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Manuscripts of Spiritual Enlightenment - Jaina Paintings

Jaina paintings in the illustrated manuscript tradition have been invaluable in the unraveling of historical developments in medieval Gujarat. But its ultimate contribution has been towards the development of Indian miniature painting.

Jainism originated in India around the same time as Buddhism. While the latter traveled wide and became established in far corners of Asia, the Jain faith flourished on native soil, keeping alive artistic traditions that flowered from Buddhism, and further integrating them into newer art forms. Miniature Jain paintings executed as illustrations in manuscripts belong to this rich tradition.

Between the 9th and 11th centuries, Jainism flourished in western India. This was also the period when caves in Ajanta and Ellora were painted, marking a grand finale to the technical artistic brilliance developed in the 6th century under the “School of Ancient West”. These and other paintings executed in Jain shrines inspired the new school of “Western Indian Miniature Painting.” This school developed in the medieval period whose style was characterized by angular faces, painted noses and peculiar elongated eyes.

In the medieval period starting around the 12th century, Gujarat extended to regions in present Maharashtra and Rajasthan. It was the region where Jainism finally established a stronghold, dictating artistic trends in religious and secular spheres. Dr. G.K. Coomarswamy first used Jaina paintings to refer to the entire medieval art of Gujarat as it mainly appears in Jaina manuscripts, most of which are located in Jaina bhandaras or libraries.

The development of manuscripts, is believed to owe much to the institutions of bhandaras from the 2nd to the 8th century. Jainism spread in popularity, receiving vast properties in donation. The clergy was increasingly weighed down by the management of these. Those in close contact with the laity, began encouraging donations in icons for worship or manuscripts of spiritual enlightenment – shastradaan. The devotees often had a manuscript copied for different centers, getting them sometimes decorated with illustrations. This was a sacred task, never undertaken for personal whims.

The reverence for knowledge reached obsessive proportions as the libraries accepted texts on various non-religious topics – mathematics, astrology, grammar…. Between the two main sects of the Jain faith, the Shvetambaras were more prolific in commissioning manuscripts, though the Digambara work has also contributed amply to miniature art in India.

The manuscripts consisted of square palm leaf panels, later executed in rectangular panels when paper became the popular material. The scribe first demarcated areas for the text and illustration. Once the text was written, the panel was given to the artist who worked very methodically, completing each one before moving on to the next. Occasionally a panel was left next. Occasionally a panel was left empty. The completed manuscript was inserted between richly decorated wooden covers.

Introductory illustrations in a manuscript usually served as invocations and featured the Jain pantheon or the Brahmanical Goddess of learning, Saraswati. Stylistic difference in execution often arose from hierarchic considerations, spelt out in the pictorial representation of the Tirthankaras, the clergy and the devotees. Donors were sometimes included in the illustrations, shown in a group with their wives, and differentiated from other worshippers by the prominence of their position in the overall composition of the folio.

Illustrations in the folio were often unrelated to the text, their presence apparently being of a magical value. The wooden covers – patlis orpattikas – remained liberated from the stylistic considerations that governed the miniatures in the folio. The covers reveal great variety in exquisite compositions of floral designs entwining animal and human form.

Besides the manuscripts and their covers, the pictorial treasure of medieval Gujarat contains a few portraits, letters of apology and invitation, and Tantrik and non Tantrik works. Together they record the landscape, architecture, people, lifestyle, costumes and traditions of that period.

The kshmapana patra or letter of apology, like the vijnapati patra (letter of invitation), was a heavily decorated scroll presented by the laity to their gurus or religious guides at the end of an eight day festival of fasts. The former sought forgiveness for all wrong doings in the past year, and the latter invited the guru to spend the forthcoming monsoon with them. The letters normally illustrated the kalpa sutra, 14 dreams of the mother of Mahavira before childbirth, and the ashtamangalas, the eight auspicious symbols of Mahavira.

Details of the dreams find full description in another set of manuscripts called kalpa sutras. The most common pictorial composition is of Jaina’s mother asleep with the dreams illustrated above her in two to three rows. All miniatures in this instance conform to the text.

Vasanta vilasa is a manuscript of a poem set in phagun the month of spring, and describing the love between husband and wife. One of the best known secular works of the Jaina paintings, it was composed for the education of one Shah Chandrapal. The illustrations keep up with the narrative, resembling abridged versions of wall frescoes.

Painting in the Western Indian style was not flexible to regional influences. Variations in composition and representations in local lifestyles notwithstanding, integral tenets of the style remained unaltered from the 12th century.

New artistic awareness in the mid 14th century was projected in the fluency of lines, a wider choice of colors and an overall beauty hitherto lacking in the miniatures. By 1425 A.D. this phase gave in to an uninspired repetition of formulate. Even the palette narrowed to 2 main colors, red and gold. Around 1450 A.D., ultramarine was introduced, and combined with gold, it gave the miniatures a grand look. The overall appearance was also altered. The diamond shape was introduced in line with the style used in Persian manuscripts, and margins were embellished with ornate decorations. These were the last notable developments in style.

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