Understanding the Iconography of Digambar and Shwetambar Idols


In the rich heritage of Jain history, Tirthankar idols unearthed during excavations often ignite a familiar debate: do these idols belong to the Digambar or Shwetambar sect? This question is not merely academic; it touches upon deeply held beliefs and the cultural heritage of millions of Jains around the world. As these discussions arise, it becomes essential to approach them with a well-informed perspective grounded in scriptural evidence and iconographic details. This article aims to delve into the distinctive features of Digambar and Shwetambar iconography, providing a comprehensive analysis to help clarify these debates and foster a deeper understanding of Jain art and heritage.

An idol can often be identified as belonging to the Digambar or Shwetambar sect through inscriptions that mention the names and monastic lineage of the Acharya who consecrated it. However, in the absence of such inscriptions, it becomes imperative to analyze the iconography to determine the sectarian affiliation which is discussed in detail below.
Iconography as per Digambar tradition

As per the Digambar tradition, all the Tirthankars are represented without any possessions- unclothed, i.e. devoid of any garment and jewellery. Digambar scriptures also state that nails and hairs are possessions therefore Digambar idols are void of even hairs and nails.

Pratishthapath by Digambar Acharya Jaysen describes that the idols should be – शांत (in peaceful posture), नासाग्रदृष्टि (eyes meditatively focused on nose), दिगंबर (nude – devoid of clothes), श्रीवत्सयुक्त (with shrivats), नखकेश विहीन (without nails & hairs) etc. Similar iconography has been described by Digambar Acharya Vasunandi and Ashadhar Pandit[1]

A Digambar Jain idol in Padmasan mudra (sitting position)

Saiyam Prakash, by Digambar Acharya Suryasagar quoting an ancient scripture Swayambyu Stotra by Acharya Samantbhadra states that the Veetrag mudra of Tirthankars is devoid of any trace of जटा-जुट (coiffure- hairs), मुकुट (crown), भूषण (jewellery), वस्त्र (clothes) etc[2] A hymn by Digambar Pandit Siddhai Harilal also states that any idol which has possession even as tiny as an ounce of hair (बाल के कोटि भाग का भी परिग्रह) or cloth is not worthy of worship and any devotee who worships such an idol becomes a (मिथ्यात्वी) false believer and his soul either roams in Sansar or attains hell.

A Digambar Jain idol in Kayotsarg mudra (standing position)

Therefore, unclothed, unadorned idols with eyes meditatively focused on nose are allowed in Digambar tradition whereas idols with clothes, jewellery, hairs and nails are prohibited in Digambar tradition. Jinling (male organ) is also carved in idols of both Padmasan (seated) and Kayotsarg (standing) mudra.  

However, various exceptions have been found where completely unclothed idols have been depicted with hairs and open eyes.

A Digambar Jain idol in Padmasan mudra with carving of Jinling (male organ)

Iconography as per Shwetambar tradition

The main difference between the idols of Digambar and Shwetambar tradition is the depiction of कटिसूत्र –कंदोरा (Kandora/ Katisutra – i.e. waistband) and कछोटा (kachota- i.e. pleats of loincloth in the lower half of the body) in the idol of Tirthankars. The Shwetambar tradition depicts its idols with clothes, kundals (ear rings) and in some cases carved jewellery as well.

Iconography of a Shwetambar Jain Idol in seated position (Padmasan mudra) with Nasagradrishti

Iconography of a Shwetambar Jain Idol in seated position (Padmasan mudra) with Nasagradrishti

Shwetambars believe that during Diksha of any Tirthankar, the demi-god Shakrendra places a cloth “Dev-Dushya” on his shoulder, which is the only piece of cloth that he uses thereafter. Therefore the idols of Tirthankars are depicted with lower garments and not nude. Further, the Shwetambars visualise and worship all stages of the life of Tirthankars (from birth to moksha) in the same idol as per Chaityavandan Mahabhashya by Acharya Shantisuri in 10th century CE[3], whereas the Digambar tradition does not agree with the same. Therefore the Shwetambars adorn the images depicting the stages before Diksha.
Iconography of a Shwetambar Jain Idol in standing position (Kayotsarga mudra) with Nasagradrishti

Some Shwetambar Idols are also depicted with open eyes and external eyes (Chakshus). It was during the late middle ages (around 15th - 17th century CE) that the Shwetambar tradition adopted the practice of pasting external eyes (chakshus)[4] so that the devotee can 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. Prior to this period, external eyes (chakshus) were not pasted on Shwetambar idols and eyes were depicted engaged in meditation as well. A Shwetambar Acharya Shantisuri in his scripture Jainmat Pataka states that Shwetambar idols should be in नासाग्रदृष्टि (eyes meditatively focused on nose) similar to Digambars[5]. There are various ancient Shwetambar images with eyes in meditative posture (Some key examples being, Idol of Shri Neminath Bhagwan in National Museum New Delhi, Idol of Munisuvrat Swami – Albert Hall Museum Jaipur, idols excavated from Vasantgarh Rajasthan etc.)

Iconography of a Shwetambar Idol in seated position (Padmasan mudra) with external eyes pasted (Chakshus)

Shwetambar Jain idols from Vasantgarh with pasted chakshus in Nasagradrishti

Another important point to note is that the Shwetambar tradition used to worship both the clothed and unclothed idols of Tirthankars in the past (As both the first and the last Tirthankars, Shri Adinath Bhagwan and Shri Mahavir Swami Bhagwan gave up the Devdushya).  Archaeological evidences (2nd century BCE to 3rd Century CE) from Mathura Kankali Tila Stupa show that Acharyas from the Shwetambar sect installed unclothed images of Tirthankars[6] whereas the second Kadamba inscription dating back to the late 5th Century shows that King Mrugeshvarman granted a village named Kalavanga in Karnataka for three purposes - One part was for the holy Arhat temple (which was used for worship by members of all the sects) and the second and third purposes were for the enjoyment of the sects of ascetics belonging to Shvetpatas (Shwetambars) and Nirgranthas (Digambars) respectively. This shows that both the Shwetambars and the Digambars used to worship the same unclothed idols[7].  

On the other hand, bronze idols from Vallabhipur and Akota dating back to the 6th Century CE show Tirthankar images with beautiful clothed dhoti (loincloth) pleats.[8] This shows that Shwetambar tradition had started depicting its idols with lower garment by the said period as well.

A Shwetambar Jain idol with open eyes (gemstones used to be affixed in eye balls) and Kundals (ear rings) 

A Shwetambar Jain idol with carved nails

However, post 8th century it was decided by Jain Acharyas that all future Shwetambar idols would compulsorily be depicted with a Kachota and Kandora. A Shwetambar monk Upadhyay Dharmasagar in his work Pravachanpariksha records a dispute over the ownership of the Jain temples at Mt. Girnar, which took place in the times of Acharya Bappabhattisuri (743-838 CE). From that time onwards, in order to avoid further disputes, the Shwetambars started the practice of representing the Tirthankars with carvings of Kachota and Kandora.[9]

Iconography of a Shwetambar Idol in seated position (Padmasan mudra) with Nasagradrishti


To conclude, a Jain idol can be identified as Digambar and Shwetambar on the basis of the presence and absence of Kandora / Kachota. If the idol is devoid of both Kandora/ Kachota as well as Jinling other parameters like inscription, presence of hairs, nails, kundals (ear rings) and jewellery should be inspected. Open or closed eyes are not exclusive of any sect. 

Tirthankar idol dating to 1st century CE from Mahudi, Gujarat which neither has carving of clothes nor depiction of Jinling. Historian Hiranand Shashtri had wrongly identified the images as those of Buddha; However, correct reading of the inscription helped in true identification of the idols. The inscription stated ""नमो सिद्धाणं वैरीगणस्स .....उप(रि)का आर्य-संघ-श्रावक" in Brahmi script which informed that it belonged to "Vairi Gana", a monastic order of the Shwetambar Sect which ended 584 years after the Nirvan of Prabhu Mahavir.


The table below summarizes the key points of differences between Digambar & Shwetambar Iconography discussed above-

For a complete guide on Jain iconography, click here.


[1] Jain Pratima Vigyan, Balchandra Jain, Page 17
[2] Saiyam Prakash, (Uttarardh Pratham, Dvitiya Bhag), Digambar Acharya Suryasagarji, Page 366
[3] Chaityavandan Mahabhashya, Acharya Shantisuri, Translation by Acharya Rajshekharsurishwarji Maharaj, Page. 97
[4] Jin Puja Paddhati, Panyas Shri Kalyanvijaygani Pg.45-47
[5] Jain Shilp Vichar, Muni Saumyaratnavijayji, Page 70
[6] Dr. Renuka J Porwal, The Jaina Stupa at Mathura: Art & Icons Pg. 103-108
[7] Indian Antiquary Vol VII, Pg. 38; Vibha Tayal, Royal Patronage of Jainism under the Kadambas of Banavāsi: c. Fifth and Sixth Centuries CE
[8] Age of Differentiation of Digambara and Svetambara images and the earliest known Svetambara bronzes, Dr. U.P. Shah, Bulletin of the Prince of Wales Museum
[9] Pravachanpariksha, Upadhyay Shri Dharmasagarji Pg. 119


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