The earliest extant religious vestiges in Tamil Nadu are the famous Jain caves scattered throughout the region, which were once the dwelling places of several Jaina monks. Found in some of the hills in Tirunelveli, Madurai, Pudukottai, Periyar, Trichy, South Arcot and North Arcot districts, these caverns are set amidst picturesque surroundings and provided ideal conditions for the monks to spend their lives in splendid isolation, so that they could engage in contemplation and religious pursuits.
The Caves in Tamil Nadu are considered important because they are among the earliest lithic monuments in these regions. They contain the earliest epigraphic records in Brahmi script, assigned to a period from 2nd century BC to 3rd or 4th century AD and above all, they provide authentic evidence of the early spread of Jainism in Tamil Nadu. These monuments caves contain engravings of the names of the monks who lived here and the men who carved them.
The natural caverns were made suitable for habitation by cutting stone beds in them. The beds were chiseled smooth with one side raised a little to serve as headrest. The upper portions of the caves were cut in such a way as to prevent rainwater from flowing into the cave shelters. Sometimes, the caves had some structural additions built in front of them, in the form of thatched roofs supported by wooden poles. These caves were mostly located near springs of water so that the basic needs of the ascetics were well-met.
Most of the caves at Tamil Nadu are located in and around Madurai. There are about twenty-six caves in places like Anaimalai, Alagarmalai, Arittapatti, Tiruparankundram, Muttupatti, Vikramangalam, Karungalakkudi, Kilavalau, Kongarpuliyankulam, Mankulam, Tiruvatavur and Varichiyur. Trichy district has caves at Pugalur, Sivayam and Trichy Rock Fort. South Arcot too has three caves at Jambai, Paraiyanpattu and Tirunatharkunru.
Most of the caves being located near Madurai, they are easily accessible because Madurai is well connected by air, rail and road.