Sittannavasal (‘sith-than-na-vaa-sal’) (சித்தன்னவாசல்) is the best-known archaeological site in Pudukkottai. It is famous for its cave paintings, which are second only in importance after Ajanta paintings in the art history of India. It is perhaps the only place where you can find inscriptions in Tamil from the 3rd century BC to the 13th century AD. Also there are megalithic monuments such as stone-circles, urn and cists burials spread in the plains around the hill
Sittannavasal is a corruption of Sit-tan-na-va-yil (சித்தன்னல்வாயில்), which means ‘the abode of great saints’.
Sittannavasal is located on Pudukkottai-Annavasal-Viralimalai (புதுக்கோட்டை-அன்னவாசல்-விராலிமலை) main road about 16 Kilometers from Pudukkottai.
The village lies to the right of the road from Pudukkottai to Annavasal (அன்னவாசல்). An arch put up by the Government welcomes the visitors.
On the main road before one takes a turn to enter Sittannavasal and on the roads leading to the monuments, there are remains of prehistoric burial sites.
Most of the monuments of this place are in and around a hill, which runs along the north-south direction. The hill itself is not very tall, reaching to about 70 meters.
Following this road off main road one reaches the foothills of the hillock at which the road takes a left turn. It is from here one starts the climb to the Jain caverns, called Ezhadippattam (ஏழடிப்பட்டம்). The cavern contains a number of stone beds and inscriptions.
Further traveling on the road would take you to the western slope of the central hillock. From here one makes a short climb of some steps to reach the Jain cave temple, and its world famous mural paintings.
Town Bus and taxi services are available from Pudukkottai.
Sittannavasal is the most renowned site in the district. Most of the monuments of this place are in and around a rocky hill. On the western side of the hill is the celebrated Jain rock temple with relics of paintings, which have an important place in the Indian art history.
On the eastern side is the natural cavern with rock beds where Jain ascetics practiced severest penance, over more than a thousand years since 3rd century BC. There are innumerable Tamil inscriptions here.
To the north of this natural cavern, on the eastern slop of the rock is a small rock-cut temple submerged in a tarn, called Navach-chunai (நவச்சுனை). There are megalithic monuments like burial urns, stone circles, cairns, dolmens and cists in plenty, near to the hillock.
The Jain cave temple
The best-known monument in the district is this Jain cave temple with its mural paintings belonging to the 9th century AD.
The cave lies on the west face of the hillock. The view is of the hill from the footpath leading to the temple is somewhat frightening. The cave temple stands beneath an enormous scarp, threatening of a sudden fall any time. The sparse vegetation around, the huge hillock in the background, aloofness of the cave, all these lend an aura loneliness and forlornness.
An easy climb of about hundred feet over the sloping rock takes the visitor to the entrance of the cave temple, called Aivar-koil (அறிவர்கோயில், ‘temple-of-the-Arhats).
There is still some uncertainty regarding the origin of this temple. The temple in its architectural style resembles the cave temples built by the Pallava king, Mahendra-varman (மகேந்திர வர்மன்). But it is also known that the Pallava rule did not reach this far. The cave temple on the Rock-temple in Tiruchi (திருச்சி) – the one found on to the left of the entrance to Uchi-pillaiyar Koil (உச்சிப் பிள்ளையார் கோயில்) – is considered the southern extremity of his influence. In the absence of any foundation inscription it would not be possible ascertain the builder of this temple. An inscription of the 9th century AD within the temple mentions the addition of a mukha-mandapam (முக மண்டபம்) by a Jaina acharya from Madurai (மதுரை) named Ilan-Gautaman (இளங்கௌதமன்) during the reign of the Pandya king, Srimaran-srivallabhan (ஸ்ரீமாரன் ஸ்ரீவல்லபன்) (815-862 AD). From this it may be taken that the original temple is still older.
The cave temple architecture
The temple plan is simple and elegant. One enters the temple through a veranda. This is built by the Maharaja of Pudukkottai in the 20th century. It may be surmised that the maha-mandapam (மகா மண்டபம்) built by the Pandya king must have collapsed. Some point out the debris lying about to prove this.
Beyond this is the ardha-mandapam (அர்த்தமண்டபம்). It measures 22½ feet by 7½ feet. It is slightly taller than the garbha-griham (கர்பகிரகம்). The façade of this ardha-mandapam consists of two massive pillars in the middle and two pilasters, one at either end. The pillars are squarish at the two ends and octagonal in the middle. The pilasters are also of the same design. The living rock above the pillars and pilasters is carved in the form of a massive beam, in front of which projects a single flexured cornice (கபோதம், kapotam).
A doorway, five and a half feet by two and a half feet, approached by a flight of steps flanked by surul-vyali (சுருள் யாளி) leads from the ardha-mandapam to the sanctum.
The garbha-griham (கர்ப கிரகம், sanctum) measures 10 feet by 10 feet and of height 7½ feet. On either side of the doorway to the garbha-griham are ornamented pilasters enclosing two niches, one on either side. These pilasters are smaller but of the same type as the pillars. They have on the upper cubical parts of the outer face lotus medallions carved in bold relief. There is a large niche in each of the northern and southern walls in the ardha-mandapam. The ceiling of the inner shrine shows a wheel with hub and axle representing the Dharma Chakra (தர்ம சக்கரம்) or Wheel of the Law.
The sculpture and the matchless paintings of the cave are worth studying in detail.
The veranda is bereft of any detail, except for a famous inscription. The inscription is seen on the rear wall on the right. This records the renovation of the ardha-mandapam and building the maha-mandapam in the reign of the Pandya king.
In the niche of the northern wall of the ardha-mandapam is a figure of a Jaina acharya seated in the meditative pose, cross-legged, with the hands placed one over the other, palms upwards, resting on the folded legs. There is a single umbrella over the head of the image, which proves that it is not that of a Tirthankara (தீர்த்தங்கரர்).
On the opposite wall, placed in a similar niche, is the figure of Parsvanatha (பார்ஸவநாதர்), the twenty-third Tirthankara, seated in the same posture, but with a five-headed serpent spreading its hood over his instead of an umbrella.
On the back wall of the garbha-griham are three images carved in relief, all in the same meditative posture. The northern and central figures have triple umbrellas, showing them to be Tirthankara-s, while the southern has single umbrella, and probably represents a Chakravarti or an acharya or an Arhat.
The Sittannavasal Paintings
The Sittannavasal paintings carry on the tradition of the well-known Ajanta frescoes (2nd century BC-6th century AD, the Ceylon Sigiriya (Srigiri) frescoes of the fifth century AD and the Bagh frescoes in Madhya Pradesh of the sixth and seventh centuries AD. Sittannavasal is, therefore, an early example of the Ajanta (அஜந்தா) or post-Ajanta period, and in merit it compares well with Ajanta and Sigiriya. We may safely say that Sittannavasal is one among the earliest frescoes so far known in South India, and that they are the only example of early Jaina frescoes.
The technique employed is what is known as fresco-secco, that is, the painting is done on a dry wall. (In the Europe mural paintings are done on a moist wall and are called fresco-bueno). In this process the surface to be painted is first covered with lime plaster, then coated with lime-wash and the painting done on it. The colours used are black, green, yellow, orange, blue, and white. In 1937-39, Maharaja of Pudukkottai had the paintings cleaned. After cleaning the paintings, they applied a preservative coating, and strengthened the painted plaster, wherever it was loose, by injecting suitable cementing material without retouching any part of the paintings.
The walls, ceiling, cornice, beams and pillars were originally decorated with paintings. Those on the walls have perished, and those on the ceilings, beams and the upper parts of the pillars alone survive, albeit partly.
Of these, the remnants of the mostly disfigured paintings on the pillars and the lotus pool scene on the ceiling of the ardha-mandapam (அர்த்தமண்டபம்) and the carpet canopy on the ceiling of the inner shrine are the most important.
It is inferred that the paintings found in the garbha-griham and those in the ardha-mandapam may not belong to the same period.
PAINTINGS ON THE ARDHA-MANDAPAM
On the front face of the southern pillar is a beautiful picture of a dancer, her left arm stretched out gracefully. She has her right arm bent at the elbow, the palm held in the abhaya gesture. Her ears are adorned with patra-kundala (known as olai in Tamil), rings set with gems, and her arms decked with bracelets and bangles.
Even more graceful is the other dancer on the front face of the northern pillar. She has her left arm in the gaja-hasta gesture suggesting trunk of an elephant, while her right arm is bent at the elbow, the palm facing outwards in the abhaya gesture. The headdress and the ornaments of this dancer are very distinct. The hair is decked with pandanus (thazhai in Tamil) petals.
These two animated figures, with their broad hips, slender waists, and elaborate ornaments, recall the beauty of the Apsara of mythology; their pose and expression suggest rhythm and dynamic movement. The portraiture of dancers in Sittannavasal must rank as one among the best in the whole of India.
The painting on the other face of the southern pillar represents a man and a woman, possibly the founder, and one of his queens. The man has an elaborate kiritam (கிரீடம், diadem on the head), a patra-kundala (rings set with gems) in one ear and makara-kundala (மகரகுண்டலம், ring in the shape of a makara) in the other. His demeanor and his diadem indicate his royal status. The other figure, unfortunately, is now very indistinct. In front of these two is another figure in red, much defaced.
All these paintings, which would rank among the great paintings of India, are unfortunately greatly disfigured, mainly due to vandalism with in the last 50-60 years.
There are also paintings on the corbels, beam and cornice. On the corbel are scroll designs with lotuses. The painting on the cornice, which projects in front of the mandapam, is made up of carpet designs with conventional lotuses. The surface of the cornice in front of each of the two pillars bears a hamsa (mythical swan). On the northern wall, below the cornice on a patch of plaster, are the figures of a trident, fruits and flowers in yellow and red.
PAINTINGS ON THE CEILING
Canopies of different patterns are painted on the ceiling over the two images in the ardha-mandapam (அர்த்தமண்டபம்). That over Parsvanatha (பார்ஸவநாதர்) has both natural and conventional lotus flowers, the former in full blossom against a lotus-leaf background. That over the acharya has only a conventional lotus-pattern, now very much faded and defaced.
In the centre up to the borders of the carpet canopy is painted an exquisite composition, ‘Samava-sarana’ (பார்ஸவநாதர்), a lotus tank with the arhat collecting flowers and animals and fish frolicking.
The famous ‘Samava-sarana’ Composition
The scenes of this composition are from one of the most delightful of the Jain heavens. This heaven contains a hall known as the Samava-sarana, to which the souls of the bhavya-s (பவ்யர், ‘the faithful’) resort to hear the discourse of the Tirthankara (தீர்தங்கரர்). Before entering this hall, the souls have to pass through a number of regions in this heaven, one of which is a lotus pool where fishes, birds, animals and men disport themselves. The painting shows bhavya-s diverting themselves in a pool full of flowering lotuses. The flowers with their stalks and leaves, and the birds, fishes, makara-s, bulls and elephants are shown with a perfect simplicity, charm and naturalness.
The pose and expression of the bhavya-s shown in the picture have a charm and beauty, which compel attention. Two of them are shown together in one part of the tank. One is picking lotus flowers with his right hand and has a basket of flowers slung on the other. He is represented in a deep red colour. His companion carries a lotus in one had, the other is bent gracefully, the fingers forming the mrigi-mudra (‘deer-gesture’). His colour is orange, showing the merit of the soul. The third bhavya, an extremely beautiful figure, also orange in colour, is apart from the others. He carries a bunch of lotus over his left shoulder and lily over his right. The three figures are naked except for their loincloths. The hair is neatly arranged and the lobes of the ears are pendant.
Painting on the ceiling of Garbha-griham
The painting above the three images in the inner shrine is intended to serve as a canopy. The design suggests a carpet, with striped borders and irregular squares and circles interlinked. Within the squares are conventional lotus flowers, and inside the circles are crosses with bulbous ends. On the upper sides of the horizontal arm of the cross are human figures and on the lower sides lions.
The Ezhadippattam (ஏழடிப்பட்டம்)
The Ezhadippattam is the name given to a natural cavern where over more than a thousand years since 3rd century BC, Jain ascetics practiced severest penance.
The cavern is near the top of the centre of the hill and on its eastern side, but accessible only from the west. In the past the only approach to the cavern was over the top and along a narrow ledge in which seven precarious footholds (hence the name, ‘Ezhu-adi’ (ஏழு அடி) meaning ‘seven steps’) are cut in the rock. Proper steps have now been cut, and an iron railing provided.
The cavern is roomy but low. The floor is marked out into spaces for seventeen beds, each with a sort of stone pillow. One of them, which is the largest, is perhaps the oldest since it contains an inscription in the Asoka Brahmi script but in the Tamil language of the 3rd or 2nd century B. C. This is one of the oldest lithic records of South India.
The inscription is believed to be a record of the bed made for the use of a Jain ascetic belonging to a place in the Present Vellore district by one Ilaiyar (இளையர்) of Sittannavasal.
By the other beds names of Jain ascetics who resorted to this cavern and practiced the severest form of penance are inscribed in old Tamil script of the 8th or 9th century A. D. (According to R. Nagaswami, in the Tamil book titled ‘Kalvettiyal’ (கல்வெட்டியல்) published in 1972 by Tamilnadu Archaeological Department, these inscriptions are belonging to 4th –5th century A.D.) These inscriptions show that for about thousand years from the 3rd or 2nd century BC this cavern was a resort of Jaina ascetics.
THE NAVACH-CHUNAI (நவச்சுனை)
The Navach-chunai is a tarn situated on the eastern slope of central part of the rocky hillock. It is about one kilometer north of the Ezhadippattam, at a somewhat lower level than it. Reaching there requires a lot of rock-climbing and trekking and would need somebody to guide.
The pool takes its name from a naval-maram (நாவல் மரம்) or jambu-tree (Syzygium jambolanum) close by.
Like the Talai-aruvi-singam tarn (தலை அருவி சிங்கம் சுனை) of Narttamalai (நார்த்தாமலை) (on the Mela-malai, மேலமலை), this contains inside, a submerged rock-cut shrine. Stylistically it is a late Pandya temple (13th century AD). It contains a Siva lingam in the centre and a narrow passage to walk round. The water is occasionally baled out, and the lingam worshipped. This is locally called the Jambunatha’s cave (ஜம்புநாதர் குகை).
The megalithic burials
Megalithic burial is a typical mode of disposing the dead in most part of Tamilnadu in the past. Some suggest the period 3rd century BC to 1st century AD is considered to be when this was practiced. It may be remembered that this period is also the period of Sangam. Loosely called ‘dolmans’, these are stone-capped burial monuments with chambers and similar interment arrangements in stone. These monuments are found in many places in Tamilnadu like the districts of Chengalpattu (செங்கல்பட்டு), Vellore (வேலூர்), Pudukkottai (புதுக்கோட்டை), Ramanathapuram (இராமநாதபுரம்), Salem (சேலம்), Coimbatore (கோயம்புத்தூர்) and Tirunelveli (திருநெல்வேலி).
Locally known as Pandava-kuzhi (பாண்டவர் குழி, ‘pits-of-Pandava-s’), mandavar-kuzhi (மாண்டவர் குழி, ‘pits-of-the- dead’), kurangup-pattadai (குரங்குப்பட்டடை), or kurangup-pattarai (குரங்குப்பட்டரை, ‘monkey’s-workshop’) and mudu-makkal-thaazhi (முதுமக்கள் தாழி, ‘burial-pots-of-the-old-people’). The last name is the most widely used.
Other interesting sites
Along the western base of the hill, and beneath the central and southern parts of it, we can see the shrines to Ayyanar (அய்யனார்), Pidari (பிடாரி), and other village deities. From this one may infer that there must have been a village close to the hill on the site now covered by the dry fields.