Classification of Jaina Bronzes from Western India

Posted: 28.06.2017
Updated on: 06.11.2017

Centre of Jaina Studies Newsletter: SOAS - University of London


This essay on the classification of Jaina bronze sculptures builds on my MA Dissertation at the Freie Universität Berlin on Jaina Bronzen aus Westindien (mainly Gujarat and Rajasthan), the results of which will be presented in greater detail in a forthcoming monograph. Pictures of many of the examined objects have already been published, e.g. by U. P. Shah,[1] and are well known, but a thorough investigation of the stylistic and iconographic correlations has heretofore been neglected. One of the challenges to classification has been that potentially key artefacts are held in private collections and are unknown, even among experts.

The iconographical arrangement of Jaina bronze sculptures became very schematic over the centuries and permits a classification into different categories. The categorization of Jaina bronze sculptures is very complex, so only some selected aspects can be presented here. To begin with, the stylistic and iconographic evolution of Jaina bronze sculptures can be divided into three main types which overlap chronologically.

  1. Early type (c. 2nd - 8th century CE)
  2. Advanced type (c. 6th - 13th century CE)
    2.1 Classical form (c. 6th - 10th century CE)
    2.2 Transitional form (c.10th - 13th century CE)
  3. Late type (c.13th - 19th century CE)

The bronze sculptures of every type can be subdivided into different categories on the basis of stylistic and iconographical features. Since the portrayals of Tīrthaṅkaras remained unvaried in terms of iconography, classification relies on the analysis of both the number and function of the attendant figures and the decorative ornaments.

Figure 2. Pārśvanātha attended by two standing Jinas (tri-tīrthika) and the yakṣa couple beneath. Gujarat, c.10th/11th century CE, bronze. National Museums Berlin, Asian Art Museum (Inv.-No. I 10064).

Figure 1. Pārśvanātha attended by a yakṣa couple (triad). Gujarat, c. 8th century CE, brass. National Museums Berlin, Asian Art Museum (Inv.-No. I 10145).

Bronze sculptures of the early type

The earliest preserved Jaina bronze sculptures originate from probably the 2nd century CE and portray a standing Tīrthaṅkara with no attendant figures. Among these early sculptures are identifiable depictions of Pārśva (adorned by a serpent canopy) and Ṛṣabha (wearing long hair strands) as well as images of unidentifiable Tīrthaṅkaras with no iconographic features. The early tradition of portraits of a single Jina standing in kāyotsarga continued at least until c. 8th century CE but is still evident in a modified manner in the later tradition of Jaina bronzes. So in the proposed classification, depictions of standing Tīrthaṅkaras without attending figures are considered as a separate type. The number of the preserved bronzes of that type, including the Chausa hoard in particular, is small compared to the later types of bronzes.

Bronzes of the advanced type (classical form)

At least since the beginning of the 5th century CE a variety of images depicting sitting and standing Tīrthaṅkaras framed by a wide range of iconographical elements and attending figures appears. The origin of that development is unclear due to the lack of preserved objects from the phase of formation. The earliest sculptures of that type are from the Ākoṭā hoard where the iconography is advanced,[2] and includes not only the addition of attending figures such as yakṣas, camaradhāras and nāgas but also the depiction of iconographic features like dharmacakra, lion throne, etc. The adoption of Buddhist imagery, e.g. the dharmacakra flanked by gazelles, and the apparent resemblance of the Jina's face to the faces of Buddhist sculptures leads to the assumption that sculptures from both Buddhist and Jaina contexts were manufactured by the same artists. So the tradition of the multiple Jina image, e.g. the tri-tīrthika (composition of a seated Jina with two standing Jinas on either side) or pañca-tīrthika (composition of a seated Jina surrounded by four attendant Jinas), may be linked to earlier Buddhist triads (i.e. a Buddha attended by two Bodhisattvas).

Figure 3. Tīrthaṅkara (non-Pārśva) attended by two standing Jinas (tri-tīrthika) and the yakṣa couple beneath. Gujarat or Rajasthan, c. 11th/12th century CE, bronze. National Museums Berlin, Asian Art Museum (Inv.-No. I 10177).

Figure 4. Pārśvanātha attended by two standing Jinas (tri-tīrthika), the yakṣa couple beneath and two standing camaradhāras on each side. Gujarat, c. 12th century CE, bronze. As a characteristic of the transitional type two added garland bearers and floral ornaments creating an arch above the head of the main icon. National Museums Berlin, Asian Art Museum (Inv.-No. I 10209).

Bronze sculptures of that type can be divided into Pārśva and Non-Pārśva images. Images of Jina Pārśvanātha are characterized by the serpent canopy above the Jina's head (Fig. 1 and 2), while images of a Non-Pārśva depict a bhāmaṇḍala (halo) instead (Fig. 3). Both classes can be subdivided into different categories according to the number and function of the attendant figures. 'Slotfiller-analysis' allows a classification of the sculptures on the basis of the alternate attendant figures. This iconographical method, which was introduced by K. Bruhn, [3] is predicated on the assumption that within the pictorial 'program' a special type of figure ('slotfiller') occupies a defined place ('slot').

In respect to the number of the depicted Tīrthaṅkaras, three categories can be distinguished:

  1. triad, i.e. a Jina flanked by two variable attendant figures (e.g. Kubera and Ambikā) (Fig.1),
  2. tri-tīrthika, i.e. a Jina flanked by two standing Tīrthaṅkaras and optional more attendant figures (Fig. 2 and 3),
  3. pañca-tīrthika, i.e. a Jina attended by four standing and sitting Tīrthaṅkaras and optional further attendant figures.

An examination of the different categories leads to the conjecture that the development of the iconographical repertoire probably began by adding a yakṣa couple to a main icon. In a second step the attendant yakṣas were replaced by a nāga couple, camaradhāras etc. or attendant Tīrthaṅkaras, but added again as minor attendant figures beneath the main icon.

At the beginning of the 8th century the pañca-tīrthika type was added to the triads and tri-tīrthikas. The development of the pañca-tīrthika type can be studied by examining the sculptures from the Hansi hoard.[4] Maybe a perceived need of differentiation of the Jaina community from the Buddhist community caused the displacement of the triad (which is also characteristic of Buddhist bronzes) with the pentad. Some bronzes from the Hansi hoard picture a couple of sitting Tīrthaṅkaras beneath the main icon and the attendant Jinas instead of the yakṣa couple.[5] The addition of a secondary Jina couple changes the appearance of the bronzes sculptures from a horizontal arrangement into a more vertical and stacked figurative shape. The stacked attendant figures frame the main icon, and this led to the development of a parikara, a decorated arch which is adorned with attending figures or varied ornament.

Bronzes of the transitional form

Bronze sculptures of the transitional type still belong to the advanced type. The naturalistically depicted figures and ornaments of the advanced type stand in sharp contrast to the geometrical style of the late bronze sculptures. However, the evolution of a parikara framing the main icon and the change of some iconographical attributes constitute a significant difference to the earlier bronzes of the advanced type. So the number of grahas (planet deities) are changed from eight (aṣṭagraha) to nine (navagraha), the yakṣa couple Kubera and Ambikā is replaced by Gomukha and Cakreśvarī, and images of the pañcatīrthika style predominate.

The evolution of the parikara is based on the change to a more vertical arrangement of the composition as a result of the development of the pañca-tīrthika and caturviṃśatipaṭṭa images (Fig. 5) and the addition of an iconographical repertoire on the top of the bronzes (Fig. 4), depicting elephants, flying garland bearers and musicians, etc., which belong to the aṣṭa-prātihāryas, or the 'eight miraculous phenomena'. According to Āśādhara's 13th-century Pratiṣṭhā-sāroddhāra (1.61-62), [6] a Jina should be accompanied by eight miraculous phenomena which are figurative, depicted generally above the Jina's head (cf. Fig. 5 and 6). The origin of the aṣṭa-pratihāryas is ambiguous. It may be because the list of these eight elements was codified after they became prominent as iconographical elements.

Figure 5. Ṛṣabhanātha attended by twenty-three Jinas (caturviṃśatipaṭṭa). Gujarat, V.S. 1201 (1144 CE), bronze. Early form of caturviṃśatipaṭṭa, the arrangement of the attending figures and ornaments are less geometrical compared to the later form (cf. Fig. 7). National Museums Berlin, Asian Art Museum (Inv.-No I 10162).

Figure 6. Tīrthaṅkara (non-Pārśva) attended by a sitting and a standing Jina on each side (pañcatīrthika). Gujarat, V.S. 1511 (1454 CE), brass. The geometrical and abstract appearence of the imagery as well as the semicircular arch are characteristcs of the late type. National Museums Berlin, Asian Art Museum (Inv.-No. I 358).

Bronzes of the late type

From about the 14th century the naturalistically depicted figures of the advanced type were replaced by an abstract geometrical imagery. The arrangement of the figures and ornaments became increasingly systematic and uniform. The bronze sculptures of the late type fall into two main categories, viz. a pañca-tīrthika form (Fig. 6) and a caturviṃśatipaṭṭa form (Fig. 7). The attendant figures as well as the iconographical features are depicted in a reduced and emblematical manner, e.g. the grahas are not identifiable but depicted as single knobs or bulge beneath the throne of the main icon. Also the attendant figures, cf. the camaradhāras, are only identifiable by means of their place ('slot') inside the assembly.

The caturviṃśatipaṭṭa bronzes include depictions of all 24 Tīrthaṅkaras, most of them geometrically arranged around the main icon. The interior zone framing the main icon corresponds approximately to the assembly of the pañca-tīrthika sculptures. So the caturviṃśatipaṭṭa bronzes may be considered as a kind of enlarged version of the pañca-tīrthika bronzes.

Figure 7. Tīrthaṅkara (non-Pārśva) attended by twentythree Jinas (caturviṃśatipaṭṭa). Gujarat, V.S. 1558 (1501 CE), brass. As a characteristic of the late type the imagery is geometrically arranged. National Museums Berlin, Asian Art Museum (Inv.-No. I 5778).

Finally it must be stated that an exhaustive examination of the bronze sculptures of the late type is currently problematic. The analysis of the evolution of that type requires the examination of the largely unpublished bronzes of the Gogha hoard.[7] The few published objects of that hoard lead to the conjecture that the sculptures originate from the transitional period and later, and could, therefore, illustrate the evolution of the late type.

All photographs © National Museums Berlin, Prussian Cultural Foundation, Asian Art Museum, Art Collection South-, Southeast- and Central Asian Art.

Patrick Krüger received an MA in History of Southasian Art and History of Ancient India at Freie Universität and Humboldt-Universität Berlin. He is now visiting lecturer on History of Jaina Art at Freie Universität Berlin and is writing a PhD dissertation on Jaina miniature paintings.

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