Jainism in Kerala

While reading about the Chandragiri Hills and the history of Shravanabelagola, I realize that Shravanabelagola had a special role in the spread of Jainism in Karnataka and South India. This re-ignites a desire to know about the native Jain communities of South India. Jain community has a strong presence and influence in Calcutta, Bengaluru and Madras. However many of them have migrated from North and West. I used to wonder, are there some who are natives of S.India following Jain religion? I got the answer when I met a Jain colleague in my office who belonged to Karnataka. Interesting!

At its peak, Jainism was spread well upto Kerala and there are remains of Jain temples in Wayanad. I do understand that people change their way of worship and move from one spiritual path to other with time, but there are always some who are reluctant to change and are firm believers in their own faith. Are there pocket of population in S. India who followed Jainism from the ancient time?

Here I am ready with the first part of the series exploring Jainism in Kerala.

It is difficult to imagine that Jainism ever reached the beautiful ‘God’s own country’ looking at the current numbers of native population in this region following this ancient religion that gives high emphasis on forbearance and ahimsa. Regardless of what appears now, the Jainism had its presence in this region since pre-christian era. It further spread when several Jain monks reached here in third century BC. These monks were part of the entourage of the Jain ascetics that came along with Acharya Bhadrabahu and the Emperor Chandragupta Maurya. The two leaders stayed at Shravanabelagola but rest others moved further south on the suggestions of the Acharya himself. The main objective of this group was not to convert others but to meditate in the tranquil surroundings and the favorable conditions. The presence of these monks in the region generated curiosity and some started following them with time.

It further flourished under the kings and dynasties of Southern India that promoted and themselves followed the religion. Jainism reached Kerala both from current Karnataka and Tamilnadu states, from three main routes of Mangalore, Wayanad and Kongunadu. The Jain saints were revered as the symbol of learning. In-fact the five epics of Tamil literature were written by Jain authors or had main characters following the religion. One of these epics, the ‘Silappatikaram’ republished as ‘the tale of an anklet’ was written by a Jain monk under the pseudonym Ilango Adigal meaning ‘Ascetic Prince’ in Trikana Matilakam. It is believed that the reason to name himself ‘the Prince Ascetic’ was because he was the brother of Chera King Vel Kelu Kuttuvan. The Cheras are ancient Dravidian royal dynasty of Tamil origin who ruled the regions of TamilNadu and Kerala from the third century BC to the fourth century AD. The main characters of the epic Kovalan and Kannagi were the followers of Jain religion. The chaste and pious Kannagi is remembered as burning down the entire city of Madurai in her fury as her husband Kovalan was executed due to a misjudgment by a Pandyan king.

Jainism started to decline in eighth century when the Saivites and Vaishanavite movement gained momentum. Still the religion and its followers lingered upto sixteenth century and then it suddenly disappeared. In the Wayanad region, the religion reached its peak during the reign of Hoyasala dynasty – a prominent Southern India Kannadiga dyansty that ruled between tenth to fourteenth century. In the beginning, this dynasty followed Jain religion and even if they did not practiced Jainism themselves they still patronized the religion. Things changed after Vishnuvardhan converted from Jainism and followed the famous Hindu philosopher Ramanujacharya.

The environment become hostile for the Jains in Karnataka and a group of Gowda Jains migrated from there and settled in Wayanad. This group spoke Kannada. They were part of the Digambara sect of Jainism and were mainly farmers and traders by profession. The names of many Wayanadan villages are in Kannada and its shows the influence of these Kannadiga Jains on the area. For example, Kalpetta, the headquarters of Wayanad district was named by these early settlers. The word ‘Kal-Petta’ means stone deposits in Kannada. Even today the rocks of small or large size adorn the landscape of the place and thus justifies the name.

This group contributed towards eco-friendly cultivation as these farmers were against digging and ploughing the land. They introduced pepper, Robusta Coffee and paddy-cultivation in the region. They also constructed dams to store water for irrigation.

There is an interesting story about the disappearance of Jains from Kerala.

According to this tale, once a priest visited a Jain village and handed over a pot filled with a liquid to a resident requesting him to take care of that till he returns. The villager took it and hung it from the ceiling of his house. In the process of hanging it above, some liquid fell from this pot on to his farming equipment below and converted it to Gold. Next day, the news spread in the village. Everyone used the magical potion and became rich. As the days of the priests return came near, all of them wondered how to respond to the priest when he will demand to have his pot back. They decided to hide the gold in the earth and to burn the house of the person whom the priest handed over the pot. When the priest returned and demanded his pot back, he was shown the burnt house. The fabricated story enraged the priest and he cursed them that they had to leave their village and they will never be able to find their hidden gold.

If it is a story of a real incident communicated in symbolism, let me decode the symbols. The first learning from the story is that this group of Jain villagers was involved in farming, as we know was the occupation of Jains in Wayanad. They were probably allowed to settle there by someone higher up, referred as the priest in the story. The Jain group prospered in that region. It is possible that this person or the dynasty then asked for some compensation, a loan or higher tax. The settled group probably claimed helplessness in providing the same owing to their poverty, hiding the truth. This angered the authority and the authority forced them to exile leaving everything behind.

Here, let me also talk about the Kodungallur Bharani festival. It hints at evicting either Jain or the Buddhist nuns from the existing temple complex. During the festival, both male and female devotees come drunk to the temple complex, singing obscene songs and by the end of the festival the temple floor gets drenched with the blood of killed chickens and cocks. It is believed that this festival is celebrated to remember the day when the forefathers of these devotees forced the nuns to run away from the temple complex when they arrived in the similar fashion to get control of the temple.

There are claims of several other Jain temples being converted to Hindu Temples, still retaining the idols, or a unique way of worshiping that hints at that temple being a Jain temple. However, I stop here, more about them, if I happened to visit them and notice the peculiarities.

The current population of original native Jain families of Wayanad is around one thousand and six hundred. The total population of such families in Kerala is much below five thousand and they are mainly limited to the Wayanad, Kesargod and the Pallakad region of Kerala.


  1. This is indeed interesting information. Any further addition to this? Don’t they call themselves Jains? Because Census of India shows Jain population of around 1500 in Kerala.

    1. Thanks Amit for leaving the comment. I planned to write about Jainism in all southern states, but it is always the scarcity of time 🙂 May be one day …

      As this is a study I did. I too will like to meet and get more information from the natives of Kerala who are Jains.

      This is just a start. I wish someone more knowledgeable will comment/contribute and we all will learn more.

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