1st c. BC - Eladipattam, 7th - 10th c. AD - Arivar-Koil
Some of the best cave paintings of medieval India are located in Sittanavasal Cave in Tamil Nadu. This rock-cut Jain monastery contains artwork comparable to famous murals in Ajanta Caves and Bagh Caves. Paintings were made in frescoe technique.
Sittanavasal rock-cut cave is located on prominent rock which rises up to 70 m high over the surrounding plain. This site is very rich with exciting archaeological monuments.
The name "Sittanavasal" has several explanations. One states that this is a distorted version of "chir-ran-nal-vaa-yil" meaning in Tamil language "the abode of great saints". Another states that this was a suburb of Annalvayil (chiru-annal-vaayil - "smaller Annalvayil".
The painted rock-cut temple is newcomer in the the ancient Jain centre of Sittanavasal. To the south, on the top of the hill there is another, natural shelter known as Eladipattam (also Ezhadippattam). It served as a Jain shelter since 1st century BC.
Eladipattam got its name from seven holes cut in the rock - they serve as steps to ascend the shelter. Inside this cave there are seventeen polished stone berths aligned into rows, each with a raised part - most likely these were beds for Jains with "stone pillows".
The largest of these ascetic beds contains inscription in Brahmi script, Tamil language from 1st century BC. Some more inscriptions in Tami language are from much later time - 8th century AD. These inscriptions name mendicants - monks, for example - Tolakunrattu Kadavulan, Tirunillan, Tiruppuranan, Tittaicbaranan, Sri Purrnacandlan, Nityakaran Pattakali. Most likely these people spent their lives in isolation in this hill.
Eladipattam served as a site of very severe penance - kayotsarga (meditation in standing posture until salvation) and sallekhana (fasting until death).
Unfortunately most ancient inscriptions are covered with recent writings of vandals.
This stone shelter continued to be the "Holy Sramana Abode" until 7th - 8th century AD.
The famous paintings are located in later rock-cut temple named Arivar-Koil (temple of the Arhats) in north-western side of rock. This temple has been cut in rock in 7th - 9th c. AD.
Facade of temple is simple, with four rock-cut columns and one pilaster to the right. This construction is new, from 20th century, built using the details from other monuments of architecture.
Temple consists of forepart - and hall - ardha mandapam (Ardhamandapam) and a smaller cell - sanctum sanctorum (garbha griham) - at the rear wall. It seems that in Pandya times there was added also another forepart - mukha mandapam, which later collapsed.
Forepart contains inscription on the right side - Tamil inscription with 17 lines. It tells about Jain Ilan-Gautaman who repaired or renovated the ardha-mandapam during the reign of king Srimaran-Srivallabhan (815 - 862 AD).
After several steps one passes by two columns and enters the ardha mandapam. It is 7 m wide and 2.3 m deep. Ceiling is approximately 2.6 m high. Left wall of this hall contains image of Parsvanatha (23rd Thirtankara), right wall - image of acharya - Jain teacher.
At the rear wall, after several steps one reaches another chamber - garbha griham.
Hall contains the main treasure of this monument - ancient paintings on ceilings and top part of columns. Paintings are also on the ceiling of garbha griham.
Originally whole interior of the temple including the sculptures, was plastered and painted. Unfortunately the paintings on the walls have been lost.
Temple and paintings in it were noticed in early 20th century by S.Radhakrishna Iyer, local historian and he described this wonderful discovery in a book devoted to interesting sites of his region. Wider scientific community though learned about frescoes later, after 1920.
Most paintings are made in Pandyan period - 9th century AD.
Central and most important drawing is a pond with lotuses, flowers in the pond are collected by monks, ducks, swans, fishes and animals in the pond. This scene shows Samava-sarana - important scene in Jain religion. Samava-sarvana is special, beautiful audience hall where Tirthankaras (great liberated souls in Jain religion) delivered sermons after they reached realisation (kevala-gnana). Bulls, elephants, apsaras and gods gathered in this audience hall to witness this grand scene.
Other paintings are floral patterns.
Tops of columns contain drawings of drawings of dancing women (apsaras) with lotuses. One of pillars contains also a drawing of couple. These drawings have been carried out with outstanding talent. Southern pillar contains drawings of king and queen with umbrella over them.
Most likely the colors initially were vivid, now they are more grey. The technique of the drawing shows well developed style in art. India has long tradition of painting on rock with many Neolithic and later paintings in natural caves.
Walls of Sittanavasal Cave are not very even and thus the plaster has different thickness - from 1 to 8 mm. First layer of plaster contains coarse sand, second is more fine - this is similar to the technique of European frescoes. Pigment was mixed with the lime and possibly some gum (in the black pigment) as well. Color was put on dry plaster. It adhered to the plaster extremely well - persisting more than 1000 years. Medieval artists had deep knowledge (which is lost now) about the natural pigments - colors did not bleach when mixed with lime and very well withstood the test of time. Artists in Sittanavasal have used black, green, yellow, orange, blue and white pigments.
Damp air in the cave facilitated growth of slime consisting of algae and lichen - throughout the centuries it covered the paintings. This slime had to be removed mechanically - with strong brushing in 1942 (Shri S.Paramasivan, K.R.Srinivasan) - happily paintings withstood this well.
Unfortunately the extremely valuable cave paintings have been vandalised. Some of the damage was done by... contemporary artists secretly copying the paintings by laying tracing paper over the ancient paintings and redrawing them. As a result nowadays the paintings are barely visible and even somewhat insignificant.
Garbha griham is small square chamber, 3 m wide and deep, with 2.3 m high ceiling.
Rear wall contains sculpted images of three figures - possibly two Thirtankaras and acharya.
On the ceiling there is carved a wheel - Dharma chakra - wheel of law. Ceiling also contains frescoes - intricate carpet design and also a scene of Samava-sarvana with lotus pond.
The small shrine has exceptional, unique echo effect: if one is humming "ohmmm" inaudibly, the room starts echoing in audible frequences. This effect is not happening if one is humming audibly.
Sittanavasal is one of important ancient Jain centre in this region of India and there are many more interesting monuments of Jains and also Hindu. Some are listed below:
To the south from Arivar-Koil there are Tamil inscriptions from 7th - 13th century AD. Written sources mention 7 inscriptions, nowadays 2 could be fouond.
Walls of cliff at the temple are adorned with few sculpted Jain Thirtankaras.
In the front of Arivar-Koil in the rock floor there are several holes - some 15 cm wide and 20 cm deep. Possibly these were used to grind the pigments.
Between Eladipattam and Arivar-Koil, on the eastern slope of rock there is exciting monument - Navach-chunai (Jambunatha's Cave), small rock-cut temple submerged in a small lake. Some skills in climbing are required to reach it. Near the tarn there grows old jambu tree. This is late Shiva temple with a lingam in centre. Occasionally, for the worship of temple, the water is removed from the lake.
At the western base of hill there is shrine of village deities including fine terracotta horses.
There are many more ancient monuments around the hill from more ancient past - megalithic burial urns, stone circles, cairns, dolmens, cists from the Iron Age, called mudu-makkal-thaazhi. These monuments are located mainly to the south-west from the hill.
Every year there are reported exciting discoveries of new caves and discoveries of new qualities such as cave paintings in the ones known before. But there still is a feeling that our knowledge covers just a small part of all these monuments of nature.