Jaina Painting (1/2)

Posted: 11.06.2008
Updated on: 30.07.2015

Jaina Painting

Jains contributed very significantly in the field of Indian miniature paintings. The paintings are known by several names such as Jaina Painting, Gujarati Painting, Western Indian Painting and Apabhrańśa Painting. For the early history of Jaina Painting we have to depend on the wall paintings from Ellora where the earliest Jaina paintings may be seen on the walls of the caves. The Rashtrakuta rulers embellished the Jaina cave of Indra Sabhā at Ellora with painted murals. The scenes in the Indra Sabhā illustrate the Jain texts and patterns including floral, animal and bird designs of 9th and 10th century A.D.

Jains appear to have been practised the miniature paintings before the 10th century, although no traces of it have been found prior to the early 11th century A.D. Its existence in the 8th and 9th centuries can be inferred from descriptive passages in contemporary literature, which furnish valuable insights into the style of painting as well as themes portrayed during that period.

In the 10th century, miniature painting makes their appearance in manuscripts illustrations. Probably the tradition was derived from paţa paintings and not too different from it. This art form manifests itself in the wooden book - covers and palm-leaf manuscripts of the Jains as well as Buddhists.

Illustrated manuscripts of Jains are found from the 11th century A.D. These manuscripts were stored in the precincts of the temples or Jaina Bhaņdāras (libraries of manuscripts) and protected with care. As a result, a large number of them survived. The credit for preserving the Jaina manuscripts in a large measure, however, goes to Jaina Sanghas, individual Jaina monks, bankers and merchants at various places in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka etc.

Jain manuscript painting was widely spread in western India. There were a number of religious establishments in Gujarat and Rajasthan where manuscripts could be copied and illustrated. Gujarat was perhaps the most important centre for illustrated manuscripts with centres like Pāţana, Ahmedabad, Vadnagar, and Champāner etc. Māndū in Malwa was another big Jain centre in the medieval period for Jain manuscripts. Jains produced some remarkable documents in the 11th and 12th centuries. They have an unbroken tradition of painting from A.D. 1050 to 1750. It continued thereafter but its expression, emptied of content, lacks vivacity.

The distinguishing features of the Jain painting are its linear energy and taut angular outlines of the face. In the earlier paintings, reflections in line and washes of colour along with the outlines suggested plasticity. Gradually, these became mere conventions, used without understanding, and then they disappear altogether. The quite insistence on a cursive line and a limited palette of a few basic colours imparts a flat two - dimensional quality to the later paintings.

Jain paintings could be roughly divided into three periods - palm-leaf period, paper period and late period. In the first two periods, Jain painting retained its distinguishing characteristics such as angularity in drawing, protuberance of the further eyes etc., but in the third period, which begins in the 17th century, these characteristics are lost under the Mughal influence and western Indian School merges in the general trend of Indian art.

Before the advent of paper in India, palm-leaf and birch bark (bhujapatra) were extensively used as writing materials. In the palm-leaf Jain manuscripts, the leaves were divided into two or three panels for writing, the division depending on the size of the leaves. On both the sides of the panels, generally one and half inch margins were left and in the central margin a button strung on a string kept the leaves in position. The margins in order to break monotony of blankness were framed with decorative designs - such as friezes of elephants or swans and various floral motifs. If the manuscripts were to be illustrated, after the work of scriber was over, the panels were left on different leaves, and were handed over to the artists to complete their work. The rich and costly effect was enhanced by a lavish use of gold and ultramarine, and by writing the text in silver ink on a black or red background, or even in gold on a red ground.

The illustrated palm-leaf Jain manuscripts may be divided into two groups on stylistic grounds. The first group comprises the manuscripts executed between A.D. 1060 to roughly A.D. 1350, while the second group comprises the manuscripts illustrated between A.D. 1350 to A.D. 1400 or A.D. 1450 when paper practically displaced the palm-leaf.

The beginning of the Jain miniature painting survives in the form of illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts and wooden book-covers belonging to the 11th - 12th century A.D. These early documents represent a widespread tradition of Jain painting of coherent and cogent expression - and register various phases of its development.

Of the palm-leaf manuscripts, executed during the A.D. 1050 to A.D. 1350, only a few are illustrated. These illustrated manuscripts are the copies of canonical texts and contain only a few miniatures. The illustrations occur in the introductory or the concluding folios of the manuscripts. The miniatures, in the shape of square panels are usually placed in the centre of the main column and occasionally in case of long folios, appear in the side columns as well.

The compositions in the illustrated manuscripts are simple, set on a brick or purplish red or blue background. Yellow, white and green complete the palette. The line is strong, even coarse, and energy and movement are conveyed by the stance of the figures and the disposition of the draperies. By the end of the 13th century, the general stylistic conventions were more or less settled which continued in the subsequent centuries. The line becomes thin and wiry, absolutely certain within the range of expressiveness it sets for itself. The figures are seen either full-face or in almost full profile, the further eye being allowed to project right beyond the cheek. Architectural and rudimentary landscape backgrounds make an appearance. The introduction of paper allowed a larger field for painting and more ambitious compositions and the miniatures began to be framed in rich illumination.

The earliest dated illustrated manuscript of the Jain style is of Oghā Niryukti, on the rules of conduct for Jain monks, from Jaisalmer and Daśavaikālikaţīkā dated v.s. 1117 (A.D. 1060). One of the palm leaf examples of the Oghāniryukti carry beautiful drawings of an auspicious vase (kalaśa), Lakşmī - the goddess of wealth, and Kāmadeva, the god of love.

The subject of the palm-leaf manuscripts, executed between A.D. 1050 to roughly A.D. 1350, was confined to the representation of the Tīrthańkaras, gods and goddesses, monks, nuns, male and female patrons etc. and the appeal of these figures is more or less iconographic. In full accordance with the simplicity of the subjects, the attitudes and poses are also limited and strictly conventional. The Jinas seated with their legs crossed and shown in full view. The miniatures in the introductory folios serve as invocations and usually feature Tīrthańkaras, the goddess Sarasvatī or another divinity. Sometimes, they portray religious preceptor at whose suggestion perhaps the manuscript was commissioned. The miniature, however, bear no relationship to the text, they neither illustrate it nor elucidate it. Their presence had a purely magical value that served to augment the mystical truths expounded in the text as well as to protect it. These miniatures played an esoteric rather than aesthetic role in the manuscript. The Digambara Şaţkhandāgama (scripture of six works) of 1112 is the earliest illustrated manuscript to show a preaching scene, a Jina, the goddess Cakreśvarī and some decorative motifs. Mahāvīracarita dated 1183, and the tenth canto of Trişaşţiśalākāpuruşacarita dated 1237 also depict the figure of Jina, monks and lay people. The Nemināthacarita of 1241 depicts the Jina Neminātha, the goddess Ambikā, and laywoman. Similarly the Kalpasūtra-Kālakācārya Kathā dated 1278, also bears paintings of iconic interest only. Most of the illustrations are not related to the text.

Jain miniature paintings continue to progress along established lines until the end of 13th century. At this time, a new development occurs when the narrative content of the texts begins to receive attention. The pictorial narration of legends such as battle of Bharata and Bāhubalī or disputation between the two monks Kumudcandra (a Digambara monk) and the Śvetāmbara monk Vādideva which took place at Patan in the time of Jayasińha Siddharāja (1094 - 1144) of Gujarat. Similarly, Jinanathasūri (1122 - 54) is also represented on book covers. The ancient Indian narrative tradition is used in these paintings. However, the palmleaf manuscripts seldom show such representations. The illustrations of narrative nature moreover, construct a progressive narrative by compressing two or three episodes in the same miniature and showing the person involved in those episodes as many times. Perspective of these innovations and the format of the paintings remained the same. The scheme of illustrations continued to be conservative. In the treatment of human figures stylistic changes are discernible. The angular rendering is exaggerated further and the protrusion of the farther eye becomes pronounced. The washes of colour along outlines have lost their meaning and become more clichés.

Towards the end of 13th century a new approach becomes visible in the manuscripts such as Subāhu-Kathā, the story of Tīrthańkara Pārśva and other tales. Subāhu-Kathā is the earliest manuscript to establish a relationship between illustration and text. The Subāhu-Kathā and the manuscript depicting the story of Pārśvanātha have a number of illustrations that was very rare in the earlier manuscripts. Also, the compositions became more complex. They are no longer confined to iconic representations of divinities. They include descriptive details of landscape or architecture to indicate the locale of the scene that is being depicted. In outdoor scenes hills and trees indicate the landscape and in indoors pavilion is shown with furnishings and objects of everyday use. By the end of the 13th century the drawing takes a pure linear form and is carefully executed. The paintings show lively figures in small size and minimum use of pigments. The man is idealized; with a large chest and narrow waist, and the woman have well-rounded breasts, small waists and well-curved hips. The figures are seen either in full face or profile, the farther eye projecting beyond the cheek, with pointed noses and small chins. Architecture is very much simplified and landscape finds little space. The art reveals no interest in anatomy but a deep understanding of emotion, and especially the language of gesture - movements of the hand, the fingers and stances of the body. There is an extensive use of foliage decoration. Plants are generally treated in a conventional manner, especially the mango and the palm. Also a number of animals and birds are represented. The men wear a waist cloth or dhotī reaching down to the ankles, with a short scarf thrown across the shoulders, leaving upper half of the body uncovered; and their headgear either a kind of cap or mukuţa. The women wear long gaily-coloured printed scarves over skirts consisting of a wrapped piece of cloth of a different colour. Full blossom and narrow wasted, they wear closely fitting colīs, reaching to just above the navel, and their sleeves cover the arms to the elbow. They are profusely bejewelled, with earrings, necklaces and bangles and their long hair is braided, and tied with black tassels adorned with jewellery and flowers. Water with wavy lines, clouds with bold curves, richly coloured textiles, furniture like swings, stools and bedsteads with ornate lathe-turned legs are some of the features of these miniatures. The colours applied in these miniatures are simple like brick red, yellow, blue, green and black.

At the end of 14th century, the political disintegration of the Delhi Sultanate into smaller Muslim and Hindu kingdoms, the art received great impetus. With the formation of smaller kingdoms - Muslim as well as Hindu, new centres of art were established. Scholars, musicians, artists and architects were extended encouragement by the rulers of these smaller kingdoms. As a result 15th century witnessed the efflorescence of regional idioms of artistic expression, new style emerged and existing forms received fresh vitality. In the Hindu kingdom of Gwālior, the Digambara Jains commissioned copies of their religious texts as well as in states like Gujarat and Delhi, governed by Muslim rulers, the Jain merchants and bankers considered it expedient to be less overt in their religious expression. They choose to pour their piety and wealth into unobtrusive works or art, commissioning copies of canonical literature. The Śvetāmbara Jain community in Gujarat patronised this art form extensively. Their religious texts, transcribed during the 15th century in Gujarat, were kept carefully and protected and hence survived.

In A.D. 1350 and 1550, the style of Jain painting split into two stylistic idioms - one of which was localised in Gujarat and Rajasthan and the other in Delhi and Gwālior. In Gujarat and Rajasthan there had been no significant transformations in line, form or colour. Around the middle of the 14th century the region projected a new awareness of stylistic form in paintings within the framework style of Jain painting. The line now becomes smooth and flowing, it includes a wide spectrum of colours accentuated by touches of gold and silver. However, no example of painting tradition survive from Delhi before and during the 15th century except a Śvetāmbara Jaina text of Kālkācārya-Kathā painted on paper at Delhi in A.D. 1366 and the Ādi-Purāņa executed in A.D. 1404 for the Digambara Jains.[1] The western variant is refined in the execution and the broad spectrum of its palette is enriched with costly colours like gold and silver, lapis-lazuli and carmine. An unprecedented richness was provided to the manuscripts. Decorative patterns drawn from architecture, textiles, carpets, figures of dancers and musicians, devotees and monks, wrestlers, bird and animals, flower creepers etc. fill the border decoration of the manuscripts. Under the impetus of new movement the painters of Gujarat were evolving a new style in which Persian classics played an important part. The Persian classics were painted. In such illustrations Indian artists had simplified the Persian elements and tried to synthesise the Indian and Persian elements. In this period the stories such as Laur-Candā and Mŗgāvatī etc. were being illustrated in the Jain style. The illustrator shows a greater understanding of the landscape and of the social environment in such examples.

In the second half of the 15th century Vaişņavas also adopted the Western Indian technique for illustrating some of their books such as the Gītagovinda and Bālagopālastuti. However, these manuscripts show liveliness, a sense of movement and an emotional understanding that is different from Jain paintings, so hardbound by the stereotyped tradition. The convention of the farther protruding eye never appears; the uţţariya, instead of being draped softly over the head and around the body, is painted to stand out stiffly behind the figure. In the Gītagovinda manuscript of 1610, the female dancers are in pajāmās and wearing a coat with pointed ends showing the Jain style gradually breaking away from its conventions and absorbing new methods and ideas. The Bālagopālastutī of 17th century shows further changes. This new movement in art was not confined to Gujarat, Malwa and Rajasthan only. The movement had spread as far as Uttar Pradesh and has affected the progress of painting in that part as evidenced by the illustrations of the Kalpa-Sūtra painted at Jaunpur in A.D. 1465. Besides texts like the Kalpa-Sūtra, Kālaka-Kathā that was transcribed together in one manuscript, the Jains had already started illustrating several kathās (stories, legends, myths). The illustrated versions of Kalpa-Sūtra[2] and the Kālkācārya-Kaţhā[3] were executed for lay votaries of the Śvetāmbara sect in areas distinct from Gujarat and Rajasthan.


  1. The Ādi Purāņa describes the cosmic cycle, the life of the first Tīrthańkara Ādināth, his ten former births and the life of Bharata, the first cakravartin and son of Ādināth. The former births of Ādināth have been described in Ādi Purāņa through numerous tales and episodes. The Ādi Purāņa included the various rites and consecrations in their proper order, which an individual must undergo before attaining omniscience and enlightenment. The text of the Ādi Purāņa also has descriptions to form a government and defines the procedure of a legal system in the institution.

  2. The Kalpa-sūtra is the most ancient as well as the most revered book of the çvetāmbara Jainas. The Kalpa-sūtra indicate a treatise concerned with the foregoing conduct that is followed by the ordained during the rainy season from the day of the full moon in the month of Āşādha (June- July) and Kārttika (October-November). For Jaina monks, nuns and acolytes, the rainy season is a period of rest during which they settle down in one place. They utilise this time for spiritual cleansing which includes fasting, meditation, the reading of scriptures and preaching. The spiritual activities include the recitations of the Kalpa-sūtra, which attests to the special importance of Kalpa-sūtra among the religious texts. The Kalpa-sūtra written in prose, is the sutra of 1200 ślokas. It consists of three parts - the Jina carita (lives of Jinas), the Sthaviravali (succession of pontiffs) and the Sādhu-Samācārī (rules for monks at the Paryūşaņa season). The Jina-carita contains the details of the lives of the 24 Jinas. The second part Sthaviravali consists of the names of the leaders, who founded the numerous sub-sects of the Jainas. The third and last part, the Sādhu-Samācārī prescribes the code of conduct for monks and nuns, in detail, during the rainy season. around the fifth century A.D. the custom of reciting the Kalpa-sūtra to large congregations became popular which has continued till today.

  1. Kālkācārya - Kathā is the Śvatāmbara legend of monk Kālaka, a great Jain teacher who sought the help of the Sahis who ruled across Shad (in north-west frontier) to punish the wicked ruler of Ujjain. According to the events narrated in the Kālkācārya - Kathā under monk Kālaka’s authority the date of the Paryuşaņa festival was pre-pone for a day. Thus the Kālkācārya - Kathā closely associated with the Paryuşaņa festival and with the Kalpa-sūtra text, which is ritually read during the period. The Kālkācārya - Kathā is generally treated as an integral part of Kalpa-sūtra. It is considered to be the ninth lecture of the Kalpa-sūtra. During the 13th century, Kalpa-sūtra and the Kālkācārya - Kathā were transcribed as a hyphenated text. From A.D. 1250-1550 a large number of Kalpa-sūtra and Kālkācārya - Kathā were embellished with illustrations and preserved in Jain-Bhandāras of the Śvatāmbara Jains. According to the text Kālaka was a son of king Vajrasimha and queen Surasundarī in the land of Bhāratavarşa. Once prince Kālaka riding his horse reached at the place where monk Guņākara was preaching Jain philosophy. The prince joined the audience and inspired a deep longing for spiritual peace by the monks’ sermon. On his return to the palace, prince Kālaka expressed his desire to his parents to be initiated into the Jain monastic order. With the permission of his parents monk Kālaka acquired spiritual perfection and in course of time, succeeded his master, monk Guņākara, as the head of the group of monks.

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