Lonely Planet described the rock cut Jain temple of Sittannavasal best when it wrote, “the cave is widely ignored by day trippers, which means you’ll likely get to appreciate these masterpieces of Jain art on your own”. Located about 16 km north of Pudukkottai on the Pudukkottai-Annavasal-Viralimalai road, the small temple is easily overlooked if not for a bright blue signpost along the road.
Sittannavasal is best known for the 9th century paintings adorning it’s rock ceilings. They are considered second only in importance after the Ajanta cave paintings of Maharashtra. Funny enough, the cave temple doesn’t look like much from the road other than a rocky hill surrounded by scrub brush. Vehicles park in an unexciting dirt lot where an uneven path made from a combination of buried rocks and steps, not meant for the out of shape or elderly, begins the ascent to the temple. The climb amounts to a hefty workout best completed with a bottle of water and a sun hat. Halfway up the hill visitors need only turn around to capture the panoramic vista of Tamil Nadu farmland below. This view alone more than excuses the unexpected exercise.
The temple consists of three rooms: A pillared verandah, Ardah Mandapa, and Garbha-griham. The pillared verandah was added years after the cave was discovered in 1916. It’s now used to hang floor to ceiling shades which block out unforgiving sun light pelting the rock hill as well as to provide security from after hour visitors and vandals.
Inside the rocky expanse are multiple carvings of Jain saints. A similar temple, although much smaller, also exists outside Madurai in the town of Thirupparankundram. It stands about 1 km from the Hindu rock cut temple.
Sittannavasal lies on the western slope of the hill. To the East lies a natural cavern with rock beds where Jain ascetics are said to have practiced the most severe penance. To the north of this cavern, still on the eastern slop of the rock, is a small rock-cut temple submerged in a small lake called Navach-chunai. From here visitors can find megalithic monuments like burial urns and stone circles.
Visitors should plan a minimum of 1 hr to explore the temple. Additional time should be factored for further exploring. Find Sittannavasal while moving between Madurai to Trichy and Tanjore, or vice versa.
Entry Fee: Rs 5 Indians, Rs 100 Foreigners
Timings: Open from 9 am to 5:30 pm daily