Article: Jain holy places

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

South India

The Saavira Kambada Basadi in Mudrabidri is known by several names, including the Thousand Pillar Temple. Dedicated to Candraprabha-svāmi, the eighth Jina, the temple was completed in 1430. The village in Karnataka is a popular pilgrimage site.

Thousand Pillar Temple
Image by rjstyles – Riju K © CC BY 2.0

According to the Jain tradition, a 12-year-long famine led to the migration of part of the community to southern India in the third century BCE. It is said to have been led by Bhadrabāhu, the religious teacher, and the Maurya emperor, Candragupta. Reaching the area corresponding to modern Karnataka, they are believed to have ended their lives by performing the ritual of fasting unto death on the Candra-giri at Śravaṇa Beḷgoḷa.

In Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and, to a lesser extent, in Kerala, there are long-settled Digambara communities. The numerous holy places in these regions signal their presence as far back as the first centuries BCE.

The main holy sites that are still thriving and attracting pilgrims, in particular on the occasion of festivals, are:

  • Shravana Belgola in Karnataka
  • Mudabidri in Karnataka
  • Humcha in Karnataka
  • Gommatagiri in Karnataka
  • Melsittamur in Tamil Nadu
  • Ponnur in Tamil Nadu.

Numerous other sites that have now fallen out of use were prestigious at one time, as various remains show. Examples include Sirudkadumbur and Valathy in Tamil Nadu, which feature rock-beds with inscriptions where Jain ascetics ended their lives by fasting to death. The rocks are often engraved with inscriptions and Jina images. There is a plethora of caves where ascetics stayed in retreat, which are also sculpted with Jina images. Aihole and Badami in Karnataka are famous examples of such sites. Finally, there are abundant temples in south Indian style to be found in the area. Famous ones include the Karnataka sites of Pattadakal, Hampi, Humcha and Moodbidri while Melsittamur is the best known in Tamil Nadu.

Age and identification of holy places

Being rooted in the past is a determining factor in the definition of Jain sacred places. A recurring concern in Jain guidebooks, whether older or modern, is to establish the connection between the traditional name of a holy site and its actual location. This is not an easy task because names may have changed in the course of time.

From the late 19th century onwards the age of holy sites became an issue in India, parallel to progress in excavations and archaeology. For contemporary Jains it has become politically and culturally important to stress that their tradition is both old and distinct and that they form a separate community within Indian society. The dominance of various religious groups in India in different periods means that Jains have always had to struggle to be heard. Archaeological remains are proof of the antiquity of the distinct Jain identity.

Jains and Hindus

Mount Girnār has been a famed holy site for both Jains and Hindus for centuries. The highest point in Gujarat, the mountain has hundreds of Jain and Hindu temples on the steep slopes of its five peaks and even at their summits.

Peaks of Mount Girnār
Image by Le Batteur De Lune © CC BY-NC 2.0

It is interesting to note that several Jain holy places of antiquity are also names of well known early historical and religious centres, quite apart from their association with Jainism. Some of them, like Banaras and Ayodhyā, have been known as Hindu holy spots from the earliest times. It is likely that the Jains were keen on establishing a connection with them to claim their place as 'an ancient component of the north Indian religious environment' (Dundas 2002: 220).

Archaeological findings and historical sources show how several sites have not been associated with one religious community for eternity. They may have changed hands or were used simultaneously by different faiths.

One example is Mount Abu in southern Rajasthan, a Jain holy place from the 11th century onwards. These Jain associations were preceded by a Hindu presence. In fact Mount Abu was known as a place where a ceremony for the Hindu Rajput class was held. The story in the chronicles of the Kharatara-gaccha, a Śvetāmbara monastic order present in western India from the 12th century onwards, points to competition between religions. A Jain religious teacher found an image of the Jina Ṛṣabhanatha or Lord Ṛṣabha by the temple dedicated to the local Hindu goddess Arbudā. This was the justification for a Jain temple but the local Hindus allowed this only after the Jains paid them for land on which to build the temple (Dundas 2002: 221). Such stories show how both Hindus and Jains had claims to the place and how such potential conflicts could be resolved.

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