Nov 1, 2008

Jain Contributions at the Royal Ontario Museum

Elizabeth Anne Knox


Four important pieces of Jain sculpture are in the holdings of the Royal Ontario Museum. There their contribution makes a significant impact on the presentation of the artistic heritage of the subcontinent.

Jainism came into existence by the 6th century BCE when Vardhamana Mahavira taught his ascetic doctrine. It may even have been in existence as a religious system from the time of Parshvanatha flourishing several centuries earlier. As philosophically oriented, praxis based teachings, both Jainism and Buddhism offered a religious alternative to the brahmanically oriented, sacrificial worship structure of the Hinduism of their day.

From the eastern regions where the first teachings of Mahavira were promulgated, the Jain community moved towards central India and settled in the area around Mathura. Mathura as a seminal religious centre, was the site where early stone built monuments of the Jains were produced. By the beginning of the era, stupas or memorial mounds consecrated to the memory of great teachers, such as Mahavira, had been constructed around Mathura.

The pillar from a stupa railing, ca. 1st century CE, (959.119 Ex Heeramaneck Collection) shows the construction of the vedika railing around such a stupa. Upright pillars such as this were placed in the ground at regular intervals. Into th hollowed lunate shapes on the sides, stone crossbeams would have been fitted. At the rear of the railing, a lotus indicated the religious purity of the site, while on the front of the railing, a lovely yakshi adjusted her ornaments and the arrangement of her hair as she gazed into a mirror held in her left hand. Her hairstyle, with that bouffant puff at her forehead, is characteristic of the style of the early years of this era.
Over he head, a railing forming a balcony, based on the forms of current wooden architecture, suggests the actual appearance of the vedika railing for which this pillar forms an upright. The railing enclose the sacred space around the memorial stupa thereby demarcating a pathway where the devotee could walk as he offered homage to the Jina commemorated there.
Circumambulation of the memorial mound dedicated to a Tirthankara was the act of piety undertaken by the laity of the Jain religion. The appearance of this yakshi, adorned by her gems and so obviously taking her ease, symbolizes the prosperous life well lived and regulated by right knowledge, right faith, and proper conduct. Almost as a token of fortune herself, this yakshi promises to the devotee all the accoutrements of a happy successful life. Thus for the Jain layman and his family of the Kushan era, the benevolence of these gentle female figures was a welcome inducement for their continuing acts of piety and devotion.

For the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, this stupa railing pillar gives evidence to the importance of the Central Indian site of Mathura and to the multiplicity of cults finding their iconographic origins there amidst figures drawn from a very active folk devotion.

Mathura was also central site where architectural forms as well as iconographic forms are articulated. The Mathuran stupa site provides essential insight into the development of later architectural forms. Thus this Jain stupa railing from 1st century is a key piece shedding light on many aspects of religious iconography in South Asia during the ancient period.

One of the significant aspects within the concept of the feminine in South Asian religious practice is that of the Mother. Nowhere is the image of the mother more beautifully represented than in the portrayal of the Jain yakshi Ambika. The 8th century post-Gupta representation of Ambika from central India (899.97.1 Gift of Carol and James George) is one of the treasures of the ROM collection.

Carved in a reddish sandstone, the elegance of the form of this depiction is captivating. In the few centuries following the height of Gupta style, the fresh and appealing forms of the Gupta canon are graced with a slightly leaner, more taunt line giving them an envious elegance without rendering them mannered. This carving embodies the pinacle of such a form.

The rendering of Ambika's scarf behind her shoulders indicates the advance in sculptural technique over the Kushan period's tendency to present the scarf is an ambiguous and almost clumsy canopy-like carving over the head of the figure. Also during the Kushan period, the image of the mother in the Buddhist context is represented by that of the demonness Hariti holding her child at her breast or in the scenes of the birth of Siddharth Gautama from the side of Queen Maya.

Considered to of the masterpieces of metal sculpture from South Asia, the 9th century yakshi (939.17.20) from Deccan India illustrates one central aspect of the nature of the yakshi, her association with vegetation.

The charming head of a Tirthankara, ca. 10th century, (980.138.16 Gift of Louise Hawley Stone) carved in pale sandstone in the Candella school comes from central India. Unfortunately, without any further portion of the original figure, it is impossible to determine the identity of the image.
The South Asian collection at the Royal Ontario Museum considerable breadth with which to represent the many regions, periods, dynasties, schools and religions in the ancient period of the artistic production in the subcontinent. Certainly it is important to have a firm grounding in mankind's historical underpinnings: in our cultural, social, and religious distinctions.

Here we begin to appreciate the real value of the Jain component in the holdings from the ancient period of South Asia art at the Royal Ontario Museum. In nearly each instance, the Jain artefact has been able to reach, by comparison and contrast, beyond its own particular statement to reveal or unlock the greater articulated statements of cultural synthesis and societal expression of artistic form the subcontinent for the benefit of the visitor.

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