The columns are striking; painted yellow, red, and blue in vertical stripes, they look elegant and dramatic. Entering the Vardhamana Temple, in Thirupparuthikunram, on the outskirts of Kanchipuram, one finds oneself in a forest of columns. Further into the temple, there are niches for each of three Tirthankaras, who sit in stone, in a meditation pose. Tirthankaras are the founding saints of Jainism, so-called because they build a bridge across the ocean of suffering.
Nearer the front and off to one side, is a small room in semi-darkness; there, amazingly, are hundreds of bats, some flying, some perching upside-down. These fascinating creatures are quite at home in this temple.
Outside the temple are small herds of buffalo in nearby fields, including several young ones with their mothers.
The most magnificent feature inside the Vardhamana Temple is the amazing ceilings, all exquisitely painted with scenes of life. There are yakshas (tree spirits), elephants, horses, crowds of people, some marching in processions, some sitting down for a banquet. Some paintings of Indra, from the late fourteenth century AD, show him dancing before the Jina – who are spiritual victors. Along the painted ceiling, a king carried in a palanquin advances, followed by his attendants. In another scene a monk is meditating; he looks like he is seated in the snow, underneath trees.
In another ceiling scene Garuda, the great eagle who is Vishnu’s vehicle, is flying; further along a rider on an elephant is singing the glory of God. Many of the stories are of Jain saviors; notably Rishabhadeva and Vardhamana, the first and last Tirthankara respectively, appear in court scenes and forest scenes that are filled with elephants, soldiers, flag bearers, and musicians.
On one panel, Dharendra, the serpent king, offers his kingdom to the relatives of Rishbhadeva in exchange for their promise not to disturb the saint’s mediation. In another panel, Vardhamana (also known as Mahavira) stands beside a tree around which a serpent is coiled; the serpent is Sangama, a jealous god who is defeated by Vardhamana.
There are also depictions of samavasaranas, great celestial halls, composed of eight concentric circles, where Tirthankaras might speak to audiences of both humans and animals. Jain representations of the cosmos are very, very complex.
The Jain tradition is strictly vegetarian, for both monks and the laity. Jains consider their religion to be even older than Buddhism since they have records of Tirthankaras extending back into the distant past. (Buddhists, on the other hand say that there is a long tradition of Buddhas in the past predating Sakyamuni Bhuddha.) Either way, both faiths are very old.
The name Mahavira, by which the twenty-fourth Tirthankara, Vardhamana, is often known, means “Great Hero.” He was born in Bihar in northern India to a royal family. At the age of thirty, giving up all his possessions, his kingdom, and his family, he devoted himself to a life of meditation and renunciation. The dates of his birth and death are generally believed to be 599 – 527 BC.
It is said that Tirthankara means “full moon,” which refers metaphorically to an exalted state reached by a few, preceding the final state of deliverance and freedom from the cycle of life and death.
The first principle of right conduct for Jains is ahimsa – to cause no harm to any living being.
The doctrine of ahimsa is woven into the basic fabric of the Indian subcontinent.
Every Indian tradition teaches that all life is sacred, whether it manifests in the form of animals, plants, or humans. The Jains especially have become known the world over for their very strict, unwavering adherence, to the tenet of ahimsa; for example, Jain monks are known to wear a cloth over their faces to keep from breathing insects and to carry a broom, sweeping the ground ahead of them to avoid stepping on any insects.
To read more about Jainism in the book, Kanchipuram – Land of Legends, Saints, and Temples by P.V.L. Narasimha Rao, click here.
Photos: These photos are from other locations, not from the Vardhamana Temple.
Top photo: Dayodaya / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported / Mahavira
Second photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / “Painting of Samavasarana (Assembly hall) of a Jain Tirthankara. It depicts various beings who come to hear the preachings of the Jina peacefully. The painting is from Rajasthan 1800 CE “
Third photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / / Painting of Kevala Jnana of Mahavira (advanced state of sainthood of Mahavira)