Jain and Buddhist Manuscript Painting

views updated


JAIN AND BUDDHIST MANUSCRIPT PAINTING Buddhism and Jainism played an important role in generating written culture in a society where the oral transmission of knowledge has long been predominant. The production of Buddhist texts could have been inspired by the fear of forgetting the Buddha, who had already entered Nirvāna, and his teachings. Although much later in its date, Jain literature clearly records such fears as a reason for having written texts. When a terrible famine in the fifth century a.d. killed the majority of the Jain monks well versed in the sacred knowledge, the body of this knowledge was committed to writing for fear of losing the tradition forever. Books have been treasured in both Buddhism and Jainism not only as texts that record otherwise lost teachings of the venerable ones, but also as sacred objects that should be duly venerated. The books belonging to the latter category of sacred objects often contain paintings that contribute to their religious efficacy.

Buddhist Manuscript Painting

Historical background

The earliest illustrated Buddhist manuscript of the Indian subcontinent is the manuscript of the Astasāhasrikā Prajnāpāramitā (Perfection of wisdom in eight thousand lines) now in the Cambridge University Library. Its colophon tells us that the manuscript was made in the fourth regnal year of Mahīpāla I (c. 992–1042). The Pālas ruled in the ancient land of Magadha and adjacent regions (the present-day Indian state of Bihar and parts of Bengal) from the eighth to the early thirteenth centuries. The reign of Mahīpāla I marks a turning point in Pāla history because he is responsible for stabilizing and recovering the territory that was lost during the successions of weak kings before him. The heightened religious activities and the degree of royal patronage of the Buddhist institutions exemplified by the inscriptions bearing his regnal years suggest the perfect atmosphere for commissioning beautifully illustrated Buddhist manuscripts. A tradition of illustrating Buddhist books must have existed before Mahīpāla's reign, but the surviving body of manuscripts suggests a heyday of Buddhist book production, especially books with illustrations, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries in eastern India. Illustrated Buddhist manuscripts were made in regions outside Pāla territory in eastern India, and we have manuscripts dated with the regnal years of the Candras and the Varmans, who ruled parts of eastern India during this period. The popularity of illustrated Buddhist manuscripts was also witnessed in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, a region that seems to have been culturally interconnected with eastern India during this time.

Manuscript production and the Buddhist monasteries in eastern India

The colophon of the Cambridge University Library manuscript mentioned above does not tell us where it was prepared, but the use of Mahīpāla's regnal year suggests that the site of its production must have been one of the famous Buddhist monasteries that prospered under the Pāla rule. Even though only a few of the Pāla kings were devout Buddhists, they continued to support the internationally well-known monastery of Nalanda and founded other grand monasteries, such as Vikramashīla, located in Antichak, near Bhagalpur in Bihar. We know from different colophons that manuscripts were actually made in these famous monasteries of eastern India. For example, a beautifully written manuscript of Astasāhasrikā Prajnāpāramitā that includes eighteen illustrations and painted wooden covers (now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) was, the colophon tells us, prepared by a scribe Ahunakunda of Sri Nalanda in Magadha in the fifteenth year of the king Rāmapāla (c. 1087–1141). Another manuscript of Astasāhasrikā Prajnāpāramitā written in ornamental Kutila (hooked) scripts (now in the British Library) was made in Vikramashīla during the fifteenth year of King Gopāla III (c. 1143–1158).

Along with the accounts of later Tibetan monks visiting these sites, the ruins at the excavated sites of Nalanda and Vikramashīla suggest a blow of destruction by the Muslim army in the early thirteenth century, and such an attack must have destroyed thousands of manuscripts kept at the monasteries. This full-scale destruction of the Buddhist establishments in eastern India may have nevertheless contributed to the preservation of Buddhist manuscripts of the Pāla period: as the monks fled to Nepal and Tibet, these manuscripts were transported to a more hospitable climate for their fragile leaves, which otherwise may not have withstood almost a thousand years of harsh weather.

Material and production

Buddhist manuscripts of eastern India and Nepal were made with the leaves of the talipot (Corypha umbraculifera), a type of palm tree. The use of paper in Buddhist manuscript production was known in the Kathmandu Valley as early as the twelfth century, but palm leaf was the most commonly used material for writing. The palm-leaf manuscripts usually measure about 21–21.5 inches (53–55 cm) by 2–2.5 inches (5–6 cm) and come with a pair of wooden covers protecting the leaves. The pile of leaves and the wooden covers are strung together by a cord through prebored holes. A reed pen with black ink was used to write on the leaves, which had been rubbed to create smooth surfaces for writing. The colophons suggest that the scribe was usually a resident monk of the monastery where the project was commissioned.

When the donor's request included paintings in the manuscript, all the spaces for paintings were laid out at the commencement of the project. We do not know much about who undertook the paintings because the colophons are silent about the painters. It is most likely that there were specially trained painters at the monasteries, but there is also a possibility that a skillful scribe was the illustrator of the manuscript. Provided with a very small space of 2–2.5 inches (5–6 cm) square, the painters of the earliest illustrated manuscripts tended to abbreviate and simplify both lines and colors to create spontaneous and lively representations. By the late eleventh century, the manuscript painting style of eastern India and Nepal was as refined as that of Ajanta wall paintings, employing a fine yet sinuous line and color gradation to achieve a graceful and delicate modeling of each figure. Sometimes, if the donation fell short of the budget or the project was hurried to meet the deadline, these spaces for paintings were left empty. As long as the writing was finished, the manuscript was ready to be used and worshiped.

Book cult and paintings

Out of hundreds of Mahayana Buddhist texts, only a few enjoyed a great zeal of patronage during the Pāla period: the Astasāhasrikā Prajnāpāramitā, the PancarakshāSūtra of five protection goddesses, and occasionally the Kārandavyūha Sūtra, in eulogy of Avalokiteshvara. The most famous was the Astasāhasrikā Prajnāpāramitā, a philosophical treatise that expounds the Mahayana doctrine of shuūnyataā (emptiness) and a book of the Buddhist book cult in which the text promotes its own worship. As such, over two-thirds of the surviving illustrated manuscripts from this period are of the Asta.

The paintings in the Astasāhasrikā Prajnāpāramitā manuscripts often depict the eight scenes of the Buddha's life, even though we find no reference to such scenes in its text. Scholars who acknowledged such disjuncture between the text and images have argued that the paintings in the manuscripts of the Astasāhasrikā Prajnāpāramitā have no relation to the text, and that they serve as mere decorations that help the manuscript donor to accrue more religious merit. However, a careful look at the text-image relationship seems to prove otherwise. If the text of the Astasāhasrikā Prajnāpāramitā tries to explain the nonexistence of existence or the existence of nonexistence, disjuncture between the text and images may be said to illustrate the text by being elusive. Moreover, a systematic placement of images suggests that the paintings serve a more important role than mere decorations and merit making.

In a typical manuscript of the Astasāhasrikā Prajnāpāramitā, we have either twelve or eighteen painted panels, sized about 2–2.5 inches (5–6 cm) square. Three panels that appear on one side of a folio usually face another set on the next folio. Each set of two folios, with six paintings, marks the beginning and the end of the text. In the case of manuscripts with eighteen panels, paintings will also appear in the middle. Four of the eight panels depicting the Buddha's life scenes usually appear in the beginning, and the other four at the end. The rest are representations of different deities and bodhisattvas, such as Prajnāpāramitā, Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Tārā. As a collective unit, these paintings become the icon of the book that can open and close the path to the core teaching of the Astasāhasrikā Prajnāpāramitā. The paintings are the indexical signs of the contents of the book.

Jain Manuscript Painting

Historical background

Jain manuscripts were mainly produced and kept in the Jnāna Bhandārs, a comprehensive library usually found underground, attached to Jain temples. According to the Jain literature, the foundation of the Jain Jnāna Bhandārs began at the same time as the writing of the Jain texts in the fifth century a.d. From the tenth century these libraries began to enjoy prosperity, thanks to support from the Jain kings, who ruled Gujarat and parts of Rajasthan, their ministers, and the merchant-bankers of the Jain communities. Such support partly originated from the interest in religious merits one could attain with the donation of a book. The event of donating a carefully made book to a Jnāna Bhandārs came with the opportunity for hearing the recitation of their sacred teachings. Such a book could be taken up for Jnanapuja, the worship of the book, as in Buddhist tradition. The survival of numerous palm-leaf and paper manuscripts made in western India is indebted to the Bhandārs of the Svetāmbara (clad in white) sect. The most famous Jain Jnāna Bhandārs are now found in Patan, Cambay, and Jaisalmer.

Scholars have suggested that the earliest illustrated Jain manuscript is the palm-leaf manuscript of the Nishīthachūrnī now in the collection of the Sanghavīnā Pādānā Bhandār, Patan, dated 1157 Vikramasamvat (a.d. 1100). This manuscript contains only floral and geometric patterned roundels and small figural drawings on the margins, whose purpose seems to be to decorate the manuscript. During the twelfth century we find Jain manuscripts of various canonical texts with illustrations of deities and other figures, as in the Buddhist examples. The illustrated manuscript on paper first emerged around the mid-fourteenth century, coinciding with the advent of the Sultanate rule in Gujarat, as exemplified by a paper manuscript of Kalpa Sūtra dated 1346, now in a private collection in Mumbai. Palm leaf continued to be used for manuscript production until about 1450.

The development of Jain manuscript painting

The Kalpa Sūtra (Book of the ritual), often paired with Kālakāchāryakathā (Story of the teacher Kālaka), seems to have been the most favored Jain text for commissioning an illustrated manuscript. Apart from being recited once a year at the time of the Paryushana festival, both contain stories popular among Jains. The first two sections of the Kalpa Sūtra provide interesting narratives for illustrations, telling the life stories of the Tīrthānkaras and the genealogy of the elders, as does the Kālakāchāryakathā, a text about the adventure of a Jain monk, Kālaka, who saves his abducted sister with the help of the King Sāhi of the Saka tribes. Early makers of the Jain manuscripts paid little attention to the pictorial depiction of narratives. As in the illustrated manuscripts of other canonical texts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the paintings in the Kalpa Sūtra portrayed the Tīrthānkaras, Jain monks, and lay devotees, probably the donors of the manuscripts.

The stories of the Kalpa Sūtra and the Kālakāchāryakathā began to be illustrated around the mid-fourteenth century, and once the iconography for each narrative scene was established, little deviation was made in their representations. It has been suggested that the introduction of paper during the fourteenth century led to stronger stylization and distortion of the figures. More exaggerated, linear, and flat depictions of figures with protruding eyes continued. During the fifteenth century, border decorations became more sumptuous and opulent, possibly influenced by contemporaneous Islamic manuscripts. The unusual manuscript of the Kalpa Sūtra of the Devasano Pādo Bhandār has very lavish illuminations on its borders. The application of new colors, such as ultramarine, lapis lazuli blue, and crimson red, with the occasional application of gold and silver, also contributed to the more elaborately decorated and illustrated Jain manuscripts of the fifteenth century. The unique figural style of the Jain manuscript paintings endured until the late sixteenth century, when the interest in Kalpa Sūtra suddenly dropped. In its place, other texts were commissioned for illustration in a completely different style, concurrent with that of Hindu manuscript paintings.

Jinah Kim

See alsoAjanta ; Miniatures


Chandra, Moti. Jain Miniature Paintings from Western India. Ahmedabad: Sarabhai Manilal Nawab, 1949.

Foucher, Alfred. Étude sur l'iconographie Bouddhique de l'Inde d'après des documents nouveaux. Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1900.

Losty, J. P. The Art of the Book in India. London: British Library, 1982.

Nawab, Sarabhai. Jain Paintings. Vols. I–II. Ahmedabad: Sarabhai Manilal Nawab, 1980, 1985.

Pal, P. Indian Painting. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1993.

Pal, P., and J. Meech-Pekarik. Buddhist Book Illuminations. New York: Ravi Kumar Publishers; Hurstpierpoint, U.K.: Richard Lyon-Chimera Books, 1988.