CHENNAI: The ruins of two Jaina prayer halls (Chaitya grahas), belonging to the Tamil Sangam age and estimated to be about 2,200 years old, have been excavated atop a hill near Mankulam village, about 20 km from Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The ruins are adjacent to two of the five caves that have the earliest Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions in Tamil Nadu. The caves have several beds hewn out of the rock-floor, where the Jaina monks rested.
The Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department excavated the ruins of the prayer halls in 2007. The excavation yielded large-sized bricks, grooved tiles with holes, black and red potsherds and L-shaped iron nails. The Department has published a book on this excavation.
V. Vedachalam, retired senior epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, estimated that these halls were “the earliest Jaina brick structures in Tamil Nadu.” He asserted, “No brick structure of this kind has been found in any Jaina site in Tamil Nadu.” The monks, who lived in the nearby caves, must have prayed in these chaitya grahas, which could have had an auspicious symbol or a cult object, he said.
The foundation and walls of the halls were built of bricks, which measured 35 cm x 17 cm x 6 cm. The roof was made of wooden rafters with grooved tiles that were held in place on the rafters by the L-shaped iron nails driven through the tiles.
These structures were similar to those found at the Udayagiri and Khandagiri hills, near Bhubaneswar, Orissa, which were important Jaina centres, said Dr. Vedachalam.
In 1882, Robert Sewell, civil servant and antiquarian, first noticed a few inscriptions on the brow of the caves on the Mankulam hill, near Meenakshipuram. Epigraphists V. Venkayya and H. Krishna Sastry tried to read them. Attempts to decipher them bore no fruit until K.V. Subrahmanya Aiyer, who pioneered the reading of the Tamil-Brahmi script, recognised them as having been inscribed in Brahmi. He concluded, in 1924, that the script’s language was Tamil. Others who contributed to the decipherment of the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions found in Tamil Nadu included T.N. Subrahmanian, Iravatham Mahadevan, Dr. R. Nagaswamy and Dr. Y. Subbarayalu.
On the Mankulam hill, there are five caves, with six Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions in four of them. They belong to the 2nd century B.C. The long inscription found on the brow of the rock, close to the first Jaina prayer hall, gives details of how the Pandya king Nedunchezhiyan was instrumental in sculpting the beds in the cave as “dhammam” for the chief Jaina monk “Kani Nandan.” Another inscription is about “Sadikan,” father of Nedunchezhiyan’s brother-in-law, sculpting the beds for Kani Nandan.
Dr. Vedachalam said: “Mankulam was a great Jaina centre. It must have been the largest Jaina centre in Tamil Nadu during the Sangam age. The existence of the chaitya grahas, Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions and the Jaina beds [together in one place] are of national importance.”
Today, the Jaina beds have been desecrated with graffiti incised on them or painted in different colours.