Article: Cave temples

Contributed by Julia A. B. Hegewald

Icons outside cave temples

Some of the many Jina images cut into the rock face at the cave temple at Kalugumalai in Tamil Nadu. The numerous figures nearly all depict the 24 Jinas and date from the eighth to ninth centuries.

Reliefs of Jinas
Image by Balajijagadesh © CC BY-SA 3.0

A tradition of creating Jain icons outside cave temples was particularly popular in the south of India. Many images have been carved on boulders and rocky cliffs. Boulder carvings can be seen at Tirakkol in Tamil Nadu while figures carved in the rock face are found at:

Religious importance of cave temples

Cave temple at Shravana Belgola in Karnataka. The cave where the sage Bhadrabāhu is believed to have fasted to death in the ritual known as sallekhanā is a very holy site for Jains.

Bhadrabāhu's cave
Image by Ilya Mauter © CC-BY-SA-2.5

In South Asia, mountains are generally regarded as hallowed places. In Jainism, hills and mountain peaks have regularly been linked with the enlightenment of Jinas and other important teachers and personalities. In Jain caves, the religious importance of hills is coupled with the sacredness of holy ground. Natural caves are regarded as self-created divine places, and even those which have been made by hand are considered to be spaces removed from the routines of worldly life.

As well as these religious connotations, caves have a comfortable, balanced climate. They are cool in the summer months and warm during the cold winter period. These reasons account for the continued importance of cave sites throughout India.

The religious importance of caves as retreats and meditation places for Jain ascetics is still strong in the present day. Countless Jain caverns are pilgrimage sites and it is noteworthy that it usually is the legendary association with an important Jain personality and not the artistic beauty and complexity of such caves that underlie their popularity. Most ritually important cave sites have not been greatly altered architecturally, but are associated with the meditation and enlightenment of particular Jinas and Jain teachers. These caves are considered sacred because they are places of enlightenment – mokṣa-sthānas. Examples include the enlightenment cave of:

Other natural caves are not sacred by association, however, and are used today by both ascetics and lay people for temporary religious retreats, such as the meditation caves at Taranga in Gujarat and on Ponnur Hill in Tamil Nadu.

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