Jainism – Iconography and Monumental Architecture

Before we continue our journey, we will talk about the Jain Religion in general and the iconography and monument architecture in particular. As we will talk about Jain monuments and sculptures in the further posts so i am hopeful this introduction will give a good background.

 Wikipedia states Jainism as an Indian religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings and its philosophy and practice emphasize the necessity of self-effort to move the soul towards divine consciousness and liberation.

Brief History: Historians date the foundation of organized form of Jainism to sometime between 9th and 6th Century Before Christ. It is believed that Jainism(in its present form) had it roots in the Indus Valley Civilization. Chandragupta Mourya embraced Jainism in his old age and joined a wandering group of Jain monks. Samprati, the grandson of Ashoka also embraced Jainism. and said to have constructed 1,25,000 Jain Temples across India. It is generally accepted that Jainism started spreading in South Indian only in the 3rd century. There are good records dated 1st Century BC, where Emperor Kharavela captured Magadha and installed a statue of Rishabanatha in Udayagiri, Orissa. The Khandagiri and Udayagiri caves are the only surviving stone Jain monuments in the state of Orissa. Archaeologists have encountered Jain remains and artefacts at Maurya, Sunga, Kishan, Gupta, Kalachuries, Rashtrakut, Chalukya, Chandel and Rajput as well as later sites.

Tirthankaras: In Jainism, Tirthankara is a human who attains liberation or enlightenment and then becomes a role model and teacher for those seeking spiritual guidance. Jains believe that exactly 24 Tirthankaras lived in our part of the Universe till date and the next is expected to be born 81,500 years from now. The first Tirthankara Rishabanatha is mentioned in the Vishnu and Bhagavata Puranas as belonging to a very remote past. The earliest Brahmanic literature makes reference to a sect which defies the Vedas and opposed animal sacrifices. The Yajurveda refers the names of three Tirthankaras Rishabha, Ajitha and Aristhanemi. The Jains claim that Neminatha, their 22nd Tirthankara was a contemporary of Lord Krishna and belonged to the Yadava family. Parasvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankar is the earliest Jain leader who can be reliably dated as born in 877 BC and lived for a 100 years. The last Tirthankara, Mahavira was born in 599 B.C and lived for 72 years. I found an interesting sequence in the the number of years that each Tirthankara is believed to have lived. Rishabanatha is believed to have lived 592.704 x 1018 years. The number of years that subsequent Tirthankaras lived diminished and finally we have Mahavira who lived for 72 years.

Sects in Jainism: There are two major sects in Jainism, the Svetambars and Digambars. The difference is beliefs of the two sects are minor and relatively obscure. Digambars do not wear any clothes. Svetambars believe women may attain liberation and that Mallinatha was indeed a female, however, Digambars believe to be a male as women are not allowed to be naked in Jain religion.

Iconography: The icons in a Jain temple are arranged in a hierarchical order. The chief among them is the mula-nayaka like Rishabhanatha or Parsvanatha, who is surrounded by other Jains. Two types of images are generally found;one, a relief containing 1, 3 or 24 Tirthankaras; second, images of Tirthankaras in round. A combination of three Tirthankaras with the mula-nayaka in the centre is called Tri-Tirthanka. The portrayal of 24 Tirthankaras is called Chaturvimsati. To a superficial observer, the image of a Jina and Buddha look alike. But there are important differences. The Tirthankaras generally have a triangular mole symbol on their chest, a triple umbrella above their heads and a lanchana or symbol on the parasol. Jain Yakshas are also called Sasana-devatas or demigods who are devotees of Tirthankaras. According to Jain belief, Indra appoints one Yaksha and one Yakshini to serve as attendants for each Tirthankara.

Monument Architecture: The earliest form of Jaina temples or Basadi, as they are called are simple, plain with pillars inside and a sanctum with one of the Tirthankaras inside. There used to be platforms on either side in the mukha mantapa outside the sanctum where the statues of other Tirthankaras were placed. The reason for this was mainly because Jains were moving from place to place and they did not spend much time on making the temple beautiful as they just needed a place to worship. As time went by, they settled in locations and then you can find like the ones in Ellora where each Jain Cave is rich in art. Jains soon started entering into the local businesses and now there are one if the richest. So eventually, the recent constructions reflected richness and is evident like the one in Kolanupaka (Andhra Pradesh) or the Dilwara Temple; they are extremely big and beautiful with intricate architecture.

We will individually talk about the monument structures when we discuss the Basadis.


1. Iconography of the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains by R.S. Gupte

2. Jaina Monuments and Places of First Class Importance by T.N. Ramachandran

3. Jainism in South India and some Jain Epigraphs by P.B Desai

3 Replies to “Jainism – Iconography and Monumental Architecture”

  1. My strong historical perspective reveals that jainism and buddhism began the iconic or statue culture, in retaliation Hindus unleashed the multiple god culture as competition, before that hindus worshipped only nature.

  2. I hope you managed to visit Shravanbelagola which is a jain citadel, and very historical since Chandragupta Maurya came here and committed Salankana ( fasting unto death )after giving up his empire

  3. @Deguide: I visited Sravanabelagola.. Watch out for my posts on that as well..And with respect to Idol Worship in Buddhism and Jainism – The early form of Buddhism, called Hinayana did not worship idols, but they worshipped three symbols. They are the Bodhi Tree (under which Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment), Foot Prints of Gautama Buddha and Tripitaka (Buddhist Hymns). Later due to the influx of tradesmen and money into Buddhism to support the religion, the form of Mahayana came where they started idol worship.

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