Iconography of Early Jainism (Part 1)

Published: 29.11.2011
Updated: 02.07.2015

The Italian version of this essay, titled "Jaina, Iconografia" was published in Enciclopedia dell'Arte Antica. Classica e Orientale (Ed. by G.P. Carratelli, Secondo Supplemento, Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1995, pp. 65-73). For the English edition the section of illustrations has been extended.


Iconography of Early Jainism (Part 1)


Jainism is conceived as a path to salvation, i.e. to salvation from rebirth. Its founder, Mahāvīra, was a contemporary of the Buddha, and probably both died in the fourth century B.C. Mahāvīra and his 23 predecessors (details in Section 3) are called “Jinas” (victors) and enjoy a semi-divine status. The name of the followers (Jainas) and of the religion is derived from this spiritual title. There are many Jaina gods but they play no part in the process of salvation. The Jaina doctrine is extensive and contains many elements which are not connected with its ethico-soteriological nucleus. Jainism and Buddhism spread from their homeland in Bihar in Northern India to other parts of India. Jainism is still a living religion in India but unlike Buddhism it never had followers outside India. The Jaina community is divided into two confessions: Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras (see Section 6). Jaina art does convey the spirit of Jainism in its over peculiar way (emphasis on the representation of Jinas) but it is a development sui generis rather than a mirror of the doctrine or of any of its facets. We have to distinguish between Jina iconography (subject: Jina figures and Jina images) and Jaina iconography (subject: all facets of the visual art of Jainism).

The present article is concerned with Jaina iconography from 100 BC to AD 750, i.e. with the first three positions of the following scheme:

  • Period I: From 100 BC to AD 100. “Jaina iconography” (in the sense of sculptural representations on Jaina monuments) is almost completely devoid of specific Jaina motifs.
  • Period II: From AD 100 to 550. Evolution and maturation of Jaina art and iconography in Northern India. The Jinas form the main theme.
  • Intermediate Period: From AD 550 to 750. Refer to Section 6 for details.
  • Period III: From AD 750 to 1200. This is the period of full regional diversification. Jaina iconography now includes numerous representations of gods and goddesses.
  • Period IV: From AD 1000 to 1500. This subdivision (designated for simplicity's sake as “Period”) stands for the Śvetāmbara art of Western India (sculpture and miniature painting) in its fully developed form.

The study of Jaina iconography becomes easier if certain premises are eliminated right from the beginning. First of all, we would like to emphasize that the relation between text and image (between literature and art) is much looser than one would expect (not only divergences but also different types of divergences). It may be added that identification (in particular: identification of the 24 different Jinas) is often beset with difficulties. As a general rule we would recommend to pay always due regard to “usage”, i.e. to the iconographic conventions of the time and of the province. That Jaina iconography is not uniform has already been indicated by our scheme: subdivision of the subject into five discrete units. As a matter of fact, Jaina art of a given Period is not only “Jaina art” but also “art of Period x” (“Hindu-Buddhist-Jain”) - as is any form of Indian art when different religions exist side by side. Continuity and “identity” of Jaina art is mainly produced by the ubiquity of Jina images. Otherwise, any iconographic motif could surface, provided it was not too closely connected with a specific non-Jaina tradition (e.g. with clear Siva and Viṣṇu images in the case of Hindu iconography). We have also to mention possible misconceptions concerning the concept of “development”. The uncontrolled use of this term with all its connotations (organic character, continuity etc.) - implicit or explicit - leads to undesirable simplifications and should be avoided. The term “iconography” is employed by us frequently although in certain contexts the more comprehensive term “art” (e.g. early Jaina art) seemed preferable.

It was inevitable to isolate an Intermediate Period between Periods II and III. The Intermediate “Period” is less than a full-fledged “Period” and more than a shadowy time of transition. We shall call the first three Periods (I-II-Intermediate) “early Jaina iconography”, in contradistinction to the two later Periods III and IV. Under the circumstances, it was impossible to treat early Jaina iconography without occasional references to later developments.


1. The Iconography of Period I

This period is modo grosso (details below) common to Jaina and Buddhist iconography. It demonstrates the iconography of the “popular religion”. This is an important element in the Indian history of religion but the term already indicates that the phenomenon has no well-defined status. “Popular religion” has produced few notable religious monuments but it had a rich and to some extent congruous iconography: trees and tree-spirits, snakes and snake-demons, theriomorphous gods and goddesses. “Popular religion“ has not produced a corpus of sacred texts, but we can imagine that there were mythological records, religious rites, and minor literary compositions (hymns etc.). The religion survives in the form in which it has been included into the more stable religious traditions (Jainism, Buddhism etc.) and into the folk-religion or non-official religion of our days. In connection with Jaina monuments, the iconography of the popular religion has mainly been preserved along with the rock-cut monuments on the twin-hills of Udayagiri and Khandagiri in the Puri District. Our fig. 1 shows a tympanon from Khandagiri Cave 3. The semi-circular panel contains a scene of tree-worship; the horseshoe-like architectural member is decorated with two rows of geese; and the composition is crowned by two multi-hooded cobras, shown dos-à-dos and with a nandyāvarta symbol (see Section 5) between them. In Buddhist art, we can distinguish between Periods Ia and Ib. The former corresponds to the Jaina Period I, while the latter treats Buddhist subjects (stories etc.). Period Ib is an amalgam of two iconographic vocabularies, popular religion and Buddhism proper (see Section 3 below). Period Ib is later than Period la but only in terms of evolution and not in terms of actual chronology. The link between popular religion and “Hinduism“ is closer than that between popular religion and Jainism or Buddhism. However, Hinduism is not our subject.

2. Jaina Architecture of Periods I and II

It is difficult to understand iconographic schemes of these periods without a rough knowledge of the typology of architecture. In contrast to the building activities of the Buddhists, those of the Jainas were limited. But we know that the Jainas also had stūpas (e.g. compare fig.5) and rock-cut monasteries. However, there is only limited evidence of Jaina stūpas (Mathurā: Kankali Tila site), and the Jaina monasteries (Udayagiri/Khandagiri) differ from the more spacious excavations of the Buddhists: rows of plain cells enriched only by decorated verandahs in front of them (fig. 1). There was an apsidal structure near the top of the Udayagiri hill in Orissa, obviously a rare Jaina pendant to the famous Buddhist caitya halls. To the Gupta age belongs the dated Kahaum pillar of AD 460 (fig. 12; Gorakhpur District). With its carved Jina images it is a forerunner of the numerous free standing pillars (manastambhas or “pillars of pride“) found along with many Jaina monuments of Period III.


3. The Vocabulary of Period II

In principle, our term “vocabulary“ is used to designate iconographic data which are not only more or less common to all products of the Period but also specific to that Period. We do admit that such a procedure is, to some extent, in conflict with the necessity to state certain facts of general import once for all and without regard for the relative autonomy of each individual Period. - Our treatment of Period I ignores what we would call hypothetical earliest Jina and Buddha images: On the one hand images mentioned in ancient texts (perhaps even in inscriptions) but not found; on the other hand ancient images (Jina images) found here and there but not clearly belonging to Period I. We must also ignore rare evidence of pre-canonical Jina figures on architectural members.

In Period I, Jina and Buddha figures were thus conjectural or irregular elements, but in “Period Ib“ the Buddha was regularly shown in symbolical form (trees etc.). In Period II (if we are permitted to extend our scheme of Periods once more to Buddhist art), Jinas and Buddhas were shown in “iconic“ form, i.e. as human figures. The Jina and Buddha types were closely related. Jaina iconography of Period II was mainly iconography of the Jina, contemporary Buddhist iconography of Northern India was mainly iconography of the Buddha.

Traditional historiography of Jainism is mainly concerned with the series of the 24 Jinas or founders of the Jaina religion. Nos. 1-22 were mythological, nos. 23-24 historical. Pārśva (no. 23) must have lived a number of generations (“250“ years according to tradition) before Mahāvīra (no. 24). Pārśva was thus Mahāvīra's predecessor both in terms of the mythological system and in terms of actual history. In art, we find various strategies to distinguish one Jina from the other, and these can be classified as “System A“ and “System B“ respectively. We include into System A the 24 names (more particularly the names as mentioned in image inscriptions) and the 24 cihnas (symbols or cognizances as shown below the Jinas). A list of the names and cihnas is given below. There are minor fluctuations in the two lists but these can be ignored in the case of early Jaina iconography. The list given below is taken from a later work (AD 500-750), from Chapter 4 of the Trilokaprajñapti, belonging to the Digambara tradition:

1. Ṛṣabha bull (fig. 15)
2. Ajita elephant
3. Sambhava horse
4. Abhinandana monkey
5. Sumati bird (koka)
6. Padmaprabha lotus (padma)
7. Supārśva labyrinth svastika
8. Candraprabha half-moon (fig. 16)
9. Puṣpadanta makara, i.e. a sea-monster
10. Śītala svastika











porcupine (seha)



vajra, i.e. a weapon



antilope (haria)






flower of a tree (tagara tree)









water-lily (utpala)


Nemi (= Ariṣṭanemi)






Vīra (= Mahāvīra)


In early Jaina art, the cihnas are mostly doubled (fig. 15). However, cihnas as well as inscriptional references are only found on a limited number of images.

In contradistinction to System A, System B is very unstable and finds its place within Section 5. This system is only operative in the case of a limited number of Jinas. It mainly produces the twofold opposition between Ṛṣabhas (no. 1) and non-Ṛṣabhas (nos. 2-24), and between Pārśvas (no. 23) and non-Pārśvas (nos. 1-22 and 24). All elements of these two systems shall be called “personal attributes“ - in contradistinction to elements which distinguish Jinas from other types: “generic attributes“. The lion-throne is a generic attribute shared by the Jina and the Buddha but otherwise rare. Distinctions such as that between “personal“ and “generic“ are useful in many art provinces (and they are not new). We should, however, remember that the grammar of “attributes“ (if we stick to this label) is involved and subject to change so that adequate methodic standards can only be maintained if there is a clear restriction and definition of the subject. It is for example only in Period II that we are concerned with the parallelism between Jinas and Buddhas. Again it is only in Jina iconography that a negative attribute (nakedness) attains such importance. Therefore, general concepts such as “parallel types“ or “positive vs. negative attributes“ are somewhat shadowy and a discussion on such a high level of generalization may not be very helpful. Each province has its own grammar.

Two peculiarities of the Jina figure are the anatomie surnaturelle (the term is derived from studies in Buddhist art) and the parikara (literal translation: girdle). The former term refers to anatomical peculiarities of one type or another as they are found in representations of saints and gods but mainly in the case of the Jina and the Buddha. The second term designates the ensemble of motifs which may surround the main figure (see fig. 11 versus fig. 10). Such ensembles are again a peculiarity of Jina and Buddha images. We observe in both cases (more particularly in the case of Jina images: images where the main figure is a Jina) a pronounced dichotomy between main figure and surrounding motifs. The two zones of the composition have little connection. We cannot discuss the issue of different degrees of connection or relation, but we would like to mention that the parikara motifs are largely although not exclusively royal paraphernalia (e.g. lion-throne) and motifs from the old religion of symbols (e.g. dharmacakra or “wheel of the religion“). Outside Jina iconography, we find on the whole a closer connection between main figure and surrounding motifs. This applies to both, form and contents.

Another important subject that is not directly covered by the “grammar of attributes“ is canonization. There are rigid rules both for the main figure and for the surrounding motifs. The limitation of choices concerns both the motifs and the formulas (ways in which a motif may be represented). Thus we find in the whole of Jaina art only two attitudes of the Jina: he is shown either standing in meditation or seated in meditation, and (apart from a minor exception in later art) both postures are not subject to the slightest variation (1:1 relation between motif and formula). Again, the dharmacakra is only found in the centre of the pedestal. The fact that canonization is more rigid in Jaina art than elsewhere has created the misconception that Jaina art is monotonous. Any general study of Jaina art should therefore select the pieces to be discussed in such a way that the variety which does exist, in spite of rigid canonization, is demonstrated in an adequate manner.

In Period II (and to some extent even in later Jaina art), Jinas are preferred as main figures of the compositions. Our illustrations contain only two cases where the main figure is no Jina (figs. 5 and 9): “Jaina images“ which are no “Jina images“. The inventory of iconographic types and sub-types (Jina etc., Ṛṣabha etc.) is still limited.

Inscriptions on images etc. refer in Indian art mainly to the circumstances of their donation (names of the donor, of the parents of the donor, and so on). They have a direct bearing on iconography only in those cases where they supply the names of the gods etc. who are represented on the relevant pieces. In addition to that they may be instrumental for establishing a relative and/or absolute chronology - an observation which applies mainly to Period II. Chronology is relevant to iconography because it supplies an indispensable matrix. We must be able to distinguish between synchronic oppositions and diachronic changes.



Compiled by PK

English edition by HN4U 2011


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