The earliest existing religious vestiges in Tamil Nadu are
the natural caverns, which once served as the abodes of Jaina monks, found
in some of the hills in Tirunelveli,
Periyar, Trichy, South Arcot and North Arcot districts.
Such abodes numbering to more than one hundred have been brought to light so far, by the assiduous efforts of the archaeologists over the last five decades. These caves, which are found amidst picturesque surroundings, had been resorted by mendicants who resolved to spend their lives in splendid isolation, engaging themselves in contemplation and religious pursuits.
The early Jain caves in Tamil Nadu are important for several reasons. They represent the earliest lithic monuments in this region; the caves generally contain the earliest epigraphic records in Brahmi characters paleographically assigned to a period from 2nd century BC to 3rd or 4th century AD and above all, they provide authentic evidence of the early spread of Jainism in Tamil Nadu.
Salient Features Of The Caves
The salient features of the early resorts of the wind-clad recluses may be summarized as follows:
The natural caverns were made suitable for habitation by cutting stone beds in them. The beds were chiseled smooth with one side raised a little to serve as pillows. The over hanging rock was cut in the form of drip-ledge so as to prevent rainwater flowing into the cave shelters.
Sometimes, the caverns were provided with structural additions in front in the form of thatched roofs supported by wooden poles. This is evident from a number of holes cut into the open rock surfaces in front of the caves. It deserves special mention that these "holy residences" were mostly located near springs of water, which catered to the basic needs of the ascetics.
Distribution Of Jain Caves
The early Jain caves are found in almost all the districts, but the majority is reported from Madurai. There are about twenty six caves with not less than one hundred and forty stone beds in places like Anaimalai, Alagarmalai, Arittapatti, Tiruparankundram, Muttupatti, Vikramangalam, Karungalakkudi, Kilavalau, Kongarpuliyankulam, Mankulam, Tiruvatavur and Varichiyur - all situated within a radius of 20 miles from Madurai town. The Brahmi records inscribed on these early monuments, generally, assigned to the 2nd - 1st centuries BC, refer to the names of the resident monks as well as the laity who caused stone beds to be cut.
Trichy district comes next in the order and is represented by three pallis (Jain temples) at Pugalur, Sivayam and Trichy rock fort. Similarly, South Arcot also has three caves at Jambai, Paraiyanpattu and Tirunatharkunru, but they are slightly later in date. Kurralam and Marukaltalai are the two early Jain centres with cave beds and Brahmi records in the Tirunelveli district. Pudukottai, Pasumpon, Periyar and North Arcot districts are represented by one each containing interesting lithic records.
Apart from these, there are about 30 more natural caverns with a series of stone beds in Pudukottai, Sittannavasal, South Arcot and North Arcot districts. But they do not posses early Brahmi inscriptions. Their conspicuous absence renders the difficulty of assigning these caves to an early period.
Thus, the period of the foundation remains a mystery unsolved. The available sculptural and epigraphic evidence from the aforesaid centers belong to the 8th and 9th centuries AD. Perhaps, the sculptures representing Tirthankaras, Yakshas and Yakshis were added in the already existing Jain foundation.