Sculpting the Tirthankar's - Q&A on Jain iconography

Very recently, a discussion on the true representation of a Tirthankar through an idol raised many questions which I thought needed answers. Therefore, with an intent to create more awareness on the history and evolution of idolatry in Jainism, I am writing this article to share some of the common/ uncommon questions, which had been asked to me in the past with respect to Jain iconography in an easy to understand Q&A format. Readers can also share their observations in the comments section and can also ask more questions which I will try to answer to best of my knowledge using references from ancient texts/ modern research.

Q. What is the need of an idol to worship the Tirthankar’s?

A. Worship is an act of reverence of giving or acknowledging worth to something/someone beyond yourself. A layperson’s subconscious mind is not that developed that only through meditation he/she can achieve spirituality – The person needs आलम्बन”, i.e. support and a foundation which can be found through a physical representation of the Tirthankar – i.e. the idol.

An idol is a physical object placed in veneration to the highest soul and helps a person to focus thoughts and channelize them in the direction of the Tirthankar and his attributes. Worshipping an idol of the Tirthankar, therefore provides the individual with a discipline that helps them concentrate on the ideals, and cultivate detachment. The worshipper thus, concentrates on the virtues of the Tirthankars in order to help them follow their example.

According to Jain scriptures, the worshipper does not worship the Tirthankar through the idol; instead the worshipper engages in a form of reflexive meditation. By gazing upon the idol as a three dimensional symbol of spiritual perfection, the worshipper reflects upon his or her imperfections, thereby striving to reduce or eliminate the same. Some of the benefits of idol worship listed in the scriptures are as below –
  • It improves the spiritual state of the worshipper by providing a focus for spiritual activity.
  • It reminds the worshipper of the life-example they want to follow thereby destroying the bad karma attached to the soul.
  • It acknowledges the worshipper's own inherent divinity.
A 11th century idol of a Tirthankar, Solanki Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA

Q. Is idol worship permitted in the Jain Agams (canonical texts)?

A. The 12 main canons (scriptures) composed by Lord Mahavir's ‘Gandhar’s’ (chief disciples) are known as “Ang-Agams” (~5th Century BC). Out of the 12 Ang-Agams, 11 are available today (the 12th Ang Agam- Drashtivad, being extinct). These scriptures form the core of Jainism. These Agams are dotted with words like – Jincheiya (Temple) and Jinpadima (idol of a Jina, i.e. Tirthankar) etc.

The second Agam, Suyagdang (Sutrakrutang) states that Abhaykumar gifted an idol of a Tirthankar to Ardrakumar through which he remembered his past lives and attained true knowledge– पीत्तीय दोणह दुओ, पुच्छणमभयस्स पत्थवेसोउ, तेणावि सम्मदिट्ठित्ति होज्ज पडिमारहंमि गया

The first Mul-sutra, Uttaradhyayan Sutra describes Gautam Swami’s (Lord Mahavir’s chief disclipe) journey to Mount Ashtapad (where the 1st Tirthankar attained liberation). Its Niryukti (which furnishes the etymological interpretation of the canonical terminology) clearly states that Gautam Swami worshipped the idols of the Tirthankars (on Ashtapad) - "पडिमाओं वंदइ जिणाणं"

Further, there are various other references of idol worship in the 3rd Agam- Sthanang Sutra (worship of the idols of 4 immortal Tirthankars –Rushabh, Chandranan, Varishen, Vardhaman), 4th Agam - Samavayang Sutra (52 Jinalay), 5th Agam - Bhagvati Sutra (Idols of Tirthankars at Nandishvar Dvip), 6th Agam - Gnatadharm katha (Worship of Tirthankar idol by Draupadi), 9th Agam - Anuttaropapatik Dashang Sutra (description of a Jain temple), 1st Upang Agam- Aupapatik Sutra (Worship of Tirthankar idol by Aband Sanyasi), 2nd Upang Agam - Rayapaseni (Rajprashniya) Sutra (Worship of Tirthankar idol by Suryabh Dev), 3rd Upang Agam- Jivabhigam Sutra (Worship of Tirthankar idol by Vijay Dev) etc.

Bronze idol of a Tirthankar, 10th century AD, Cleveland Museum of Art

Q. As an idol is a physical representation of a Tirthankar, what are the scriptural references from where we can understand the physical attributes of a Tirthankar?

A. One of the earliest physical descriptions of a Tirthankar occurs in an Upang Agam (The scriptures which provide further explanation to the Ang-Agams are called Upang-Agams) named Aupapatik Sutra which is an Upang-agam for the 1st Ang Agam, Acharang Sutra. According to the scripture-

  • The Tirthankar is exceedingly tall and his body is perfectly proportioned.
  • The arrangement of his bones is of a rare type, affording him the extraordinary strength required for him to endure all sorts of attacks, supernatural, natural and man-made, and to practice the extreme austerities required to burn off his karma.
  • Unlike us, his digestion is always perfect and he never suffers from gas or diarrhea, and like a bird he can digest anything, even stones.
  • He has perfect teeth and his shoulders are broad
  • His chest is marked with the Srivats sign which signifies that the highest knowledge is manifested itself from the heart of the Tirthankar.
  • He has a charming line of hair on his belly and his genitals are concealed, like those of a fine stallion.
  • The bottoms of his feet are red like a lotus and soft, like its leaves.
  • Every limb of the Tirthankar is radiant with light.
A modern idol of Shri Adinath Bhagwan 

Further, Kalikalsarvagna Acharya Hemchandra writes the following physical description of the lord in his work, Trishashtishalakapurushcharitra (11th century AD)-

  • The feet of the Lord are soft, red, like the inside of a lotus, warm, firm, free from perspiration, with smooth soles. The conch and the pitcher signs shine on the soles, and the svastika mark is seen on the heels of the Master’s feet.
  • Fleshy, round, high and like a serpent’s hood, the great toe of the Master is marked with  srivatsas. The Lord’s toes are like the flame of a lamp, motionless, steady, shining, touching each other, straight like petals of a foot-lotus. Nandyavartas shine on the soles of the feet and toes of the Lord. Like a bulb of the lotus, the heel is rounded, long and broad; while its nails resemble the hood-jewels of the serpents.
  • The upper part of the Lord’s feet is gradually arched like a tortoise; the veins are invisible and the smooth skin is free from hair. The Lord’s lower legs are fair, resembling the legs of deer, strong, adorned with flesh covering the bones.
  • The Master’s knees, round, covered with flesh, give the appearance of a soft pillow embellished with beautiful mirrors. His thighs, soft, smooth are gradually filled out. His loins are long, fleshy, thick, broad and firm. His waist resembles the middle of a thunderbolt in its slenderness.
  • A deep navel gives the impression of a whirlpool in a river; the abdomen is smooth, fleshy, and soft.
  • The breast, broad as a slab of gold, is marked with the jeweled background of the Srivats. Firm, massive, the high shoulders resemble the hump of a bull;
  • The armpits of the Lord have little curved hair, free from the odor of perspiration and dirt. Massive arms hang down to the knees. The Lord’s palms are reddish like a young mango-shoot, not hard, neither perspiring, with warm fingers touching each other. 
  • Like the feet, the hands are marked with auspicious symbols like rod, disc, bow, pair of fish, srivatsa’s, thunderbolt, goad, banner, lotus, chauri, umbrella, conch, pitcher, Ocean, Mandara, makara, bull, lion, horse, chariot, svastika, sky elephant etc.
  • The thumb and fingers are red, straight, like shoots from a Kalpavriksha (wishing-tree, adorned with rubies on the ends). 
  • Round, not too long, purified by three lines, having a deep voice, the neck of the Lord is like a conch.
  • Fair, round, with waves of light the Lord’s face is like another moon, free from spots. Soft, fleshy, smooth, the broad cheeks of the Lord are like golden mirrors. The ears are like pearl-oysters on the bank of the Sindhu river.
  • The lips are like bimba-fruit; the teeth are like thirty-two jasmine-flowers; the Supreme Lord’s nose gradually widens, with a gradually arched bridge. Neither small nor large, his chin is fleshy, round and soft;
  • The Protector’s beard is dark, thick, glossy, soft. The Lord’s tongue, begetting the contents of the scriptures having twelve angas, is not too thick, soft, reddish, like the young shoot of a kalpa-tree.
  • His eyes are white with black in the center, red at the ends, as if they have insets of sapphire, crystal and rubies. They reach to the ears, their eyelashes black, wide-open, like blossoming lotuses filled with clusters of bees. The dark, curved eyebrows of the Lord have the beauty of a creeper that appears on the shore of the lotus-pond.
  • The Lord’s forehead is broad, fleshy, round, firm, soft and smooth, like the moon on the eighth day of the month. The Master’s head, gradually arched, rivals in appearance of an umbrella with its face turned downwards.
  • The hair on the Lord’s head shines, black as bees, curled, soft, glossy, like the waves of the Yamuna. His skin, fair as Goru Chandan (sandal), smooth and clear, shines on the body as if it is anointed with melted gold.
  • The hair on the Master’s body is soft, dark as bees, having an unique source (i.e., his body), fine as lotus-fiber. The Lord marked with these various remarkable signs is like an Ocean with jewels!

Ancient idol of Lord Mahavir, Kshatriyakund, Bihar believed to be an accurate representation of Lord Mahavir as it was installed by Nandivardhan (Lord's brother) in 5 BC. However, historians have dated it to the Pala Era (~10 AD) 

Q. On the basis of which scriptures are the idols sculpted/ designed?

A. Idols of Jain Tirthankars are designed and sculpted based on the guidelines provided in scriptures like – Jaysamhita, Jinpratima Vidhan, Shodashak Prakaran, Vastu-sar, Aparajit Pruchcha, Bruhat-Samhita, Pratimaman Lakshan, Navtal Murti Vidhan, Kalyan-Kalika and Samrangan Sutradhar. As per these scriptures, some of the examples have been given that enable a sculptor to carve an idol-

Face: The face should either be contoured on the shape of an egg (showcases the dignity of the Tirthankar) or like an inverted betel leaf (showcases the peaceful attributes of the Tirthankar)

Representation of the face

Eyes: The eyes should be carved either like a (1) lotus petal, (2) Thin leaf (3) the body (shape )of a pigeon (4) eyes of a deer, (5) un-bloomed lotus bud and (6) body (shape) of a fish

Representation of eyes

Nose: The nose should be shaped either like (1) the seed of the sesame plant, (2) the beak of a parrot, (3) seed of Long bean

Representation of nose

Chin: The chin should resemble a mango seed

Representation of chin

Neck: The neck should be carved like the upper portion of a conch shell

Representation of neck

Chest & Waist: The chest should resemble like the chest of a lion or the face of a cow.

Representation of the chest and waist

Shoulders:  The shoulder should resemble the trunk of an elephant

Representation of the shoulder

Fingers: The fingers should resemble the pea pods and the nails should be carved resembling the pointed bud of a flower.

Representation of fingers

Head and Hair : The hair represented should be thick, deep black in colour and curled resembling a spring, preferably with an elevated head with top knotted hair known as “Unnat Mastak Shikha”. Most of the ancient idols had this feature; however, due to lack of knowledge in the later years artisans have started carving a few beaded lines on a round head representing hair which is a wrong practice.

The Unnat-Mastak-Shikha (representation of the head and hair) 

Curled hair resembling a spring, Gommateshwara-Bahubali, Shravanbelagola, Karnataka

An idol depicting the wrong practice of representing hairs like a line of beads (which is followed currently)

Q. How ancient is this practice of Idol Worship? How did the iconography evolve?

A. While there are newer studies that showcase the fact that some of the idols found in the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization (3000 BC) are of Jain Tirthankars, there is no conclusive evidence to assign the same. Possible idols of Lord Adinath and other Tirthankars in Karyotsarg mudra have been excavated from this period.

Possible idols of Jain Tirthankars from the Indus Valley Civilization

The earliest proven archaeological evidence of icon worship in Jainism could be traced to a 3000-year-old stupa from Mathura (8th Century BC) which was excavated in 1871. Known as Kankali Tila Stupa, the excavations revealed numerous Jain sculptures, Ayagapattas (tablets of homage), pillars, crossbeams and lintels. While most idols of Jain Tirthankars could be dated from the 2nd century BC to the 12th century CE, the clay and bricks used in the Stupa date back to 8th Century BC, i.e. to the time of the 23rd Tirthankar Parshwanath which prove that Stupa worship was prevalent 3000 years ago. As per literary evidences, it is said that this stupa was visited by Lord Parshwanath who paid his respects to the 7th Tirthankar Shri Suparshwanath Bhagwan.

The 3000 year ancient stupa of Mathura represented on an Ayagapatta

As per various ancient texts, a structure constructed at a funeral place in the memory of holy persons is known as a Stupa. The earliest reference of stupa occurs in the first Agam, Acharang-Sutra in union with ‘Kadarh’ and 'Chaitya' i.e. Chaitya-Kadarh -Stupa. In Sanskrit, the meanings of the word ‘kadarh’ stands for a heap whereas ‘chaitya’ means: a heap of stones, a monument, a funeral place, adoration place, a shrine, a place where images are installed etc.

The 7th Upang Agam, Jambudvip Pragnapti encouraged building Chaitya-stupas made of precious stones and precious metals as memorial structures for the Tirthankars as noted from the following line– “सव्वरयणामए महए महालए तउ चेइय भूमे करेइ

Stupa worship in ancient era depicted from archaeological remains from Mathura

Various commentaries of Jain Agams (Vasudevahindi, Avashyakachurni, Avashyakavritti) mention the practice of installing the idol of Jivantswami which represents the Lord in his princely state, with a crown and ornaments. The Trishashtishalakapurushcharita by Acharya Hemachandra states that before the diksha of Lord Mahavir, a sandalwood idol depicting the Lord in his Rajyavastha (princely state) was created by the demi-god Vidyunmali. This idol was worshipped by the queen of Udayan and was installed at Vidisha, but was eventually lost.

Idols of Jivantswami (Left: 5th/ 6th century AD from Akota, currently Baroda Museum; Right: Modern representation at Basukund Digambar Jain Temple, Bihar)

The Hathigumpha inscription (2nd Century BC) from Udayagiri, Orissa which was inscribed by Kharavela, the then Emperor of Kalinga (Modern Orissa) tells the story of the idol of ‘Kalinga Jin’. As per the inscription, an idol of Lord Adinath was revered and worshipped as 'Kalinga Jin' in the region of Kalinga. It was taken away by Mahapadma Nanda when he conquered Kalinga and he brought the idol to his capital in Magadh in 4th Century BC. However, in the 2nd century BC Emperor Kharvela conquered Magadha and brought the idol back and installed it in Udaygiri, near his capital, Shishupalgarh.

Hathigumpha Inscription, Udaygiri, Orissa

The evolution of idol sculpting can be studied on various historical era’s-

Pre Nanda- Era (before 5th Century BC) - Based on archaeological evidences, it has been found that idol-worship in Jainism was preceded by worship of symbols. Representations of the Tirthankars usually occurred on architectural objects like Stupas and Ayagapatta's. Excavations at Kankali Tila, Mathura revealed that the Stupa itself was an object of Jain worship apart from the idols.

An Ayagapatta dating to 1st century AD

Nanda Era (5th Century BC to 3rd Century BC)- An ancient scripture named Titthogalipayanna states that the emperors of the Nanda empire installed 5 Jain stupas in Patliputra. Remains of these stupas were found during recent excavations.

Head of a Tirthankar, Mathura, 1st century BC

Mauryan Era (3rd Century BC to 1st Century AD) – It is believed that Chandragupta Maurya embraced Jainism in 290 BC and migrated to south with Acharya Bhadrabahu (Shravanbelgola) where he took Sallekhana (voluntary fasting to death). Since then, Jainism became prevalent in the Southern regions; (However it was not before 5th/ 6th Century AD that idols started gradually appearing in the those regions). In the 2nd Century BC, Emperor Samprati embraced Jainism under the guidance of Acharya Suhastisuri and installed lakhs of idols. Today many idols are called ‘Samprati-Kalin’ (dating to the era of Samprati) but they look more modern (dating back to 9th to 10th Century AD) and none of them have any inscriptional proof which can link it to Emperor Samprati. Even Acharya Hemratnasurishwarji Maharaja in his book, Shri Adi-Jin-Bimb-Nirman-Prabandh states that the idols which are called “Samprati-Kalin” have features of the Gupta era (5th Century AD onwards) and a closer look on some of these idols have revealed that these were sculpted in the 12th Century AD. The only idols found which can be assigned to the Mauryan era are-

1. An idol of unknown Tirthankar excavated from Lohanipur (near Patna) in polished sandstone (famously known as the Mauryan polish), dating back to the 3rd century BCE ~ 2nd century CE.

2. An idol of Lord Parshwanath (currently at Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) dates back to 1st Century BC

Idols from the Maurya age

Shrunga (Shunga) Era (2 BC to 1 BC) – The idols from this era were had primitive features with artistic representation of Dharmachakra, Kalpavruksh etc. Idols of Lord Adinath were depicted with locks of hair and the depiction of yaksh-yakshini’s had emerged. 18 Jain bronze idols were excavated from Chausa (Buxar, Bihar) belonging to this period.

Idols from the Shrunga era (Chausa Hoard)

Kushan Era (1st Century AD – 3rd Century AD) – Idols installed during this period were carved with stretched hands in Padmasan mudra and long hands upto knees in Karyotsarg mudra. No clothes were carved on the idol and support was also not given at the back. Shoulders were carved with a broad chest depicting a dwarfish look. The idols of the Tirthankars have open eyes and the eye-balls, too, can be noticed in some of the idols of this period. Another remarkable feature is the representation of the dharma-chakra on the palms and both Dharma-Chakra and Tri-Ratna on the soles. In the earliest seated idols, cross-legging is very loose, but the seated idols of this period display padmasana or tight cross­ legging. The heads of the seated idols are either bald or characterized by small curls. Representation of Bha-Mandal (Halo) was also a characteristic of this period. Although the depiction of Lanchans was not present in the Kushan period, the earliest depiction of the Srivats mark on the chest of the idol of the Tirthankar occurs on an idol dating back to 1st Century AD. The idols of Tirthankars flanked by their respective yaksh and yakshinis were also depicted during the period. During this period, the artisans started developing Chaturmukhi sculptures as well.

A principal characteristic of the idols is their nudity. Except for a few sculptures, all idols of Tirthankars do not have any carvings of clothes/ are completely nude which give an impression that they were installed by the Digambar sect. However, it has been found that these idols have been installed by the monks belonging to the Shwetambar sects as their names and monastic orders match exactly with the Kalpastura. Scholars have opined that the difference between the idols in respect of drapery and nudity did not exist in the Kusana period. 

Another interesting aspect of the depiction of monks in the idols excavated. It was found that the monks during that period did not practice complete nudity and are partially clad with a broad piece of cloth known as the “Cholpatta” draped over the left forearms. This practice is also shown in the Acharang Sutra of the Shwetambar sect. The monks are shown holding their distinctive piece of cloth in front of their bodies so as to cover their genitals. These monks also appear to carry muhpatti (small cloth used to cover the mouth during speech), Rajoharan (sacred whisk brooms) and Patras (alms bowl for collection of food). In inscriptions carved on these idols these monks are called “nirgranthas” (which means free from all bonds) - the name which was used for Jainism followers in the ancient era. Although Archaeologists and historians call these monks as “Ardhapalaka’s”, some scholars believe these monks practiced what was known as “Alp-Chelakya”. This practice is in line with Shwetambar Jain scriptures like Acharang Sutra (5th century BC).

Some scholars have opined that these idols depicted the Ailaks and Kshullaks of the Digambar tradition; However, their titles on their pedestals clearly show that they were Munis and Acharyas of Shwetambar Gaccha's-Kula-Gana-Shakha's. In one of the idols it has been seen that a fully clothed Shwetambar monk is depicted together with the Ardhaphalakas. This suggests that by the mid to late Kushan Period, the monks started to wear complete clothes then partially covering nudity.

Idols from the Kusana era

Idols of Shwetambar/ Ardhapalak monks appearing on the pedestals/ idols of Tirthankars (whose names of the monastic orders match with the Shwetambar Kalpasutra) with Cholpatta'sPatra's and Rajoharan. These monks had installed idols of Tirthankars without clothes. Mathura- Kushan era, 1st to 3rd century AD

Gupta Era (3rd Century AD – 6th Century AD) –The sculptures of the Gupta period show that Lanchans of the various Tirthankars did not evolve even in the Gupta period. The idols were recognised on the basis of inscriptions, hair styles, yaksh-yakshini attendants and serpent­ canopy. The seats on which the idols were depicted in the pre-Gupta figures were plain. The character of the seat of the idol changed in the Gupta period. The throne of the idol was supported by a pair of lions. The cushion often bore ornamental patterns and profusely decorated back rests were also depicted. The practice of Ayagapattas was discontinued during the period.

Idols from Gupta era

Post Gupta Period (650 AD onwards) – The Lanchans of the 24 Tirthankars evolved in the 7th -9th Century AD and this development gave a new shape to the idols. Attendant Yaksha and Yakshinis, Vidhyadhars, Ashtapratiharya's, 3 Chatras etc. started appearing along with the idols of the Tirthankars in their background platforms known as Parikars. Clothed idols of Tirthankars along with Jivantswami idols started featuring more prominently during the period. During this period Jainism also flourished in western India.

Idol of Lord Adinath (post Gupta era - 6th/7th century AD), Akota, Gujarat

Jain Idols and Iconography in Southern India – It is generally believed that the southern region was a stronghold of Digambar sect; however, it is not entirely true. References in literary treatises suggest that the Mauryan emperor Samprati sent emissaries to the region and even settled some Shwetambar followers in Paithan also known as Malkhed in Deccan. The penetration of the Shwetambar sect deeper into the south is attested by an inscription recording the grant of a village made by Kadamba king Mrigeshvarma in 488 AD. However, post the period the Shwetambar sect declined in the south.

One of the earliest dated idols from southern India 7th century AD- Venkunram, Tamil Nadu 

Although Jainism was present in southern parts of the country from 3rd Century BC, the only architectural activities from the period of 3rd Century BC to 6th Century AD were the construction of caves/ natural dwellings for Jain monks. Barring inscriptions in Brahmi, these caves were devoid of any sculptural embellishment. Due to the surge of the Bhakti Movement (by Brahmans) in 7th Century AD, the process of installing idols of Tirthankars and erecting temples was initiated.

Rock relief sculptures - 8th century AD, Kalugumalai, Tamil Nadu

Post 7th Century AD, hundreds of Jain idols, belonging to the Digambar sect were installed. Along with Tirthankar idols, images of Bahubali were also featured prominently; the most famous being the 57 feet high Gommateshwara statue in Shravanbelagola in Karnataka installed by the Ganga dynasty minister and commander, Chavundaraya in 983 AD. It is also interesting to note that the process of ascribing Lanchans in the pedestals of the idols was started in this region only from the 18th Century.

Idols from southern India - post 10th century AD

Post the 10th Century,the iconography of the Jain idols have more or less remained the same therefore it is not being discussed.

Q. Which phase of the life of a Tirthankar is represented through an idol?

A. Barring the idols of Jivantswami’s which depict the princely state of a Tirthankar (as stated above), all the other idols depict the phase of a Tirthankar after Kevalgyan (enlightenment) or in a state of Nirvan. Mostly the idols are depicted in Padmasan / Ardha-Padmasan mudra (sitting posture) or Karyotsarg mudra (standing posture). In recent times, some of the idols of Lord Mahavir have also been installed in the Gaudohika Asan (cow milking posture) representing the state in which he attained enlightenment.

Idols of Lord Mahavir in non-traditional postures - Left: Lord Mahavir in Gaudohika Aasan (Rujuvalika, Bihar); Right: Lord Mahavir in Vihar Mudra (Dharmachakra Tirth, Nashik)

Q. What materials can be used to sculpt idols of Tirthankars?

A. According to scriptures, apart from various types of stones (granite/ marble/ kasauti patthar-touchstone etc), an idol can be made from Gold, Silver, Panchdhatu (alloy of 5 metals), Sandalwood and precious jewels.

Idols made of precious stones and gems - Azimganj, West Bengal

Q. What are Chaturmukhi idols?

A. After enlightenment of a Tirthankar, the demi gods create a divine pavilion known as the Samavasaran where the Arihants give discourse’s to his disciples, laymen/women, demi-gods/goddesses and animals. Although the Tirthankar sits facing the east, his physical body is also manifested in the rest of the three directions due to the miraculous powers of the demi gods. Due to this manifestation, it appears that the Lord preaches in all the four directions. To represent this state, Chaturmukhi (four sided) idols were installed. The earliest Chaturmukhi idols excavated, date back to the 1st century AD.

Chaturmukhi idols, Mathura, 6th century AD, LACMA

The Victoria & Albert museum in London also houses a unique seven-headed stone idol of Chandraprabhu Swami seated in Padmasan mudra. The sculpture bears an inscription on the pedestal, dated 1469 CE. What makes this idol unique is that it has seven faces, three on each side of the central face. The Lanchan and the inscription name the central idol as Chandraprabhu Swami, but the rest of the faces do not have any identification. As per scholar, Maruti Nandan Tiwari such composite Tirthankar idols suggest that all the Tirthankars are virtually the same. Therefore, they should be worshipped with equal reverence and devotion with advaita-bhāva (feeling of non-duality).

Unique 7 headed idol of Chandraprabhu Swami, 15th century AD, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Q. Like all monks, the Tirthankars also undertook the practice of Kesh Loch. Then why are hair represented on the head of the Tirthankar idols?

A. The process of kesh loch (the ritual plucking of hair with bare hands) does not continue after Kevalgyan (enlightenment) of the Tirthankar. Indra (the demi god) with his divine powers makes sure that the length and the thickness of the hair of the Tirthankar remains the same from the day of his Kevalgyan till Nirvan.  Further, the scriptures state that during diksha of Lord Adinath, the demi god Indra requested the Lord not to pluck the locks of hair which were falling behind his ears as they were adding to the divinity. Therefore the idols of Lord Adinath have been represented with locks of hair behind his ears.

Ancient idol of Lord Adinath with locks of hair behind ears, Kangra, Himachal Pradesh (Approx 13th century AD)

Idols of Lord Adinath with various hair designs; Pakbirra, Purulia

Q. Did the Tirthankars have moustache and a beard? If yes, then why aren’t the idols sculpted with a bearded face?

A. The Aupapatik Sutra states that the Tirthankar, while preaching in a Samavasaran has thick beautiful and lustrous hair not just on his head but also on his face like a young handsome man. However, since time immemorial, there has not been a tradition of sculpting a Tirthankar idol with a beard and moustache. Therefore, probably due to apprehension of that the Tirthankar idol may not look beautiful with a beard / moustache, therefore the revered Acharyas have not taken up this tradition.

Although, in contrast to the above, the scriptures note that the faces of the Shashwat pratima’s (eternal idols of Rushabh-Chandranan-Varishen & Vardhaman) in the Nadishvar Dweep have beautiful carvings of moustache and beard.

Idol of Lord Adinath, with long braids of hair, Nalanda, Bihar

Q. Why do some Tirthankar idols have external eyes (Chakshu) pasted on them?

Captivating glass chakshu's

A. The Shwetambar sect believes that the open external eyes allow the worshipper, (through an act of meditative projection) to imagine that he/she is actually in the presence of the living Tirthanakar. The eyes provide a powerful “as if” experience, and thereby enhance the worshipper’s efforts to achieve the state of perfection similar to that of the Tirthankar.

Beautifully carved eye-lids representing meditative posture, Lord Adinath, Pindwada- Rajasthan; excavated from Vasantgarh Rajasthan, 7th century AD

However, the Digambar sect believes that by attaching the external eyes (i.e. Chakshu’s) and thereby imagining the Tirthankar to be present, the worshipper mistakenly focuses on the external material world. This is precisely what binds the soul and keeps it in a state of ignorance and suffering. By gazing upon the idol of a Tirthankar which does not have external eyes, the worshipper is encouraged to gaze inward and reflect upon the potential for perfection of his or her own soul

Q. Why do the idols of Tirthankars have such elongated ears?

A. The scriptures tell that the Tirthankar's, had worn heavy earrings (i.e. kundals) in their princely stage (before diksha). Thus, they became elongated over a period of time and therefore the idols are represented with elongated ears with large earlobes.

Q. Why are holy symbols carved on the hands, feet and chest of an idol?

A. As per the scriptures, the physical body of the Tirthankar is bestowed with 1008 Lakshan’s (auspicious marks). We discussed them while describing the physical body of the Tirthankar. Some of these marks are represented through the Ashtamangals which are a set of 8 auspicious symbols. In the Shwetambar tradition, the earliest description of Ashtamangal occurs in the third Ang Agam - Sthanang Sutra. The Agaypattas (a carved slab or a tablet used for worship) excavated from Mathura (1st to 5th Century AD) show many of these Ashtamangals. Subsequently, the auspicious marks were carved on the chest, hands and feet of the idol to highlight the divine attributes of a Tirthankar.

Auspicious marks carved on the hands and legs of Lord Adinath, Manasmandiram Tirth, Shahpur-Maharashtra

Ashtamangals carved on a Ayagapatta; Mathura, 1st century AD

As per Shwetambar & Digambar traditions, the Ashtamangals are as below –

Shwetambar Tradition
Digambar Tradition
1. Swastik (Its four arms symbolise the four realms of existence of rebirths)
1. Bhringar (jar)
2. Srivats (explained below)
2. Kalash (pitcher)
3. Nandavart (Detailed swastik with nine hands symbolizing nine types prosperity)
3. Darpan (mirror)
4. Vardhman (vessel)
4. Chavar (Fly-whisk)
5. Bhadrasan (seat)
5. Dhvaja (Flag)
6. Kalash (pitcher)
6. Vyajan (Fan)
7. Darpan (mirror)
7. Chatra (Parasol)
8. Matsa-Yugal (Pair of fish)
8. Surpratishtha (Seat)


Q. Why is a Srivats carved on the chest of Tirthankars and since when did this practice begin?

A. The earliest reference of the mark of Srivats (Sirivacch in Prakrit) on the chest of Tirthankar can be found in the depiction of physical appearance of the Tirthankar in Aupapatik Sutra. The word ‘Srivats’ is a combination of two words ‘sri’ (A female deity who bestows fortune) and ‘vats’ (the blessed one). The fusion of these two words signifies that the highest knowledge is manifested itself from the heart of the fortunate one, i.e. the Tirthankar. Some commentators of the Agams have also stated that the Srivats is an elevated part of the chest where the (chest) hair beautifully curved (on the right side) have formed an (elevated) bunch signifying the deep knowledge that rests in the heart of the Tirthankar.

The Srivats mark on the chest of the Tirthankar was introduced by the Mathura artisans during this period (between 1st Century BC to 1st Century AD). Prior to that, the practice of depicting the Srivats was not present.

One of the earliest idols with a Srivats mark on chest. Mathura, 1st century AD

Q. What are Lanchans? How ancient is the practice of recognizing the idol of Tirthankar through a Lanchan?

A. As per various scriptures, the Tirthankars are born with the symbol appearing as a birth-mark on their right thigh. This symbol is specific to a particular Tirthankar and is known as a ‘Lanchan”. However, in Jain iconography, all the Tirthankar idols dating back to 7th Century AD did not have any Lanchans on their pedestals. The pedestals were adorned with the Dharma-chakra, lions, attendant deities, monks, laymen but not with Lanchans. These idols were identified either by a ‘Shilalekh’ (inscription), their yaksh-yakshinis (attendant deities) or through some special features as specified below-

Lord Adinath – The distinguishing features of Lord Adinath were his long locks of hair, which fell on his shoulders.

Lord Neminath – During the earlier period, idols of Lord Neminath were flanked by smaller idols of Krishna & Balram. The earliest mention of Krishna and Balram in Jain scriptures is available in Agams namely Uttaradhyayan Sutra and Gnatadharmkatha.

Idol of Lord Neminath flanked by Krishna & Balram, Mathura, Kusana Era; 3rd century AD 

Lord Parshwanath – Idols of Lord Parshwanath were shown shielded by a multi-headed serpent, fanned out like an umbrella depicting the Kamath-upsarg event wherein the attendant deities of  the Lord protected him from the atrocities of a demon named Kamath.

The lanchans of various Tirthankars had not evolved during Kushan period and even during Gupta age. The earliest mention of the Lanchans are embodied in texts like Kahavali (Acharya Bhadreshwar Suri; 7th Century AD), Pravachan-saroddhar (Acharya Nemichandra Suri; 8th – 9th Century AD) and Pratishtha-sar-sangrah (9th Century AD). Post the medival era (i.e. ~7-9th century AD) the idols were characterized by the depiction of lanchans, perhaps for easy identification. The earliest depiction of lanchan was found in an idol (dating back to 8th Century AD) of Lord Neminath excavated from Rajgir (Vaibhargiri Hill) installed during the rule of Chandagupta –II of the Gupta dynasty.

The first idol (of Lord Neminath) where Lanchan (conch) was depicted; Vaibhargiri-Rajgir; 8th century AD

This implies that some the idols which are claimed to be very ancient (thousands and millions of year old) and still bear Lanchans were actually installed after 8th Century AD or were modified at a later stage. Following is the list of Lanchans in both the Shwetambar and Digambar traditions:

Q. Why are idols of Tirthankars made of different colours? What is the significance of these colours?

A. Although the bodies of the Tirthankars were lustrous, each Tirthankar was born with a particular colour, therefore some Tirthankar idols are represented with their respective colour’s. The details are as below –

A green coloured idol of Shri Chintamani Parshwanath Bhagwan, Nashik, 15th century AD

Q. What is a Parikar?

A. Simply understood as ‘Parivar’, (i.e. family) a Parikar was introduced to display the Ashta Maha Pratiharya’s of the Tirthankar along with his attendant deities displaying the state of the Lord when preaching in a Samavasaran. Though the Ashtapratiharyas were displayed on the idols since Kushan Age (1st -3rd Century AD) , the formal tradition of developing the complete Parikar was crystallized after the Gupta Period (after 5th Century AD).

Lord Parshwanath with a Parikar. Akota, 5th century AD

 The major inclusions in a Parikar are –
  • Chaamar dhari dev’s (Fly whisk bearing demi gods) flanking on the both sides of the Tirthankar
  • Demi gods playing veena (stringed instrument), bansuri (flute), Dev-Dudumbhi (divine drum) and Shankh (Conch)
  • Demi gods carrying garlands
  • Demi gods arriving on Elephants
  • The demi god Harinegameshi
  • The Ashok vruksh (the divine tree)
On the pedestal of the Parikar - 
  • Yaksh (Male attendant deity) on the right side of the Tirthankar
  • Yakshini (female attendant deity) on the left side of the Tirthankar
  • The Lanchan of the Tirthankar
  • Pairs of Lions & Elephants
  • Chakradhari (Demi Goddess)
  • The Dharma-Chakra flanked by a pair of deer
  • The Navgraha’s (9 planetary demi gods) serving the Tirthankar
A modern Parikar design

A modern idol of shri Parshwanath Bhagwan with a detailed Parikar, Bhorol Gujarat

The Yaksha-Yakshinis (attendant deities of the 24 Tirthankars are as below-

There is also a unique idol of Lord Mahavir dating back to the Pala era which was unearthed in a village named Bauna Pokhar in the Vaishali district of Bihar.  As stated above, Chaamar dhari dev’s (Fly whisk bearing demi gods) flank on the both sides of the Tirthankar in the Parikar; However, instead of male demi gods, this idol features female demi-goddesses which is not seen in any other idol.

Unique idol of Lord Mahavir flanked by female fly whisk bearing deities; Bauna Pokhar, Vaishali, Bihar - Pala era

Q. Why do Digambars worship an idol without clothes whereas Shwetambar idols are represented wearing a lower garment?

A. As per the Digambar tradition, all the Tirthankars had renounced all possessions including clothes after taking Diksha (renunciation), therefore they worship an idol devoid of any garment. The Shwetambar tradition based on their Agam literature believe that during Diksha of any Tirthankar, the demi-god Indra places a divine cloth called “Dev-Dushya” on his shoulder, which is the only garment that he uses thereafter.

The Shwetambars do not believe clothes to be possessions as they believe that the Tirthankars are not attached to it. Although none of the Tirthankars have any attachment towards any garment, it is only at the behest of Indra, (who, for protection of the Lord from harsh weather and aboriginal tribals) that the Tirthankar drapes the Dev-dushya. This was also represented from the fact that Lord Mahavir (the 24th Tirthankar) gave away his Dev-Dushya to a poor Brahmin named Soma after 13 months of his initiation.

A Shwetambar monk, Upadhyay Shri Meghavijayji in his text Yuktiprabodh argued that a naked idol of the Tirthankar wrongly depicts the Arihant because it could cause improper thoughts in the viewer. He argued that a woman, looking at the naked idol and seeing his liṅga may have improper thoughts. Meghvijayji, in his text further recalls that one of the attributes of the Tirthankar’s body is that his every limb is radiant with light and his genitals are therefore concealed. Thus, as per Meghvijayji, showing the liṅga as done on Digambar idols in fact is an inaccurate representation of the body of Tirthankars.

A Digambar naked idol (left) and a Shwetambar idol draped with a Kachchota (right) in Karyotsarg mudra (16th/15th century AD)

The process of carving Kachota (loincloth) / Katisutra & Kandora by Shwetambars was started from 5th Century AD to avoid any future disputes with Digambars. During the post Gupta period, fully clothed Tirthankar idols with crown and jewelry were also sculpted. Some of these idols are found in Patliputra and Bhuwaneshwar.

1700 year ancient fully clothed Tirthankar idols; Patna Jain Temple

Q. The Shwetambars believe that Lord Mallinath was a female Tirthankar; then why are the idols of Lord Mallinath not represented in the female form?

A. Even though the Shwetambar’s believe that Lord Mallinath attained Moksh as a female, they do not currently worship Lord Mallinath’s image in a female form on the following grounds -

1. One worships the soul of the Vitraag Tirthankar (and not a physical body) so it does not matter whether the idol is depicted in male or female form;

2. It would be against the code of decency to show the female anatomy on a Tirthankar’s idol.

3. As human souls became more and more corrupted, it was observed that a lay person may not inculcate vairagya (dispassion) on witnessing a female form of a Tirthankar.

Thus Lord Mallinath is portrayed as male in the idols in conformity with the other Tirthankars by the Shwetambars. My emphasis on the word 'currently' clearly implies that although the Shwetambar community worships Lord Mallinath in a male form, the same was not the case in earlier times. Some of the archaeological excavations have revealed female idols of Mallinath Bhagwan as below–

1. Headless Idol of Lord Mallinath dating back to 7th Century AD in Lucknow Museum - The Provincial museum, Lucknow preserves this unique idol of Lord Mallinath in black stone sitting in Padmasan Mudra. This idol was destroyed during attacks and thus is headless. The Lanchan shows a defaced figure of Kumbh (Pitcher). The open palm of the right hand placed in Dhyan Mudra shows a lotus-mark. However, what makes this idol very unique is that its reverse part shows hair woven in braids and the developed breasts are so prominent that it is natural to regard this idol as a female figure. 

Idol of Lord Mallinath in female form; 7th century AD; Lucknow Museum

2. Idol of Lord Mallinath at Rajasthan – This large idol of Lord Mallinath dating back to 1,000 years is seated within a beautiful Parikar with the Ashtapratiharya. While this idol has both the Shwetambar and Digambar elements to it, it is unmistakably female. Although no trace of clothes can be found, Kundal’s (ear-rings) have been carved on the face. The photograph of this idol appeared in the cover page of the magazine Anusandhan in April 2003 which is edited by Acharya Vijayshilchandrasuri.

Idol of Lord Mallinath in female form, Rajasthan

3. 1500-year ancient idol of Lord Mallinath in Akaur Basti – An idol of Lord Mallinath in standing position was excavated from Akaur Basti in the Madhubani District in Darbhanga (Bihar). This idol made of brass coloured stone measured 2 inches in length and ½ inches in breadth depicted a fully clothed image of Lord Mallinath with long braids of hair and developed breasts. As per historian, Dr. Satyanarayan Thakur (a noted professor at C.M. College, Darbhanga) the idol dates back to the 5th Century AD and signifies the presence of Shwetambar Jains in the area (as the idol is fully clothed).

Idol of Lord Mallinath in female form (16th century AD)

Q. If the Tirthankars were true Vairagi’s (dispassionate), then why do the Shwetambars adorn and decorate their idols with Jewelry and Aangi?

A. The Shwetambar texts allow adorning the idol not only out of devotion but also for the purpose that a layperson could reduce his affection for wealth. Not just Shwetambars, the Digambar text, Adipurana also describes the worship with jewelry and unguents as an act of deep devotion during the Janma-Abhishek (ritual bath by demi-gods at the time of birth) of the Tirthankar  –“aviliptasugandhas tvam avibhūṣitasundaraḥ, bhaktair abhyarcito ‘smābhir bhūṣaṇaiḥ sānulepanaiḥ”. Translated, it would mean - “Though your body is naturally fragrant without the use of unguents and beautiful without the need for jewels, out of devotion we still worship you with jewels and fragrant substances.”

Idol of Lord Dharmanath decked up in Jewelry, Kolkata

However, adorning the idol of the Tirthankars is not just an act of devotion but is also a representation of the true beauty of the Tirthankars. As per the Aupapatik Sutra (which was discussed earlier), every limb of the Tirthankar is radiant with light.

Even the 37th Verse of the Bhaktamar Stotra by Acharya Shri Mantung Suri states the beauty of the Tirthankar –“No one else has the splendor that you have, O Lord of the Jinas, as you teach the dharma. After all, how could the radiance of the sun, which destroys the darkness, be shared by even the brightest star?

The Digambar philosopher Shri Amuṛtchandra in his Samayasarakalasha, explicitly highlights the radiant beauty of the Tirthankar:“Praise be to the Jinas, who bear eight thousand auspicious marks! Truly worthy of our praise, they bathe the universe with their light; with their glorious radiance they surpass the light of even the brightest heavenly bodies. They steal the minds of the people with their physical beauty, while their divine words drip the nectar of immortality into the ears of all who hear them, bringing them joy.”

A Shwetambar monk, Upadhyay Shri Meghvijayji in his work Yuktiprabodh mentions that a stone idol alone is not a sufficient representation of the glorious Tirthankar. The statement that a plain stone image is by itself radiantly beautiful and therefore able to lead the viewer to a religious experience is simply contradicted by perception. How can anyone upon seeing a bare stone idol visualize the glorious extraordinary body of the Tirthankar, which is said to be bright as a thousand suns? Given that the stone lacks any such shining luster, one has to assume that the viewer mentally supplies it in the form of gold and jewels that he mentally heaps on the stone image. The adorned idol, with light radiating from all the jewels, reflects most perfectly the Tirthankar himself and that seeing the image therefore leads the viewer to pious thoughts of the Lord’s greatness.

A modern idol of Lord Parshwanath, decorated with Aangi done with golden and silver leaves; Sammed Shikhar Taleti Tirth

Although it is a seeming paradox that the Tirthankar who is a renunciant is resplendent with jewels, but, it is a paradox that all Jain texts acknowledge. Bhupalastotra, a Digambar text celebrates the unfathomable greatness of the Jina, who though a renunciant, sits on a throne of precious gems, while the rays coming from the crest jewels of the worshipping gods add to the brilliant splendor of the Tirthankar – ūhātigas tvādṛśas sarvajñānadṛśaś caritramahimā lokeśa lokottaraḥ

The Digambar text Adipurana also states that the Tirthankar is the perfect exemplar of someone who is without desire for worldly things at the same time as he possesses the splendor of the eight miraculous traits: prātihāryamāyīm bhūtim dadhāno py ananyagām/vītarāgo mahāṃścāsi jagaty etaj jinādbhutam

Sources –

1. Shri Adi-Jin-Bimb-Nirman-Prabandh by Acharyashri Hemratna Surishwarji Maharaja
2. Aspects of Jaina Art and Architecture by U.P Shah and M.A. Dhaky
3. Studies in Jaina Art by Dr. U.P. Shah
4. Jain Pratima Vigyan by Dr. Maruti Prasad Tiwari
5. Jinagam Siddh Murtipuja by Bhushan Shah
6. Jainagam Dharm me Stup by Sagarmal Jain
7. The Jain Stupa and other Antiques of Mathura by Vincent A Smith
8. The Jaina Stupa at Mathura : Art and Icons by Dr. Renuka J. Porwal
9. History of Jainism with Special Reference to Mathura by V.K. Sharma
10. Yuktiprabodha by Upadhyay Shri Meghvijayji
11. Jain Murtipuja ni Prachinta ane Jain Mandironu Sthapatya by Dr. Priyabala Shah
12. Jaina Archaeological Heritage of Tamilnadu by Dr. A Ekambaranathan
13. Gommateshvara Commemoration Volume by T G Kalghatgi
14. Jain Monuments in Tamil Nadu - A brief account by C T M Kotraiah
15. Jainism in Uttara Kannada region by Dr. Ganapathy Gowda S
16. The perfect body of the Jina and his imperfect image by Phyllis Granoff
17. Anusandhan Newsletter by Acharya Vijayshilchandrasuri. April 2003
18. Hindustan (newspaper), 4th July 2002
19. A rare sculpture of Mallinath, Dr. U.P. Shah (1987, pp. 159-160). Plate LVII
20. A Unique Seven-Faced Tīrthaṅkara Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum by Maruti Nandan P. Tiwari
21. External eyes on Jain temple icons by John E. Cort, Mavcor Journal
22. The Jain Saga (English translation of Trishashtishalakapurush Charitra by Acharya Shri Hemchandra Suri Maharaja)- Translation by Muni Samvegyashvijayji Maharaja


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. आप द्वारा दी गई जानकारी बहुत ही महत्वपूर्ण है और आगे भी आप इसी प्रकार जानकारी देते रहेगे अगर आप द्वारा कोई ग्रुप बनाया है तो उससे जुडने का सम्पर्क भेजे

  3. It was a very detailed and informative blog. Thank you.

  4. Really impressed with your knowledge.
    How ca can this knowledge be passed on to the your generation?

  5. This is a master piece.. should be compiled in a book! Awed by the rich heritage of which we all are a part of

  6. Who were the first Digambar Or shevtambar ? With proof represent it.

  7. The post is quite detailed and informative .But I would like to put my point forward on the name of acharya Mantung maharaj is that he was first initiated as a shwetambar muni but he became ill and his illness was cured by a digambar acarya after that he converted to Digambar charya.He made bhaktamabar strotra only after being initiated as digambar muni and enduring the upsarg by king Harshvardhan


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