(Last Updated on : 07-04-2009)
The references of Jainism in Tamil Nadu were found as early as in the Indian epic Valmiki Ramayana. The Jains of Tamil Nadu are known as Samanars. The stone inscriptions on Jainism are found in the archaeological evidences of Tamil Nadu. Tamil Jains are a macro community and their population is around 85000, which is almost 0.13% of total population of Tamil Nadu.
Tamil Jains are part of the Jain Digambara sect and they speak in Tamil at home. They can be found mainly in northern Tamil Nadu, mostly in the districts of Chennai, Kancheepuram, Vellore, Thiruvannamalai, Cuddalore and Thanjavur. These original Jains of Tamil are not like those who have settled in Tamil Nadu in the past century and who speak Hindi, Marwari, Gujarati or other languages. These Tamil Jains have their mother tongue Tamil only. The legacy of the Tamil Jains is more than 2000 years old. The early Tamil Brahmi Jain inscriptions in Tamil Nadu are of 2nd century BCE.
The emperor Chandra Gupta Maurya left his Kingdom and throne to become a Jaina monk under the great Jaina scholar and pontiff Acharya Badrabahu. He did this during a famine in North India. These monks of Jain used to follow a rigid code of conduct. But the famine came on the way of their routine, so almost 8000 monks transferred to the South India mainly to Tamil Nadu. They got huge support from the householders there. One of the very popular monks of Jains named Sri Vishakacharya reached Madurai and spread Jainism there. The peak period of Jainism in Tamil Nadu was during the rule of the Kalabhra kings. Being a follower of Jainism, he banned the animal sacrifices in rituals. The Jains spread and made their base strong in Tamil Nadu during the Pallava period also.
The Capital of Pallavas, Kanchipuram, which was the centre learning for all Indian religions, was inhabited by great Jaina Acharyas such as Sri Vamanacharya and Sri Pushpadantha Acharya. They propagated and led the lights of Jainism in Kanchi as well as in whole Tamil Nadu. The northern parts of Tamil Nadu were hugely affected by the Jains as they built many educations centers and temples there. These Tamil Jain educations centers were known as 'Samana Pallis' and impact of it can be seen in the schools of Tamil Nadu of today also.
The Chera Kings of Tamil Nadu used to build stone beds for the use of Jain monks in the Sangam period. The monks would sleep only on the barren floor. The Jainism in Tamil Nadu got more flourished during the Chola rule. The Chola kings provided money and land to set up Jain temples. The Jain nuns also established a university only for the women at Vedal in Tiruvannamalai district.
After this, the Pandya rulers also helped in building many Jain cave temples, stone beds and abode for the Jain monks. The inscriptions and stone images for worship created in that era can be seen in the remains of them surrounding Madurai and South Tamil Nadu.
The Jainism in the Southern part of Tamil Nadu saw a decline in the 6th and 7th centuries AD as the religious conflicts started then. But in northern part the Tamil Jains were not much affected and continued to grow further.
The ruling families of Vijayanagar also patronised Jainism. But now, the Jain community is mainly limited to the northern parts of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil Jain families are now seen in Chennai, Thiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Villupuram, Cuddalore, Vellore, Thiruvannamalai and Thajavur districts of Tamil Nadu. The Jain temples built in Dravidian style can be seen in these places like Vandavasi, Arni, Tindivanam and Vizhupuram. Worship in these temples takes place daily by the Tamil Jains. The main source of income of these Tamil Jains is agriculture. They have now mixed well with the local peoples without any outward differentiation.