Enriching study

Print edition : March 22, 2013

A sculpture of Mahavira in Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu. Mahavira is the last of the succession of 24 Jinas or Tirthankaras mentioned in the Jaina tradition. Photo: Tamil Nadu State Archaeological Department

A view of the caves at Ellora, Maharashtra. The minimalist and austere aesthetics of the Jina image are offset in Jaina art by a robust and lively representation of flora, fauna and human forms that pervade and enliven the Jina's environs in the cave or structural temple that marks his abode. This is particularly true of the Jaina caves at Ellora. Photo: PAUL NORONHA

Historical perspectives on the aesthetic expressions and visual culture of the Jainas.

THIS collection brings together 22 insightful papers on Jaina art written over a span of three decades by the distinguished art historian and Indologist M.A. Dhaky. Dhaky favours the appellation “Nirgrantha” to the widely prevalent term “Jaina”—a choice that may intrigue more than a few readers. Yet, Nirgrantha, which translates as “without ties” or “free from bondage”, is the name by which this system of religious thought and practice has been addressed in the earliest Jaina canonical literature. As Nigantha in the Ardhamagadhi dialect, it figures from at least the 3rd-4th century BCE and was used in Maharashtri Prakrit from the early centuries of the Common Era (C.E.).

Buddhist canonical works and Asokan inscriptions speak of the Nirgranthas. In Pali texts, Mahavira is addressed as “Nigantha Nataputta”. The Digambaras have at times interpreted it to mean “without the ties of cloth”, or bare-bodied. The term Jaina, deriving from Jina, came into vogue much later, but by medieval times it had effectively replaced the more ancient Nirgrantha. Dhaky’s choice is perhaps based on the twin reasons of antiquity and semantics, for Nirgrantha also aptly represents the essentials of a religion that emphasises renunciation.

Measured against the weighty corpus of published works on Buddhism and Hinduism, research on Jainism appears woefully undernourished. What is more, studies in Jaina visual culture remained, until recently, strangely insulated from the larger historical discourse on Jainism. While historians of Jaina art, with a few exceptions, have preferred to lose themselves in the nitty-gritty of iconographic riddles and formal descriptions, Jainologists have not integrated the visual expressions of Jaina culture within the matrix of their research, except occasionally to embellish an argument. Seen in this light, Dhaky’s rigorous and interdisciplinary approach to interpreting Jaina art, literature and history stands tall.

The idea and image of the Jina

The Jaina tradition mentions a succession of 24 Jinas (victorious ones) or Tirthankaras (ford makers), with Rishabhanatha being the first and Mahavira being the final one. In the early days of its history, the Jaina philosophical position did not encourage the worship of Jinas or the making of their images. Dhaky explicates this in a long and intense essay on “The Jina image in agamic and hymnic tradition”:

“At the centre of this non-committal and neutral, even cool and indifferent if not totally negative attitude of the agamas [canonical texts] toward the actual representation of the Jina as well as its worship by recluses, is the very ancient Nirgrantha doctrine of which Mahavira himself was the exponent. It, above all, had laid firm emphasis on, and pleaded for an unswerving faith in the supremacy and autonomy of the Self... and this assertive conviction rendered dependence on any external agent or object redundant...” (page 100).

The abstract “Self” in Jainism is believed to be free from karmic bondage and exists in an absolute state of “being”, devoid of desire or power for action. The omniscient Jina thus “does not possess motivating power and can neither bestow favour ( prasada) nor inflict harm... for ‘activity’ in any form is, for the Self, the cause as well as evidence of the state of bondage, not of release” (page 101). It follows from this that worshipping a Jina image to gain favour or to seek protection was not recommended in early Jaina thought.

Yet, archaeology reveals a different picture and points to an early and persistent presence of Jina images. Dhaky’s research suggests that the practice of making Jina images appears at first to have been initiated by elite lay followers—merchants, tradesmen, ministers, and nobles—with the clergy following soon after, by the early centuries of the C.E. Of significance here is his paper on the much-debated Lohanipur torso, in which he marshals evidence from archaeology and art history to succinctly and sharply argue for reinstating its Mauryan date and Jina identity.

Parshvanatha, the penultimate Jina, whose historicity has been established and whose representations abound in art, is discussed at length by the author. Dhaky describes Parshvanatha as a methodical thinker, “an ascetic-scientist” as compared to Mahavira, an “ascetic-philosopher” (page 8). Parshvanatha’s association with the lord of serpents, Dharanendra, is a favoured narrative in Jaina literature and art. It tells of the protection offered by the serpent lord to the Jina from his formidable enemy (Kamatha, born as the demi-god, Meghamali). In art, Parshvanatha is usually portrayed with the multi-hooded serpent lord’s protective canopy above his head, at times also with attendant imagery dramatising the demi-god’s torment. Dhaky mines a formidable range of ancient and medieval Jaina hymnic literature and relates these to sculptural representations. Placing his enquiries in a chronological framework, he offers insights into the composers’ and sculptors’ “visualisation of the unshaken, dignified, and tranquilly awesome image of the Jina standing in deep trance” (page 41). At the same time, he provokes the reader to understand this narrative and its imagery in terms of “a common cultural milieu of the pre-Christian Era” (page 12), pointing to inter-sectarian borrowings between early Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. In another essay, Dhaky discusses the peculiarities of a sculpture of Jina Rishabha on the Shatrunjaya hills.

While the earliest Jina images presumably needed no accompaniments or paraphernalia as these “associations signifying royal insignia would have gone against the very tenets of absolute asceticism of the early Nirgrantha religion” (page 147), Jina images from the Kushana times onwards included regalia such as the lion throne, the wheel of law, and the fly whisk to signify the Jina as dharmachakravarti (one who sets the wheel of law in motion). The chamara pratiharya (fly-whisk bearer) receives detailed attention in one of the essays, in which Dhaky discusses its stylistics in association with southern Indian Jina images.

Layered histories

Neminatha, the 22nd Jina, is believed to have attained salvation on the summit of the Girnar hills in Gujarat. In one of the lengthier essays, Dhaky discusses the interrelationships between Neminatha and Vasudeva-Krishna, and details the antiquity of the Neminatha-Girnar association with splendid clarity and perception. Traversing the ancient and the medieval, the author brings to life the many voices of history encountered at the site, making the narrative incrementally more layered. The presence of a Buddhist monastery and an encounter between the Buddhists and the Jainas and, next, disputes between the Digambaras and the Shvetambaras are some of the subtexts that Dhaky weaves into his discussion. In a brief paper, he provides fresh hymnic evidence relating to the myth of the birth of Ambika, the yakshi associated with Neminatha and Girnar, who is said to have been a Brahmin woman in her previous birth.

Modhera in Gujarat is famous today for its early medieval temple dedicated to the sun god. In a substantial essay on Modhera, Dhaky analyses the long-term history of the site through a stylistic and iconographical interpretation of its art and architectural remains, and a simultaneous reading of Jaina, Hindu and Persian references to the site at different points in history. His research reveals an almost concurrent prevalence of sun worship and the worship of Jina Mahavira at Modhera from about the 7th century. Communities of priests (Brahmins) and traders (Vaishyas) had settled there, the latter being followers of Jainism, several of whom later embraced Vaishnavism under the influence of Shrimad Vallabhacharya.

In another paper, “The creed-affiliation of the Samiddhesvara Temple in Cittaudgadh”, an incisive re-examination of architectural form, inscriptions, and literary sources leads Dhaky to arrive at the original identity of the structure as being the temple of Neminatha built by the minister Vastupala.

Two essays in this volume offer interesting accounts of the ways in which the southern Indian Jaina tradition was perceived in western India during the medieval period. The first of these discusses western Indian pilgrim notices of Jaina sacred places in southern India. It also includes 14th century literary references to the increasingly affable relations between a devout Jaina statesman and the Muslim rulers of Gujarat, Delhi and Telangana. Significantly, this had resulted in the restoration and building of Jaina shrines in Gujarat and Telangana. The second essay gives several accounts of the esteem in which the colossal 10th century sculpture of Gomateshwara at Shravanabelgola was held in medieval western India.

The minimalist and austere aesthetics of the Jina image are offset in Jaina art by a robust and lively representation of flora, fauna and human forms that pervade and enliven the Jina’s environs in the cave or structural temple that marks his abode. This is particularly true of the Jaina caves at Ellora as also the early medieval Jaina temples of Karnataka, a stronghold of Digambara Jainism. Given Dhaky’s eye for visual detail, it comes as no surprise that he devotes several essays to the aesthetic qualities of Jaina art and architecture as it developed in southern India, particularly during the period of the Rashtrakutas, the Gangas and the Santaras. In these, he dwells upon the intricacies of style and iconography, at times also using stylistic evidence from other important sites such as Ajanta and Ellora, to work out the missing links. Apart from a judicious use of texts and a keen awareness of the historical milieu, two qualities are particularly striking in Dhaky’s art-historical writings: first, his intimate familiarity with ancient Indian art forms and his near-encyclopaedic visual memory that seems to imprint the images on his mind’s eye; and second, his acute sensitivity to the subtleties of art and its processes. His description of a fly-whisk bearer in the sanctum of a 10th century temple in Kambadahalli, Karnataka, is a case in point: “The one on the left is more elegant, seeming as though a painting transformed into sculpture... [The quality of painting] is visibly present ...in the flow and sweep of the whisk. The figure has the gracefulness of the Ajantan Avalokitesvara (Cave 1) and the gait and verve of the chamara dharas in the Konkan-Maurya caves at Ellora (Buddhist caves). The chamara bearer’s beautiful round-at-the-tip kirita-crown is a forerunner of some Kongu-Keralite types of crown, later paralleled both in stone and bronze and whose descendants are to be seen in one of the types of the Kathakali dancer’s head wear” (page 250).

The Ahmedabad-based publisher Sambodhi Sansthan deserves to be congratulated on bringing together this veteran author’s writings on the varied aspects of Jaina art and architecture. Dhaky retains a direct and elegant style of writing throughout. Yet, this is by no means an easy-to-read introduction to Jaina art. The sheer range of literary sources in different languages and dialects, the intricacies of the visual material discussed, and the insights offered into sectarian complexities and site histories call for intense and focussed attention. But then, the author’s objectives and methods have for long been known to be oriented towards pioneering research. This is a book to be read, reread and referred to—fundamental, enriching, and of lasting value.

Parul Pandya Dhar teaches Art History in the Department of History, University of Delhi.