Early Jaina Iconography (Part 4)

Posted: 05.12.2011
Updated on: 30.07.2015


This essay was published in Berliner Indologische Studien No. 19. 2010, pp. 123-169. To make this online reissue citeable, the page numbers are added to the text (see squared brackets).


Early Jaina Iconography - An Overview (Part 4)


13. Udayagiri-Khandagiri

The Udayagiri-Khandagiri caves in Orissa have been excavated by the Chedi ruler Khāravela in the "thirteenth year" of his reign. The exact date (1st century B.C.?, Sahu Kh: 53) is not known, but Khāravela was a Jaina, and he excavated the caves for Jaina monks (Mitra Ud: 3-5). That the caves were meant for Jaina monks follows clearly from the Khāravela inscription in Udayagiri Cave 14 (Mitra Ud: 3; Sahu Kh: 314-346). The caves are adorned with rock-cut friezes; the sculptures have "hardly anything that savours of the archaic traits of Bharhut", Mitra Ud: 14. There are vivid scenes side by side with traditional symbols (Mitra Ud: passim). The art is just 'popular' (early rock-cut sculptures follow always this uncertain line, infra); Jainism is conspicuous by its absence.

The frequently used expression "popular" requires some explanation. There is hardly any definition, but descriptions accentuate the existence of such a region. J.C. Harle writes: "Many of the sculptural themes of early Indian art are found at Pitalkhora [Deccan]: the goddess Śrī, elephants dousing her with their trunks, yakṣas with fin-like ears, juxtaposed animal figures, mithunas and flying figures, some with wings (kinnaras), and others in the beautiful and distinctive pose, legs flexed trailing behind the body, which henceforth indicates that a figure is flying" (Harle Pe: 51-52).

What is true of art is equally true of religious practice. E. Waldschmidt accentuates tree sanctuaries: „Jedes Dorf hatte seinen heiligen Feigenbaum." Hindu orthodoxy (Veda etc.) is not the religion of ancient India. There were many currents and undercurrents. J.C. Harle quotes A.K. Coomaraswamy 1927, "the vocabulary [of symbols] was equally available to all sects, Brāhmans, Buddhists and Jains, each employing them in senses of their own" (Harle Pe: 494a, n. 57). The three "great religions" were infiltrated by the popular religion, and the popular religion for its part was not uniform. [157|158]

'Popular' art and 'popular' religious practice (the expression "non-sectarian" would be an alternative) are not homogeneous: The world of trees and flowers (vegetation cults) is not the world of Yakṣas, the world of spirits is not the world of sacred animals (cows, serpents, monkeys), the world of sacred trees and lotuses is not the world of the Buddhist dharma (Waldschmidt Bu: 59-65); the Nāgas are no human beings, but there is contact between both categories. Moreover: "Glimpses of foreign elements are occasionally found in the art of Mathurā" (Sharma Ma: 38). Foreign elements are for example the mixed beings ('orientalische Mischwesen'), see LdA 2: 88 and 122-123.

Yakṣa worship is perhaps the most weighty subject in the loose ensemble of popular art (Misra Ya; Gonda In: 323-325). "… the emergence of these demi-gods [the Yakṣas] is shrouded in mystery, but the development of their worship including cult, pantheon, temples, images, high-priests, votaries, modes of worship and iconography are not only vivid but comprehensible also" (Misra Ya: 1). "The natural abodes of the Yakṣas were situated on 'trees, rivers, hills and charming groves' or in 'waterless and savage woods full of tigers and apes'" (Misra Ya: 93). Misra describes the abodes of Yakṣas and Yakṣīs on pp. 93-97: "It is quite probable that just as they inhabited trees, the Yakṣas may have dwelt in bushes, bowers and the like" (Misra Ya: 96). "They [the Yakṣas] had their sport in the lakes and were born in water" (Misra Ya: 97). "The protective function of Yakṣas is corroborated by the situation of their shrines on the outskirts of the cities which were centres of folk entertainment and assembly" (Misra Ya: 47). In fact " … Yakṣa Sāta and his son Sātagiri are represented as living outside the city of Rājagriha and protecting the king, ascetics, Brahmanas, the poor, orphans and merchants. Owing to their presence, the inhabitants felt secure, and no famine visited the city" (Misra Ya: 97).

Yakṣas form more than one type in art but "Due to lack of space it is not possible to discuss in detail each facet of the numerous types of representations of Yakṣas in and around Mathurā, nor to investigate the Yakṣīs, who form a subject in themselves" (Mitterwallner Ya: 368). Some Yakṣas are prominent as individuals (Kubera), and several known Yakṣas have been represented as sculptures in colossal size. J.C. Harle writes (Pe: 28) "To what extent early Buddhist art incorporated pre-Buddhist [!] elements is best demonstrated by the presence of large standing Yakṣas, identified by inscribed labels, on many of the vedikā uprights at Bhārhut … " (Pe: 28, 28-31). [158|159]

Nāgas should not be ignored in the present context (Hopkins Ep: 254; Vogel Se; Gronbold My: 431-433; Härtel So: 425-427). 'Nāgaism' is a multifarious chapter as we have seen in Section 8 (Pārśva): H. Härtel observes: "The popularity of the Nāgas equals that of another group of minor deities, i.e. the Yaksas, … Both the groups, Nāgas and Yakṣas, are worshipped in the early historical period under rather similar conditions … " (So: 425). Further categories are Vanadevatās, Nadīdevatās (mentioned already), Kinnaras, Garuas, Gaas, Bhūtas, Pretas, Apsarasas, and Gandharvas (Sivaramamurti Am: 66-82; Schneider Hi: 155-158).

Udayagiri and Khandagiri presented no Buddha images, no narrative scenes (Buddhist or Jaina, iconic or uniconic), not even stūpas in relief. Contrary to the later situation in Mathurā these caves did also not show inscriptions which could have settled the question of religious affiliation. Udayagiri and Khandagiri made ample use of tympana (above the small entries). And we know that tympana reliefs often included 'religious symbols'. But at Udayagiri and Khandagiri at least the appearing symbols never had a specific religious origin.

Why did King Khāravela not ask one of his artists to carve at least two or three miniature Jinas into the walls of the Udayagiri or Khandagiri caves? Why did the same emperor not commission a few comprehensible friezes adorning the pillars and showing legends? We have a few āyāgapaṭas with miniature Jinas, and Bharhut (an early example) shows numerous Jātakas, but there are no historical or traditional references in the caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri (in spite of the historical connection with Khāravela).

'Popular religion' is not an explanation of unknown subjects in art, but it brackets together diverse and to some extent unknown phenomena. Udayagiri and Khandagiri are not a great riddle to be solved by future generations, but they are part of the rich popular religion.

Miniature Jinas and miniature Buddhas are perhaps the beginning of iconic Jaina and Buddhist art. Refer for miniature Buddhas to Pal Pr: pls. 11-12; for miniature Jinas to āyāgapaṭas with miniature Jinas in the centre (e.g Pārśvanātha āyāgapaṭa: Quintanilla Ea: pl. 150) and to a well-known Jaina tympanon (Quintanilla Ea: pl. 233). Miniature Buddhas appear also on a pillar at Kanheri (Huntington An: pl. 9.19). The coin with Kaniṣka and the Buddha (obverse and reverse) is famous (Harle Pe: 83). Miniature Buddhas, miniature Jinas and 'miniature ascetics' are at any rate the result of a general [159|160] tendency. Yakṣas and Nāgas do not exactly disappear, but they are pushed into the background.


14. Overview II

In West India (Rajasthan etc.) our Period II (= Overview II) begins with the introduction of the dhotī for the standing Śvetāmbara Jinas and the suggestion of a dhotī in the case of some seated Śvetāmbara Jinas; in other words: with the finalization (and 'publication') of the split between the two denominations. See Pal Li: pl. 28 (Gujarat, standing Śvetāmbara Jina, bronze, "c. 600"). In Central, North and East India our Period II begins inter alia with the three Rāmagupta Jinas (JAA I: pls. 57-59, 4th century). The following text (Overview II) refers in two cases to Overview I.

For want of a better solution we have included the Jaina art of Aihole, Badami and Tamil Nadu (6th-8lh centuries) in our Overview I. The Jaina caves at Ellora (9th/10th centuries) are influenced by the Northern style and belong strictly speaking to Overview II. Even then we made reference to the Ellora caves already in Overview I. Ellora had important Pārśva and Bāhubali images following the Southern tradition just mentioned: (i) Dhaky (Tiwa-ri's pp. 107-114, Pārśva); (ii) Tiwari El: 335-344, Bāhubali.

As mentioned in most cases in our text, the Jaina art of the North has produced in post-Kuṣāṇa time a number of innovations: uṣṇīṣa, strands on the head with 'V-pattern', strands hanging down on the shoulders, cihnas, widespread caumukhas (Section 9), and multiplication of the Jina motif (tritīrthikas, pañcatīrthikas etc.). The pantheon is extended by divinities ('Jaina Couple', Kubera and Ambikā) and by Jīvantasvāmī ('Bodhisattva version of the Jina').

U.P. Shah writes: "It appears that traditions [artistic traditions] about the parikara of the Jina-image were crystallised after the Kuṣāṇa and Gupta periods" (after 700? after 800 A.D.?, JRM: 95). The parikara or image-frame literally exploded (Pal Li: pl. 25, bronze, 973 A.D.: " … the altar piece offers a busy composition with numerous figures. … Among the many figures hovering around the head of Rishabha, two elephants are engaged in bathing the Jina, and a celestial holds a conch immediatly above him." - Jina images (bronze and stone) emerged in the course of centuries (after 900? after 1000?) in huge numbers (hundreds and hundreds, greatest concentration in West India: Krüger Br).

A few observations on iconographic literature (Śāstra) are necessary. It seems that we have to concentrate in the case of Overview I mainly on two [160|161] canonical texts, containing descriptions which combine 'fantastic architecture' with 'speculative iconography' (a third relevant text includes lists of Jinas, infra). The first description is contained in the Rājapraśnīya Sūtra (Leumann Be: 55-63) and treats the heaven of the god Sūryābha. The second description belongs (mainly) to the Jīvājīvābhigama Sūtra (JRM: 93) and deals with an ideal temple: "The stock description of a [celestial] Jaina temple in Jaina canons is that of the Siddhāyatana" (Shah St: 57). Refer for the Siddhāyatana concept to Shah St: 57-58 and to JRM: 93-94. - The two descriptions belong to the canon. But they are not widespread in our two texts, elsewhere in the canon or anywhere in the extra-canonical literature.

An absolutely different type of architecture (but again 'imaginative architecture') is the samavasaraa described in early (!) post-canonical literature. The fantastic ensemble called 'samavasaraa' is an open-air amphitheatre for the preaching Jina. The samavasaraa tradition is highly complex (masterly analysis of the texts by N. Balbir, see Balbir Sa: 67-104, especially p. 71). Refer for a description of the rich literature and its rich contents (Śvetāmbara and especially Digambara) to Shah St: II.5.

A historical precursor (tree sanctuary without architecture, a place where the Jina can deliver a sermon), is once described in the canonical Aupapātika Sūtra (Leumann Au: §§ 2-10, [§§ 10-12]). The description of such a 'precursor' is unique in Jaina literature. In Buddhism, tree sanctuaries are mentioned repeatedly, and they include (always?) a structure surrounding the tree (Franz Bu: 22-25). - Small size vertical representations of the samavasaraa in Jaina art start at a late date: e.g. bronze, ca.1065 A.D., Surat (Shah St: fig. 76).

A third canonical text (Samavāya Sūtra) contains numerous lists of names: names of Jinas in other periods and in another continent (Bruhn Re: § 11 and fig. 3). The subject is connected with our Section 2 (cosmography and chronology). A precise description of the UH-material of Samavāya would be useful. The production of names anticipates a tendency of Period II (great number of names and data in the UH). There is no connection with the Rājapraśnīya and Jīvājīvābhigama Sūtras.

The material of Overview II consists inter alia of lists connected with the 24 Jinas: 24 cihnas (bull etc.), 24 Yakṣas (Gomukha etc.), 24 Yakṣīs (Cakreśvarī etc.). The description of the Jinas is extensive (their height, their parents, their residence etc. etc.), and the same applies to the Yakṣas and Yakṣīs (their hand-attributes, the number of their arms, their animals). The entire [161|162] material has been collected by Hemacandra (1089-1172) in his version of the UH, but we have no overview of Hemacandra's sources. The situation is complicated because we have to consider in the Universal History the Śvetāmbara tradition and the Digambara tradition, the canonical literature (Śvetāmbara) and the post-canonical literature.

The 16 Mahāvidyās are earlier than the 24 Yakṣīs. The earliest references are found in Saghadāsa's Vasudevahiṇḍi and in Vimala Sūri's Paumacariya. U.P. Shah gives the list of the Harivaṃśapurāṇa (nos. 1 -5: Prajñapti, Rohiī, Agāriī, Mahāgaurī, Gaurī …) and a later list (nos. 1-5: Rohiī, Prajñapti, Vajrasṛṅkhalā, Vajrākuśā, Cakreśvarī/Jāmbunadā …). Refer for a monographic treatment of the sixteen Mahāvidyās or Vidyādevīs to Shah Ma. A complete description of the Mahāvidyā material would be a useful supplement to U.P. Shah's article. - Carefully executed palm-leaf miniatures (Oghaniryukti 1161) are reproduced in Chandra We (Mahāvidyās: figs. 17-42 and pp. 138-140).

The Trilokaprajñapti (JRM: 238-239) is an old text, and we need a collection of the iconographic data contained in it. M.A. Dhaky dates the Trilokaprajñapti "c. A.D. 550" (Dhaky Ni: 297).

Many publications in Indology are close to the overview principle, but Jainism, studies in art and literature, did not follow this tendency. Overview or no overview, one hopes that future generations will take up the study of the Jaina canon and of early post-canonical literature and bring aboutsituation of increased knowledge and transparency. [162]




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U.P. Shah, Studies in Jaina Art. Banaras 1955.

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U.P. Shah, Jaina Bronzes. A Brief Survey. Aspects of Jaina Art and Architecture, eds. U.P. Shah and M.A. Dhaky. Ahmedabad 1975: 269-298.

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R.C. Sharma, Buddhist Art. Mathura School. New Delhi 1995.

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V.A. Smith, The Jain Stūpa and Other Antiquities of Mathura. 1900. (Second Edition: Indological Book House 1969).

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D.M. Srinivasan, Samkarsana/Balarāma and the Mountain: A New Attribute. Religion and Art: New Issues in Indian Iconography and Iconology, ed. Cl. Bautze-Picron. London 2008: 93-104.


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Viennot Ar

O. Viennot, Le culte de I'arbre dans ITnde ancienne. Paris 1954.

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K.L. Wiley, Historical Dictionary of Jainism. Lanham, Toronto, Oxford 2004.

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J.G. Williams, The Case of the Omitted Hundreds. Mathura. The Cultural Heritage, ed. D.M. Srinivasan. New Delhi 1989: 325-331.

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H. Zimmer, The Art of Indian Asia I-II. New York 1955.

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M. Zin, Mitleid und Wunderkraft. Schwierige Bekehrungen.... Wiesbaden 2006.

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