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Last Updated Sunday March 18 2018 02:49 PM IST

Jainism, Kerala and the rock-cut temples

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Jainism, Kerala and the rock-cut temples Madavoopara Rock Cut temple, Thiruvananthapuram. Photo: Onmanorama

Once, long ago, Jainism had been wide-spread in India, including Kerala. It is now a minority religion everywhere, and in Kerala, the practitioners are very few indeed. But several relics, especially rock-cut cave- temples, have been found in several locations across Kerala. Most had been abandoned until they were re-discovered. Hindus converted them into temples, and converted icons of Tirtankara and other Jaina deities to Hindu gods and goddesses.

Interestingly, though cave temples are not free-standing structures, floor plans seem to have anticipated later Hindu designs. They are similar to the Pallava rock-cut 'ratha' style found in Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu). The icons sculptured in the round, as well as bas reliefs, are exceptionally beautiful, charming the eye. Native Hindu myths have been woven round them. We list below some better-known examples.

Madavurpara cave

This is in Thiruvananthapuram district, beside the road to Pothankode from Chempazhanthi, at the end of granite hill at Madavurpara. It is about 1300 years old. An inclined pathway leads up to thirty three steps carved on the rock, and to a square chamber carved into rock. The main installation now is of Siva lingam mounted on a pedestal carved out of the rock. It had been deserted through centuries, and jungle had grown around it. About a century back, some persons who had come to collect firewood cleared the area and discovered the temple. They consulted a nearby Brahmin, who promptly claimed it as an installation of Siva. Now it is under the Kerala Archaeology Department

Vizhinjam Rock temple

Jainism, Kerala and the rock-cut temples Vizhinjam Rock-Cut temple. Photo: Onmanorama

In Thiruvananthapuram district, not far from the famed harbour project site is the Vizhinjam Rock Cut Temple, which is one of the smallest such temples in Kerala. The history of Vizhinjam goes back to when the Ay dynasty ruled. The temple is a carved big boulder, excavating a single chamber. The main installation is of Veenadhara Dakshinamurthy (Dakshinamurthy with the Veena), a form of Siva. At one side of the entrance, Siva as Kirata(Hunter) has been sculpted in bas relief; on the other, Durga (Goddess) and Mahishasura (demon resembling he-buffalo). Durga is the principal deity nowadays. Devotees bring a sample or representation of the object they most desire to possess; place it on a plantain leaf and pray. It is believed that Goddess will lend it on condition that it is returned to after use. There is a myth of a greedy man who failed to do so. Seeing a lady obtain gold ornaments, the greedy man cried out: 'I have seen it.' Goddess cursed him to be blind, and his progeny to be born blind. It is believed that such a family of blind people does exist in the vicinity. The temple is now under Archaeological Survey of India.

Thrikkakkudi cave temple

Jainism, Kerala and the rock-cut temples Thrikkakkudi Cave temple. Photo: Onmanorama

In Pattanamtitta district, 11/2 km from famed Trikkaviyur Siva temple. The cave is on a big granite hill facing another big rock in a 5 acre plot.

Excavated in the Pallava style, circa 8th century CE, several statues have been carved from the single rock. The sanctum sanctorum is a circular chamber, 20' in diameter, excavated in the rock. In the centre is a 31/2 feet high Sivalingam. Behind is carved a mirror shaped like the petals of a lotus. There is a passage, 4' wide and 20' long, leading to an ardhamandapam (antechamber) from which stone steps climb up to the main installation. There are two Dvarapalaka (gate guardian) figures, one on each side, guarding the steps. This became a standard feature of Hindu temples later on, mandapam (platform in front), sopanam (flight of steps to sanctum sanctorum), and Dvarapalaka figures. But in contrast to what you see in the temples of this day, the Dvarapalaka's here are unarmed, standing with folded arms, representing suppressed energy, and conveying the power of non-violent moral influence. On the northern wall of the excavation there is an icon of Ganapathy, while on the south is carved the figure of a bearded hermit with matted hair, his arms lifted and hand folded above his head.

The legend of its foundation: built by fugitive Pandava brothers during the year of their enforced disguise. This densely forested site must have struck them as ideally suited. But, fearing that agents of enemies Kaurava might discover them, Hanuman, disguised as a cock, warned brother Bhima. They left in a hurry without completing the construction. It was taken over by the Travancore Devaswam Board in 1967 but is now under the State Archaeology Dept.

Kottukal rock-cut temple

Jainism, Kerala and the rock-cut temples Kottumkal rock cut temple. Photo: Onmanorama

The origin of this temple, near Anchal in Kollam district, is unknown. Carved out of a single rock, it is also known as Kuttikkal. Situated in 11 cents of land, it faces east. There are two rock-cut chambers, each 10ft x 8ft, each with a Sivalingam on a pedestal. An icon of Ganapathy has been carved on the outside surface. An octagonal rock pavilion is on the south, on one side of which is a sculpted form of Ganapathi, and on the other side, one of Nandikesvara (bull-vehicle of Siva). On the north wall of one chamber, figures of Hanuman and Nandikesvara have been carved. All these have been carved out of a single rock.

Significantly, proportions of the temple as well as the figures accord to the prescriptions of the Tantrasamuchayam, definitive authority on Hindu temple art and practice in Kerala. Interesting details are: a channel to discharge storm water during rains; a boulder in the yard representing Yogiswaran, the personified deity of yoga; and a rock called 'Chummadu' to the rear.

One of the several legends associated with this sacred site relates that a devotee of Siva dreamed that the rocks in the place were being carved by Siva's demons. When he woke up, he found the temple as he had seen it in his dream. According to another story, two Brahmin godlings erected it in a single dawn. Before they could finish, a cock crowed and they had to leave it unfinished. It is now under the control of the State Archaeology Department.

Kallil Goddess temple

Jainism, Kerala and the rock-cut temples Kallil temple. Photo: Onmanorama

It is on top of a hill, far away from habitations, at Methala village near Perumbavur in Ernakulam district. Etymologists derive the place name from proto-Dravidian 'KAL" which means to dig. It is believed to have been a Jaina place of worship, circa 9th centuary. CE, from when Jainism began to decline in Kerala; Hindus took it over. It is situated in about 64 acres; one has to climb 120 steps cut into the rock to access it. The rock seems to be unsupported, and the installation is in a chamber carved in it. The icon is protected with a metal cover, and represents the Mother Goddess.

The legend narrates that a team of collectors of non-timber forest produce chanced on the site, and found a pretty girl hiding in the rocks. They found that her abode was built of granite throughout, even the roof being formed of stone slabs – hence the name 'Kallil' which translates to carved in stone.

Irunilamkodu Rock temple

Jainism, Kerala and the rock-cut temples Irunilamkodu rock cut temple. Photo: Onmanorama

At Mullurkara in Thrissur district, it resembles a prostrate woman lying on a rock. The deity, Mother Goddess, has been always worshipped ignoring caste distinctions, all devotees being treated as equals. Anything, except meat and fish, may be offered to the Goddess.

Traditionally, there was no intermediary Brahmin priest in the past. The place is famous for a cure of corns afflicting the feet. Devotees bring pappadam-s (thin cakes made of rice and urad dal paste dried in the sun, and to be fried in oil), fry them in oil at the temple site, and break them by stepping over them. Other offerings are of wooden or mud replicas of poisonous creatures like scorpions, centipedes, etc., and of tortoises; this is believed to cure the devotee of stomach ailments. Significantly, in the rock above the temple space, there used to be seven burial chambers, of which only one is intact now.

Trikkur rock temple

Jainism, Kerala and the rock-cut temples Thrikkoor Temple. Photo: Onmanorama

It is on the Manalippuzha, at Trikkur, Thrissur district. Dated to 7th-8th centuries CE, it is 150’ above ground level, and believed to have been a Jaina place of worship. The sanctum sanctorum is a chamber, 24’ x 18’ x 18’, carved into the rock. It has a Sivalingam, about 6’ high (one of the largest in Kerala) in the centre. Behind is a bas relief of Ganapathi, carved into the rock. The entrance faces north, and the lingam is installed at an angle to it. Only a side view is visible to the devotee, the only temple in Kerala where such an architectural feat has been accomplished.

Forgotten for centuries, one Kunnappilly Narayanan is credited with (re-)discovery of it. The legend: his cow did not return at dusk. Narayanan searched, and found it standing near the great big Sivalingam. A divine light permeated the scenario. Narayan hastened to inform Perumpatappu Nambudiri (Brahmin), and Paliath Achan (local Nair chieftain). They in turn consulted astronomers; and discovered that it was indeed the abode of the great god. It was also revealed that Agni, god of fire, was a guest in residence. Lest the fire is put out, no processions are taken out of the cave when it rains. A characteristic offering is rope equal in weight to the devotee, as a remedy for respiratory diseases.

Kaloothipara rock temple

Jainism, Kerala and the rock-cut temples Kaloothipara Rock cut temple. Photo: Onmanorama

It is located on the top of a rock at Kondanasseri, on the road between Guruvayur and Thrissur. The 'original' temple at this beautiful location was, it is alleged, destroyed by Tippu Sultan. The jungle covered it, until it was recovered later on. There is a tank on top of the bare rock which, surprisingly, never goes dry, even when the wells and water bodies in the valley dry up during droughts. There is 'footprint' on the rock, believed to have been left behind by Sri Krishna.

Uravappara Subrahmania Swamy temple

Jainism, Kerala and the rock-cut temples Uravappara. Photo: Onmanorama

It is a big rock, about 600’ above ground level, on the Thodupuzha-Muttom road in Idukki district. Locally, it is also known as 'Uravuppara', and sometimes, as 'Malayala Palani' (Palani of Malayala region). Legend recites that the Pandava brothers resorted to the thick forests of the region during their obligatory year of disguise. Distressed by thirst, Bhima kicked the rock, and formed a depression that is always full of water. An annual three-day festival is celebrated.


Jainism, Kerala and the rock-cut temples Branthachamlam temple. Photo: Onmanorama

Near Thiruvegappura in Palakkat district, it is associated with the legend of Naranattu Bhranthan, the wise mad man among the progeny of the Paraya woman who gave birth to the twelve clans of Kerala. It rises 500ft above ground level, extending to Rayiranallur. There are 63 steps carved in the rock to help the devotee climb the more difficult sections. It is believed to be the site where the famous mad man taught humans the importance of sustaining efforts; he used to laboriously roll a big boulder up the rock, and then let it roll down, laughing all the while. No icon has been installed for worship, but there is footprint-like depression that is worshipped. There are three tanks, believed to have been excavated by the Bhranthan.

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