Article: Festivals

Contributed by Nalini Balbir


The ritual installing an idol in a temple – pratiṣṭhāmahot-sava – is a key event for image-worshipping Jains. The idol's snake-hood headdress identifies it as Pārśva, the 23rd Jina. The golden śrīvatsa on the chest is prominent on this Śvetāmbara figure

Idol of Pārśva in procession
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

One of the most spectacular elements of Jain festivals is the procession – yātrā – also called chariot-procession or car-festival – ratha-yātrā. Statues or pictures of Jinas in a small shrine are placed on top of a chariot that is pulled by hand, elephant or tractor. The chariot is decorated with flowers. The images are sheltered by a parasol and are fanned by people holding fly-whisks, both symbols of royalty. Behind the image troop the lay people, often singing and dancing. The procession goes from one temple to another or from the house of a wealthy lay man to the temple that is the final destination.

These processions are not only admitted but encouraged by śrāvakācāra – the handbooks regulating the life of the laity . As the authors say, they are 'an external manifestation of the importance and material prosperity of those who profess the Jaina religion' (Williams 1963: 234) and a way to spread the faith – prabhāvanā – which is a constituent of right belief. They are a sign of the Jain presence in the general social environment.

The final destination of the processions and the main place where a Jain festival is celebrated is generally a local temple dedicated to the Jina at the heart of the event. For Sthānaka-vāsins, who do not have temples, this place is a hall – sthānaka. In cases where a festival is fundamentally connected with one sacred place or tends to be – for example, the anointing of Bāhubali and Akṣaya-tṛtīyā – a full-fledged pilgrimagetīrtha-yātrā – may be part of the festival. This is organised by leading lay members for the whole group.

Festivals today

Idols of Ṛṣabha, Māhavīra and Pārśva, are decorated for Māhavīr Jayantī at the Śvetāmbara temple in Potters Bar, England. One of the main Jain festivals, Māhavīr Jayantī celebrates the birth of the last of the 24 Jinas, Māhavīra. Taking place in March to

Decorated idols of Māhavīra, Pārśva and Ṛṣabha
Image by Ravin Mehta © Ravin Mehta

Festivals are a way for the Jains to reaffirm their identity as a group and are internal affairs. But there are two exceptions, namely:

Gujarat is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jains and when Paryuṣaṇ comes round each year the Jain communities negotiate with the state government so that slaughterhouses, butchers and fisheries are closed during this ten-day period. In acting like this, the Jains follow the famous example of the 17th-century Mughal Emperor Jahangir. He issued an official proclamation of a similar type at the request of a delegation of Śvetāmbara religious teachers. This practice is known as amāri – literally 'non-killing' and therefore 'protecting'.

Such a ban primarily affects the Muslims who mostly form these professions and it does not go without protest. In 2008 a group of Muslim butchers petitioned the Supreme Court of India, arguing that no one has the right to prevent anybody else from practising his profession. They lost the case. The Supreme Court's conclusion was that a faith community's religious sensitivities trump the professional and commercial interests of another, albeit for a short while.

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