Millions of years in the past, at the site where Sittanavasal is now, in the Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu in southern India, a mountainous rock emerged over time out of the earth. It still stands there today, and at some point thousands of years ago, Jain monks went on a steep climb up to the top of the solid rock extending hundreds of feet high, and, with only a narrow path to follow along the ledge on the far side of the rock; there they made their way to a low-ceilinged natural cave, known as Eladipattam. In the cave they carved out seventeen stone beds and stone pillows, where the monks slept, and no doubt they spent long days and hours in meditation in this remote, mystical place high above the universe, where only the wind travels.
One of these stone beds contains a text in the Brahmi script, in the Tamil language, which may date back to either the first century BC or, as the sign says, to the second or third century BC. Other Tamil inscriptions are from later on around the eighth century AD. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of modern graffiti.
It’s not certain how long Jain monks remained in this spot—at least until around the ninth century AD, since a nearby Jain rock-cut temple contains frescoes from that period.
The temple, Arivar-Koil is very small, with just two rooms; in one room are three life-sized sculptures of Jain saints. The one to the left is Parsvanatha, the 23rd Thirtankara, and across from him sits a Jain teacher. The third figure is thought to be another Thirtankara. Jain beliefs are complicated; the Thirtankaras are neither gods nor humans, but they are enlightened beings. Jains are known for their particularly strict adherence to the teaching of ahimsa, or non-violence, which is common to all the spiritual traditions originating in India.
Several million Jains live in India today; however, they now represent less than one percent of the population. In earlier centuries, following the first century AD, both Buddhism and Jainism held sway on the Indian subcontinent. After that time Hinduism gradually regained its position as the predominant religion of India, and Buddhism especially took hold throughout the rest of Asia. As a general rule though, there has been neither violence or animosity among the various spiritual traditions native to India, and, for the most part, they have co-existed with mutual respect and the recognition that they hold similar value systems.
The innermost room of the Arivar-Koil temple contains in the ceiling a circular feature, and the room itself is an echo chamber. Our guide, who knew yoga breathing techniques, was able, by breathing completely silently, to cause the entire room to be filled with a very loud sound of the syllable, Om. No one else there could produce this effect although the rest of us tried. We could, by uttering out loud the sound Om observe that the sound grew louder and louder as it reverberated in the room. But only the guide could produce the remarkable effect of his silent breathing producing a loud audible sound, amplified through the circular feature in the ceiling. So much for the principles of science that lay down the laws of physics, of what can be true and what can’t, since clearly physical laws do not allow sound to come from nowhere—but a loud sound did indeed spring out of the silence of the temple.
I was reminded of one of the tombs at Sakkara, in Egypt, where there is a room also cut out of a single solid stone, no larger than eight feet by ten feet, where when one made a sound, the room picked up the sound and echoed it in a remarkable way. One is reminded also of the myths of ancient Britain, where it is said that Merlin transported giant standing stones by sound alone—and even that there are standing stones, among the 10,000 stone circles scattered throughout the British Isles and Brittany, that have the power to move by themselves in the night—who knows, perhaps they do.
In the temple at Sittanavasal, there are also frescoes, beautiful works of art, some are identical to those found in the Brihadeswara Temple in Trichy not too far away.
The paintings on the walls are remarkable, done with great sensitivity and artistic skill. The central painting is of a pond with lotuses that are being picked by monks, fish, animals, and by the ducks and swans that live in the lake. Other paintings also feature flowers and plants.
Sittanavasal carries to this day a sense of peace and the presence of the otherworldliness of the ancient Jains who led lives of self-sacrifice and devotion.