Not many people (even within Tamilnadu), India know that Jains are indigenous Tamil population. Although there are a number of Jain families who have migrated from the north that live in Tamilnadu (especially in and around Chennai), the indigenous Tamil Jains have lived here for thousands of years. Jainism is called samanam (சமணம்) in tamil and the practitioners of the religion are called Samanar (சமணர்). The 2001 Tamilnadu census puts the number of jains in tamilnadu to be around 85000.
Some scholars feel that Jain philosophy must have entered south India same time in 3rd centaury. Literary sources and inscription have it the Shruthakevali Bhadrabahu came over to Shravanabelagula with a 12000 strong relinue of Jain sages when north India found it hard to negotiate with the 12 year long famine in the reign of Chandragupta Maurya. Even Chandragupta accompanied this constellation of sages. On reaching Shravanabelagula, Bhadrabahu felt his end approaching he decided stay back along with Chandragupta and he instructed the Jain saints to tour over the Chola and Pandiya domins. This information found in an inscription belonging to 6 Th or 7 Th centuries A.D, at Chandragiri (Shravanbelagula).
Some scholars feel that Jain philosophy must have entered south India same time in 3rd centaury. But according to some other scholars Jainism must have existed in south India well before the visit of Bhadrabhu and Chandragupta. This deduction based on the following particulars:
- Bharabahu would not have a big retinue if had no idea of Janis living in the southern parts of Karnataka and Tamilnadu.
- The Buddhist composition ‘Mahavansha’ composed during the reign of Dhanthusena (461-479) describes the period between 5432 and 3012. It gives elaborate description of the capital of Anuradhapura while king Pandugabhaya was on throne. While giving a details list of building in the new capital, it says that a building called ‘Giri’ was constructed soly for Digambar Jain saints and that many Digambar sages lived there.
- Arahanthar mandir existed on mount Udayagiri eve before Kharvela’s time. Kharavela’s inscription refers to this. Jainism had been the state religion for centuries in Kharavela’s time. Andra was then part of Kalinga. Hence it possible that Jainism entered Andra at the time of Lord Mahaveera. It must have moved over to Tamil Nadu. The Pashanothkeerna inscription and idols in arcot substantiate this. Jainism might have proceeded further to south Tamil Nadu and crossed over to Srilanka between the 5th and 4th century B.C.
- Ammanan (a naked man) is also another significant term used in Tamil literature for a nikkanta.
So whether samanam spread from further North to Tamilnadu remains unclear.