Article: Images of the universe

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The traditional Jain conception of the universe is extremely important in religious terms. It is a substantial focus of meditation, one of the 12 topics for reflection for Jains. These topics vary for members of the main Jain sects, with Digambaras counting it as the sixth topic while for Śvetāmbaras it is the fourth. For all Jain sects, however, meditating on the structure of the universe and the passage of souls through it in the cycle of births is a key part of spiritual development.

This religious significance means that information about the universe must be conveyed accurately. Cosmological details have been covered in many types of Jain writings through the centuries, such as specialised texts on cosmology, scripture and popular stories. Visual representations of the universe have also played a considerable role in communicating cosmological ideas. For example, Jain story literature of the eighth century onwards proves that portable paintings of the universe were used to help teach cosmology (Cort in Granoff 2009: 43).

For the viewers, these paintings and the explanations that accompany them are the starting points of a spiritual commotion – saṃvega – that leads them to change their lives, for instance by renouncing the world and deciding to become ascetics.

The two chief visual forms for depictions of the universe are paintings in manuscripts and large, distinctively Jain pictures called paṭas. Favourite paṭa subjects include the:

  • cosmic man
  • Two and A Half Continents – Aḍhāī-dvīpa
  • the first continent, Jambū-dvīpa.

More lately, illustrations in book editions of cosmological works have continued the first tradition. A newer development of creating three-dimensional models has become popular over recent decades, including temples with cosmological themes.

Manuscript illustrations

The paintings on this manuscript page feature the central continent of Jambū-dvīpa and the three peaks of Mount Meru. Jambū-dvīpa is the first continent of the Two and A Half Continents that make up the only areas human beings can live in the three worlds

Mount Meru, Jambū-dvīpa and Lavaṇa-samudra
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Paintings in manuscripts are a traditional way of showing the universe in visual form. Just as printed volumes have replaced handwritten and hand-painted manuscripts, so illustrations in book editions have become perhaps the main contemporary visual representation of the Jain universe.

Visual aids in manuscripts discussing cosmology have probably always been a big part of teaching. Small paintings of the universe were used to help teach cosmology as far back as the eighth century but no images survive that are earlier than the 12th to 14th centuries. This is because the vast majority of available Jain manuscripts date back to this period or later. No illustrated palm-leaf manuscript of any cosmological treatise seems to have been preserved. But there are numerous illustrated paper manuscripts, which appear to have been produced in large numbers in the 17th century.

Here illustration means a wide range of representations that may cover the corner of a page, part of a page or a full page, such as:

  • simple charts repeating or enhancing the text
  • diagrams
  • coloured maps
  • painting of scenes
  • symbols occupying the corner of a page or a full page.

A lot of these manuscripts are aesthetically remarkable, although there are also some manuscripts of cosmological treatises that have no painting or have only charts drawn in black ink.

The written works that are most frequently illustrated are the:

  • Laghu-kṣetra-samāsa
  • Saṃgrahaṇī-ratna
  • Loka-prakāśa
  • Trailokyadīpikā by Indravāma-deva.

Large cosmological paintings

Presenting the universe visually has another strong tradition in the form of the dedicated cosmological picture. Large cosmological paintings of approximately 100 x 100 cm square on cloth or paper, known as paṭas, are distinctively Jain. Often ornate and attractive, they illustrate the following subjects, in order of frequency, the:

  • larger series of successive continents.

Other cosmological elements or illustrations of different areas of the Jain universe may also be themes of these characteristically Jain paintings. The most famous is the cosmic manloka-puruṣa. Another familiar visualisation is the Jain equivalent of the board game now known as snakes and ladders.

Paintings of the universe

This example of a large cosmological painting on cloth – paṭa – depicts the Aḍhāī-dvīpa – Two and A Half Continents – of the Jain universe. Dating from the 18th to 19th centuries, this paṭa is an important way of sharing information about Jain cosmology.

World of mortals
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

A paṭa is a large cloth painting of part of the Jain universe or a pilgrimage centre. These illustrations of the Jain universe portray striking and detailed patterns of concentric circles. These were often not correctly identified or even recognised as relating to Jain cosmology when they first reached the Western art market in the early 1980s. They were often called maṇḍalas, as Tibetan paintings are. Examples of this confusion are still widespread on the web.

The paṭas were produced mainly in western India, in Gujarat and Rajasthan. This area is one of the strongholds of Śvetāmbara Jainism. The paintings sometimes have a colophon containing information about the place and date of composition. The earliest surviving paintings date back to the 15th century but they are few, with the majority having been created in the 18th to 20th centuries. It is likely that the fashion for sizeable religious paintings among Hindu communities in western India influenced Jains to create works of art on a large scale.

The universe paintings all have the same structure. They are like maps, which represent in picture form the long tradition of knowledge explained in the cosmological writings. Each painting aims to show the Jain universe accurately yet each is an individual piece. The artists demonstrate their creativity in the human, animal or divine figures that live in the areas depicted or in the floral ornamentation on the outer parts of the maps. The immense variety of beings in the Jain universe also accounts for the wealth of fantastic or semi-fantastic creatures found in the paintings.

As maps, these paintings also contain the names of rivers, mountains, towns and regions. In many cases, there are also numbers referring to the quantity or the dimensions of the elements shown. All this is generally written in small script so can be rather difficult to read.

Several of these paintings also contain separate texts in the four corners. These are descriptions with lists and measurements. They are written in the local languages, which are predominantly Gujarati, Rajasthani and Hindi, or in a mixture of them. The texts may include quotations from specialised treatises in Prakrit or Sanskrit.

Finally, descriptive texts may be supplemented by charts or diagrams found at the side of the main painting. These usually focus on certain aspects of the map.

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