Mahavira's Initiation (recto); Mahavira Assaulted By the Cowherds (verso)
Folio 45 from a dispersed Kalpasutra (Story of the Jina Mahavira)

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Made in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, India, Asia

Manuscript dated 1465

Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper

Sheet: 4 1/2 × 11 1/2 inches (11.4 × 29.2 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2004

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This page comes from a landmark manuscript in the history of early Indian painting that bears both a date (1465) and place of production (Jaunpur). Jaunpur was home to one of the regional Muslim sultanates whose influence expanded in the fifteenth century, yet this sacred text bears no connection to Islam. The Kalpasutra tells about the life of Mahavira, the last of the twenty-four savior-saints of Jainism, an indigenous religion of India. Since Jains consider commissioning lavish copies of the Kalpasutra and donating them to monastic libraries an act of devotion that accrues spiritual merit, many such versions were made and constitute some of the earliest surviving illustrated Indian manuscripts. The bold composition and primary colors, figures with frontal bodies and profile heads, and stylized landscape elements are typical of indigenous painting.

Additional information:
  • PublicationIntimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection

    The Kalpasutra manuscript from which this page comes is a significant landmark in the history of early Indian painting, for it carriesa colophon giving, among other information, both the time and place of manufacture: a.d. 1465 in the city of Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh.1 Jaunpur was home to one of the Muslim sultanates of northern and western India, whose regional influence expanded as the centralized power of the Delhi sultans declined during the fifteenth century.

    The Kalpasutra is a sacred text that tells the life of the jina Mahavira, the last of the twenty-four Jain savior-saints, who lived in the sixth century B.C. In Shvetambara Jain practice, this text is read aloud before the reading of the Kalakacharyakatha during the annual festival of Paryushana. The lives of all the jinas (the word means “conqueror” or “liberator”) follow a similar pattern, and five events assume primary significance: the jina’s descent into his mother’s womb, his birth, his renunciation of material wealth to become a monk, his achievement of omniscience, and his death or great release from the cycles of rebirth.

    The front of this page shows Mahavira at the crucial moment when he takes his vow as a monk. He has already abandoned the princely clothing that is his birthright and now wears only the simple white lower garment of a Shvetambara (White-Clad) monk; his distended earlobes emphasize his absent jewelry. With one hand he grasps a hank of his long hair, preparatory to plucking it out in the tonsuring (diksha) that will complete his renunciation. He leans toward the four-armed god Indra (Shukra), king of the gods’ heaven, whose royalty is denoted by his crown and sumptuous clothing, including a lower garment with rich printed pattern and a diaphanous blue scarf, characteristically flying outward as if in a constant breeze. Indra has come to earth to honor the jina and will catch his cast-off hair in the golden “diamond” cup he holds in his raised hands. The scene is said to take place in the wilderness, but the landscape pictured here is one of orderly convention. Balloon-like trees bend over the figures, a pink leaf floats on the hot red ground, and alternating blue and striped-brown spikes indicate the rocky landscape.

    The image on the reverse of the page shows a slightly later point in the story. Mahavira, now in the white garments of a monk, stands in kayotsargamudra, the body-denying pose of standing meditation. His meditation takes place in a lotus pond, indicated by the blue square beneath his feet and the lotus buds that seem to grow from his head. That he is further along on the path to enlightenment than in the earlier image is indicated by the presence of the shrivatsa, the diamond-shaped mark of a perfected being, on his chest. Over his head, as over a king, is a canopy ornamented in a pattern of hansas (ganders), a bird that symbolizes the connection between heaven and earth and a popular textile motif.

    This episode tells of a threat to Mahavira’s contemplation in the form of a cowherd who, finding his straying animals clustering around the monk in adoration, believes he has caught the jina-to-be in the act of cattle rustling and threatens him with an ax. The sage, however, has the power to ignore even such weapons to complete his endeavor. In a composition as formally symmetrical as the landscape on the other side, two nearly identical cowherds stand on flat lines of ground, an interesting convention that allows them to threaten Mahavira’s head while remaining substantially smaller, as befits their status in the story. Below each cowherd are tiny bovines who, unlike their masters, have recognized the power and goodness of the sage and gaze up at him adoringly.

    The neat gold writing is placed on a ground of deep red that is very different from the bright red pigment used as a background to the illustration. The three red dots reminiscent of earlier palm-leaf manuscripts have now become merely elements in the patterning and appear only on the front of the page, while a single blue dot marks center page on the reverse. Surrounding the written block and subdividing it without relevance to the text are margins of a variety of textile-like floral patterns on unpainted backgrounds. The blue lines that frame them as well as the illustration give the impression of interwoven strips that overlie a ground of text. Darielle Mason, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 38-39.

    1. Translated in Karl Khandalavala and Moti Chandra. New Documents of Indian Painting: A Reappraisal. Mumbai: The Board of Trustees of the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, 1969, p. 24.