Jainism: Illuminated Manuscripts and Jain art

Video: The Tradition of Manuscripts in Jainism

View transcript of video


Video: Jain Manuscript Paintings from the Kalpa Sutra & Uttaradhyayana Sutra

View transcript of video


The cosmic and mortal realms

Jain cosmological mandala as a plan of Jambudvipa, 19th century. Museum no. Circ.91-1970

Jain cosmological mandala as a plan of Jambudvipa, Gujarat, Western India, 19th century. Gouache on cloth. Museum no. Circ.91-1970

While manuscript illustrations are certainly the best-known Jain paintings to audiences outside India, there is also an extensive Jain tradition of larger paintings, from album-size to monumental paintings on cloth. The most spectacular of these are the cosmological paintings depicting the structure of the Jain universe.

The Jain cosmos is divided into three realms of virtually unfathomable proportions: the upper or celestial world, the middle or mortal world, and the lower or infernal world. The three realms are portrayed either collectively or independently in both abstract and personified representations, the latter as the cosmic man (lokapurusha) endowed with a fantastical anatomy hierarchically arranged to symbolise the three realms of creation.

Among the more abstract representations are maps of the middle world - from where liberation from the cycle of rebirth is possible. They show two-and-a-half continents, arranged concentrically and separated by blue rings that represent oceans. The central continent is called Jambudvipa, the continent of the rose-apple tree. In the south of this continent is India. At the very centre of the map stands Mount Meru, the cosmic axis.

Other large-scale Jain paintings feature esoteric deities or symbols and invocations that aid the practitioner in meditation or in initiation rites, used in the mystical Tantric methods of seeking enlightenment. Another favourite genre comprises monumental paintings of Jain pilgrimage sites, especially Mount Satrunjaya, in Gujarat. Apart from murals and temple banners, these colossal and highly detailed works are some of the largest examples of pictorial art ever created in India. These pilgrimage paintings are displayed within Jain temple complexes during a special festival at the end of the rainy season. Devotees who are unable to make the pilgrimages can receive the religious merit of visiting the sites simply by viewing their representations.

Depictions of important pilgrimage sites such as Mount Sammeda in Bihar, where 20 Jinas attained moksha or release from the cycle of rebirth, were also carved in stone. Individual scenes of religious instruction, as well as homage to the Jinas and various deities, are also popular subjects in Jain painting. Pictorial narrations of the lives of the Jinas are used to instruct the faithful through the portrayal of selfless acts.

Pilgrimage picture of Satrunjaya, Gujarat, western India, about 1800, private collection

Pilgrimage picture of Satrunjaya, Gujarat, Surat or Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Western India, about 1800. Private collection.

Panel depicting the pilgrimage sites of Sammeda-sikhara, Bihar, 19th century. Museum no. 541-1883

Panel depicting the pilgrimage sites of Sammeda-sikhara, Bihar, Jaipur, Rajasthan, Western India, 19th century. Marble. Museum no. 541-1883

Non-violence in Jain art

Genuine compassion requires imagination, and this is why for the Jains, art is central. The seated Tirthankara image (murti) is one of the most common icons in Jainism. It is at once serene, peaceful and balanced.

Animals and nature play a central role in temple art. For Jains, all life is precious and worthy of the highest respect.. Jains believe that there cannot be human peace at the expense of harming nature or animals. One of the most iconic Jain images is that of the Samavasarana, depicting the sermon given by a Tirthankara after attaining enlightenment. While Mahavira was sharing his knowledge, all kinds of species joined the congregation, and all could clearly see Mahavira and understand the message in their own language. This event is often depicted in Jain painting and  sculpture.

23rd Tirthankara Parsvanatha, sculpture, 7th century. Museum no. IS.18-1956

23rd Tirthankara Parsvanatha, sculpture, 7th century. Museum no. IS.18-1956

Painting of Samavasarana by Jitu Patel, Oshwal Centre, Potters Bar. Photograph by Nila Shah.

Painting of Samavasarana by Jitu Patel, Oshwal Centre, Potters Bar. Photograph by Nila Shah.

International Training Course

The Victoria and Albert Museum welcomes applications for ‘Creating Innovative Learning Programmes’, its new one week intensive course. This is a unique training opportunity for museum professionals from overseas who are interested in attracting and programming for a range of museum audiences.

Find out more

Shop online

Western Illuminated Manuscripts

Western Illuminated Manuscripts

This catalogue of illuminated manuscripts in the V&A's National Art Library provides a history of an art form over eight centuries as an integral …

Buy now

Event - Arts of South and Southeast Asia and the Islamic Middle East. 14/15

Mon 22 September 2014–Mon 06 July 2015

YEAR COURSE: Discover the art and archaeology of Asia, from the Himalayas and the Indian Subcontinent to the island nations of Southeast Asia.

Book online