renounced their kingdoms and joined Rishabhnath in the forest while Bahubali, the Strong-Armed, refused to acquiesce. He defeated his brother in combat but ashamed at his own ego and pride, abdicated the throne and undertook severe penance. He shed his clothes and attained a kayotsarga position, standing still in meditation through rain and shine. Vines and anthills grew around him but he didn’t relent till he gained enlightenment. To commemorate this, Bharatha got an emerald statue of Bahubali erected in Paudanapura. Later, Bharatha too attained moksha and was worshipped as a siddha. Subsequently, the statue was lost and no trace of Paudanapura could be found…

Rishabha was greatly revered in the ancient city of Pithunda, capital of Kalinga (modern Odisha). When Magadha king Mahapadma Nanda conquered Kalinga, he destroyed the city and brought a statue of Rishabha to his capital Pataliputra. After Rishabha, a succession of tirthankaras preached the faith through a body of scriptures, memorized and orally passed down the ages. However, history only records the existence of Parshvanath (c. 877–777 BCE) and Mahavira (599–527 BCE) and a legend in the Uttaradhyayana sutra relates a meeting between disciples of Parshva and Mahavira, which unified the two branches.

Bihar_Vaishali Lord Mahavira's birthplace Baso Kund IMG_7236_Anurag & Priya

On a recent trip to Bihar, we drove to Vaishali, erstwhile capital of the Lichchavis. Against the rustic backdrop of paddy fields, a red arch announced the birthplace of Lord Mahavira. We were the only visitors on the winding trail to Baso Kund. Beyond a compound wall, construction of a grand shrine and dharamsala was underway. A flight of stairs brought us face to face with a serene statue of Mahavira seated in meditative repose. Born to King Siddhartha and Trishala of Videha, Mahavira spent thirty years here, before attaining enlightenment at 42.

We followed his footsteps to Rajgir, whose hills are sacred to Jains as Panch Pahari. As per legend, when Lord Mahavira placed his foot on each mountain, it sparked a divine event – a mountain moved (Vipulachal), it rained jewels (Ratnagiri) and gold (Sonagiri), the sun arose from darkness (Udaygiri) and streams started to boil (Vaibhavgiri), which continues to this day. Pilgrims do a full day trail across the five mountains, ending with a visit to the Museum and Jain dharamsala.

Bihar_Vaishali Lord Mahavira's birthplace Baso Kund IMG_7250_Anurag & Priya

While Rishabha attained moksha on Mount Ashtapad (Kailash) and Neminath on Urjayant (Girnar), both Mahavira and twelfth tirthankara Vasupujya attained samadhi in Bihar at Pavapuri and Champapuri respectively. The remaining 20 tirthankaras attained nirvana at Sammed Shikharji, the Jain pilgrimage centre atop Parasnath, the highest hill in Jharkhand. Pavapuri was also the site of Mahavira’s final sermon. After his cremation the scramble to collect his ashes caused so much soil to be dug out that a pond was created! The marble temple at the centre of a lotus pond became an inspiration for future Jalmandirs.

Hills and caves played an important role in Jainism. The lonely perches were ideal spots for meditation and contemplation. Jainism flourished under royal patronage of King Shrenik of the Shishunag dynasty to the Nandas, Mauryas, Guptas, Pratiharas, Parmars and Chandelas. From Pataliputra, Rajgir and Vaishali, the faith spread across Central, North to Western India via Varanasi, Kausambi, Sravasti, Avanti (Ujjain), Ahicchatra, Mathura, Hastinapur, Saurashtra and beyond…

In the epic Ramayana, Rama pays homage to Jain monks living in South India en route to Lanka. Silappatikaram, the ancient Tamil epic was written by Ilango Adigal, a Jain. Even the main characters of his work, Kannagi and Kovalan, were Jains! Though Jainism had been prevalent in South India, a tragedy in the north gave the faith a monumental push in the south.

Bihar_Rajgir Sonbhandar eastern cave with Jain sculptures IMG_6603_Anurag & Priya

The Great Famine and the Schism

In 3rd century BCE, when Ujjain served as a secondary Mauryan capital, Jain acharya Bhadrabahu predicted a 12-year famine that would ravage North India. In those days, Jain scriptures were memorized and passed down from guru to disciple orally. Bhadrabahu had taught his disciple Sthulabhadra eleven of the twelve Anga Agams, except the last one called Drashtivada, containing fourteen Purvas. Since the famine would hamper the large Jain order from getting alms, Sthulabhadra was appointed as the leader of the monks who stayed back in Magadha while Bhadrabahu migrated with 12,000 disciples to Karnataka. Among them was Chandragupta Maurya, who had renounced monarchy and turned to Jainism. He performed sallekhana (starving to death) around 300 BC on Chikka Betta, a small hillock at present-day Shravanabelagola, called Chandragiri in his memory.

Over the passing decade, Jain practices in the north got corrupted and monks realized that the sacred scriptures were being forgotten. After the famine, Sthulabhadra held a convention in Pataliputra to recompile Jain doctrine. Only eleven Anga Agams were orally recompiled. Bhadrabahu held the knowledge of the twelfth but had left for Nepal to practice Mahaprana Sadhana, a special meditative exercise. Sthulabhadra went to the Himalayas where Bhadrabahu taught him ten purvas. On seeing his disciple misuse his newfound powers, Bhadrabahu forbade him from teaching the remaining four purvas to others. Thus, the fourteen Purvas in their original form perished with these two men.

Rajasthan_Jaisalmer Fort Jain temple IMG_2516_Anurag & Priya

When Bhadrabahu’s followers led by Vishakha returned to Pataliputra they found that the monks in Magadha had started wearing white clothes. They no longer believed that nudity was essential to asceticism and were known as Shwetambar or ‘white-clothed’. The southern camp, Digamber or ‘sky clad’, rejected all the Angas compiled by Sthulabhadra. The Magadha camp held that Mahavira, the last tirthankara, was not a bachelor. They also believed that women could obtain moksha since they considered the 19th tirthankara Mallinath to be a woman. Though rites and rituals remained the same, the faith was divided into two sects.

Unlike Chandragupta Maurya, his grandson Ashoka found solace in Buddhism after his bloody conquest of Kalinga. Buddhism jostled for royal patronage at the expense of Jainism. Life came full circle as Ashoka’s grandson Samprati adopted Jainism and helped propagate it. In first century BCE it received another boost from Emperor Kharavela Mahameghavahana of Kalinga, who conquered Magadha, retrieved the old statue of Rishabha and installed it at Udayagiri, near his capital Shishupalgadh. With earlier wooden buildings long destroyed, the caves of Udayagiri (Sunrise Hill) and Khandagiri (Broken Hills) near Bhubaneswar are the only surviving stone Jain monuments in Odisha.

Odisha_Khandagiri Jain statues carved into cliffs DSC00101_Anurag & Priya

One of the earliest Jain rock-cut shelters, these austere cells served as dwelling retreats for ascetics. Their richly carved facades depict court scenes, royal processions, hunting expeditions and scenes of daily life; each cave named after the distinguishing figure dominating the arches or doorway. Of Udayagiri’s 18 caves, the largest and most beautiful is the double storeyed Cave 1 or Rani Gumpha (Queen’s Cave). However, it is Cave 14 or Hathi Gumpha (Elephant Cave) that is most significant. The large natural cavern has a 117-line inscription of Kharvela that notes his victory over Magadha and other conquests.

Of Khandagiri’s 15 caves, Cave 1 and 2 are called Tatowa Gumpha (Parrot Caves), Cave 3 is named Ananta Gumpha (Snake Cave) after twin serpents on the arches and Cave 7 is Navamuni Gumpha (Nine sages). The trail ended at the 18th century Jain Temple on the summit dedicated to Rishabnath, built on the site of an earlier shrine.

Odisha_Khandagiri hill DSC00129_Anurag & Priya

Jainism Down South

From Kalinga, the faith found another route to South India, via Andhra and Tamil Nadu. Jainism received widespread patronage from the Kadambas of Banavasi, Gangas of Talakad, Chalukyas of Badami, Pallavas of Kanchi, Chera kings of Mahodayapura and the Ay kings of Ezhimala.

Just off the Trichy-Pudukkottai highway is the fascinating archaeological site of Eladipattam. We climbed the hundred steps cut into the western side of a hillock leading to a natural cavern where 17 rock beds were carved into the floor with a raised headrest for a stone pillow. We marveled at how the stone had acquired a mirror-like polish, weathered by time and use. Overlooking the plains, this was where Jain ascetics performed penance. The oldest of the Tamil and Brahmi inscriptions etched on the margins of the bed date back to 2nd century BCE. Today, the remote site prompted old men and young couples to seek quietude.

Tamil Nadu_Eladipattam stone beds for Jain ascetics IMG_8490_Anurag & Priya

Nearby, Sittanavasal exemplifies early painting traditions of South India. The 2nd century AD rock cut Jain temple (Arivar koil) bears bas-reliefs of a Jain acharya (teacher) and 23rd tirthankara Parsvanath sheltered by a five-hooded serpent. In a sunless cell that thrummed and magnified even our breath, our torch caught vestiges of mural art in mineral colours on the ceiling. Based on the theme of Samavasarana, the exalted heavenly pavilion where Jain tirthankaras impart knowledge to all beings, the scene illustrated fish, geese and elephants swimming in a lotus tank as a man in a loincloth plucked flowers. Though most panels were horribly ruined we caught images of a dancer, a king and queen on the pillars. The Jain imprint was visible deep in the south, with several cave shelters around Madurai and the Chitharal hill shrines near Nagercoil, a serpent shrine believed to be an old Jain temple.

The legend of the lost Mauryan statue of Gomateshwara drew Ganga ruler Rachamalla’s general Chavundaraya to a place dominated by two hills and a large lake. Following a dream, Chavundaraya shot an arrow from Chandragiri’s summit to adjacent Indragiri and the figure of Gommateshwara flashed from the big hill. At the place where the arrow landed, a similar image was carved from a monolith under the supervision of sage Arishtanemi between 980 and 983 AD. The spot with the 57 ft high statue of Bahubali was called Sravana Bela Gola (White Pond of the Monk). It became a template for other Gommateshwara statues at Dharmasthala and Karkala, where the ritual of mahamastakabhisheka (head anointment ceremony) every 12 years draws the devout.

Karnataka_Badami's rock cut caves bear Jain influences 57190035_Anurag & Priya

Sites like the Chalukyan capital of Badami and more famously Ellora, the jewel of the Rashtrakuta dynasty, bear fine specimens of India’s cave-temple architecture as well as the confluence of three faiths. Of the 34 caves carved into a basalt hill, the 12 southern caves are Buddhist, 17 in the middle are dedicated to Hinduism while 5 caves to the north, excavated around 9th and 10th centuries, are Jain. Like the Gangas, the 11th century Hoysalas too owed their kingdom to a Jain saint, Acharya Sudatta. Jainism became a powerful state religion in North Karnataka.

Beyond the well-worn Jain trail in Karnataka, we sought out offbeat places like the Saavira Kambada Basadi (thousand-pillared temple) at Moodabidri and the the jalmandir (water temple) at Varanga near Someshwara. The priest rowed us across to the shrine in the middle of a large pond with tiny kumudni (frilled lotus) flowers fluttering in the breeze like white eyelashes.

Karnataka_Varanga Jain jala mandir DSC04418_Anurag & Priya

Many shrines and basadis were built during the reign of the Vijayanagar kings when Bhatkal served as their chief port. Chandranatheshvara Basadi, the largest Jain basadi in Bhatkal built in 1556 by Narana Nayaka, was a twin-storeyed structure with three chambers on each floor. A wishbone’s throw away from Bhatkal’s old biryani hotel Kwality, was another Jain shrine, discernible only by a roadside pillar.

Between 12th and 16th centuries large scale Jain migrations took place from Mysore to Wayanad and Kerala’s ports like Calicut and Cochin. They settled as traders, dealing in cash crops and spices. Located on hill slopes and in coffee plantations, are remains of Jain shrines like Ananthakrishnapuram temple near Kalpetta, Kottamunda Glass Temple at Vellarimala and the exquisite shrine at Puthangadi close to Panamaram–Nadavayal Road.

Kerala_Wayanad-Panamaram Jain Temple DSC_0170

Perhaps the most intriguing shrine is the 14th century Jain temple at Sultan Bathery. Once known as Ganapathivattom, Tipu Sultan built a small bastion here and erected a watchtower in the 18th century. To hide his ammunition, the wily Tipu cleared the idols of the temple but retained the façade to con the British. The place was thus called Sultan’s Battery or Sultan Bathery. The Jain temple is well preserved, barring the missing idols. Hanneradu bidi (12 streets) still remains one of the traditional Jain settlements in Sultan Bathery.

We were fortunate to be at the Sri Vardhman Sthanak Vasi Jain Sangh at Kochi’s old quarter of Mattancherry around noon. For once, it wasn’t a meal to partake, but one worth witnessing! In a unique avian ritual and as per some divine clockwork, the resident pigeons circled the spire of the temple thrice before landing in the courtyard to feed. In a flurry of fluttering wings, the birds swooped into our palms for grains. Spotting the white pigeon is considered auspicious but we seemed too burdened by our karmic sins to get that lucky!

Kerala_Cochin-Feeding pigeons at Mattancherry Jain Temple IMG_9997_Anurag & Priya

Western Frontiers

Jain traders controlled maritime trade along the Spice Route in South India, Gujarat and the Silk Road skirting Rajasthan. A major stop for camel caravans since the Gupta period, the region was an important center for the Gurjar Pratihara dynasty and Jain merchants who channeled a lot of the wealth to construct magnificent shrines.

The people of Osian, an old trading town converted to Jainism after Jain Acharya Ratnaprabhasuriji impressed the local populace with his supernatural powers. However, even after converting to Jainism, locals continued to worship serpents and Hindu goddess Sachiya Mata, whose hill shrine displays decorative features of a Jain temple. Many Jain clans conduct their mundan-sanskar (head tonsuring ceremony) here.

Rajasthan_Osian Mahavira Jain Temple IMG_0061_Anurag & Priya

Osian is also an important pilgrimage center for the Maheshwari and Oswal communities who derive their name from ‘Osian-wale’. There are 15 Jain temples in Osian, the most important being the Mahavira Temple, built by Gurjara Pratihara King Vatsaraja in 783 AD. Red sandstone carvings depict various stages of the life of 22nd tirthankara Neminath besides a 32-inch tall sculpture of Mahavira in padmasana.

We visited Lodhruva, the old capital of Bhati Rajputs before Jaisalmer, straddling the old trade route. Chintamani Parshvanath temple, dedicated to the 23rd tirthankara, was destroyed in 1152 AD by Muhammad Ghori and rebuilt in the 1970s. The stunning Adeshwar Nath Jain temple fringed the dry lakebed of Amar Sagar while we continued to Jaisalmer Fort to see exquisite 15-16th century Jain temples.


Fashioned out of yellow sandstone without using mortar, the masonry blocks were held together by iron staples. Notable among the seven were the shrine of 8th tirthankara Chandraprabhu, pillars depicting apsaras and gods at Rikhabdev (Rishabh) temple, carved torana (arch) and painted ceiling of Parshvanath’s shrine, 10th tirthankara Shitalnath’s image made of ashtadhatu or eight precious metals and sensual carving of Shantinath and Kunthunath, recognizing primal human impulse. The Jain shrines of Jaisalmer Fort have often been compared to the more famous Dilwara temples of Mount Abu and the temple of first tirthankara Adinath at Ranakpur.

Legend has it that Dharma Shah, a local Jain businessman, started constructing the temple in 15th century following a divine vision. The town and the temple were named after its chief patron Rana Kumbha as ‘Rana ka pur’. Located in a valley on the western side of the Aravalli Range, the chaumukha (four-faced) shrine and quadrupled image symbolize the cosmos and the tirthankara’s conquest of the four cardinal directions. Its turrets rise dramatically and no two of the 1444 carved marble pillars supporting the temple are alike! Another proof of superlative Jain architecture is the marble carving of a snake with 108 heads and numerous convoluted tails. As the saying goes, it’s impossible to make head or tail of it!

Rajasthan_Ranakpur Jain temple IMG_0933_Anurag & Priya

Jainism flourished in Gujarat under the Solanki ruler of Patan, Kumarpal (1143–1172 AD) under the tutelage of Jain Acharya Hemachandra. Adinath, the first tirthankara, is said to have meditated atop Shatrunjaya Hill at Palitana. Today the entire hill is covered with hundreds of shrines. Owing to its sanctity, in 2014, Palitana became the first city in the world to be legally vegetarian.

The hill of Girnar near Junagadh is equally sacred as the 22nd tirthankara Neminatha attained moksha here. His idol, considered among the oldest in the world, predates the construction of the temple in 12th century. Other notable attractions include shrines of Neminath, Mallinath, Parshvanath and the golden shrine of Rishabhadev.

Gwalior Fort_Jain statues at Gopachal Parvat IMG_4997_Anurag & Priya

Perhaps the most stunning example of rock cut Jain art can be found at Gopachal Parvat in Gwalior. Midway on the slopes of the fort on either side of Urwahi road, hundreds of images of Jain tirthankaras, large and small, standing and seated, sheltered in small caves or niches are carved on the rockface. The 57 ft high monolithic figure of Parshvanath seated on a lotus is spellbinding. Built in 15-16th century by Tomar kings, these Jain tirthankara statues are one of a kind.

Despite persecution in the past and tussles with other religions, over five million people practice Jainism in India today. At Lodhruva, we watched Jain priests wearing mukhapattis (cloth covering the mouth) grind sandalwood in mortars, decorate the idols reverentially and put up colourful pennants for a festivity. The wind swept across the courtyard and the flags fluttered gently in the breeze, as if carrying the message of peace and tolerance across the land…

Rajasthan_Lodhruva Jain temple IMG_9364_Anurag & Priya


How to go
There are direct flights to Jodhpur and Udaipur for Jain sites in Rajasthan, Ahmedabad for sites in Gujarat, Gwalior in MP, Bhubaneswar for Odisha, Varanasi-Patna-Ranchi for the UP-Bihar-Jharkhand circuit, Cochin and Kozhikode for Wayanad, besides Madurai/Trichy for Tamil Nadu.

Remove shoes and leather items before entering Jain shrines. Respect the sanctity of holy places like Palitana and Dilwara where photography is not allowed.

Rajasthan_Jain circuit map IMG_0028_Anurag & Priya

Where to Stay
Most Jain pilgrim sites have dharamsalas run by temple trusts or one can also stay at boutique hotels at key destinations in greater comfort.

Suryagarh, Sam Road, Jaisalmer
Circuit: Jaisalmer, Lodhruva, Osian

Mana Hotels, Ranakpur
Circuit: Ranakpur, Mount Abu

Mayfair Lagoon, Jaydev Vihar, Bhubaneshwar
Circuit: Udayagiri-Khandagiri

Sangam Hotels, Madurai/Trichy
Circuit: Madurai, Sittanavasal, Eladipattam

Taj Hotels, Bangalore/Mangalore
Circuit: Shravanabelagola, Dharmasthala, Moodabidri, Karkala, Varanga

The Panache, Patna
Circuit: Patna, Rajgir, Pavapuri, Vaishali

Deo Bagh, Opposite Janaktal, Gwalior
Circuit: Gwalior Fort, Sonagiri

Divan’s Bungalow, Opp Gaikwad Haveli, Ahmedabad
Circuit: Mehsana, Patan, Palitana

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared on 29 March 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.


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