6. Jina Suparsvanatha
India, Karnataka or Tamil Nadu, 12th—13th century
Copper alloy (base cast separately)
height 36.4 cm
Several factors make this bronze sculpture of a Jain Tirthankara or Jina exceptional, not least its outstanding aesthetic quality. The Jina assumes the kayotsarga stance, a standing meditation posture unique to Jain Tirthankaras and saints: upright, with feet together and arms by the sides. His hands almost reach his knees. His chest expands with indrawn breath, and with his closed eyes he is the very image of serene tranquility. In Jainism’s early history its followers split into two groups, those who renounced everything, including clothes, and those who retained a simple white robe: the figure’s naked state tells us that it comes from the ‘air-clad’ Digambara sect, rather than the ‘white-clad’ Svetambara sect.
Jains venerate a series of twenty-four Jinas, spiritual ‘conquerors’ who attained moksha, total liberation from karma and worldly ties. The last two, Parshvanatha (the twenty-third) and Mahavira (the twenty-fourth), were historical figures who lived in the eighth and sixth centuries BCE respectively. The fundamental tenet of Jain teaching is ahimsa, which proscribes the killing or harming of any living being, including animals and plants. Two and a half millennia ago the Jains were already ecologists, cartographers, and composers of scholarly treatises on cosmology and other sciences. Today they are known as diamond traders.
Our figure represents Suparshvanatha, the seventh Tirthankara. As his iconography requires, he has a five-headed cobra hood (Parshvanatha’s hood has seven snake heads). Sometimes the number of snakes in the hood has either been interchanged or even multiplied to represent sahasra-phana, ‘with thousand hoods’. Each Tirthankara is identifed by an individual cognizance and the tree under which he attained liberation. Suparshvanatha’s cognizance is the nandyavarta or endless knot, and his tree is the sushira.
Many comparable Jain bronzes dating from between the tenth and fourteenth century are ascribed a provenance in Karnataka. However, although this figure has the three lines of the trivali on the neck it lacks the three necklace-like concentric circles over the chest and shoulders, the three arcs engraved below the navel and the double circles on the kneecaps that are invariably associated with Karnataka production. Nor are the arms connected to the body by small struts as they are in Karnataka bronzes. Instead, there is a single band-like fold below the navel and an indented line from the genitals to the waist which marks the start of the sensuously curving thighs. These features, along with the closed eyes, the curls ﬂattened like a cap, and the extremely smooth, glossy, almost tangible skin, suggest that this sculpture was created in the Tamil Nadu region. There are close affinities with the Jain bronzes found in South Arcot District, now on display in the Government Museum in Chennai (Madras).
One of this piece’s most remarkable features must be viewed from the back, where the snake’s body curves sinuously down from Suparshvanatha’s head to his heels, tracing a very sensuous arc around the right buttock. There is an allusion here to the ancient naga-raja sculptures found around Mathura at the start of the common era.
The pedestal – a circular double lotus base resting on a square lotus plinth, with a pair of small, decorative shardula-like lions at the back – has been separately cast. There are rings on the side, used when the statue is carried in procession. The pedestal’s intricate ornamentation makes quite a contrast with the simplicity and smoothness of the Jina. It was probably produced somewhat later, specifically for this sculpture. It too has a lot in common with the examples from South Arcot District.
Aesthetically exceptional and perfectly executed and cast, this exquisite bronze emanates serenity, beauty and profound spirituality.
Private collection, USA, before 1990s-2014.
Mr. N. Homsi, USA, 2014-2017.
U.P. Shah, Jaina-Rupa-Mandana, Jaina Iconography, New Delhi, 1987, Pl. XXXV, fig. 61.
J. Van Alphen, Steps to Liberation, Ethnographic Museum, Antwerpen, 2000, fig. 71.
Idem, Cast for Eternity, Bronze Masterworks from India and the Himalayas in Belgian and Dutch Collections, Ethnographic Museum, Antwerpen, 2004, fig. 23.
Dr. R. Kannan & K. Lakshminarayanan, Iconography of the Jain Images in The Government Museum Chennai (Madras), Chennai, 2001, figs. 52 & 66