Article: Festivals

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Local festivals

This 2007 painting called ‘Padabhishek’ shows the ceremony in which a Jain monk is promoted to ācārya. Artist: Shanti Panchal. Medium: watercolour on paper.

Padābhiṣeka ceremony
Image by Shanti Panchal © Shanti Panchal

The final type of Jain festival celebrates local events and so these are not marked by all Jains. The local lay community celebrates events in the neighbourhood temple and in the lives of mendicants in the district.

Most Jains focus on the local temple as the centre of religious life and so many temple events bring about public rejoicing. Frequent examples include the installation of a new image in the ceremony of pratiṣṭhāmahot-sava and the formal opening of a new temple. The Sthānaka-vāsin sect does not believe in image-worship and thus they do not have such festivals, however.

Marking key events in the local community of monks and nuns is a common reason for local festivals. When a new mendicant is initiated, the lay Jains stage major celebrations. Public rituals are part of the initiation process and those who are renouncing the world are honoured like royalty before they undergo dīkṣā. Such celebrations announce to the neighbourhood at large the creation of a new Jain monk or nun with loud music, incense, colourful clothing and processions.

Since Jain mendicants have a wandering life, they are constantly on the move except during the annual rainy season. When a group of monks or nuns arrives in an area to stay for the four months of the monsoon, the local lay Jains rejoice publicly. They also mark the mendicants’ departure at the end of the rainy season with a celebration.

When a monk or nun gains a higher position in the monastic order, the local lay people honour this with public celebrations called nandī-mahot-sava.

Anointing of Bāhubali

The huge statue of Bāhubali at Shravana Belgola is anointed with a succession of holy substances in the 2006 'great head-anointing ceremony’ – mahā-mastakābhiṣeka.

Bahubali anointed
Image by unknown © Institute of Jainology

One of the most spectacular Jain festivals is a local celebration centred on a holy statue. The anointing of BāhubaliMahā-mastakābhiṣeka – commemorates the installation of the colossal statue at Śravaṇa Beḷgoḷa in Karnataka. Taking place every 12 to 14 years, the ceremony and associated festivities draw thousands of pilgrims and sightseers.

Commemorations relating to the Jinas focus on them wherever their images are housed. In this case, the celebrations focus on a specific image in a particular place. Though he is not a Jina, Bāhubali is considered as worthy of reverence as a Jina by many Jains, especially Digambaras. This is because they regard him as the first human being of our cosmic cycle to reach final liberation.

Elements of Jain festivals

This painting from an Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript depicts monks preaching to lay men. The mendicants are Digambara even though their white robes resemble those of Śvetāmbara monks. Raising scriptures high, the monks sit on low platforms

Lay men listen to monks
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Most Jain festivals combine religious observances, often very severe, with a joyful and colourful atmosphere. All parts of the fourfold community participate and, as festivals usually last a few days, there are times set aside for religious activities for both individuals and groups and for more straightforwardly festive pursuits.

Various ways of communicating the key beliefs and stories are central to festivals. These range from sermons and retellings of stories, images and objects portraying episodes and individuals, and devotional songs.

Many Jain festivals have an important performative dimension that unfolds in different ways. There are two main elements – re-enactment and retelling of the central event, and involvement in family or group-oriented activities. Lay Jains are involved in both re-enactments and retellings of the event that has inspired the festival. They act out the event and form the audience for the re-enactments and the retellings, which mendicants deliver.

Although overseen by ascetics, festivals provide plenty of chances for lay people to become actively involved as well as being audiences and spectators. Such opportunities include performing religious observances, acting, singing, processing and donating. Music has a central role in both routine worship and festivals.

Most elements of Jain festivals combine religious and social aspects, serving to cement both community ties and religiosity.

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