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How to read a Jain manuscript

The text is in Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit and Sanskrit, written in Devanāgarī script. Read left to right, the verses are divided by vertical red lines. The folio number is in the right margin. This typical verso page is from a 15th-century Uttarādhyayana-sūtra.

Typical manuscript page
Image by British Library © The British Library Board

Jain manuscripts have been created for hundreds of years. At an early date the teachings of the Jinas and their followers were transmitted orally. Later, around the 5th century CE, they were put into writing. But the manuscripts which have come down to us are no older than the 11th century.

A manuscript is defined by its material and format. It is a text written by hand by a scribe or copyist. There is a difference between the concept of:

  • ‘text’, which relates to the contents
  • ‘manuscript’ which relates to the object itself.

For example, a manuscript can be late in terms of the date it was written but contain a text composed much earlier.

Jain manuscripts can be surprising for readers who are unfamiliar with manuscripts, Indian languages and ancient traditions of decoration, numbering and layout. The structure of the writing and each page is often very different from the customs of the Western book. Finally, a manuscript is frequently a physical record of its creators, owners and readers.

Creation of manuscripts

The earliest Jain texts were written versions of the oral teachings of the Jinas and their chief disciples. The texts are in the Prakrit and Sanskrit languages. Prakrit is an almost dead language but Sanskrit is still used in Hindu rituals or by learned people like some Jain monks or pandits. A few thousand individuals speak Sanskrit in contemporary India.

Most surviving manuscripts are inked on to paper or palm leaf using inks from vegetable sources. The text is written in native Indian scripts. Those which are used in manuscripts of Jain texts are chiefly Devanāgarī, Tamil and Kannara. These are all read from left to right.

Devanāgarī is a script used to write several Indian languages, including Sanskrit and Prakrit but also Hindi, Gujarati, Rajasthani and Marathi. In Devanāgarī each letter has a horizontal line above it. There are distinctive features in the manuscripts produced by Jains so the name 'Jain Nāgarī' has been given to this style.

Numbering systems

This manuscript page demonstrates marginalia and double folio numbering – letters in the left margin and a number in the right margin. The small painting illustrates an episode in the text. This Kalpa-sūtra manuscript dates from the 14th to 15th centuries

Double folio numbering and marginalia
Image by British Library © The British Library Board

A traditional manuscript is made up of loose folios or sheets of paper or other material. A folio has two pages or sides. There is the recto side and the verso. These are often referred to as 'r' and 'v' or 'A' and 'B'. First the reader looks at the recto and then turns the folio over to read the verso side.

When folios are numbered, the number is generally found on the verso side.

There are two principal systems of page numbering found in Jain manuscripts, which use, respectively:

  • letters and syllables
  • numerals.

Palm-leaf manuscripts characteristically use the first system, which is earlier. Some paper manuscripts also use this system, which is a sign of relative antiquity, dating production to the 1400s CE.

However, paper manuscripts usually use figures. In Jain Nāgarī some of these figures have a shape different from what is found in non-Jain nāgarī.

In manuscripts that use the numeral system, the page number is usually at the bottom of the right-hand margin while non-numeral page characters are written in the left margin.

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