Article: Monastic clothing

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Nudity and monastic clothing in art

Nude monks are shown with small cloths over their left forearms in this fragment from a Jain temple gateway. This relief may show Digambara monks making concessions to sensitivities about public nudity or may show ascetics of the obsolete Yāpanīya sect

Nude monks carrying cloths
Image by Brooklyn Museum © CC-BY-NC

Both nude and clothed mendicants and Jinas are widespread in Jain art. Though practically all idols of Jinas share certain features, such as body pose and individual emblem, artistic representations of them have differed according to sect from the early medieval period. Since then Digambara images are easily identified from their severe style, nudity and downcast eyes. Śvetāmbara images have wide open eyes and are often richly painted, wearing loincloths and jewellery.

Though the symbolism of clothing is important in the Jain religion, depictions of mendicants in art vary widely. In addition, as artistic conventions have changed over the centuries, identification of sect and even status as a mendicant are often hard to prove conclusively.

The earliest Jina images are those from Mathurā in Uttar Pradesh. The oldest date back to the mid-second century BCE while the newer ones are from the 3rd century CE. They are all naked.

An image of Ṛṣabha wearing a lower garment is found in the fifth century CE but not earlier (Dundas 2002: 48).

Later on, in Digambara temples Jina are always shown without clothes, whereas they tend to be shown wearing a loincloth in Śvetāmbara temples.

As for depictions of ascetics in art, on the pedestals of some Jina images they are shown ‘with a small piece of cloth draped over their left forearms to hide their nudity’ (Wiley 2004: 142) and have thus been called ardha-phālaka – ‘with partial covering’. Despite various attempts (for example Jaini 2000), it is difficult to know for sure to which sect these monks belong and whether they could represent Yāpanīya ascetics.

In western Indian manuscript painting of the medieval period, the robes of Śvetāmbara mendicants are always depicted as white or transparent with large white dots. But on earlier palm-leaf manuscripts and in later times, the robe is simply shown as white, as it is today.

Nudity is not shown if the character is a nun. Paintings of the episode where the monk Rathanemi sees Rājīmatī naked do not depict her nude when she has taken off her wet clothes. The nun is shown at least half-covered by a piece of cloth or sometimes wears an odd garment that symbolises nudity.

Rather unusually, a Digambara monk may be shown with clothing, but this is difficult to interpret.

Attitudes towards mendicant nudity

Broom and water-pot in hand, a Digambara monk makes the ritual gesture of seeking alms. A lay man dressed in sacred orange kneels before him, showing that he offers food. The ancient ritual of alms-giving has complex rites for both lay and mendicant

Digambara monk seeks alms
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Even though there is a longstanding association of nudity with advanced spirituality in wider Indian society, the public nudity of Digambara monks has been and sometimes still is an issue in public. A society led by non-Jain religions has often banned or discouraged public nudity at different periods.

Public nudity was not allowed in certain areas ruled by Muslims during late medieval times and made the circulation of Digambara monks problematic. Śrutasāgara, a 16th-century commentator, reports the case of a Digambara monk who allowed his group of monks to cover themselves with a mat or a piece of cloth when they went out seeking alms or for other purposes (quoted in Jaini 1991: 101). This, however, was felt to be an exceptional toleration of the sensitivities of another faith. Though it was intended to adapt practice to unexpected circumstances, covering any part of the body for Digambara monks was still considered wrong behaviour.

During British rule, this was again an issue (Scholz 2011: 260). It is said to partly explain the decline of Digambara monastic communities. The authorities ruled that Digambara monks had to wear clothes or keep some covering with them when they were in public, to put on if someone objected to their nakedness.

In the early 20th century, however, the tradition of monastic nudity was revived through three men who decided to initiate themselves (Wiley 2004: 159).

Digambara monks who revived nudity



Ācārya Ādisāgara (1868–1943)

  • initiated himself as a Digambara muni in 1913
  • initiated 32 monks, 40 nuns and one kṣullaka in Maharashtra (Wiley 2004: 25)

Ācārya Śāntisāgara (1873–1955)

  • revived the ancient tradition of Digambara munis in Karnataka

(Wiley 2004: 192; Scholz 2011: 258–279)

Ācārya Śāntisāgara (1888–1944)

  • did the same in Chāṇī in Rajasthan (Wiley 2004: 192)

Since then Digambara monks have adopted the three stages of monkhood, progressing to full nudity. This process was customary before the Mughal period.

There is a law against public nudity in India, although nudity for religious purposes is customary among the mendicants of some Hindu sects as well as Digambara Jains. Nowadays occasional press reports show that the nudity of Digambara monks can be a source of conflict between the Jain community and non-Jains. This is particularly the case in areas where there are not many Digambara Jains and thus the general population is not used to the sight of naked Digambara monks, finding public nudity disturbing. The monks therefore may try to avoid public places in daytime. This happened, for instance, in 2008 in Puducherry.

In 2003 the late Digambara Jain activist Bal Patil made an official complaint to the Press Council of India about an article published on 2 March 2003 in the Sunday Times of India. Entitled ‘Privacy, Nudity & Jazz’, it included the following statement: ‘A certain sect of Jains – Digambars – who move about uncovered in public invoke their right to religious freedom’. No prosecution was made because the journalist’s argument that the sentence has to be read in context and was written in good faith was accepted. However, it was recognised that the feelings of a minority could have been hurt by this statement.

Such examples show that the nudity of Digambara monks can be a sensitive issue in today’s India as well as in the past, even though it is not a common sight given the small number of munis.

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