TUTICORIN: Carved in the immortality of hard granite in the eighth century, the 1200-year-old sculptures at Vettuvankoil, the monolith temple in Kazhugumalai, speak volumes about its master craftsmen.
According to history and archaeology scholars, the uniqueness of the Vettuvankoil is the monolith 'vimanah', which is unlike the monolith ratham in Ellora and Mahabalipuram. And the site is the first example of Pandya's rich architectural skills, working on hard stones. There are about 122 sculptures in the rock cut temple with 13 statues dedicated for gods, 14 women, four nandhis, six unknown figures and 80 'boodakanangal'.
While the sculpture of Lord Uma Maheswara (Shiva - Parvathi) depicts them in a casual chatter, the one of Lord Dhakshinamurthy seems to be immersed in playing his eternal music from 'magara yazh' (Lyre). It is believed these sculptures are unique and not found anywhere else. The sculptures display a unique chubbiness in their countenances not found in other temples for even the lions carved in the stones are very comical. On the contrary are the bas relief panels of Jain monuments very near to the temple where the Theerthankaras are found frozen in the stone in their everlasting meditation, with their faces glowing in divine serenity.
R Venkataraman, a historian based in Madurai says the sculptures in Vettuvankoil can be distinguished by their chubby countenances itself. "Both the deities in Vettuvankoil and Jain sculptures are two different forms of devotion. While Saiviite temple displays the ecstasy of divine experience, the Jain sculptures speak the indulgence of it, within the inner soul. Interestingly, both the religions - Hinduism and Jainism - thrived in the same region at the same period, thus narrating the religious harmony in those days," he said. Another historical monument in Kazhugumalai is the cave temple of Lord Kaluguchalamurthy that attracts many pilgrims.
Kazhugumalai is believed to be the university of Jain philosophy, especially the abode of Dikambara monks. Though the Jains were living in the hills from the first and second century AD onwards, the present stone architecture evolved around the 8th and 9th centuries when Jainism thrived in the region. Though prosecuted in the 6th century at the rule of Koon Pandian, the Jains came back in the 7th century, patronized by Cheranmahadevi, the wife of Pandiya king Veeranarayanan and established the stone architecture in the hillock, he said. "It is from here, the Jain monuments, including the ones in Madurai flourished as the disciples of Jain monks from Kazhugumalai carried the stone carving methods to their new destinations and the hillocks of Madurai and other places acted as the colleges while Kazhugumalai was considered as university," Venkataraman said.
"Moreover, Kazhugumalai is the birth place of iconology, the study of placing the deities in the temples," says Venkataraman. "Based on the method followed in Vettuvankoil even during the eighth century, the 'agama' of placing deities evolved later in 10th century thus creating a rule book," he mentioned.