Article: Festivals

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Visual art

During festivals, Jain beliefs and stories are also transmitted through works of visual art. For instance, silver or golden plaques of the auspicious dreams seen by Mahāvīra’s mother are hung from temple ceilings during the celebrations of Mahāvīra’s birth that are part of Mahāvīr Jayantī and Paryuṣaṇ.

Some manuscripts and printed editions of the parva-kathā and vrata-kathā genre associated with festivals contain paintings. Such manuscripts are shown to the congregation gathered in the temples on these occasions (Upadhye 1972: 16). During Paryuṣaṇ, paintings of the Kalpa-sūtra fulfil this role as well.


Riding on an 'elephant', lay donors lead the procession of the idol before an abhiṣeka – anointing ceremony. A husband and wife play the parts of king and queen, accompanied by symbols of high rank, such as crowns, parasol and heavily decorated elephant.

Lay donors lead the procession
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

A key way in which lay Jains are involved in festivals is the custom of re-enacting the event behind them.

Jain devotees perform as mythical characters in relevant episodes. For example:

  • during Mahāvīr Jayantī a couple impersonates the god Śakra and his wife worshipping the new-born Jina
  • during the festival of Akṣaya-tṛtīyā the fasting individual – tapasvī – represents the first Jina Ṛṣabha and his family members take the role of Prince Śreyāṃsa.

Among Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjaks, auctions – bolī – may be used to select the lay men and lay women to play certain characters. Since only a few families are able to outbid the others for roles, it is a way to display their affluence to the wider group. Gaining wealth is respected in the Jain lay community because any voluntary restrictions or renunciations are considered to be harder and thus more meritorious.


A man plays music after the ordination of a new mendicant while monks, nuns and lay Jains celebrate. The initiation ceremony to become a monk or nun – dīkṣā – is a time of joy, music and festivities for the whole Jain community.

Celebrating initiation
Image by Jayesh Gudka © Jayesh Gudka

In contrast with the apparently unrestrained exuberance of Hindu festivals, Jain festivals are occasions for lay people to act in a way that echoes the austere lifestyle of mendicants for a short while. However, Jain festivals are neither boring nor severe. Asceticism does not prevent a profusion of colours, smells and sounds, while music and hymn-singing are crucial parts of the celebrations. Lay Jains who are not directly involved in the acting element of a festival usually take active roles in the collective singing of hymns or processions, which frequently involve music.

For Jains, singing devotional songs is both a basic religious duty and a social activity. Instrumental music and enthusiastic devotional singing are characteristic of most festival days. Hymns in Jainism are always songs of praise to the Jinas. These are sung by single-sex choirs as part of religious rituals as well as by the whole congregation. Musicians playing instruments usually accompany the singers. There are specific devotional songs for each festival.

These features do not contradict the ultimate goal of spiritual progression since they are regarded as contributing to it. They justify an 'aesthetic' approach, taking into account all the sensory factors of the rituals (Glasbrenner 2010).

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