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Browsing: Kalpa-sūtra (IM 08-1931)

Title: Birth of Mahāvīra

Victoria and Albert Museum
IM 8-1931
Date of creation:
second half of the 15th century
Folio number:
33 recto
Total number of folios:
5; other folios in unknown locations
Place of creation:
western India
Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit
watercolour on paper
26.5 x 11 cms
V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London
JAINpedia Copyright Information


On the left, a lady is on her couch in her bedroom. It is the kṣatriya lady, Queen Triśalā, into whom Mahāvīra’s embryo was transferred. She is holding the newborn Mahāvīra in her arms and looking at him tenderly. On the right side is a female attendant, fanning the queen with a fly-whisk.

This is the standard scene of Mahāvīra’s birth, and, more generally, is used for the births of all Jinas.

The long protruding eye is a typical iconographic feature of western Indian painting. Its origin is not clearly known.

Note the painter’s care for details of the figures as well as of the furniture and decorative elements.

Other visual elements

As with many Kalpa-sūtra manuscripts, there is a clear intention to make the manuscript a valuable and remarkable object in itself. This aim is signalled by the:

  • shape and style of the script, which is close to calligraphy
  • blue background for the text
  • gold ink instead of the standard black ink for the writing
  • gold in the paintings instead of ordinary colours
  • borders of red arabesques
  • division of the text into two parts by a column holding an ornamental red disk vertically flanked by arrows.


The elaborate script used is the Jaina Devanāgarī script, which is here like calligraphy.

It is an old type in the way the sounds e and o are notated when used with a consonant, and is known as pṛṣṭhamātrā script.


The Kalpa-sūtra is the most frequently illustrated Jain text of the Śvetāmbara sect. It is read and recited by monks in the Śvetāmbara festival of Paryuṣaṇ, which takes place in August to September each year.

The first part of the Kalpa-sūtra deals with the lives of the Jinas, especially Mahāvīra, Pārśva, Nemi and Ṛṣabha. It features almost identical stories of their births, lives as princes, renunciation, enlightenment and final emancipation.

The second part – Sthavirāvali – is a praise of the early teachers of Jainism. The third part – Sāmācārī – deals with particular monastic rules to be followed during the rainy season.


[In that night in which the Venerable Ascetic Mahāvīra was born,] there was light originated by [many] descending and ascending [gods and goddesses]. In that night in which the Venerable Ascetic Mahāvīra was born, there was noise and confusion originated by many ascending and descending gods and goddesses. In that night in which the Venerable Ascetic Mahāvīra was born, many demons in Vaiśramaṇa’s service belonging to the animal world rained down on the palace of [Mahāvīra's father] King Siddhārtha a great rain of gold, a rain of diamonds, a rain of clothes [, ornaments, leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, garlands, perfumes, colours, powder, and riches]

Translation by Hermann Jacobi


1. //tehi ya / uppayaṃtehi ya / ujjovayā vi hotthā //
2. jaṁ rayaṇiṁ ca ṇaṁ samaṇe bhagavaṁ Mahāvīre jāe taṁ ra-
3. yaṇiṁ ca ṇaṁ bahūhiṁ devehiṁ devīhi ya uvayaṃtehi
4. uppayaṃtehiṁ uppiṁ-jalamāṇa-bhūyā kahakaha-bhū-
5. yā yāvi hotthā // jaṃ rayaṇiṃ ca ṇaṃ samaṇe bhagavaṃ Mahā-
6. vīre jāe taṃ rayaṇiṃ ca ṇaṃ bahave Vesamaṇa-kuṃḍa-
7. dhārī / tiria-jaṃbhagā devā Siddhattharāya-bhavaṇaṁsi
8. hiraṇṇa-vāsaṁ ca / vaira-vāsaṁ ca vattha-vāsaṁ ca ābhara///


Omniscience, enlightenment or perfect knowledge – the highest of the five types of knowledge , where one knows everything wherever and whenever it is. It is extremely difficult to attain, equivalent to the 13th stage of spiritual purity in the guṇa-sthāna. Digambaras believe only men can achieve it whereas Śvetāmbaras believe that both men and women can become enlightened.
An eight-day festival in August / September, which is the most important event of the religious calendar for Śvetāmbara lay Jains. They fast, read, spend time with monks and meditate. The last day is the occasion for public repentance. Reading the Kalpa-sūtra and sponsoring new manuscripts or editions of this canonical book are associated with this festival.
'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.
Father of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra and king of present-day Bihar in northern India. His wife was Queen Triśalā.
The kṣatriya birth-mother of Mahāvīra. Queen Triśalā was married to King Siddhartha.
Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land. Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.
Rainy season
The annual four-month rainy period in India, lasting roughly from June / July to October / November. Heavy rain, strong storms and gale-force winds are very common during this period. Mendicants cannot travel around and must stay in one place to avoid breaking their vow of non-violence and because the monsoon makes travelling on foot difficult and dangerous. It is known as cāturmāsa in Sanskrit, comāsa in Hindi and comāsu in Gujarati.
Jaina Devanāgarī
The distinctive version of the Devanāgarī script found in Jain manuscripts.
A deity in the lower world, which is composed of seven hells.
Usually written as 'chowrie' in English, the Hindi carũrī is a fly-whisk or fan. It is probably descended from the Sanskrit term cāmara, which means a 'yak-tail fan'. Like the cāmara, the chowrie is used to fan royalty or priests and thus signifies high status in Indian art.
Conventions or rules governing how images, symbols and the placement of elements and figures are used in art to represent ideas and convey meaning. Also the term for the academic study of such artistic conventions.

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