Chitaral Rock Shelter: Ancient Jain Abode changed as Hindu Temple
Chitaral is a village situated about 7 km north-east of Kuzhithurai Municipal Town (Kanyakumari District) in NH 47 in 8-15" N latitude, 7-15" E longitude. The village is accessible by road from Kuzhithurai via Arumanai, a distance of about 12 kms. From Chitaral junction there is a cartable road (2 km) running upto the foot of the hill. A trekking path 2 to 3 m wide, winding up to a distance of half a kilometer lands the visitor at the cave temple entry point.
The small craggy hill is called the Tiruchcharanathu Malai as per the inscriptions at the temple, meaning the holy hill of the charanas, the eight classes of Sramanas (Jains) who have attained siddhi (salvation). Thus Tiruchcharanattu malai became the hill sacred to the Jaina ascetics of the classical era (upto 5th century A. D.). The place seems to have been sufficiently famous in earlier times so as to attract Jaina ascetics from such distant strongholds as Tirunarungondai in Tirukkoyilur taluk of South Arcot district and from Kudavasal in Tanjavur district both in Tamil Nadu.
On top of the hill which is formed by a cluster of large rocks, there is a natural cave formed by an overhanging rock resting upon another. The hill profile itself is made up of two major longitudinal rock fourmations running in the south-north direction with a narrow gorge extending to a length of around 50 m in between the overlapping rock formations.
The larger cave is facing west and has been provided with an ancient pillored facade by the early Jain monks. On the north of this rock, in the cavity under the jutting natural canopy, are carved in half-relief, a number of figures of the Tirthankaras or Jain monks and of the Goddess Padmavathidevi. Of these, Parsvanatha and Padmavathidevi are standing gracefully, canopied by a multi-headed cobra. Small figures shown seated in the sattva-paryanka pose each underneath a three tiered parasol may be of Mahavira or other Thirthankaras. The central niche with projecting borders all around contains the figure of Jina Mahavira, with Chhatratrayi, Chaitya tree and two attendants. Another beautifully executed female figure, standing elegantly in tribhanga on a padmasana accompanied by attendant figures including two children and the lion mount is goddess Ambika. All the prominent sculptures are accompanied by flying vidyadharas or worshippers. Each of the rock-cut votive figure has below its seats short inscription in ancient Vatteluthu characters, mentioning donor's name and place. The striking adherance of the features of these images with the standard description given in ancient Manasara text is noteworthy. The cropeed head, hanging ear lobes, nudity of the figures, the contemplative mood, the yogic padmasan posture, the simhasana with the figures of chauri bearing Yakshas and Vidyadharas and other devatas are some of the highlights.
On the top of the overhanging rock immediately above the central shrine is built a brick gopura with a jaina figure here and there. The gopura is a lanmark and can be seen from a distance as far as two to three kilometres. There is also one large inscription of Ay King Vikramaditya Varaguna of 9th century engraved on the rock south of the the temple.
In front of the natural cave and facade with Jaina figures on pillars, there is a later structural addition with Pandyan style pillars and facade with dvarapalas, heralding the conversion of the Jain shelter as a Hindu temple even as early as A. D. 1250. This later addition contains brahmanical sculptures on some of the pillars, showering the change over from one religion to another. In the three cellas of the new addition two are occupied by statues of Mahavira nd another Thirthankara while that at extreme north contain a devi idol. A bali stone also has been constructed in the open in front of the devi sannidhanam. A matrsila stone lies on the southern extremity of the front yard proclaiming the prevalence of brahminical tantric practices since 13th century at least for some time. There is a small pond on the west of the shrine over rock. The monument as well as the surrounding hill is now protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.
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Last Revised (contents): 20 december, 2005
Last Revised (design) : 3 october, 2004