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Realizing the value of thousand year Tamil Jain idols lying abandoned on a paddy land, a Ramanathapuram village came together to protect them.
Sculptures of Rishabhanatha, the first Tirthankara, and Mahavira, the last and 24th Tirthankara, of Jainism were lying abandoned on a paddy land in Mel Arumbur, a remote village in Ramnad district of Tamil Nadu for a long time. After realising the importance of the 10th Century AD sculptures, Muthuswamy, an elderly man in the village, began performing pooja to the idols. He then started constructing a tiny shelter to house the sculptures in 2020 to help preserve these relics of Tamil Jain heritage. With the support of the local people, he somehow managed to construct the shelter, but was not able to finish the floor and the passage due to shortage of funds and pandemic-imposed restrictions.
Renowned archaeologist V Vedachalam, who came to know about the ancient sculptures of Tirthankaras, informed Anantharaj, secretary of the Madurai Jain Heritage Centre, about it. Anantharaj and Vedachalam soon visited Arumbur to explore the possibility of installation of the sculptures. Even though the construction of the shelter was complete, many other important works such as platforms to install the sculptures and laying of pathways were pending. Anantharaj also sought help from the members of the Ahimsa Walk (It was in 2014, a group of Jain scholars and activists started Ahimsa Walk every month to the remote villages to reclaim the neglected Jain idols and monuments across Tamil Nadu). The remaining work of the shelter was completed in a couple of months.
However, the opening of the shrine and installation of the ancient idols were held recently in a unique style. To create awareness among people about ‘Ahimsa’, the core of Jainism, and the significance of ancient sculptures, the 79th Ahimsa Walk was organised in Arumbur itself. The walk has become popular since it was launched in 2014 as it helped create awareness among people about the historic and cultural significance associated with the Jain sites in Tamil Nadu. The villagers were invited. Booklets in Tamil mentioning the story of Mahavira and the core principle of Jainism were distributed to the people, particularly to the students who were assembled there. Senior heritage activists who led the Ahimsa Walk spoke about the importance of preserving the ancient sculptures. Muthuswamy, who took initiative in preserving the idols, was honoured with other senior citizens in the village. The event was an eye-opener for the villagers, many of whom regretted being ignorant about the significance of the ancient Jain idols in the village. The Mahavira sculpture is one-and-a-half-foot tall and the Rishabhanatha is three-and-a-half-foot-tall. Even though both were lying in the open for long, experts feel that they didn’t face much ruins.
Renowned archaeologist V Vedachalam, who came to know about the ancient sculptures of Tirthankaras, informed Anantharaj, secretary of the Madurai Jain Heritage Centre, about it. Anantharaj and Vedachalam soon visited Arumbur to explore the possibility of installation of the sculptures.
The opening of the shrine and subsequent installation of Tirthankara sculptures were conducted following the traditional procedures mentioned in the ancient Jain texts under the supervision of a senior Jain pundit. The five vows of Jainism – ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), brahmacharya (celibacy), asteya (not stealing) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness)– were explained to the villagers. A simple feast was served in which all the villagers and members of the Ahimsa Walk participated. After lunch, the members of the Ahimsa Walk left for other abandoned sites in the region. But before they left, they requested Muthuswamy to perform a weekly pooja in the shrine, which he agreed.
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