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Jain Manuscript Painting: A Glimpse At The Jain Kalpasutra Manuscripts

An Introduction to the Kalpasutra Manuscripts and Jain Manuscript Painting

Once upon a time, Gods, demons, and spirits were said to have roamed the wild and breathtaking expanse of the Indian subcontinent. Tales of this unknown, fantastical existence differ in each group, each community, and each culture of humanity. In this very land were born the three most ancient religions still in practice: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

From stone to sword to quill, with the passage of time each tale became but a whisper of a fable in our collective consciousness. All we have left are the stories preserved. Though confined to certain regions within India, Jainism left an immense impact on Indian art and architecture. Its stories, mythology, and ideals left a lasting impression, especially in the world of Indian manuscript painting.

This blog discusses the Kalpasutra manuscripts and delves into the history and styles of Jain manuscript painting.

Jain Manuscript Painting: A Physical Record of the Devotional

Jain Manuscript Painting from the kalpasutra. a
Leaf from a Kalpa Sutra manuscript. 15th century, Gujarat. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The two main sects in Jainism are the Shvetambaras (white-clad: nuns and monks wear white robes) and the Digambaras (sky-clad: male monks are naked). Religious teachings were passed down from one generation to the next through the spoken and written word. Thus, Jain manuscript painting was a way to preserve the written documentation of Jain teachings.

People would voluntarily donate manuscripts to temple repositories, or Shastra-Bhandaras. This charitable act, called shaastradaan, granted the gifter religious merit and was thus quite popular. The practice of writing and illustrating Jain manuscript paintings was more popular with the Shvetambaras than the Digambaras. The Kalpasutra is the most frequently illustrated Shvetambara text.

A Look Inside the Manuscript

The Kalpasutra is divided into three main sections. The first section talks about the lives of the various Jain Tirthankaras. It provides a biographical narrative of the important events in their lives, namely, their conception, birth, initiation, and enlightenment, followed by their first sermon.

The second talks mainly about Mahavir, the last or 24th Tirthankara. The third section lists the rules and regulations that monks must abide by during the month of Bhadrapada (August to September). During this time period, Jain monks temporarily give up their ascetic lifestyles and settle down among the laity.

The Shvetambara festival, Paryushan, takes place during this time. During the festival, reading the Kalpasutra manuscript to the people is an important tradition. Only monks can perform this sacred service, as the Jain Kalpasutra manuscripts are greatly revered in the Jain faith.

So, who are the Jain Tirthankars?

Jain Manuscript Painting
Mahaveer gives away all his belongings for one year (Varsidana) before his renunciation. Gujarat, c. 1472. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

A Tirthankara is a saviour or an enlightened one who has crossed over the cycle of rebirth. After enlightenment, they guide other Jains on the same path. In Jain belief, each ‘cosmic age’ produces 25 Tirthankars. Mahaveer was the last Tirthankar of this cosmic age. He was the predecessor of Parshvanatha, who lived about 250 years before him.

In Jain manuscript painting, the Tirthankaras are portrayed as standing in the kayotsarga pose, or seated upon a lion throne in a meditative position called the dhyanamudra. Early images of the Tirthankaras were often naked and indistinguishable from each other, save for their names written next to them.

Making their images similar would have been a deliberate choice, as a Tirthankara is a ‘perfect being’. Later, around the 6th century, each Tirthankara came to be associated with a particular symbol. Jains do not worship the images as gods. The Jinas are not capable of giving blessings or answering prayers. Rather, believers express their respect and admiration for the Jinas, and hope that they too may one day be able to achieve renunciation.

Religious Imagery In Jain Manuscript Painting

Although Mahaveer did not elucidate his views on idol worship, the practice of image veneration became a strong part of Jain dogma. The Chalukya dynasty of Gujarat and Rajasthan provided royal patronage to Jainism and built elaborate temple complexes and libraries. In fact, Jain manuscript painting flourished as King Kumarapala commissioned and distributed hundreds of copies of the Jain Kalpasutra Manuscripts.

Though Jainism originated in the Ganges basin of East India, later political changes prompted many of them to migrate to central and western India. There, these communities grew stronger than they had been previously.

The Jain community of the West included bankers, merchants and other prosperous folk. They began to commission religious icons and objects of religious worship, as they were eager to obtain religious merit through shaastradaan. Thus, the practice of Jain manuscript painting and production became popular alongside the construction of huge temple complexes. The Western Indian art that depicts Jain themes is also called the ‘Jain School of Painting’.

The History of Jain Manuscript Painting

Jain manuscript painting dates back to the 11th century. However, it increased in popularity from the 13th century onwards. Manuscripts have a recto and a verso side. The reader would first look at the recto and then flip over to the verso side. Each page had a small hole in the centre. A string was passed through this hole to bind together all the pages. They were further protected with wooden covers or patlis that were placed on both sides.

Jain manuscript painting was usually meaningful rather than purely decorative. Gujarat, Rajasthan, and certain parts of Uttar Pradesh were the main centres of Jain manuscript production. Traditionally, a layperson would write the text, which would then be checked by a muni or monk.

The Palm Leaf Manuscripts of the Kalpasutra

Artists first began the tradition of Jain manuscript painting on palm leaf manuscripts. The style of painting remained conventional until the late fourteenth century, around the same time that manuscript painting on paper gained popularity. Even after the medium changed from palm leaves to paper, artists continued to use the horizontal format in Jain manuscript painting.

A Boru. Image credit: D’source

Both the manuscript pages and the wooden covers (patlis) were painted. These are different from the palm leaf manuscripts of Orissa as they were engraved rather than painted. While a sharp stylus was used in South India, a writing tool called Boru was popular in North India.

Also read: Pothi Chitra: Palm Leaf Manuscripts Of Odisha

The Colours of Jain Manuscript Painting

Black: Black paint was obtained from lamp black. First the artist would collect soot from lamps and then mix it with sesame oil. Since it was relatively cheap to make, black is seen extensively in Jain manuscript painting.

Red: Red paint was made from Hinglok or Cinnabar, which is an ore of mercury. To make red paint, the artist would crush a piece of Hinglok and add sugar water and glue to it. After mixing it properly, they would add clean water and leave it uncovered in a flat dish. The excess water would evaporate after a while, leaving behind a paint-like consistency.

Gold and Silver: These paints were made with Lamina. Due to the cost of the raw materials required and the amount of time and labour that went into it, they were very expensive. Artists used them to decorate and highlight manuscripts.

Yellow: Artists used yellow paint to make corrections. They would mix some white in it so it matched the paper perfectly. This yellow paint was supposedly made from Hartal, a substance derived from cow urine.

The Conception of Mahaveer in Jain Manuscript Painting

Jain Manuscript Painting
The birth of Mahaveer (Vardhamana). Image credit: wellcome collection

The Shvetambara texts of the Kalpa Sutra state that the Tirthankar Mahaveer was conceived first in the womb of a Brahmin woman named Brahmani Devananada. However, Indra, God of the Heavens, believed that a glorious leader like Mahavir should not be born to a Brahmin but rather to the ruling Kshatriya caste.

While Jainism adopted the concept of caste from Hinduism, many opposed the superiority of the Brahmins. For one, animal sacrifice was against the most important Jain principle of Ahimsa or non-violence. Secondly, Brahmins considered themselves innately pure, whereas Jains place more emphasis on ‘duty’ and hence hold the Kshatriyas in higher regard.

Jain Manuscript Painting
Harinaigamesin Brings the Embryo to Queen Trisala, from a 15th century Kalpasutra manuscript. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thus, Indra decides to supplant Mahaveer’s embryo in the womb of Queen Trishala. Harinaigamasin, the commander of his infantry, is the one who carries out this task. As we see in the above painting, he has a human body but the head of an antelope.

Jain Manuscript Painting
The Fourteen Auspicious Dreams Foretelling the Birth of Mahaveer. From the Jaunpur Kalpasutra, ca. 1465. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Trishala proceeds to dream of 14 auspicious objects before she gives birth to Mahaveer. These objects are often illustrated in the Kalpasutra manuscripts. The 14 objects are an elephant, a bull, a tiger, a goddess, a palanquin, a lotus pond, the ocean, a garland, a jar, a banner, a smokeless fire, a celestial mansion, a heap of jewels, and the sun and the moon.

Attaining Enlightenment In Jain Kalpasutra Manuscripts

Mahaveer Sitting at the Top of the Universe: Folio from a Kalpasutra Manuscript, Gujarat, 15th century. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mahaveer sits upon an inverted crescent moon which symbolises isatpragbhara or the celestial realm. Once a Tirthankar has achieved enlightenment, they leave the mortal plane and reside in the heavens. The trees around him blossom and move towards him, which may portray that he has reached an enlightened state and is radiating greatness.

Indrabhuti Gautama attaining Siddha from a Kalpasutra Manuscript, Gujarat, 15th century. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mahaveer’s disciple, Indrabhuti, was the last Jain to experience enlightenment or Siddha. In the above painting, we see him in white Shvetambara robes and sitting in a meditative position. The blooming red lotus and flowering trees convey his enlightened state. He wears a cloth face mask or mohapatti to prevent swallowing microscopic organisms. Indrabhuti also holds a small broom over his right shoulder to brush away small insects in his path.

Later Stylistic Changes In Jain Manuscript Painting

Jain Manuscript Painting
The Fourteen Auspicious Dreams Foretelling the Birth of Mahaveer. From the Jaunpur Kalpasutra, ca. 1465. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the 15th century, Jain manuscript painting began featuring the use of gold, lapis lazuli blue, and more vibrant colour palettes. The drawing, however, stayed true to the ancient Western traditions, and we only see the artists experimenting with colour. These manuscripts provide a unique visual link between the Miniature painting traditions of the West and the North.

Image credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The above manuscript is one of the most lavishly illustrated Jain Kalpasutra manuscripts. It shows a great influence of Persian painting, Indo-Persian art, and the decorative idioms of North Indian schools of painting. Persian art, in particular, had been rising in popularity due to the Delhi Sultanate.

Jain Manuscript Painting
Lustration of the Infant Jina Mahaveer. From a Kalpasutra Manuscript, late 14th century, Gujarat. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The above manuscript shows the ‘lustration’ or bathing of Mahaveer, a concept also included in early Buddhist mythology. We know that it is Mahaveer due to the kneeling bulls. He sits in the lap of Indra. Two other avatars of the god hold vessels of water on either side. The ground below Indra is covered in cloud or fire-like imagery. However, it is actually a pile of rocks meant to represent the heavenly Mount Meru. This mannerism is also an influence of Persian painting.

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By Melissa D’Mello, Content Writer at Rooftop

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