While the movie Bahubali caught the imagination of millions in the country, a village near here is debating if a sculpture identified days ago as over 1,000-year-old actually represented him. Bahubali, was the son of Rishaba, the first of the 24 ‘Theerthankaras’ of the yore, according to Jainism. A bas-relief, a type of sculpture carved out of a hillock’s side portion is being worshipped all along by the local people as “Mottai Andavar,” a form of Lord Muruga at Kanakkuvelanpatti village about 30 km from here in western Tamil Nadu. “During our recent visit to this village, we found that the bas relief situated at an elevation of about 25-30 feet is actually that of a Jain Theerthankara dating back to 10th Century AD,” Archaeologist S Ramachandran said. Standing in a straight posture, the Theerthankara is without any symbolic gestures and such a position is called “Kayoth Sarga,” Ramachandran who was formerly with the Tamil Nadu State Archaeology Department told PTI.
The Theerthankara’s bas relief is about eight feet in height, and he is flanked by “Yakshas” (attendants) on both sides, he said. According to the local people they are Valli and Devasena, symbolic divine consorts of Lord Muruga. Some archaeological enthusiasts who too visited the bas-relief opined that it could represent Bahubali. “Enthusiasts like Santharam pointing to features like the three-tier parasol above the bas relief opined that it was Bahubali, while Ramachandran, however, said it was a wrong inference,” Sugumarpoomalai, a resident and an archaeology enthusiast said. Santharam said the bas relief “looks like Bahubali when you take a look at the three-tier parasol and his other images in a standing, meditative posture.”
Village chief, Muthu Ramaiah Vallal and Sugumarpoomalai told PTI: “Whatever may be their claims. For us, the deity is our Mottai Andavar and we reverentially worship him.” Sugumar said daily poojas were being held for ages adding annual festivals attract people from neighbouring villages as well. On claims that the bas-relief could be Bahubali, Ramachandran who is also the co-founder of South Indian Social History Research Institute said “only Theerthankaras have three parasol above their head as a mark of reverence and sanctity.” This bas relief of Theerathankara worshipped as Mottai Andavar is certainly not Bahubali and is only a Theerthankara, he added.
Though Babubali was the son of Rishaba who enjoys an exalted Godly status in Jainism, he is still not a Theerthankara, the archaeologist said. Asked which Theerthankara the bas-relief represented, he said, “some features to identify a specific Theerthankara are missing in this bas relief making it difficult to identify.” To a question, he said worshipping Theerthankara as Lord Muruga could have begun several centuries ago after Jain religion faded away from Tamil Nadu. “For the people, Mottai Andavar denotes Lord Muruga of the famed Palani hill temple which is also in the same Kongu region,” he said.
The Karur region (under which the village falls) had been a flourishing centre of Jainism as early bout 2000 years ago. Brahmi inscriptions dating back to 2nd Century AD threw light on the royal patronage from Chera kings for Jain monks, the archaeologist who is also an epigraphist said. Inscriptions say how rock beds on hillocks were chiselled for Jain monks to practice austerity and lead a secluded, pious life in places like modern day Pugalur in Kongu region, he said.
Against popular belief, Jain monks were also well-versed in music and and rock bed inscriptions (Circa, 4th Century AD) found at Arachalur in the the same Western Tamil Nadu region speaks volumes about it, he said. According to Jain tradition, the archaeologist said Theerthankaras are regarded as holy gurus who top the five-tier hierarchy of preceptors (Pancha Parameshti).
After being born ashumans they attain ‘Moksha,’ through rigorous penance and such Theerthankaras are regarded as high as God by Jains. Yakshas are semi-divine in status in Jainism and they attained it through virtuous deeds. In bas-relief and statues of Theerthankaras, they stand near the top gurus as attendants.