Landmarks Of Jaina Iconography

Published: 22.06.2008
Updated: 06.08.2008

Landmarks Of Jaina Iconography

The study of Jaina art has drawn considerable interest of the scholars both from India and abroad for over a hundred years. It may be noted that Jainism remained a popular religion through - out, having the support of all the ruling dynasties and the masses, and above all from the business class, there are ample inscriptional evidences found at Kankali Tila, Mathura, Osian, Khajuraho, Deogarh, Jalore, Delvada and at several other places which frequently refer to the shrethin, sarthavaha, gandhika, svarnakara, vardhakin, lauhakarmaka, navika, nartaka, vesyas and different gosthis of traders making significant contributions to Jainism, including the erection of temples and carving of images. [footer]1[/footer]

A figure on some of the seals from Mohenjodaro and a male torso from harrapa [the earliest Indian Civilization, Known as Indus Valley Civilization, c. BCE 2300-1750] remind of jina images on account of their nudity and posture. They are similar to the more emphatically exhibited kayotsarga-mudra[footer]2[/footer] in the Lohanipur torso. Nevertheless, nothing can be said with certainly until the Indus Valley script is deciphered. Apart from this lone doubtful instance, no literary or archaeological evidence regarding any Jaina image prior to Mahavira has ever surfaced. Mahavira is said to have never visited any Jain temple or worshipped any Jaina images.[footer]3[/footer] In this connection, it would be relevant to make a reference to the Jivantasvamin Mahavira image, which is said to have been carved in the lifetime of Mahavira [c. BCE 6th cent.], hence the name Jivantasvami. According to the legend, a sandalwood image of Mahavira was carved in his lifetime, during the period of his tapas in his palace, about a year prior to his renunciation as a prince. This image is said to be adorned with mukuta and other ornaments befitting royalty. Just like the Bodhisattva is the stage before reaching Buddhahood, likewise Jivantasvami images to the notice of the scholars.[footer]4[/footer] scholars have so far accepted this literary theory and conceded that the Jivantasvami image was carved in the lifetime of Mahavira. To reinforce his views further, he took the help of two Jivantasvami images of the early Maitraka period discovered from Akota in Gujarat.[footer]5[/footer] These images exhibit Jivantasvami standing in the kayotsarga - mudra and wearing imperial dress and ornaments, and one of them bears the world Jivantasvami in the pedestal inscription.

However, there is no mention of Jivantasvami images in the Kalpasutra and other early literary works like the Paumachariya of Vimala Suri [CE 473]. The earliest references to these images are found in the later commentaries of the Agamas [c.mid 6th century CE] and in other works which mention the existence of the Jivantasvami images at Kosala, Ujjain, Dasapura [Mandasaur], Vidisa, Puri and Vitabhayapattana.[footer]6[/footer] The Trisasti-salaka-purusacharita [CE 1169-1172] of Hemachandra deals at length with the legend and the iconographic features[footer]7[/footer] of the Jivantasvami images [parva 10, sarga 11]. It mentions that Kumarapala Chaulukya commissioned excavations at Vitabhayapattana and unearthed a Jivantasvami image. According to Hemachandra, the first and original image made by Vidyunmalideva was installed at Vidisa. However, there is no mention of these figures in any of the Digambara literary works, and as a consequence no such figures have been encountered from their sites. Probably this absence was due to the representation of the Jivantasvamiwith dress and ornaments.

Since there is no literary and archaeological record of these images prior to the 5th - 6th century CE, hence, the contemporary tradition of Jivantasvami image having being carved during the lifetime of Mahavira is not acceptable. The available evidences point at the prevalence of such a belief in the later Gupta period. It may be observed here in passing that the early concept of Jivantasvami Mahavira was further broadened between the 10th and 15th centuries CE, by the depiction of some other Jinas as Jivantasvamis. The few is further supported by later literary references in the Prabandhakosha of Rajashekhar [CE 1348] and the Kalpapradipa or Vividhatirthakalpa of Jinaprabha Suri [CE 1350]. The former text refers to the Jivantasvami Santinatha image. Several other inscribed Jivantasvami images, namely, Rishabhanatha, Sitalanatha [CE 1449], Chandraprabha [CE 1465] and Sumatinatha [CE 1444] from western India have also been found. It may be concluded that the concept of Jivantasvami was further widened to cater to the needs and aspiration of the devotees, by transmitting the massage of observance of austerity and the renunciation of a passionate life along with all the worldly obligations. In a few examples from Osian [Jodhpur, Rajasthan, 11th century CE], the figures of yakshas and yakshis have also been added to Jivantasvami, apparently suggestive of the innovation of the part of the artist.

The earliest known Jina image is preserved in the Patna Museum; it comes from Lohanipur [Patna, Bihar] and is dated back to the 3rd century BCE.[footer]8[/footer] As the figure is nude and stands in the kyotsarga mudra, [pls. 3,7] this suggests rigorous austerity, confined only to the Jinas. Another from Lohanipur is assignable to the Sunga period or slightly later. A terracotta Jina icon of the 3rd century BCE has also been reported from Ayodhya.[footer]9[/footer] In this connection, the references to the ‘Kalinga Jina’ in the Hathigumpha inscription, and the Lohanipur and Ayodhya Jina figures, the antiquity of the Jina image may be pushed back to the 3rd century BCE.

The two other earlier images of Parshvanatha, dated differently by scholars from the 2nd century BCE to 1st century CE, are in the collection of the Prince of Wales Museum, Bombay, and the Patna Museum.[footer]11[/footer] These figures standing in the kayotsarga mudra are sky-clad, with a five and seven snake’s canopy respectively.

Mathura was a stronghold of Jainism from about 100 BCE to CE 1177. The early [100 BCE to the Kushan period] jaina sculptures from Mathura are of special iconographic significance, because they exhibit certain formative stage in the development of Jaina iconography. The vast amount of vestiges include the ayagapatas [tables of homage], independent Jina images, Pratimasarvatabhadrika, Sarasvati [CE 132], Naigamesi and also narrative scenes from the lives of Rishabhanatha and Mahavira.[footer]12[/footer] Among these, only ayagapatas of the 2nd - 1st century BCE merit special attention, since they represent the transitional phase of Jain iconography in which the worship of auspicious symbols, together with the Jinas in human form, was in vogue. One such example of the 1st century BCE bearing the figure of Parshvanatha, seated in dhyana-mudra [seated cross-legged], is in the collections of the State Museum, Lucknow [acc. no. J253]. The rendering of the Jinasin the dhyana - mudra and the representation of the Srivatsa in the center of the chest appear for the first time in the Sunga - Kushan sculptures of Mathura. [Pls.1, 2] These sky-clad Kushan Jaina images amply full concurrence with Agamic tradition of Sachelaka [draped] and Achelaka [sky-clad], but they, however, do not suggests any sectarian affiliation with the Digambaras. They rather represent the undifferentiated proto-Svetambara and Digambara sects.

The gupta period was a milestone in the development of the Jaina iconography, during which the most significant iconographic features were introduced, suchas the distinguishing cognizances and the yaksha-yakshi figures. The Brihatsamhita of Varahamihira is the earlist text which lucidly gives details of such features [58.65].

The earliest Svetambara Jaina images, known from Akota [Vadodara, Gujarat], were also carved in the Maitrak-Gupta period,[footer]13[/footer] and their glorious history continued in the Post-Gupta period. Jaina literature and art thrived most vigorously during the 10th and 13th centuries CE. This era witnessed the construction of a large number of Jaina temples with exquisite sculpture carvings. Gujarat and Rajasthan were the strongholds of the Svetambara sect, while the vestiges yielded by other regions are affiliated mainly to the Digambara and Yapaniya sects. Of the Svetambara sites, the most prolific exponents can be seen at the Osian Mahavira temple and five Jaina [devakulikas, c. CE 10th - 13th century] and Delvada [Sirohi, Rajasthan- Vimala Vasahi and Luna Vasahi [c.CE 1031 - 1250]. Of the Digambara sites, Khajuraho [Chhatarpur, M.P., Parsvanatha, Adinatha and Ghantai temples, c. CE 950 -11th century], Deogarh [Lalitpur, U.P., Santinatha and several temple and profuse Jaina icons of c. CE 860 - 13th - 14th century], Ellora [Aurangabad, Maharashtra, five Jaina caves nos. 30-34, c. CE 9th - 10th century], Khandagiri [Puri, Orissa - c. CE 11th - 12th century], Humcha [Shimoga, Karnataka] and Sravanabelgola [Hassan, Karnataka - c. CE 10th - 13th century], call for special attention.

The core of the Jaina pantheon, also the visual manifestations representing the concentration of thoughts and myths into figurative and pictorial art, were are 24 Jinas or Tirthankars. The Jainas further developed their pantheon by assimilating and transforming different Brahmanical legendary characters and deities in there are from. In embracing Brahmanical deities, Jainas never compromised with their basic tenets of maditation and bodily abandonment, best represented by the Vitaragi Jinas, who were free from passions and desires and who could neither favour nor frown at anybody. It is for this reason that the Jinas were never shown as safety-bestowing or boon-conferring deities, as was the case with Buddha, Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha ans others. Religion can thrive only with the active support of the masses, and this fact was very much in the minds of Jaina acharyas. The majority of the worshippers aspire for worldly and materialistic possessions from deities they worship, which however could not be obtained from the worship of the Vitaragi Jinas. Thus, several other deities were conceived and incorporated in the Jaina pantheon to cater to the needs of the common worshippers, by the induction of the Shasanadevatas or the yakshas and yakshis, joining two Jinas on the two flanks as guardian deities, [Jinashasanaraksakarakaya-Acharadinakaras]. They bestow on their believers their desired wishes and boons. The Harivamsa Purana [CE 783, 66.43-45] speaks of the relevance of the adoration of the Shasanadevatas, who are capable of pacifying the malefic powers of the grahas, rogas, bhutas, pishachas and rakshasas. The socio-religious and psychological requirements, thus, paved the way for the assimilation and mutual understanding between the Brahmanical and Jaina religions.

The Parshvanatha Jaina temple at Khajuraho [c.CE 950-70], containing all around its façade the figures of Brahmanical deities like Shiva, Vishnu, Rama, Bramha, Balarama, Kama, Agni and Kubera, along with their respective shaktis in alingana-pose, is a remarkable exponent of coherence and mutuality between the two religions. Such figures in alinganapose are indeed a violation of the accepted norms of the Jaina tradition, and were actually carved under the influence of Brahmanical sculptures at Khajuraho. There are three sculptures showing amorous couples[footer]14[/footer] on the north and south shikharas and also on the garbha-griha façade of the Parshvanath temple.

Such instances of erotic figures in a Jaina context, datable between 10th - 12th century CE, are also known from Deogarh [Dooeway, temple 18], the Santinatha temple at Narlai [Pali, Rajasthan],[footer]15[/footer] the Ajitanatha temple at taranga and the Neminatha temple at Kumbharia. The presence if erotic figures at Jaina sites is a gross violation of the Jaina beliefs, which does not even conceive of any Jaina God in alingana- pose with his Shakti, and hence was probably the impact of Tantric influence during the early medieval times[c. Ce 7th - 10th century]. However, the Jaina Harivamsa Purana [CE 783] points out to the construction of a Jina temple by Sresthi Kamadatta, who, for the sake of attracting people, had figures of Kamadeva and Rati 16 installed in the temple. It also alludes to the worship of Rati and Kamadeva along with the Jina images. [footer]17[/footer]

It may be noted here that Tantric influential was accepted in Jainism but with certain restraints. Overt eroticism was never so pronounced in Jaina literature and sculpture manifestation, as is the case of Brahmanical and Buddhist religions, as evident from their sculptures, carved Khajuraho, Konark, Bhubanesver and many other places.

The Jinas also find representation on some of the Brahmanical temples at Khajuraho [Kandariya Mahadeva and Vishvanatha temples- 11th century CE], Osian [Surya and Harihara temples - 8th - 9th century CE] and Bhubaneshvar [ Mukteshvara temple - 10th century CE]. Of all the deities borrowed from the Brahmanical culture, Rama and Krishna, the two great epical characters, undoubtedly occupy the most exalted position in the Jaina worship and Jaina religious art; they were incorporated in their work in about 1st - 2nd century CE. The rendering of Krishna and Balarama begins as early as thje Kushan period. These were associated with the 22nd Jina Aristanemi or Neminatha, as his cousins, as illuminated by the images of Neminatha from Mathura, belonging to the early Kushan period. In another instance [State Museum, Lucknow, acc. no. J47], the seared figure of Neminatha is flanked by the figures of four-armed Balarama and Krishna -Vasudeva. Balarama holds a musala and a hala, while Krishna bears a mace. Another image of the later Kushan period shows Krishna with a mace and chakra, explaining distinctly the process of adoption and transformation of Brahmanical deities in Jaina worship. Subsequent illustrations of such images are known from Bateshvara [Agra, U.P.] and Deogarh [temple no. 2, Lalitpur, U.P.]. Owing to the explained kinship of the two, Krishna and Balaram were also carved in different narrative panels at Kumbharia and Vimala Vasahi [11th - 12th century CE] showing the life of Neminatha. These scenes project the water sports and trail of strength between Neminatha and Krishna [Vimala Vasahi ceiling of cell no. 10].

According to the Jaina belief, and also in visual expression, Neminatha has been portrayed as victor in a trial of strength with Krishna, which was intended at establishing the superiority of Jainism. The second circular band of the Vimala Vasahi relief demonstrates the strength of Neminatha in the Ayudhasala [armory] of Krishna. In the scene, Krishna is shown sitting on a throne as Neminatha enters, and both are greeting each other with folded hands. Ahead is engraved the scene of trail between the two, wherein the outstretched hand of Krishna is shown bent to suggest Neminatha’s victory over Krishna.

Vimala Vasahi and Luna Vasahi [c. CE1150-1250] exhibit some very interesting renderings of Krishna lila and other Vaishnava themes including Kaliyadamana [Vimala Vasahi cell 33], [pl.4] Krishna playing Holi [sprinkling coloured water on each other] with Kanakshringakosha [as found in Harsha charita] with gopas and gopikas, the episode of Bali and Vamana, samudra-manthana and vivid carvings pertaining to Krishna’s birth and his bala-lilas.[footer]18[/footer] The scene of Holi, carved on the ceiling of the bhramika [corridor] at the devakulika 41 of the Vimala Vasahi [c. CE 1150], is a singular such instance in plastic art. It becomes all the more important in view of its Jaina context on one hand, and its total absence from the plastic art at Brahmanical sites on the other hand. The ceiling accommodates nine figures of gopas and gopikas with Krishna, the later in the center playing Holi in a joyful mood, with two kanaka-shringa-koshas [cowhorn-shaped golden sprinklers] in his hands. [Pl.5] Krishna is dressed in a small kirita-mukuta and a long flowing uttariya [pitambar]. All other figures are leaning towards Krishna in rhythmic postures. The Luna Vasahi [CE 1250] contains depictions of Krishna’s birth [janma], under close vigil, his bala—lila and the killing of demons by him.

The second ceiling [no. 49] of Vimala Vasahi exhibits a remarkable figure of a 16 - armed sthauna Narasimbha [man- lion incarnation of Vishnu] killing the demon Hiranyakashyapu. The entire representation is so effective and dynamic that it makes the work, undoubtedly, one of the best illustrations of Narasimbha in Indian Art.

Apart from these epical characters, several other deities were assimilated directly in Jaina worship with identical iconographic features. The concept and the names of such deities are found in the early Jaina works datable between c.3rd and 7th century CE, but their detailed iconographic features are enunciated mainly in the works assignable between c. 8th and 14th century CE. [Pl.8] The list of such deities comprises Ganesha [Jaina devakulikas at Osian, Khandagiri cave, and Neminatha temple at Kumbharia, c. 11th - 12th century CE], Ksetrapala [Deogarh and Khajuraho], Lakshmi, Saraswati [Mathura, Deogarh, Khajuraho, Pallu, Vimal Vasahi, Lunavasahi, Kumbharia, Humcha - Kushan, to 12th century CE]. Other than these examples, Ashta-dikpalas [sometimes their number being 10, including Nagaraja Dharanendra and Brahma], navagrahas, Ashtavasus [carved on the Jaina temples of Khajuraho], 64 yoginis [enunciated in the Acharadinakara of 1412], Indra and several other deities were also included. In concurrence with the Brahmanical tradition, the Ashtadikpalas and the Navagrahas are carved on almost all the Jaina temples. Navagrahas are carved on the pedestals of the Jina images also. Ganesha,as bestower of success, was incorporated in to the Jaina pantheon during the early medieval times. According to the Acharadinakara of Vardhamana Suri [CE 1412], Ganesha is even adored by the Gods in order to fulfill their worldly desires. On the basis of the available instances, Ganesha is shown mounting a rat and carrying a lotus goad, tusk, axe, spear and modaka or modakpatra;[footer]19[/footer] the bearing of Brahmanical Sarasvati, their proximity being ascertained by the presence of the vahana [swan or peacock], manuscripts, vina, rosary, water vessel, goad and noose. In one of the images carved in the ceiling of Vimala Vasahi[CE 1150], Sarasvati is joined by the figures of sutradhara Loyana and Kela, the chief architect and sculptures of the temple. Thus, Sarasvati is visualized here as the Goddess of fine arts as well.

A few Jaina deities who were borrowed from other cultures have some changes either in the names or iconographic features or both to suit the requirements of the Jaina creed. The Brahmashanti and Kaparddi Yakshas are the foremost among such deities who occupied an important position in the visual representations at Shvetambara Jaina temples in western India, namely, Dilvada and Kumbharia. They are identical to Brahma and Shiva. In some cases, the influence of Garuda, Kumara yakshas, Kali and Mahakali yakshis is also seen. The Shasana-devatas of Rishabhanatha, the first Jina, are Gomukha [bull face and parashu in hand] and Chakreshvari [riding a garuda and carrying disc, mace, conch], apparently representing Shiva and Vaishnavi.[footer]20[/footer] In one of the ceilings of the Santinatha temple at Kumbharia the figure of Chakreshvari is labelled as ‘Vaishnavi’.

The figure of Saptamatrikas, who find no mention in Jaina works, were also carved, as found in some instances from Mathura, Gyaraspur, Vimalvasahi and Khandagiri. These figures are usually carved in the parikara of Ambika images [Mathura Museum], while at Khandagiri [Navamuni Gumpha - 11th century CE] they are carved with the Jinas as yakshis, albeit with the features of Indrani, Kaumari and other Matrikas. Some figures of several such unidentified deities, mainly the female ones, at the prolific Jaina sites Vimala Vasahi, Luna Vasahi and Kumbharia have been discovered. Most of the deities in such cases show the influence of the Brahmanical Goddesses. Vimala Vasahi alone has 16 such goddesses, mounted on a bull and either holding a trishula or a sarpa, or a trishula in both the hands, which has a distinct Shaivite stamp. To suggest his rigorous tapas, Bahubali [footer]21[/footer] has not only been shown in the kayotsarga-mudra but also with creepers entwining him, as exemplified by the finds from Deogarh, Khajuraho, Bilhari, Ellora, Shravanbelgola [CE 983], Karkal [CE 1432], Venur [CE 1604], as in the museum of India and united Kindom and in some paintings. The long span of time during which he was absorbed in tapas ans in deep trance has been represented by snakes, lizards and scorpions either near him or creeping over his body. The posture of Bahubali is symbolic of perfect self-control, while his nudity implies total renunciation. The profound austerities formed by Bahubali inspired both the Svetambara and the Digambara Jainas to worship him, specially the Digambaras. As a result, Bahubali became a powerful symbol and also a materialistic image, evocative of the ethos of self-sacrifice and ahimsa, as preached by the Jinas. It is further believed that Bahubali was perhaps the first to propound the policy of no war, preferring a duel to a battle between the armies. The entwining creepers and the figures of scorpions, lizards and snakes on the body of Bahubali perhaps also are symbolic the intimate relationship between man and nature and their rhythmic coexistence. Gradually, the popularity of Bahubali worship reached to such heights in the Digambara sect that a cult around him almost formed. The invariable features of the Jina images like the astapratiharyas and the shashana devatas were also associated with him to project his project his status, equaling him to the Jinas.


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  1. Acharyas
  2. Adinatha
  3. Agamas
  4. Ahimsa
  5. Ajitanatha
  6. Aristanemi
  7. Ayodhya
  8. Bahubali
  9. Balarama
  10. Body
  11. Bombay
  12. Brahma
  13. Buddha
  14. Chakra
  15. Chakreshvari
  16. Chandraprabha
  17. Concentration
  18. Deogarh
  19. Dharanendra
  20. Dhyana
  21. Digambara
  22. Digambaras
  23. Ellora
  24. Gujarat
  25. Hemachandra
  26. Holi
  27. Humcha
  28. Indra
  29. Indrani
  30. Indus Valley Civilization
  31. International School for Jain Studies
  32. JAINA
  33. Jain Temple
  34. Jaina
  35. Jaina Art
  36. Jaina Temple
  37. Jaina Temples
  38. Jainism
  39. Jina
  40. Jinaprabha Suri
  41. Kama
  42. Karnataka
  43. Kayotsarga
  44. Khajuraho
  45. Khandagiri
  46. Krishna
  47. Kumbharia
  48. Lakshmi
  49. Lalitpur
  50. Lucknow
  51. Maharashtra
  52. Mahavira
  53. Mathura
  54. Mudra
  55. Narlai
  56. Neminatha
  57. Orissa
  58. Osian
  59. Parikara
  60. Parshvanath
  61. Parshvanatha
  62. Parsvanatha
  63. Patna
  64. Rajasthan
  65. Rama
  66. Rishabhanatha
  67. Santinatha
  68. Sarasvati
  69. Saraswati
  70. Shikharas
  71. Shvetambara
  72. Sitalanatha
  73. Srivatsa
  74. Sumatinatha
  75. Svetambara
  76. Tapas
  77. Taranga
  78. Tirthankars
  79. Ujjain
  80. Vardhamana
  81. Venur
  82. Vimala
  83. Yakshas
  84. Yapaniya
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