Iconography of Early Jainism (Part 2)

Published: 30.11.2011
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 2)

4. The Setting of Period II

The sculptural remains of Period II will mostly be found in the triangle formed by Mathurā, Chausa (Bhojpur District), and Udaigiri (Udaigiri in the Vidisha District). The dynastic background is formed by the Kuṣāṇas and Guptas (the extent of pre-Kuṣāṇa activities in Mathurā need not be discussed in the present context). The Kuṣāṇas of Central Asian origin ruled in India over a territory which included the art centres of Gandhāra (numerous sites) and Mathurā (city and surrounding area). Eras were founded by Kaniṣka I (successor of Vima Kadphises, the first Kuṣāṇa king to rule in Mathurā) and by Kaniṣka II. The era of Kaniṣka I must have started in the second century AD. The matter is controversial. G. von Mitterwallner has recently suggested a date near the middle of the second century.

The era of Kaniṣka II began almost exactly hundred years after the accession of Kaniṣka I. Dated Kuṣāṇa objects therefore belong either to the K.I sequence or to the K.II sequence. See fig. 5 (year K.I 99), fig. 4 (K.I sequence on stylistic grounds), fig. 6 (K.II 15), fig. 7 (K.II 31), fig. 9 (K.II 54), and fig. 8 (K:II sequence on stylistic grounds). Our “sequential“ nomenclature avoids the otherwise inevitable disorientation due to different calculations of the “year one“ of Kaniṣka I. The Gupta dynasty (controlling mainly Central and Northern India) came to power in AD 319 and flourished till the middle of the sixth century. The Gupta style continued throughout the sixth century. Mathurā was occupied by the Gupta kings in the later fourth century when the Kuṣāṇas had lost their influence so that the political situation became complex and unstable.

The iconic representation of the Buddha started at about the same time in the north-west and east of the Kuṣāṇa empire, i.e. in Gandhāra and Mathurā. By contrast, Jina images (Jinas always stark naked) were confined to Mathurā. Here, Jina and Buddha images appeared almost simultaneously, i.e. in the time before Kaniṣka I. Chronologically, Jaina art under the Kuṣāṇas seems to belong to the same phase in the development of Jainism as a group of interconnected literary works which can be isolated within the Śvetāmbara canon (Paryuaṇākalpa, Aupapātika, Rājapraśnīya, and several others).

During the Kuṣāṇa rule, Jaina art flourished almost exclusively in Mathurā. Under the Guptas and later (our Intermediate Period) the area of Jaina art expanded. The expansion resulted in pluralism (or: increased pluralism) both in terms of style and iconography. The development of Jaina art during Period II can, however, not be explained in terms of a simple model. There were irregularities of one type or another. Our survey is mainly concerned with iconography in its narrowest sense (types, subtypes, and the respective attributes) and not with all existing motifs. - In contrast to the Kuṣāṇa age, dated objects are rare in Jaina art under the Gupta kings, one example being the Kahaum pillar of AD 460 (fig. 12). It should, finally, be mentioned that various bronzes (mostly Jina images) have been found at Chausa (Bhojpur District). They belong to different centuries and exhibit special local idioms (figs.10a.b and 16).


5. The Iconography of Period II

The earliest systematic and extensive effort on the part of the Jaina community to produce objects of worship which are clearly Jaina in character is represented by the āyāgapaas (fig. 2). Āyagapaas are square slabs with a special pattern of composition distinguishing them from other similar slabs which belong to different contexts (fig. 5). The worship of altar-like slabs is depicted in contemporary stone-reliefs and described in contemporary literature.

The Mathurā āyāgapaas are largely pre-Kaniṣka or even pre-Kuṣāṇa (i.e. datable to the decades before the accession of Kaniṣka I). They often have a seated Jina in the centre, but they reflect at the same time a type of worship or “religion“ which attached great importance to symbols and which is well represented in Period I and immediately after Period I. Viewed from the formal aspect, such symbols are independent motifs of a comparatively simple nature. The symbols differ in character, but they are abstract rather than representational, and in the latter case inanimate rather than animate. The most important configuration in the ancient Indian pantheon of symbols is the aṣṭa-magala set (set of eight auspicious motifs) mentioned repeatedly in the Śvetāmbara canon.

Some of the motifs occur mainly or exclusively as members of the set, some occur also independently; some are fluid (subject to transformation) and some are hard (appearing everywhere in more or less identical form). As a rule, different sets do not have all eight motifs in common. Our fig.2 illustrates a well-known āyāgapaa made two to three decades before the accession of Kaniṣka I and showing inter alia a seated Jina in the centre of the aṣṭa-magala set. The eight magalas are arranged in two rows, four above and four below the main panel:

  1. two fishes;
  2. an unidentified motif;
  3. an abstract motif, the śrīvatsa;
  4. a round cascet, the vardhamānaka;
  5. a further abstract motif, probably the nandyāvarta;
  6. a leaf-bowl;
  7. a stool;
  8. a vase with flowers.

A consideration of Period II in general should begin with a description of our so-called System B (Section 3 supra). Pārśva, the twenty-third Jina, is distinguished from the other Jinas by a cobra appearing behind his body. The cobra has usually seven hoods (fig. 5 etc.) but sometimes only five (fig. 3a.b). The snake is either represented in full (“hood-circle“ plus hair-pin bends of the body: fig. 3a.b) or in a reduced form (hood-circle alone: fig. 5). It is practical to consider the combination always as one figure. Ṛṣabha, the first Jina, is characterized by strands. This device is not found before the K.II sequence and takes the shape of parallel strands as seen in fig. 6 (year K.II 15, Jina on our left). The other Jinas show

  1. “smooth hair“ (smooth surface of the hair: fig. 4),
  2. “wavy hair“ (superimposed tiers of semi-circular lines: fig. 8), and
  3. “curls“ (snail-shell curls, shown inter alia in fig. 7: year K.II 31).

The smooth hair and the wavy hair disappear after Period II. The Pārśva: non-Pārsva opposition is probably as old as Jaina iconography, whereas the Ṛṣabha: non-Ṛṣabha opposition seems to be linked with the introduction of sarvato-bhadrikā icons during the time of Kaniṣka II. Snake (cobra) motifs of all description are very common in Indian iconography, and the strands are well-known from Śiva and Śaiva iconography. However, we have no satisfactory explanation for the association of Ṛṣabha with the latter and of Pārśva with the former motif. Nor is there any rationale for the distinction (according to System B) of some Jinas from the rest. This device of “special characterization“ was also employed in the case of a few other Jinas (early and later Jaina art), but hardly in the case of Mahāvīra. For all Jinas which are in a given iconographic context (here: Period II) shown without “special characterization“ we use the term “Other Jina“. It is not required in cases where the artists distinguish only between Pārśvas and non-Pārśvas.

Naturally, the nakedness of standing Jinas is not only implied as in the case of the seated Jinas but it is manifest. Seated Jinas are thus closer to the Buddha type than standing ones. But here one has to remember that all contemporary Buddhas show heavy pleating of the garment which distinguishes the seated Buddhas at once from seated Jinas. Under the Kuṣāṇas, the anatomie surnaturelle as we understand it seems to be restricted to the śrīvatsa mark on the chest (figs. 6 and 7) and to the prolonged ear-lobes (fig. 8 etc.).

Before discussing post- Kuṣāṇas developments, we shall make a few observations on figs. 5, 6, and 9. Fig. 5 shows a fragmentary slab of the year K.I 99. The upper register is occupied by the sequence non-Pārśva - stūpa - Pārśva - non-Pārśva. Perhaps this is the first case where different Jinas (Jinas who are different according to System B) are shown side by side. The main panel is occupied by a narrative scene. Narrative and semi-narrative scenes are extremely rare in early Jaina art. But here a monk (described as “monk Kaa“ in the inscription to the proper right of his head) is worshipped by a lady in front of him and by three smaller figures behind him (a snake-demon arising from a lake and two or three human figures appearing further down).

In fact, adoration scenes are a favorite theme on Kuṣāṇa image pedestals (Jina and Buddha images). But there the arrangement is symmetrical (non-narrative composition) and the object of worship is a dharmacakra which is shown in the centre of the frieze (see fig. 7 - primitive execution). Amongst the adorants of the pedestal friezes we can isolate semi-naked monks or ardhapālakas. These monks are shown with a piece of cloth (sometimes quite large and pleated) which can be used to cover the private parts. The monk Kaa of fig. 5 is such an ardhapālaka. Over his left forearm he carries the said cloth, and in his right hand we notice a broom with a short handle. The broom is used to remove insects on the ground lest they should be injured or killed. But objects carried by monks do not only possess practical importance, they have in some cases also attribute character.

Fig. 6 (year K.II 15) illustrates a type of icon which occurs frequently in Indian art: a central core (e.g. a square post as in our case) has four human figures or related motifs (heads etc.) on its four sides. The icon of the year 15 has (clockwise) the following: Pārśva, Other Jina (wavy hair), Other Jina (curls), Ṛṣabha. The quadruple cult sculptures of the Jainas of Mathurā (called in the relevant inscriptions sarvatobhadrikā pratimā's or “images which are pleasing from all the four sides“) show invariably four standing Jinas. They cannot be separated from contemporary quadruple icons in the Śaiva art of Mathurā. Reference to the iconography of the sarvatobhadrikā images (or rather icons) has already been made in the preceding part of this Section. Obviously, we have no early sarvatobhadrikā icons without the Jina Ṛṣabha and no Kuṣāṇa Ṛṣabhas other than those appearing on sarvatobhadrikā icons. The Kuṣāṇa standard type (or early standard type generally speaking) has one Ṛṣabha, one Pārśva, and two Other Jinas. System B is now fully established.

Fig. 9 shows a seated Jaina goddess. She is a Jaina adaptation of the Hindu goddess Sarasvatī. This follows both from the inscription (mentioning her name) and from the book (oblong format) in her left hand. Her appearance in the puritan ambiance of early Jaina art (where goddesses and gods are shown but rarely) is perhaps explained by the fact that she is not just the “goddess of learning“ (as in Hinduism) but the embodiment of doctrinal wisdom and sometimes invoked in contemporary canonical works.

Gupta art is important both on account of its high aesthetic quality and on account of its influence on later Northern Indian art. Fig. 11 (AD 400-450) is a case in point. This image stands for a certain standard type (Jina and Buddha) which shows decorative elaborations rather than iconographic innovations. At the same time we find from AD 350-550 (Gupta period but figures adjusted to our scheme) a tendency to produce iconographic innovations (some short-lived, some of considerable consequence). Images of the latter type do not always show the full impact of what we are used to call “Gupta style“ but they belong to the relevant age (figs. 10, 12-14). The innovative line is later on continued under somewhat different general conditions in the Intermediate Period.

Fig. 10 a.b represents one of the first instances of Ṛṣabha's “extended strands“ (strands falling on Ṛṣabha's shoulders). The new formula lays the basis for the way in which the Ṛṣabha: non-Ṛṣabha opposition is indicated in later art (mainly after the Gupta period). Fig. 12 (AD 460) may or may not be called “innovative“. However, it shows in a very clear manner the Gupta motif of vegetable elements surrounding the halo (cf. figs. 11 and 14). The “uṣṇīṣa“ (cranial bump) is taken from the iconography of the Buddha where this feature (anatomie surnaturelle) surfaces already in the time of the Kuṣāṇas, and the Kahaum pillar supplies one of the earliest instances of a Jina with fully developed uṣṇīṣa.

Fig. 13 (Rajgir, Nālandā District) shows two rock-cut Jina images out of a series of six. This group foreshadows in an unmistakable way later trends in the elaboration of the parikara. Some of the Sonbhandar Jinas have the lion-throne. The two lions should not be mistaken for the doubled cognizance of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra. By contrast we would read the two elephants of the image on our left (fig. 13) as cihnas although the Jina is no. 23 (Pārśva, snake cihna), and not no. 2 (Ajita, elephant cihna). Rajgir obviously produces under the Guptas the first evidence of cihnas (System A). Finally we have to consider fig. 14 (AD 525-75). The style is still “Gupta“ but the elongated body of the Jina shows a departure from the Gupta anatomy. The most important iconographic feature are the two attendant figures. We notice a female parasol-bearer with a single snake-hood on our left, and a male fly-whisk bearer with three snake-hoods on our right.

We can say that attendant figures as shown in fig. 14 are at the root of the irregular attendant figures of many later Pārśva images. The parasol-roof is represented above the circle of snake-hoods. It is halved and shown from the face - obviously an individual effort of solving a problem caused by the canon for Jina images: Parasol and “hood-circle“ occupy the same place in the composition so that it was always difficult to show Pārśva's parasol-roof in addition to his hood-circle (in fig. 5, the parasol of the miniature Pārśva was simply omitted). To some extent, Pārśva has - in addition to the big cobra but more or less in connection with it - his own iconography, a development which probably started in the first quarter of the fifth century.


6. The Intermediate Period

The Intermediate Period shows an increased emergence of disconnected local idioms and the expansion of Jaina art beyond the triangle Mathurā-Chausa-Udaigiri. There was no caesura vis-à-vis Period II in the artistic activities. However, the pattern of patronage was now decentralized rather than centralized. The available images are in bronze or in stone, but we concentrate on bronze images because the extant stone images do not seem to be equally important from the point of view of iconography.

Fig. 15 shows Ṛṣabha's bull-cihna (doubled) while fig. 16 shows Candraprabha's crescent cihna (not doubled). The crescent appears at the top, fig. 16 (and a doublet from the same place) being the only known instances of such an arrangement of the cihna in Jaina art. Both Ṛṣabha and Candraprabha show strands, to be more precise: “transformed“ strands with “extension“. In Period III, transformed strands without extension are often found with non-Ṛṣabhas (equivalent to the curls), but transformed strands with extension are restricted to Ṛṣabha and must, therefore, be considered as solecisms if the relevant Jina is clearly characterized as a non-Ṛṣabha (fig. 16). The “old“ strands (distinct and parallel bands) do not disappear but surface here and there in Period III. They are employed in the same manner as the transformed strands.

The two bronzes illustrated in figs. 17-18 present probably the first archaeological evidence of Śvetāmbara art. They belong neither to the beginning nor to the end of the Intermediate Period but are chronologically situated in its middle (fig. 17: AD 600-700). Both pieces formed part of the famous Akota hoard of bronzes which was recovered in Baroda City. Western India was the only region to develop a tradition of Śvetāmbara Jaina art. Restricting our account of the Śvetāmbara-Digambara split within the Jaina community to a minimum, we can say that old differences of opinion concerning the dress of the monks (should they go naked or wear a dhoti?) led in the first centuries of our era to a formal division, affecting the spheres of monastic discipline, religious doctrine, and religious culture in general.

There were now two different confessions: Digambaras (monks naked) and Śvetāmbaras (monks wearing white dhotis). However, Śvetāmbara Jainism was largely restricted to Gujarat and Rajasthan where the production of bronze images started in the Intermediate Period, that of stone images in Period III. The naked Jinas now disappeared: standing Jinas were shown with dhoti (cloth worn round the waist), and in the case of seated Jinas the dhoti had to be imagined. Outside this tradition of Western Jaina art all Jinas were shown naked, either because they were commissioned before the split or because the patrons clearly belonged to the Digambara confession.

Jaina iconography at large was affected by the changed situation on the artistic level (special vocabulary of Śvetāmbara bronzes) as well as on the doctrinal and semi-doctrinal levels (standing Śvetāmbara Jinas shown with dhotis; images of Jīvantasvāmin appearing in Śvetāmbara art, images of Bāhubali in Digambara art). In our scheme of Periods we have not considered Śvetāmbara art as such (at the beginning there were only a limited number of Śvetāmbara bronzes) but merely the extensive artistic activities of the Śvetāmbaras during the later centuries (AD 1000-1500).

In order to explain all the elements of fig. 17 (Ṛṣabha) we have to focus attention also on the hair-dress. The Ṛṣabha: non-Ṛṣabha opposition can now be expressed in two different ways. Using for that part of the strands which hangs down on the shoulders the new term “lateral strands“, we can say that the opposition was either “transformed strands with: without lateral strands“ or “curls with: without lateral strands“. Fig. 17 demonstrates the second possibility.

Fig. 18 shows Jīvantasvāmin, a Jina with crown and ornaments. The concept may be compared with the “crowned Buddha“ but Jina and Jīvantasvāmin were two clearly distinguished types, the former very common, the latter very rare (some more instances in Period III). There was a legend suggesting that the Jīvantasvāmin type showed Mahāvīra in royal attire, i.e. before his renunciation.

We possess no clear evidence of further Akota pieces belong­ing to the Intermediate Period. However, the high standard of figs. 16-17 indicates the existence of notable artistic activities.

A number of rock-cut sculptures also falls in the time between AD 550 and 750. Here we are mainly referring to two Jaina caves found at Badami and Aihole (both in the Bijapur District) respectively. Both caves contain representations of

  1. the attack of the demon Kamaha against Pārśva, and
  2. the austerities of Bāhubali (son of the first Jina Ṛṣabha).

Kamaṭha is shown hurling a boulder against Pārśva, and Bāhubali stands in motionless meditation, so that his legs become entwined by creepers. Finally, we have to mention a few rock-cut reliefs at Dhank (Junagadh District). The complexity of the motifs and other reasons make it impossible to include an adequate treatment of Badami/Aihole and of Dhank into the present survey.

Acknowledgement: The author is indebted to G. von Mitterwallner for substantial help received during the preparation of this article.


Compiled by PK

English edition by HN4U 2011


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