Article: Eight auspicious symbols

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Symbols in Śvetāmbara art and life

This painting from a manuscript page depicts the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – of the Śvetāmbara sect. Illustrations of the symbols are often found in manuscripts, temples, art and daily life because they are believed to bring good luck.

Eight auspicious symbols
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The Śvetāmbaras have developed the theme of the auspicious symbols into a religious and decorative motif.

The symbols appear both on the pages of manuscripts and on manuscript covers. They also feature in the invitation letters Jain communities in India send to leaders of mendicants, which invite them to spend the next rainy season with the laity. Śvetāmbara ascetics frequently have the symbols embroidered on the cloth they use to protect their monastic equipment.

Manuscript pages

A mangala in the form of words must appear at the start of a Jain text, whether it is a stanza or a sacred formula. Similarly, the eight auspicious symbols are a visual beginning. The symbols can be shown alone or in succession or may accompany the depiction of one of the religious teachers, especially Mahāvīra or his chief disciple, Indrabhūti Gautama.

Placing them at the opening of a text emphasises the connection of the auspicious symbols with passing on religious teachings.

Manuscript covers

This embroidered 19th-century manuscript cover illustrates the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – of the Śvetāmbara sect. These symbols are used in many religious ceremonies and are common in temples, art and daily life.

Eight auspicious symbols
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Together with the 14 dreams, the eight auspicious symbols have proven one of the favourite Śvetāmbara themes on manuscript covers – called pāṭhuṃ in Gujarati – since the 18th century.

The Ethnographic Museum in Antwerp in Belgium – now part of the Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS) – has a good selection of such covers. They are made of either cardboard covered with cloth or painted wood. They demonstrate characteristics of the pictorial style of the regions where they were made.

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