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Jain Sculpture


JAIN SCULPTURE Jain sculpture is identifiable as Jain only by subject matter, iconography, or inscription. Otherwise, in terms of style, ornament, and in many cases, subsidiary figures, Jain sculpture is indistinguishable from sculpture made for other Indian religious groups, as they were all produced by artists from the same workshops. Nevertheless, as early as the second century b.c., the Jains continuously have been active patrons in many regions of the Indian subcontinent, and the sculpture they worship and use to adorn their sacred sites is of major importance in the history of Indian art. Movements and innovations within the Jain religious communities often found expression in sculpture, which in turn proved influential to members of the other religious traditions with which they regularly came in contact. Conversely, aspects of the literature, art, and practices of Buddhism, Hinduism, and popular local cults were absorbed and adapted by the Jains, since the Jain religion and its art existed not in isolation, but partook of a broad cultural and social network that was constantly interacting.

Some features of Jain sculpture are distinctively Jain, unmistakable from imagery associated with other sects, and they serve to identify the work as Jain in orientation. They include representations of the twenty-four Tīrthānkaras ("crossers of the ford," also called Jinas, or "conquerors"), who are the liberated beings of Jainism and the primary objects of veneration. Also distinctively Jain are the tonsured monks and nuns, usually shown carrying the accoutrements of their strict adherence to ahimsa, which refers to their practice of refraining from killing or harming any living being. Another means of distinguishing Jain sculpture is by identifying narrative sequences that are found only in Jain devotional texts. Most popular are scenes from the lives of the Tīrthānkaras, particularly Mahāvīra, Pārshvanātha, or Rishavanātha. Finally, inscriptions, generally written in a vulgate (Prakrit) derived from Sanskrit, with distinctively Jain content or formulaic wording, can be used to identify a sculpture as Jain.

Icons for Veneration

A fundamental aspect of Jainism, regardless of sect, is that during the current epoch, twenty-four people have achieved supreme knowledge (kevala jñāna) through strict asceticism and meditation, which allows them upon death to be liberated from our world of endless cycling from one birth and death to another. These liberated beings are called Tirthankaras, and they dwell in an eternal state of meditative bliss in a realm above our universe, and hence they are depicted in sculpture in postures denoting meditation. Their presence is known in our world through the dissemination of their teachings and through the veneration of their images in temples. Most Jain iconic sculptures are images of a Tirthankara, which would be placed on an altar in a shrine or temple.

Other types of icons are also set up for veneration in a Jain context. Goddesses and other divinities play crucial roles in Jainism. The goddess of learning, Sarasvatī, is frequently found in association with Jain monuments, and the Jain mother goddess Ambikā becomes ubiquitous by the eighth century a.d. The goat-headed divinity Naigameshin, who transported the embryo of the twenty-fourth Tirthankara, Mahāvīra, to the womb of Queen Trishalā, remains an important figure in the Jain pantheon from the first century a.d. onward. Finally, saints and important teachers of Jainism can be venerated as objects of worship as well.

Iconography of Tīrthānkaras

The most recognizable type of Jain sculpture is that of the seated or standing Tīrthānkara icon. Rigidly axial and usually totally nude (until after the sixth century, when some sects provide them with a lower garment), sculptures of Tīrthānkaras embody the ideal of rigorous asceticism that is so central to the practice of Jainism. When standing, their arms are held stiffly by their sides, not touching the body, in a posture called kāyotsarga. Seated Tīrthānkara figures have crossed legs, and their hands are positioned one atop the other in the lap in the gesture of meditation (dhyāna). Often they will have the auspicious shrīvatsa symbol on the chest, denoting the beneficial results that can ensue from veneration of the image.

Most of the Tīrthānkaras are visually indistinguishable from one another, except for two of them that have distinctive characteristics. The first, Rishavanātha (also called Ādinātha), is the only Tīrthānkara depicted with long hair. Otherwise, all Tīrthānkaras are fully tonsured with no cranial protuberance (ushnisha), until the fifth century a.d., after which Tīrthānkaras could be shown with the protrusion atop the head, like a Buddha. The twenty-third Tīrthānkara, Pārshvanātha (or simply Pārshva), is shown with a five-hooded serpent behind him, which makes reference to a specific event in his biography. By the mid-second century a.d., Neminātha (also Arishtanemi) can be identified by his being flanked by Krishna and Balarāma, the well-known Hindu gods whom the Jains consider to have been his cousins. Specific Tīrthānkaras were often provided with an animal or other cognizance that serves as a means of signifying which Tīrthānkara is being represented. Ajitanātha, for example, has an elephant for his cognizance, while Mahāvīra has the lion, and Rishavanātha the bull. As iconographies became more elaborate and codified, in keeping with pan-Indian trends of the medieval period, each Tīrthānkara was assigned further identifying attributes, such that by the eighth century they were provided with identifying colors, particular trees under which they achieved kevala jñāna (the highest knowledge leading to final liberation), and specifically named male and female attendants who serve as messengers (shāsanadevatā) between them and their devotees.

Early History of the Tīrthānkara Icon

Some fragmentary examples of nude male figures resembling Tīrthānkaras standing frontally have been discovered that are attributed to the earliest phases of stone sculptural production in India. However, there is no indication that Jainism as we know it existed before the time of Mahāvīra, who is credited with founding the Jain religion in the sixth century b.c. Moreover, other iconic images of unidentified nude male figures attributed on the basis of style to the next phase of stone carving (third century b.c.) possess no distinguishing inscription or iconographic mark to prove they are necessarily Jain.

The earliest known icon of an identifiable Tīrthānkara is a stone image of Pārshvanātha, made in the city of Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, and datable on the basis of style to around 100–75 b.c. For the next three hundred years, Mathura figures as the most prominent center for the manufacture of Jain sculpture.

Most of the earliest Jain Tīrthānkaras, from the first century b.c. and first century a.d., are carved in low relief on stone plaques called āyāgapata, which functioned as objects of worship in Jain sanctuaries. The Tīrthānkara imagery on these plaques seems to have played an important role in the formulation of the anthropomorphic Buddha icon, which was initiated in Mathura in the first decades of the first century a.d. During this period, Jainism at Mathura flourished, and Jain foundations enjoyed much better financial support from the laity than did their non-Hindu monastic rivals, the Buddhists. The inhabitants of Mathura evidently favored the worship of anthropomorphic icons, and the particular heterodox sect of Jainism, called Ardhaphālaka, known primarily from sculptures and inscriptions and active only in Mathura, appear to have been eager to accommodate this regional predilection.

Hundreds of Tīrthānkara icons have been recovered from Mathura, dating predominantly to the Kushāna period of the second and third centuries a.d.; such mass production often led to repetitive and conventional modes of representation. Once the Ardhaphālakas were completely subsumed within the more mainstream Shvetāmbara branch of Jainism by the fourth century, the production of Jain sculptures at Mathura dropped off to be more in step with the number and type of images made for Jains in other regions.


Donors who give the images and the worshipers who venerate them earn valuable spiritual merit, which aids in a favorable rebirth and moves them closer to the liberated state. Many of the icons have valuable donative inscriptions that yield information regarding the structure of the Jain monastic and lay communities of the region. The thriving Jain monasteries had many monks and nuns, and they would serve as spiritual advisers to laypeople, who, acting under the instigation of the monastic adviser, would pay for the creation of an image and its installation within the sanctuary. This would be done for the sake of honoring the Tīrthānkaras, often called arhats (or "qualified ones") in the inscriptions. During the pre-Kushana and Kushana periods (c. 150 b.c.–a.d. 250), many of the donors of Jain icons were laywomen, thus indicating that wealthy women were prominent supporters of the Jain establishments at Mathura.

Jain Icons of the Guptan and Medieval Periods

Some of the most sublime Jain Tīrthānkara icons were carved during the Guptan period of the fifth century a.d. Less mass-produced than during the preceding Kushāna period, the softly naturalistic Guptan Tīrthānkaras exude the peaceful idealization characteristic of all sculpture produced during this classical age. They still maintain the total nudity and stiff frontal postures, whether standing or seated in meditation.

After the Guptan period, a proliferation of Jain sculpture and icons can be found throughout the Indian sub-continent, as is the case with the arts of other religious traditions as well, since it is a time generally marked by multiplicity, elaboration, and more surviving examples. Some of the most important works of Jain sculpture from the sixth through the thirteenth centuries are cast in bronze, to be used as objects of worship in smaller shrines or for personal devotion. The tradition of casting Jina icons in bronze dates as early as the second century a.d., as known from a rare early hoard discovered at Chausa, Bihar, in eastern India, which includes images made during the Kushāna and Guptan periods. Dating from the sixth to tenth centuries are the extraordinary group of bronzes from Akota, Gujarat, in western India, including icons and shrines not only of Tīrthānkaras, but also of Jain goddesses, such as Ambikā.

From the eighth to thirteenth centuries, the most prominent center for the production of Jain sculpture, particularly in bronze, is in the south, both in Karnataka and in Tamil Nadu, where the Jain community flourished intermittently between major persecutions. The unusually magnificent tenth-century freestanding stone colossus of the Jain saint Bahubali (also known as Gomateshvara) in Shravana Belgola, Karnataka, in southwestern India, is to this day a major pilgrimage site for Jains. Bahubali, a son of the first Tīrthānkara, Rishavanātha, renounced his princely life after a duel with his brother. He stood for so long in meditation that vines grew up around him, and depictions of Bahubali are readily recognizable by the distinctive feature of vines curling around his body. This sculpture measures about 60 feet (18 m) in height and is said to be the tallest freestanding monolithic sculpture in the world.

Jain Sculpture and Temple Architecture

Jain sculpture surviving on intact monuments are valuable documents for understanding how the imagery was used in its religious context. While the Tīrthānkara icon served as the focal object of worship, a profusion of other kinds of imagery adorn other areas of sacred structures.

Cave temples

On the hills known as Udayagiri and Khandagiri near Bhubaneshvara, Orissa, in eastern India are the ruins of an apsidal temple and a number of rock-cut shelters in which Jain mendicants stay during the rainy season. In running friezes along the tops of the rear walls of the verandas, in tympana, on exterior walls of outdoor cells, and on pillar capitals are a great variety of relief sculptures. The first phase of carving dates to the second and first centuries b.c. Many of them are complex narratives that remain unidentified but testify to the rich literary tradition of the early Jains, which is now lost. Some reliefs depict intriguing scenes of worship, such as a royal couple venerating a nonanthropomorphic symbol on an altar. Other imagery includes pan-Indian motifs such as animals, nature divinities (yaksha and yakshī), Sūrya the sun god, and Lakshmī the goddess of good fortune. About a thousand years later, images of Tīrthānkaras and their messenger divinities were added to the walls of the caves, and during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a Jain temple and Tīrthānkara sculptures further augmented the site.

It is remarkable that a number of major Hindu cave temple sites of the Guptan and post-Guptan periods (fifth and sixth centuries a.d.) include several Jain sanctuaries. Of note are the caves at Udayagiri, Madhya Pradesh (early fifth century) in central India; Badami, Karnataka (late sixth century) and Ellora, Maharashtra (eighth century), in the Deccan of western India. These Jain caves have received very little attention, overshadowed as they are by the Hindu caves at the same sites. The sculptural program primarily includes multiple Tīrthānkara icons and subsidiary divinities.


At times Jain sculptures serve as important documents of Indian history and art history. Three stone images of Jain Tīrthānkaras were recovered near Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh. They are all inscribed with lengthy donative inscriptions stating that they were made during the time of King Rāmagupta, a monarch of the Guptan empire of northern India, who, until the discovery of these images, was thought to be apocryphal. He had a short and calumnious reign in the a.d. 370s, and hence these three images are rare examples of stone sculpture dated to the fourth century. They have thus become benchmarks for the understanding of sculptural styles of the fourth century, a time to which very little art from any region can be firmly attributed. The Rāmagupta Tīrthānkaras are key examples of the stylistic transition from the boldness and extroversion of Kushāna sculpture (second–third centuries) to the softer surfaces and gentle introspection of the Guptan period (fifth century).

Structural temples

The inclusion of Jain temples at otherwise predominantly Hindu sites continues into the medieval period, even in structural temple complexes. At the famed temple site of Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, Jain temples are among the predominantly Hindu monuments. Visually, the Jain Pārshvanātha temple at Khajuraho is virtually indistinguishable from the other temples in the area, and it is just as lavish, but with less emphasis on erotic imagery.

Some of the finest Jain temples are in Gujarat and Rajasthan in western India. The temple to the Jain mother goddess Ambikā at Jagat in Rajasthan is dated to a.d. 961, and it is an exemplar of the pure North Indian temple style at its height. The exterior is replete with figural and vegetal imagery. An explosion of sculptural imagery can be found on the interior of the Vimala temple at Mount Abu, a major pilgrimage Jain pilgrimage site atop a sacred mountain in Rajasthan. Carved completely of polished white marble in the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the Tīrthānkara icons remain austere, but the dizzying array of figural and lacelike ornamental sculpture that adorns the ceilings, pillars, and archways testifies to the wealth of the Jain community in western India. Major donations from Vimala, the temple's patron and a minister to the Solanki king, supported the construction and embellishment of this stunning temple, including the famous spectacular ceilings made of concentric rings of intricately carved marble and images of female directional divinities, dancers, and celestial musicians. The voluptuous figures of the divinities and the exuberant ornamentation of Jain monuments such as the Vimala temple seem to be at odds with the doctrines propounding austerity and detachment for Jain practitioners. These temples, however, are reflections of the activities of the wealthy Jain laity, primarily of the mercantile class, and donations to Jain monuments in order to beautify them was one of the chief means of accruing spiritual merit without renouncing society.

Sonya Quintanilla

See alsoGuptan Period Art ; Jainism


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