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Business meets benevolence

The Jain community has woven itself into the social fabric of the city. A look at its activities.

A CASUAL conversation with a colleague sets me wondering about the Jain community in Chennai. I know them as pawnbrokers and the city's mega diamond merchants. In April, this year, they celebrated the 2600th birth anniversary of Lord Mahaveer. The Prime Minister felicitated two distinguished citizens of this metropolis as `Jain Ratnas'. There is a concentration of them in Sowcarpet and they are scattered in pockets around Red Hills, Ayanavaram and Mogappair. They fall into two broad groups: Swetambars and Digambars. But beyond that theirs is a rather silent presence on the cityscape. The community is not given to fratricidal flare-ups. Well, the Chennai Jains are a group of people who mind their own business.

The Jains seem to have woven themselves perfectly into the fabric of Chennai life. What made the community travel from the desert areas of western India to find a home in this city?

``You seem to be harbouring the notion that all the Jains in Chennai came from northern India,'' says Mr. Sripal, a Tamil Digambar Jain, former DGP and present chairman of the Research Foundation of Jainology. ``Jain history in Tamil Nadu goes back nearly 2000 years. The contribution of Jain thinkers to the field of Tamil grammar, didactic literature, epics and commentaries, has been acclaimed as substantial. Dr. Radhakrishnan endorses the view that the Yajurveda and the Bhagavathapurana mention Jain Thirtankars.''

``There are around 5 lakh Jains in the city. Most of the Tamil Jains are Digambars and of agricultural stock from Tamil Nadu. Jains from Gujarat and Rajasthan are mainly Swetambars and might have come here 200 years ago."

``Their contribution to the ethos of the city? In promoting education, medicine and social service Jains rank third though they are in a minority. The Jain Bhavan has a book bank run by Harsh Mehta. The Arts College of Thoraippakkam, the A.M. Jain College and the Shanti Viji College at Vepery, function without charging capitation fee. The Madras University has a full-fledged department of Jainology.''

Jains and crime? Sripal smiles. ``Jains have been caught for economic crimes. But they stay away from physical violence."

`Gem of a man', Jain Ratna Surendra Mehta of Mehta Jewellery is perhaps the best-known Jain in Chennai. A quintessential Jain, he tirelessly advocates vegetarianism. His Ahimsa Research Foundation promotes animal welfare and organic farming. This 80-year-young philanthropist is the patron of a number of social and educational endeavours. Son Tushar Mehta lists major Jain businesses in the city. "You have B. B. Shah of Turakia Opticals, Chandrakanth Kothari of Basic Engineers and Traders, Rajan Shah of South Indian Flour Mills, Krishanchand Chauradia of Sugan House and the Arihant and Vijay Shanthi Builders in construction and real estate. Jain profile in the jewellery trade is well-known."

Sugal and Damani were the first to open an exclusive diamond show room in the city. This pair is into lotteries, share broking, travel, infotech and leasing and purchase of automobile showrooms. Jains trade in bicycles, cloth and foodstuff. Points out Gyanchand Jain, Secretary of the Sri Prabhuchand Temple in Mint Street, ``Jains don't run cinema houses, theme parks or other `pleasure' spots and certainly not the leather trade. It has to do with our religious tenets."

Jains have traditionally spearheaded charity work in Chennai.

``There is no charitable institution in the city to which the Jains have not contributed,'' says Sugalchand Jain, the other Jain Ratna. We are in his Singhvee Charitable Trust Office, which disburses Rs. 1 crore annually in charity.`` Through private contributions alone, we manage 32 temples, 26 high schools and dispensaries.'' Meena Dhada's Mukti, the artificial limb centre, is an example of this community spirit.

GEETA PADMANABHAN

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