Article: Songs of devotion

Contributed by M. Whitney Kelting

Melody and musical sources

During the rās-garbā dance, performers bend and jump as they whirl round. Nowadays the rās-garbā is often very fast and performed to well-known pop music, such as Bollywood and bhangra tunes. It has a key role in the Navrātrī festival

Women perform the rās-garbā
Image by calliopejen © CC BY-SA 3.0

The melodies of Jain hymns draw primarily on the folk music of western India. This includes wedding songs, devotional music from gazals to garbā and popular Bollywood film music.

While the formal worship liturgies name rāgas for the different sections, published hymns were never listed with rāgas. Rather than giving rāgas for the hymns, their melodies were given the names of earlier hymns or folk songs in hymn books. Playing several instruments and employing specific classical rāgas needs training in classical Indian music. The majority of Jain singing, however, is based on folk music with which most Jains are familiar.

The musicality of the hymns developed largely from the group-singing customs of Gujarāti rās-garbā and Rājasthāni folk-music styles. Most of the time the hymns are given tarj, or melody, designations from Gujarāti folk music or Bollywood film music. Hymns, as well as sections of the formal worship formulas, are often performed to popular rās-garbā melodies. Since the singers often know many of the melodies by heart, it is relatively easy to sing new words to them. These tunes also lend themselves to dancing and celebratory mood, making them popular for group performances.

There are certain pieces of music that are considered to be pure hymns or Jain melodies. For example, the hymn Look at Śrī Pārśva is said to be sung to a ‘pure Jain’ melody. The name of this hymn is used when naming the melody to use for other hymns that share the same melody. Many of these are associated with older religious songs, though occasionally a new hymn is based on a traditional Jain melody. These are especially common for solo singing during personal worship. For example, Śrī Śankheśvar Pārśvanāth-stavan is often sung as a solo hymn in personal worship and represents the most popular style of solo singing in practice, genre and timbre. They are also some of the more difficult melodies Jains sing. The hymns’ slow but clear musical movement and flexible line length are thought to encourage introspection and meditation.

Singing styles

Even when the melodies may have their origins in Bollywood film music, the vocal style does not. Hymn singing has roots in the throaty, unornamented tones of rās-garbā and dhamal singers of Gujarāti folk music more than in film or classical singing.

Women sing hymns with a minimum of ornamentation and nasality, with the tune pitched at the range of their natural speaking voices.

Mārvāḍī singing groups tend to have an ornamented, somewhat nasal vocal style within the members’ natural singing range. This is especially true for male singing groups. This style is clearly influenced by the Manganiyar and Dāgar music of Rājasthān.

Performing hymns

A man reads a prayer aloud in a temple in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. Jains may perform mental worship – bhava-pūjā – which includes singing hymns, reciting mantras and meditating. All Jain prayers are praises of the Jinas and other holy figures.

Praying in the temple
Image by nusohotrightnow – Nathaniel Whittemore © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Jains have a long history of hymn-writing and hymn-singing. Singing the praises of the Jinas is a key element of worship and forms a crucial part of most religious ceremonies.

Jains regularly sing hymns both solo and in groups, depending on the ritual. In temple rites, groups of singers may perform the sung parts of the ceremony or lead the congregation in a communal hymn. For example, Śankheśvar Dādā is a popular choice of a hymn to sing as a group during Jain liturgical worship. The choirs are usually single sex, their duties differing according to the sex of the members.

Devotional songs are sung at nearly all Jain rites that take place in public, such as renunciation of the householder life. The singers may be family members of the new monk or nun, professional singers or all the worshippers. In private homes, hymns are frequently sung in celebration, generally led by a single singer.

Other hymns are sung only on particular occasions. An example would be the mendicant welcome songs that lay Jains perform to honour ascetics before offering them alms.

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