The Jain Art Tradition

Published: 30.04.2012
Updated: 02.07.2015

Indian art, which Jain art an integral part of, offers us both beauty and truth in its quest of universal well-being through ahimsa. The Jain value system based on non-violence has a universal appeal. It has a deep contemporary resonance and relevance in our world afflicted by divisive and disruptive violence. There is a sense of 'sacred' in Jain art and an artistic sensitivity in its celebration of the sacred. It beckons the world to a culture of peace, tolerance and understanding. Indian art exemplifies unity in diversity that arises from the different periods of history, different religious and aesthetic traditions and geographical locations.

There is a continuity of cultural context in Jain, Buddhist and Hindu architecture and sculpture. Their artists, architects and masons were often the same as were many of their themes, episodes and ideas. They shared aesthetic sensibilities, the sense of symmetry, perspectives and proportions and the approach to iconography. Jain art is thus quintessentially Indian art related to a period of history, consecrated to the Tirthankaras and commissioned by Jain rulers, friendly patrons, high officials, donors and sponsors.

Jain art and architecture belonging to different periods of history is found in almost all parts of India and testifies to the widespread prevalence of the Jain tradition throughout the country. In particular, the pilgrimage centres (tirtha-kshetras) with their sacred associations are great repositories of the glory of Jain art. 'the Jains almost invariably selected picturesque sites for their temples and pilgrimages. A pilgrimage (tirtha) is meant to be a source of spiritual and ethical inspiration, instruction and edification; it is meant to be a bridge for the aspirant to facilitate his 'crossing over' of the river of his worldly existence. Many of the pilgrimages are on hilltops or in serene and secluded spots at tranquil sites. There is a sublime spirituality about these tirthas, sanctified by the adoration and reverence of the devout for the Tirthankaras. The art and architecture at the Jain pilgrimages are suffused with the spirit of Jain religion and culture. The pilgrims and visitors spiritually experience the sacred ambience through aesthetic beauty and prayerful worship. The ubiquitous centrality of Tirthankaras in Jain temples is an expression of the veneration that Jain tradition has for the ideal of renunciation, enlightenment and complete liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The Tirthankaras are regarded as saviours and adored because of the supreme example of their lives and their non-expectation of any worldly help. Those "perfect beings are forever beyond the pale of human affairs."

According to Professor Padmanabh Jaini, “we must understand Jain image-worship as being of a meditational nature: the Jina is seen merely as an ideal, a certain mode of the soul, a state attainable by all embodied beings. Through the personification of that ideal state in stone, the Jains create a meditative support, a reminder of his lofty goal and the possibility of its attainment.” Although renunciation is the highest ideal in Jain tradition, its lay followers are not entirely different from the common Hindu devotees, who expect the deity to confer boons and favours on them. Perhaps that is why many Jain temples have idols of Lord Ganesha, Lord Bhairavanatha, Padmavati and other celestial beings to whom prayers are made for the fulfilment of mundane wishes.

Seated Jina, Mathura

Of the innumerable ancient Jain sites, temples, monuments and sculptures in virtually every part of north India, the State of Bihar, parts of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat abound in places of pilgrimage associated with the Tirthankaras. After their era, other regions of India vied with each other in embracing and adopting the Jain tradition. The evidence in stone testifies to the conspicuous presence of the Jain tradition throughout India. There were periods of history when Jains constituted a significant segment of the population. The denominational demography of the adherents of Jainism has declined but its impact has survived substantially in terms of the ideas and practices of non-violence, compassion, charity, tolerance and vegetarianism, in art as well as in architecture.

According to ancient Jain scriptures, Rshabha the first Tirthankara, who established agriculture and settled society, had preached Jain tenets in Maghadha, Bihar. Many of the Tirthankaras were born in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh and all Tirthankaras with the exception of the first and the twenty- second, Aristanemi, attained their nirvana in Bihar. Among the most notable of Jain pilgrimages are those associated directly with the Tirthankaras. For that reason, the Sammet Shikhar on Parsvanatha hill, the Girnar and Pavapuri enjoy a traditional preeminence. Equally important pilgrimage centres are the Dilwara temples, Ranakpur, Palitana (Shatrunjaya), Shri Taranga Tirtha, Shravana Belgola, Nakoda Parsvanatha, Shri Jaiselmer Tirtha, Shankheswara Parsvanatha, Shri Kumbhariaji and many other old and new temples. Many of them are in a state of neglect and ruin, many were transformed while others mistaken for as Buddhist. Quite a few temples have also been built on ancient and medieval sites. Noteworthy examples of Jain temples built overseas during the last twenty-five years, among others, are those in Leicester, Nairobi, Mombasa, Chicago, Singapore, Kobe, Milpitas, Antwerp and Los Angeles. Innumerable temples and monuments, educational and research institutions, hospitals, dharmasalas and dadabaris have been built by the Jains in India throughout history.

Many ancient sites bear witness to the glory of the Jain tradition in Bihar. Apart from the association of many Tirthankaras with Bihar, including Lord Parsva and Lord Mahavira, many important rulers there were followers of Jainism, among whom were Srenik (Bimbisara), Ajatasatru (Kunika), Cetaka, Nandivardhna, Chandragupta Maurya (grandfather of Emperor Ashoka) and Samprati (grandson of Emperor Ashoka). According to tradition, the tenth Tirthankara, Sitalanatha was born in Kuluha; the twentieth, Munisuvrata in Rajagrha; the twenty-first, Naminatha in Mithila; and the twenty-fourth, Vardhamana Mahavira was born in Kundangram (Kundalgram) near Vaishali.

The teachings of Lord Parsva and Lord Mahavira held sway in the Kingdom of Kasi-Kosala, Anga-Magadha and in the territories of the Vrji-Licchavis and Mallas. Besides these Parsvanatha hill, Rajgrha, Nalanda, Vaisali, Pava, Sravasti, Champa (near Bhagalpur), Mithila (Janakpur), Kuluha hill and the districts of Gaya, Manbhum, Singhbhum, Dhanbad, Sahabad, Arrah, Bhagalpur and Patna are replete with treasures of Jain antiquities and associations, most of which have been sentenced to tragic neglect or quiet oblivion.

In Kalpasutra we have an account of the areas in which Lord Mahavira spent the forty-two rainy seasons after his renunciation at the age of thirty. He spent his first rainy season in Asthigrama. (also called Vardhamana or more recently Burdwan) and the next three rainy seasons in Champa and Prsthachampa (in the kingdom of Anga, conquered by the Magadha Emperor Bimbisara who became a follower of Lord Mahavira). The next twelve rainy seasons were spent in Vaishali and Vanijyagrama and fourteen rainy seasons thereafter in Rajagrha and Nalanda. Vaishali was the seat of republican Vrji-Licchavis and Vanijyagrama was a centre of trade in the suburb of Vaishali. According to the Digambara and Shvetambara traditions, Lord Mahavira was born in Kundagram. Some believe that Kundagram was near Vaishali, while others say that he was born in Vaishali because his mother was the sister of the head of the Licchavi republic. According to another theory, Kundagram was near Nalanda. Be as it may, the Vaishali and Nalanda regions were undoubtedly the stronghold of Lord Mahavira's following. It was in the Vaishali region that, in all probability, he was blessed with the ultimate enlightenment. Regrettably, there is so far no befitting commemoration of Mahavira in the Vaishali or Nalanda region.

The Rajgir(Rajagrha)-Nalanda area, which Lord Mahavira frequented, though bereft of its ancient glory in stone, has many eloquent reminders of the Jain tradition. Veerayatan is a modem Jain centre of humanitarian service and spiritual quest in Rajgir. There are Jain temples on the top of the five hills: Vipulachala, Ratnagiri, Udaygiri, Svamagiri and Vaibharagiri. The Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, who visited India from 629-655 AD, noted the presence of Jain Nirgranthas on Vaibharagiri. There are footprints of Jain Tirthankaras and many Jain images on the five hills in Rajgir. An ancient image of Lord Parsvanatha lends lustre to a cave in Udaygiri hill. There is a Jain inscription in the Sonabhandar caves, once identified as Buddhist Sattapanni caves. A figure of Parsva with the seven-headed serpent hood was found by General Cunningham sometime around 1851-62 in Moniyar Math, which has a Jain shrine located on a brick mound.

Lord Mahavira attained nirvana in Pavapuri. The beautiful Jalamandir where the cremation of Lord Mahavira took place reminds us of his sublime teachings. It is believed that a likeness of Lord Mahavira was sculpted in his lifetime. Professor Satya Ranjan Banerjee refers to the evidence of the inscriptions and sculptures and speaks of the existence of a very strong Jain tradition in Bengal from a very early age. According to Ayaranga Sutta, Mahavira travelled to parts of Bengal before he attained kevalygnana. The well known Jain saint, Bhadrabahu was also born in northern Bengal.
Jina panel on one side of the Kahaum pillar (AD 460), Gupta art of Northern India

The history of Jainism in Orissa goes back to the time of Lord Parsva, although according to tradition the eighteenth Tirthankara, Lord Aranatha received his first alms in Rayapura, probably the capital of Kalinga. It can be said with reasonable certainty that both Parsvanatha and Lord Mahavira visited the kingdom of Kalinga. A Jain ruler of the Nanda dynasty, who defeated and captured Kalinga, is believed to have taken with him the image of Kalinga Jina as a trophy, which was brought back to Kalinga in his twelfth year of reign by the Jain Emperor Kharavela. He was a powerful ruler of his time and under him Jainism had its golden age in Kalinga. The Khandagiri and Udaygiri caves in Orissa continue to command attention as cultural centers of Jainism.

Vidisa in Madhya Pradesh was an ancient centre of Jainism. There are several caves and rock-cut temples that go back to the fifth century. Jainism flourished in Khajuraho, Mahoba, Devgarh, Ahar, Tikamgarh and Madanesasagarpura. Although the Khajuraho and Mahoba Jain temples have been denuded of their glory and many images have been multilated, there is exquisite charm and artistic delicacy in them. The Candela kings ruled in the Khajuraho-Mahoba region and shifted their capital from Khajuraho to Mahoba around 900 AD. Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller, called the place Jainabhukti. In the Bundelkhand-Vindhya region as well as in Gwalior and Indore, Jainism continued to have a substantial number of followers, with many Digambara and Shvetambara temples and notable sculptures there.

Many Tirthankaras, including the first and the twenty-fourth, were born in Uttar Pradesh, among the important places of which are Ayodhya, the birthplace of the first Tirthankara; Sravasti, the birthplace of Sambhavanatha, the third Tirthankara; Kausambi Kampila, the birthplace of Vimalanath, the thirteenth Tirthankara; Ratnapura, the birthplace of Dharmanatha, the fifteenth Tirthankara; Hastinapura, the birthplace of Santinatha, Kunthunatha and Aranatha being the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth Tirthankaras respectively; Varanasi, the birthplace of Lord Parsvanatha; Ahichatra, where Lord Parsvanatha attained kevalygnana; and Mathura.

The excavations in Kankali Tila in Mathura and more recently in Fatehpur Sikri have yielded a wealth of archeological evidence of Jain stupas and the most beautiful statuary images including an unsurpassed sculpture of the goddess Saraswati. A stupa made by gods (devanirmitah) is assigned the date of 3rd century BC. Many images of the Tirthankaras including Rsabha, Suparsva (the seventh Tirthankara), Parsva and Vardhamana Mahavira were also found in the excavation.

Jainism may have entered Punjab soon after the nirvana of Mahavira. King Samprati, the grandson of Asoka must have contributed to the propagation of Jainism there and in other parts of India. It did not spread as widely in Punjab as it did in the adjoining areas of Rajasthan, but it did reach the people as far as Taksasila, near Rawalpindi. According to a legend, Rsabha divided his kingdom among his sons with Bharat getting Ayodhya and Bahubali getting Taksasila. Bahubali is said to have built the Simhapura stupa in his kingdom to commemorate the visit of his ascetic father Rsabha. The excavation of a mound of great antiquity in the village of Harappa yielded many statues resembling Rsabha and possibly other Tirthankaras. Excavated evidence, sculptural remains and literary references lead us to the conclusion that there were hundreds of Jain temples in Punjab and in the city of Taksasila, the magnificence of which was destroyed by epidemics and the invasion by the Turuskas around the sixth century. Hiuen Tsang tells us about both Digambara and Shvetambara Jains in Punjab, in the province of North West Frontier and other regions of India: A Jain monk, Harigupta was the mentor and preceptor of the famous Hun prince, Toraraya or Toramana, the king of Parvatika on the banks of the river Chandrabhaga. There was a sizeable and influential population of Jains in Uttarpath in the 6th century and also in Nagarkot, Kangra, Mullan, Muzaffargarh, Montgomery, Dera Ghazikhan, Kohat, Bannu and Mianwali for several centuries until the partition of India. A Jain saint, Jinadutt Suri established the panchanadi pooja. the worship of the combined stream of the five rivers of Punjab. Jainism flourished in Punjab during Akbar's reign and a number of temples were also built with royal permission. It is said that a Jain monk composed a stotra containing a thousand names of the sun, and it was recited before Akbar every Sunday. He also conferred the title of Jagadguru (world-class teacher) on a Jain monk.

The Badli inscription, which dates back to 84 years after the nirvana of Lord Mahavira, helped establish the presence of Jainism in Rajasthan in the fifth century BC. According to another inscription from 1276 from Bhinmal, Lord Mahavira himself came to Srima1anagar. Yet another inscription of 1369 from Mungstha1a indicates that Lord Mahavira had visited Abu and Mount Abu region in the 37th year of his life. The claim based on the two inscriptions is not supported by any other evidence, but the inscription from Bairath does take us to the period of king Samprati, the grandson of Ahoka, also known as Jain Asoka. Hiuen Tsang also refers to Bhima1 and Bairath as centres of Jainism.

The Pratihara kings in west Rajasthan encouraged Jainism. Vatsaraja Pratihara built a Mahavira temple at Osian, near Jodhpur in the 8th century AD. Osian, with which the genesis of the aswa1 Jains in Rajasthan and Gujarat is connected, is an ancient pilgrimage. The Mahavira temple at Osian has Maru Rajasthani features as well as the later Gujarati style and the impress of the Chahmana (Chauhan) period. According to Professor Dhaky, the main temple is the oldest example of Maha-maru architecture, and its rich treasurers of Jain iconography and the Devakulikas are the earliest masterpieces. Like the Mahavira temple in Osian, the Parsvanatha temple in Phalodi (Phalvardhika) was also renovated and repaired later. Indeed, there are thousands of such examples of Jain temples throughout Rajasthan, which were repaired or replaced, although many more were destroyed or appropriated for Shiva or other worship. Dr. U.P. Shah has shown that the famous Kirti Stambha of Chittore, that has eight storeys and is about eighty feet high, was a Jain Digambara manastambha. It was built in c.1100 AD and repaired in c.1450. At the famous shrine of Keshariaji in the formerly princely state of Udaipur Adinatha Rshabha is worshipped by Jains, Hindus and tribals alike. The pillars and ceiling patterns in the famous Adhai-din-ka-Jhonpada mosque complex in Ajmer show at a bare glance that earlier it was a Jain temple and monastery. The Rathors of Hathundi were Jains and ruled in the 10th century AD. Many of the rulers, though not Jains themselves, respected Jainism: Harsha Vardhana was one such example. The Chalukyas, Cholas, Rashtrakutas, Parmars, Sisodias and several other dynasties including Akbar of the Mughal dynasty with many of their ministers and feudatories were patrons and sponsors of the Jain art. When the Chauhans held sway in north India, there was a profusion of Jain temples and sculpture. Many of the Chalukya kings were Jains, who established important Jain temples and temple cities. Jainism was well established in every princely state of Rajasthan, notably Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Jaipur, Bikaner, Sirohi, Udaipur, Dungarpur, Kota and Bundi. Jains occupied the highest offices in the state, many of them as leaders of trade and commerce. Beautiful temples and large libraries were built. Nakoda Parsvanathji near Balotara and Mahaveerji still attract thousands of visitors and pilgrims.


Compiled by PK

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  33. Jain Art
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