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 (600 - 630 AD). It is claimed that Mahendra-varman's territory did not extend beyond Tiruchi, and Lalitankura-Pallavesvara-griha on the Rock Fort in Tiruchi is the southern most temple he had excavated. It is also known that there are cave temples of this period and of similar style in the Pandya country where the Pallava power was unknown. One such cave temple, dedicated to Siva, with relics of paintings, perhaps belonging to the same period as that of Sittannavasal, is at Tirumalaipuram, near Tirunelveli. In the absence of any foundation inscription it would not be possible to ascertain the builder of this temple. From an inscription dated 9th century, which refers to repair and extension on the temple, one can surmise that this cave temple is anterior to this date.
In 1942, Dr. S. Paramasivan and K. R. Srinivasan were engaged in cleaning the paintings. They noticed a patch of old painting representing conventional carpet design, over which a new layer of painting was superimposed. This superimposed layer was probably the work of Ilan-Gautaman, mentioned in the inscription. The new layer spread into the garbha-griham and all over the ceiling of the ardha-mandapam, the pillars, the corbels and the beams. This new layer is laid over a ground of plaster over which the paintings that we see today and admire are put up.
THE CAVE TEMPLE - A GENERAL DESCRIPTION
From the road, a walk of about hundred feet over the sloping rock takes the visitor to the cave temple.
The plan and construction of the temple is simple. It resembles other rock-cut cave temples of 7th century in plan and style. Originally it consisted of only a garbha-griham and an ardha-mandapam in front, facing west. Both of them are excavated from living rock. According to an inscription dated 9th century, a mukha-mandapam was added during the Pandya time. But it must have collapsed, due to neglect. Presently, there is a pillared veranda in front of the cave. This structure has been added much latter, in 20th century.
THE PILLARED VERANDA
This veranda is bereft of any detail, except for a famous inscription. This 17-line Tamil inscription on the surface of the rock on the southern flank of this pillared veranda is of great importance giving us some clue to the dating the cave temple. It says that a Jaina acharya named Ilan-Gautaman, also called 'the acharya from Madurai', repaired or renovated and embellished the ardhamandapam and added a mukha-mandapam in front of the cave temple, which is called in the inscription 'Arivar-koil' ('temple of the Arhat') in Annalvayil village during the reign of the Pandya King Srimaran-srivallabhan (815-862 AD), also called Avanipasekhara.
The façade of this ardhamandapam 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 rock above the pillars and pilasters is carved in the form of a massive beam. All these pillars and pilasters carry large corbels (potikai) with horizontal roll ornamentation or flutings, with a plain band in the centre.
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, lotus medallions carved in bold relief.
On the northern and southern walls
of the ardha-mandapam are niches. In the northern niche is a figure of
a Jaina acharya seated in the dhyana (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. A pillar of the ardha-mantapam. The
figure of the Jaina acharya on the northern niche.
On the southern wall, placed in a similar niche, is the figure of Parsvanatha, the twenty-third Tirthankara. He is also seated in the same posture, but with a fiveheaded serpent spreading its hood over his head instead of an umbrella.
It is on the ceiling, the walls, the beams, the cornice and the pillars of this ardha-mandapam that the best known of the Sittannavasal paintings are found. Those on the walls have completely perished and parts of those on the ceilings, the beams and the upper parts of the pillars alone survive.
THE PAINTING TRADITION
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.
According to Dr. S. Paramasivan, who had made thorough analysis of the techniques of Sittannavasal paintings, the following pigments have been employed: lime for white, lamp black for black, ochres for yellow and red, terre verte for green, etc. Thus mineral colours, which are of a permanent nature, have been employed. But the information-board put up by the ASI states that vegetable dyes have been employed for the paintings.
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 SITTANNAVASAL PAINTINGS
Originally the entire cave temple, including the sculptures was covered with plaster and painted. The paintings are now found on the ceiling, top part of the pillars and the beam above the pillars. All these paintings, which would rank among the great paintings of India, are barely visible now, mainly due to vandalism with in the last 50-60 years.
These paintings include, as its subject matter, the Jaina Samavasarana, and in it the khatika-bhumi including a lotus tank, flowers, animals, bhavya-s and dancing Apsara-s, a royal couple and hamsa-s.
THE SAMAVA-SARANA IN JAINA TRADITION
Even though there is no emphasis on worship of Gods in Jainism, it teaches the worship of all liberated souls, which have advanced in their spiritual journey irrespective of the level of their achievement. So the worship of the great souls or heroes occupies an important place in the life of Jain-s.
According to the Jaina tradition there are 63 Salaka-purusha- s ('Great-Souls'). It includes 24 Tirthankara-s, 12 emperors (Chakravarti) and 27 other heroes. Of these the Tirthankara-s occupy the most prominent place and are venerated as Devadi-deva- s ('God-of-Gods'). They are in a sense the religious prophets of the Jain-s.
A soul attains the position of a Tirthankara after doing good actions. Every Tirthankara, before getting his enlightenment had to go through numerous births in different forms.
Five important events in the life of a Tirthankara are important, and are depicted in the temples and narrated in Puranam works. They are the birth, the renunciation, the realisation (attaining kevala-gnana), the first sermon and nirvana (liberation of soul). The Tirthankara after obtaining Kevala-gnana delivers a sermon in a specially designed audience hall called Samava-sarana. Gods and goddesses, human beings, birds and beasts come to witness the grand scene of the Lord's discourse. The parallel in Saivism to this hall is called as devasiriya-mandapam as can be seen in the Thiruvarur temple.
Samava-sarana, the most attractive heavenly pavilion, is a favourite motif for representation in the Jaina temples. Bhavya-s are those fortunate people who become entitled to attend the divine discourse in the Samava-sarana structure. They have to pass through -17- seven bhumi-s or regions before they occupy their seat to hear the divine discourse. Among these, the second bhumi is called the khatika-bhumi (region-of-the-tank). It is a delightful tank with fishes, birds, animals and men frolicking in it or playing in it. The bhavya-s are said to get down into the tank, wash their feet and please themselves by gathering lotus flowers, while animals such as elephants, buffaloes and birds and fishes are frolicking about and pleasing themselves too as best as they can. This tank is the one painted on the ceilings of the cave temple.
The paintings on the ceiling
In the centre up to the borders of the carpet canopy is painted an exquisite composition, 'The Samava-sarana', a lotus tank with the Bhvya-s collecting flowers and animals and fish frolicking.
The 'Samava-sarana' composition
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.