Article: Images of the universe

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Illustrated books

Illustrated editions of Jain cosmological texts are the direct continuation of the older manuscript tradition. They contain the text along with charts, diagrams and paintings.

It could be expected that old manuscript paintings are simply reproduced in these new editions but mostly these paintings have been done anew with bright colours in accordance with contemporary Indian taste. An instance is the edition of the Śvetāmbara canonical treatise, Jambū-dvīpa-prajñapti, produced by the Jain monk Pravarttak Shri Amar Muniji Maharaj in 2006.

Architectural models

A model of Mount Meru in the temple of Pārśvanātha at Mount Girnar in Gujarat. The cosmic axis, three-tiered Meru is the centre of the triple world of Jain cosmology. Three-dimensional models of parts of the Jain universe are frequently found in temples.

Temple model of Mount Meru
Image by Takeo Kimiya © Takeo Kimiya

Three-dimensional models that represent the main parts of the Jain universe or the universe as a whole are often found either as small- or middle-size models inside temples or large independent structures.

These smaller models often show the most common elements or depictions of the universe, namely:

Large models

This 35-metre-high model of Mount Meru is found in the Jain Triple World Research Institute in Hastinapur. It sits in the centre of the first continent of Jambū-dvīpa, some 60 metres across, with small structures representing the mountain ranges.

Three-dimensional Mount Meru and Jambū-dvīpa
Image by Vaibhav Jain / Jainvaibhav1307 © CC BY 3.0

Since the 1980s large-scale independent structures of Jain cosmology have been built in India. These focus chiefly on three-dimensional models of Jambū-dvīpa.

Under the leadership of the Digambara nun Āryikā Jñānamati, a large model of the Jambū-dvīpa is an innovation in the Jain pilgrimage place of Hastinapur in Haryana. It is part of the Jain Trilok Shodh Samsthan or 'Jain Triple World Research Institute', which is housed on a large campus on the edge of the small town. It was started in the 1980s and was supported by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who participated in several of the launch events.

This Jambū-dvīpa is an interactive structure around which the visitor can walk.

There one sees the central continent of Jambūdvīpa in the form of a large disc of about 60 metres in diameter. It is filled with small stone structures representing mountains and other components. It is surrounded by the Lavaṇasamudra in the form of actual water, where one can ride a boat. At the centre is Mount Meru represented as a tower about 35 metres high, which one can climb up.

Hegewald 2009: 38

In Palitana in Gujarat, the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka monk Abhaya-sāgara has overseen the recent establishment of a place called Jambūdvīpa eṭle Samyagdarśan tīrth or 'Jambū-dvīpa, Which is the Sacred Place of Right Faith'. The aim of the project is to teach visitors more about Jain cosmology.

The main structure represents the continent of Jambū-dvīpa, with a high tower at the centre symbolising Mount Meru. The ocean Lavaṇa-samudra is filled with scattered sculptures of aquatic animals. All around this structure the walls are covered with posters in Hindi that explain details of the Jain universe, such as the measurements and shapes of the various components.

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