Jain Art & Architecture


Edited By Mr. Amar T. Salgia


The first principle of all art or architecture is the transformation of ideas into a visible object or symbolic expression. Architecture further serves as a kind of history. It is a standing and living historical record, providing a more vivid and lasting picture of a cultural tradition than conventional written history does. An understanding of the motivation behind Jain art and architecture is an important prerequisite for the serious student of art. A.N. Upadhye surmises this motivation in the following from Jain Art and Architecture:

"The Jain ethic aims at improving oneself by eradicating one's attachment and aversion, which, in other forms are the four passions of anger, greed, ego and deceit. If these are brought under control, then the eternal soul is on the path of becoming paramatman, i.e., one evolves oneself to the higher spiritual status.... Yearning for wealth and pleasures must be subordinated to Dharma, religious attitude, which takes one to salvation, the liberation from all karmas. The worship of the Jina involves the adoption of a number of virtues, to the best of one's ability and honesty, such as non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy, and posessionlessness. "Most of these ethical concepts are reflected, in some form or other, in Jain art and architecture.... Jain pieces of art aim at elevating our spirit; they inspire religious values; and they present, in concrete form, the philosophical concepts and rules of conduct laid down in Jainism. They satisfy the yearning spirit to identify itself and evolve into the higher spirit which is characterized by infinite knowledge, perception, strength and bliss." And as with its philosophy, Jain symbolism, manifested in its arts and architectures, bears awesome peculiarities.

Much has been written in the twentieth century about Indian art and architecture, but the aforementioned depth of philosophical conviction which Jain art and architecture are intended to convey, has generally been overlooked. To a limited extent, however, observations of the bulk of Indian art can be applied to Jain art as well. V.A. Smith in his History of Fine Arts in India and Ceylon writes that "Hindu Art, including Jain and Buddhist in the comprehensive, is the real Indian Art. The special feature of Jain art lies in the fact that it shows the relative position of natural objects with great fineness. It is sometimes called 'conventionalistic', but that is true of all arts devoted to religious subjects." In the opinion of Colonel Tod, "[The Jains'] arts, like their religion, were of a character quite distinct from those of [the Hindus]. The temple of Mahavira, the last of their twenty-four apostles, at Nadole (Rajasthan) is a very fine piece of architecture. Its vaulted roof is a perfect model of the most ancient style of dome in the East, probably invented anterior to the Romans."

In a chapter on "Jain Architecture and Literature" in The Heart of Jainism, the missionary Margaret Stevenson writes, "The earliest Jain architects seem to have used wood as their chief building material." Lack of supporting evidence, however, hinders scholarly consideration of this notion. As far as the existing materials can evince, by the fifth century, B.C., when its primal homeland of modern Bihar and Uttar Pradesh had become Sanskritized, Jainism was widespread among the middle class. Its lay followers, the Shravakas and Shravikas, were mostly engaged in commerce and academics. Thus, the architects and artisans employed by the lay Jains came primarily from socio-economic classes engaged solely in such trades. In order to allow permanency to their religious sanctuaries and objects of worship, they invariably used stone and metal. More recent discoveries of the remains of many Jain temples, built centuries before the Christian era, further confirms the fact that the earliest Jain architecture was not limited to wood.

As for the antiquity of Jain architecture, the excavations of Kankali Tilla, near Mathura, establish beyond doubt that the erection of Jain stupas took place several centuries before the Christian era. According to some Western scholars, these structures are perhaps the oldest standing buildings in the modern land of India. Modern and medieval Jains have been the most prolific temple builders in Western India. The famous Jain temples atop Mt. Abu (modern Indian state of Rajasthan) are triumphs of architecture. The intricacy and richness of their carvings are truly unsurpassed in the world. The great Jain pilgrimage in the Shatrunjay Hills near Palitana (state of Gujarat), sometimes called the "City of Temples", is an imposing edifice. Its close, systematic grouping of buildings, given dramatic changes in altitude and very limited spaces, is another peculiarity of Jain architecture.

In southern India, there exist several Jain columns which Colonel Tod noted as being "of a remarkably pleasing design. They are a wonder of light, elegant, highly decorated stone-work, and nothing can surpass the stately grace of these beautiful pillars whose proportions and adaptations to surrounding scenery are always perfect and whose richness of decoration never offends. In the whole range of Indian Art, there is nothing perhaps equal to the Kanara Jain pillars in taste."

Numerous cave-temples have been discovered in different parts of the Indian subcontinent, West and South. The Jain caves at Ellora (state of Maharashtra) form a series by themselves and contain elaborate frescoes and other architectural works. Griffiths writes in the introduction of his well-known work Ajanta, "The Jains excavated some five or six extensive works which form a very important group of caves; one of the largest and most elaborate, the Indra Sabha, being about 90 feet deep, 80 feet wide, and 14 feet high. There are a number of ancient Jain caves in Orissa on hills known as Khandgiri, Udaigiri, and Nilgiri, dating as far back as the second century, B.C."

A number of salient ascetic ideals expressed in Jain and Buddhist sculpture are similar, and modern art historians have often mistaken images of the Buddhas and Jain Tirthankaras for one another. The images of Jain Tirthankaras are generally seated in the meditative padmasana position (the "lotus posture"), and sometimes in the standing kayotsarga posture (the "body abondoning" pose), or in ardhapadmasana (the "half lotus"). The Shvetambar laity has created a unique class of metal-cast images known as panchatirthis, or "five holies". The central images on these artefacts consist of any of the twenty-four Tirthankaras in the padmasana pose; two standing, kayotsarga figures appear on each side of the middle image; and two more padmasana images are formed on either side, above the same kayotsarga figures.

Other prominent themes within Indian Jain art include celestial beings, or angels, as musicians and votaries: some adoring the omniscient Tirthankaras, some waving chamaras, and some in prayer, kneeling or standing with folded hands, etc. One also encounters images of saluting elephants, carrying water-pots in their trunks, pouring at the feet of a kayotsarga Tirthankara figure, on either side. Among the Digambar Jain temples in southern India, the enormous statues at Shravana Belagola (state of Karnataka), Karkala, Yemur, and Canara are the largest monolithic, free-standing statues in the world. The tallest one, of Lord Bahubali (at Shravana Belagola, completed in 981 A.D.), is over 57 feet high and was carved from a single block of granite.

The place of Jain paintings among the world's treasury of fine arts is also of importance. A special feature of Jain painting lies in the drift and quality of its lines. Line is so finely drawn in the some Jain schools of painting that few other art traditions bear comparison with it. (It has been demonstrated that the Chinese technique for creating powerful lines was borrowed from India; perhaps time will produce evidence that the Chinese may have learned the skill from Jains artisans.) Jain paintings generally depict important historical events, such as the lives and deeds of Tirthankaras, ascetics and monarchs, or pilgrimage centers, or illustrations pertaining to Jain philosophy and cosmology. Since they sustain a sanctity of their own in finished form, such works of art were preserved with great veneration in both temples and homes.

The Jains have also been keen on illustrating religious texts with miniature paintings whose renditions of man and nature also bear a unique style and taste. Coomarswami, in his "Notes on the Jain Art", writes, "The Jain paintings are not only very important for the students of Jain iconography and archaeology, and not only are they significant for their illustrations of costume, manners and customs, but they are of equal or greater interest as being the oldest known Indian paintings on paper." The Nahar family collection of manuscripts of the Kalpa Sutra (a revered text dating back to the fourth century, B.C.), which deals with the lives of the Tirthankaras and ascetic conduct, contains exquisite miniatures which have been gaining the attention of modern art critics. Their interesting changes in drapery, posture and colour, as well as their peculiar stylizations, are quite striking to the average, unacquainted observer.

The Moghul period of miniature painting significantly influenced Jain miniature art. In fact, it was only in that later epoch that paintings of buildings, scenery, and portraits become prevalent throughout the subcontinent.


A Note on the Art of the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3000 - 1500 B.C.)
All of the known and catalogued works of art and architecture that unmistakably bear Jain authorship date back no earlier than the fifth century, B.C. However, seals and icons recovered from the earliest Indus Valley cities depict rather Jain-like scenes and ascetic ideals. In Oriental Mythology, the renowned scholar Joseph Campbell made note of several Indus seals which depict scenes reminiscent of Jain penance and meditation, as well as Jain art's incorporation of animal figures. John Koller remarks that "indeed, it is tempting to identify the Jain way with the Indus people, for animal emblems associated with the Tirthankaras are reminiscent of those depicted on Indus seals; the Jain practice of yoga recalls the lotus-postured figure on some of the Indus seals; and the older Jain sculptures strongly resemble nude terra cotta figures found in the Indus Valley. Although Mahavira and Parshva (the twenty-third and twenty-fourth Tirthankaras, respectively) are both thought to have lived in the Ganges, rather than the Indus Valley, it is possible that their predecessors lived in the Indus Valley and migrated ahead of the approaching Aryans."

Excavations have produced significant evidence for the fact that the ancient Indus inhabitants lived primarily in distinct mercantile communities, separated from and competing with one another, often in the same cities. Since the civilization's rediscovery in the early 1920's, several groups have alleged that the greater religious identity of the Indus people was "Hindu", "Vedic", or "Shaivite", or "Jain", etc. A much-scrutinized seal unearthed from the ancient city of Harappa depicts a man wearing a horned headdress, sitting in a yogic posture and surrounded by animals. Western and Hindu scholars appear to have unilaterally christened it "Pashupati" (an image of the god Shiva as "lord of beasts"), while Jain scholars have, based on observations similar to Campbell's and Koller's, identified the same image as that of the first Tirthankara, Lord Rishabha. Such conclusions pertaining to individual artefacts, however, are speculatory at best. For the true meaning of seals such as this shall be discernible only when a credible decipherment is developed for the script which appears on them.

Together, evidence from within the Brahmanic tradition, coupled with the entire body of known artifacts from the Indus cities, vividly suggest that the Indus Valley civilization saw the coexistence of three religious currents: (1) a non-Vedic religion centered about asceticism (possibly linked with the northeastern Shramanic traditions, of which Jainism was one); (2) a non-Vedic religion centered about fertility and nature-worship, (probably linked to the Semitic religions of Mesopotamia); and (3) a proto-Vedic, Indo-Aryan religion, geographically centered about the northern tributaries of the Indus river. Thus, while a Jain or Shramanic ideological presence within the Indus Valley civilization is likely, its only known physical manifestations have been limited to themes expressed in the civilizations's abundant seals and figurines.



Information Courtesy : Mr. Pravin K. Shah
Chairperson Jaina Education Committee
 Federation of Jain Associations in North America
509, Carriage Woods Circle Raleigh, NC 27607-3969, USA
E-Mail : pkshah1@attglobal.net, Tele & Fax : 919-859-4994
Websites : www.jaina.org & www.jainism.org


Mail to : Ahimsa Foundation