The little-known cave temple at Thenparankundram

Lakshmi Sharath
Lakshmi Sharath, Contributing Writer
A cave temple dedicated to Umai Andar stands on the rocks in Thenparankundram, and a small flight of steps leads up the mandapam with ancient sculptures.

It had been raining off and on ever since we reached Madurai. The dark clouds were a constant companion as we waded through the sea of people who had gathered around the Meenakshi temple. We went past the markets and drove down 8 km towards Thirupuramkunram, a cave temple dedicated to Lord Muruga. I was visiting one of the six abodes of the deity and this was special as it was here that he had married Deivayanai, the daughter of Indra, the king of heaven.

The sheer size of the shrine took us by awe. A towering gopura stood amidst the rocky terrain. Carved inside a huge hillock, the temple had several mandapas. It was believed that the temple was converted into a Jain shrine and was reconverted to Hinduism later. Although the temple seemed ageless, inscriptions pointed to the 7th century Pandya period while the massive sculptures dated to a later Nayaka era. As we waited in the queue, we a felt like we were nestled inside the hill, while we waited patiently to pay respects to the deity.

We stepped out to see the rain tumbling down. Peacocks arrived from nowhere, standing atop the hills. As Lord Muruga’s favourite vehicle, they seemed to have made their home here as well. It was almost twilight. We walked around and found a board that led us inside a path filled with trees. The rains became a heavy drizzle. A flight of steps took us towards another small cave temple.  And, there was no one around except for the loud peacocks and the monkeys enjoying the pleasant weather  as they stared at the new visitors.

What we saw in front of us mesmerised us. A cave temple dedicated to Umai Andar stood on the rocks, as a small flight of steps took us up the mandapam or the hall, which had some ancient sculptures. There was Nataraja and his consort Sivakami. Ganesha and the three Saiva saints were carved on the outer walls. It was referred to as Thenparankundram.

It slowly became dark. We could hear our own echoes. Suddenly one of the walls were lit up. A local guide walked in with a torch and showed us a sculpture. He explained that this was Lord Shiva in the form of ‘Arthanareeswarar’. We followed the light to see the deity, which was a combination of Shiva and Parvati carved together in one form.

The guide gave us a little bit of information. Protected by the ASI, this Pandya temple was probably a Jain cave, which was later converted, according to the rock inscriptions near a tree. It, apparently, served as a monastery for the Jain saints who lived in these hills. One can see lotus medallions carved on the pillars here.

More inscriptions referred to the 13th century Pandya ruler, Sundara Pandiyan, and it said that a Saiva saint, under the patronage of the king, converted this Jain monument into a temple and named it ‘Sundara Pandian Eswarar’ Temple after the monarch. It was believed to have been destroyed in the 14th century during many wars.

Jainism thrived in and around Madurai many centuries ago, and the guide told us that there were more than 25 such cave temples with inscriptions in and around the city. Some of them are located in Samana Malai, Kongarpuliyankulam, Vikramangalam, Anaipatti, Anaimalai, Meenakshipuram, Arittapatti, Alagarmalai, Karungalakudi, Keezhavalavu, Tiruvadavur, Kunnathur and Tirumalai.

These Jain caves have epigraphic records in Brahmi script, and they indicate that these were probably the residences of the Jain monks during the 1st and 4th Centuries. The records also indicate the names of the monks who lived there, sleeping on stone beds.

But there were several other references to it. The Saiva saints carved outside the temple is a testimony to the temple being converted to Saivism. The saint Sambadar is shown sitting on a pedestal as he is believed to have influenced the Pandya ruler away from Jainism. The temple later served as a bunker during wars for one of the kings, Sikandar Shah and it is referred to as Sikandar Malai.

The rain became heavier and made the rocks slippery. The trees danced with the wind and they seem possessed. The peacocks merged with the night sky. We hurriedly left Thenparankundram only to merge with the crowd, a melange of devotees, tourists, vendors and beggars around the main shrine. As we waked through the rocky corridors, looking at the divine shrine, I realised how little we knew about our own heritage and culture.