Article: Three Jina festivals

Contributed by Nalini Balbir


This relief sculpture of the first Jina Ṛṣabha probably dates from the 13th century. Ṛṣabha is meditating, sitting in the lotus pose, surrounded by symbols of royal status. His nudity indicates that the figure belongs to the Digambara sect.

Ṛṣabha meditating
Image by Given by Miss Clara Montalba © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The festival of Meru-trayodaśī does not always appear in lists of Jain holy days and has hardly been described in scholarly literature. An example of the overlap between a vow or religious commitment over a long period of time and a festival, it shows the flexibility of the Jain religious calendar in allowing certain holy days to evolve over time. The stories of the 24 Jinas offer numerous chances to commemorate significant events in their lives but not all such remembrances are celebrated widely enough to be considered festivals.

Meru-trayodaśī has developed from a day that marks a key event in the life of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, to a fairly well-known, if minor, festival. Centring on a vow to perform certain rituals each month, this festival can thus be seen as a way of completing the Jain religious calendar. Adding a date connected with Ṛṣabha, who is otherwise prominent only in the festival of Akṣaya-tṛtīyā, ensures that the most-worshipped Jinas each have festivals associated with them.

Date and origin

Meru-trayodaśī takes place annually on the 13th day of the dark half of Pauṣa, corresponding to mid-December to mid-January. Many Jain festivals commemorate an event relating to one of the 24 Jinas and Meru-trayodaśī is no exception, celebrating the liberation of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, which took place on mythical Mount Aṣṭāpada.

As in the case of the Pauṣa-daśamī festival, there is some variation in the date due to different calendrical systems. In the standard Śvetāmbara account of Ṛṣabha's life found in Hemacandra's epic Triṣaṣṭi-śalākā-puruṣa-caritra, the date of Meru-trayodaśī is given as the 13th day of the dark half of the month of Māgha. This is roughly equivalent to mid-January to mid-March.

Numbers holding a special significance among Jains and frequently associated with festivals, Meru-trayodaśī is linked with 13, its date.

Main activities

A rice nandyāvarta is part of a temple offering, the fruit representing a soul in the cycle of birth. For Śvetāmbara Jains the nandyāvarta is one of the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – and the emblem – lāñchana – of the 18th Jina, Ara.

Nandyāvarta in rice
Image by Cactusbones - Sue Ann Harkey © CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0

The Meru-trayodaśī rituals demonstrate particular elements of Jain religious philosophy, namely the auspiciousness of numbers, mantras, symbols and cosmographical features. The connection of the number 13 with the festival is underlined in some of the ceremonies.

According to a contemporary Śvetāmbara mendicant, Muni Bhuvana-vijaya, the festival consists of a sequence of rituals. These rites take place in addition to the standard activities associated with Jain festivals, such as going to the temple to hear sermons and stories, singing hymns, performing confession and making donations. Regularly performing the rites over given lengths of time is believed to destroy all the karmas that have been accumulated and to achieve success in this lifetime.

On the 13th day of the dark half of Māgha, the devotee observes a cauvihār fast. This fast means avoiding both food and water.

The devotee places five silver replicas of Mount Meru in front of an image of Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. Four small replicas are set at each of the cardinal directions, with a bigger model in the centre.

The worshipper creates an auspicious svastika and nandyāvarta in front of each of the four small Merus. Then he or she performs pūjā with lights, incense and so on to each of the models.

The believer then recites the mantra Oṃ Hrīṃ Śrī Ṛṣabha-deva-pāraṃgatāya namaḥHomage to Ṛṣabha-deva who has reached the other shore – two thousand times. The term 'the other shore' refers to the emancipation of Ṛṣabha's soul from the cycle of rebirth.

If the worshipper has been keeping a fast, he or she breaks it after offering alms to a monk or nun.

Performing these rituals is central to celebrating the holy day of Meru-trayodaśī. However, ideally, they should be repeated on the 13th day of the dark half of every month, for a minimum of 13 months and a maximum of 13 years. Completing this commitment ensures the destruction of karmas and worldly success in the current birth.

A devotee should observe the Meru-trayodaśī rituals according to his or her capabilities. This may mean that sometimes the festival is not celebrated, some months the fast cannot be completed or models of Mount Meru cannot be found.

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