Wayanad’s Jain shrine set to come out of ruins, finally

The contrast is striking. Amid the thick of rain-fed coffee plantations that define much of the modern-day character of a hilly stretch in southern India lie the architectural relics of a culture that originated in the country’s dry north-western terrain 2,500 years ago.

The sight at placid Panamaram is poignant, yet beautiful. In the heart of rugged Wayanad in northeast Kerala are a couple of ruined Jain temples that are estimated to be eight centuries old. Amid the luxuriant greenery in Punchavayal village, they exist today as ornately-carved black-and-grey pieces in granite, as if posing a jigsaw puzzle of sorts for the casual visitor.

To be precise, Panamaram has two abandoned Jain shrines within a radius of half a kilometre. And both of them bang inside two plots of private coffee plantations!

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Among the two, the better-known Janardana temple has recently gained prominence after the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) chose to lend it a ‘national heritage’ status. An announcement on this was made in Parliament in 2009, after which the ASI has made visits to the shrine that is believed to have been destroyed during the invasion of Mysore king Tipu Sultan (1750-99) who was, paradoxically, also a poet. More recently, ASI is set to renovate the temple. The official documents to this effect have been cleared; it’s official now.

The local people are happy.
“Of late, we have anyway seen more number of tourists visiting Panamaram, basically to see the ASI-enlisted temple,” notes P Rajagopal Nambiar, who runs a homestay in the locality, which also has a third Jain temple — this one functional, and named after Chandranatha Swamy, the eighth of the 24 Tirthankaras who are the classical role-model spiritual guides.

Puthanangadi Pasvanath, who is a priest at the Chandranatha Swamy temple rebuilt with concrete 55 years ago, says his late father A C Ajithkumar, had been keen to ensure that governmental authorities took care of the two shrines. “Already anti-social elements have taken away parts of the artefacts which have been lying scattered and unattended across its premises,” says the middle-aged pujari, whose family traces its roots to neighbouring Karnataka’s deep-south territory.

The Kerala government, which is focusing on the state’s tourism with Ayurveda as the focus this year, terms it a happy coincidence that the Janardana shrine dots Wayanad which is noted for its herbal plant vegetation along the reaches of the Western Ghat.

The district, which has an ancient heritage of wisdom about Ayurveda plants and a recent trend of increasing wellness resorts practicing the treatment system, has been wooing tourists in large number in the past half-a-decade, points out the state’s tourism department. “Now, new spells of life to its historical features like Jain shrines will bring in more travellers to Wayanad,” notes a top official with the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation.

Not many even within Kerala know that Wayanad has a population of Jains. Their total being not more than 2,000 makes the figure too minuscule, but the different streak of culture they bring in makes the community an outstanding presence.

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Historian P D Padma Kumar says Jains are the first-ever community who migrated to Wayanad — way back in the 12th century when Hoysala kings who reigned Karnataka had this part east of the mountains under their rule. “Belonging to the Digambara sect, they were Kannada-speaking,” he notes. In fact, at home, the language remains the same for the Wayanad Jains.

Equally interestingly, it was in Panamaram that the Wayanad-ward Jains first settled. “Basically farmers, they found Panamaram (with its tributary of the Kabani river) a fertile place to do agriculture and earn livelihood. ‘Bailnad’ is how they used to call Wayanad,” adds the expert from Mysore.

From Panamaram, they subsequently began moving out in bunches to other parts of Wayanad. In fact, Sulthan Bathery, which is 30 km away from Panamaram, has a notable Jain temple.

“Wayanad has nearly a dozen major Jain temples; one of them (at Anchukunnu) built as recently as in 1996,” says Parsvanath, wearing a Kerala-style mundu round his waist and staying in the immediate neighbourhood of the Chandranatha Swamy temple which has a Bahubali statue erected just outside the shrine, in black marble from Rajasthan.

While this Jain temple, which was rebuilt using modern material in 1958, is inviting worshippers within the religion, the other two are finding more of tourists coming to see them and take in a feel of being amid antiquities.

Historian M R Raghava Varier points out that the stones were brought from Karnataka, going by Jaladhara inscriptions on a copper plate in nearby Varadoor Jain temple.

For now, close to 300 carvings on the big granite pillars have weathered the ravages of changing seasons. The ASI’s anticipated caretaker role would mean they would now get a longer duration of life for aesthetes, historians and — perhaps most importantly — tourists.

(The writer is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and media consultant.)

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