Article: Story of Śālibhadra

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Artistic style

The manuscript paintings of the Śālibhadra story are generally very attractive, as they are colourful and lively. Unlike the Kalpa-sūtra paintings, the illustrations of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra or the art portraying the Jain universe, for instance, they are not formalised or standardised. They show a certain amount of freedom in the variety of scenes depicted and in the way they are executed, demonstrating many details of daily life. There is scope to show a wide range of individuals, from the courtly elite to ordinary people, and to represent both interior scenes and natural landscapes.

There is a wide range of styles found in Śālibhadra manuscripts, ranging from Mughal to Rajasthani.

Sectarian links

This manuscript painting of Matisāra's version of the Śālibhadra story shows the two monks Dhanya and Śālibhadra accepting alms from a milk-woman. Their white robes and wooden staffs indicate they belong to the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka sect.

Dhanya and Śālibhadra accept alms
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The Story of Śālibhadra is recognised as one of the tales that has been adopted by the sect of the Sthānaka-vāsins, ‘as no reference to temple or image worship is found in it’ (Nahar 1976: 6). The Boston Museum manuscript (Coomaraswamy 1924 / 2003: folio 23 on Plate XXVII; folios 33 to 35 on Plate XXIX) distinctly shows this sectarian affiliation, as the Jain monks in the story are depicted wearing white mouth-cloths. This mouth-cloth is typical of Sthānaka-vāsin monastic equipment. Mouth-cloths also appear in one manuscript in the Prince of Wales Museum, where they are painted in silver (Bender 1983: 278).

Even so, the British Library manuscript clearly has a Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka affiliation, with Dhanya and Śālibhadra shown carrying the monastic staff. Sthānaka-vāsin mendicants do not have this item of monastic equipment.

Visual storytelling

As shown in the table listing major illustrated manuscripts of the Story of Śālibhadra, the number of artworks in individual manuscripts is often high. This has the effect of the sequence of images forming a continuous visual narrative that parallels the story in the text. The captions, often found at the side of the pictures, emphasise this effect.

This is the case in the British Library manuscript on JAINpedia, which is detailed here.

Pictures in the Story of Śālibhadra, Or. 13524

Manuscript folio

Illustration details

1 verso

The opening invocation to the 24th Jina Mahāvīra is translated into a painting showing him in the lotus position of meditation – padmāsana. His emblem, the lion, is sitting in front of him, while a monk pays him homage.

2 recto

Ladies in a pavilion, a musician and a man on an elephant are visual depictions of the exuberant atmosphere of Rājagr̥ha.

2 verso

The poor widow Dhannā takes her son to Rājagr̥ha, a city of hope for them.

3 recto

The boy Sangama looks after a herd of cows to earn a few coins. When a festival day comes and the little boy sees others enjoying milk-rice, he asks his mother for some. She is unable to satisfy his wish so she is heart-broken.

3 verso

Four ladies come to Dhannā, asking why she is unhappy. They bring ingredients for milk-rice.

4 verso

The boy pours the milk-rice into the begging bowl of a Jain monk who has arrived just as he was about to eat the delicious dish. The monk is shown holding the wooden staff typical of Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak mendicants.

5 verso

The merchant Gobhadra and his wife Bhadrā are shown in their house. The lady is holding the child, Śālibhadra, on her lap.

6 recto

A well-dressed man sits in a large house, watching three ladies on his left. Three other women are busy fanning him. This is Śālibhadra and some of his wives.

7 verso

Bhadrā is bargaining with a man, while two others talk outside. They are the merchants who have come to her house to try and sell their expensive shawls, which are too costly for everyone else, even King Śreṇika.

8 verso

Having heard that Bhadrā has bought the shawls, the king sends an envoy to her house for a shawl. Bhadrā explains that she is not in a position to give him any shawls, since they have been given to her daughters-in-law, who have spoiled them. So the servant returns empty-handed.

9 recto

The king, intrigued and envious, sends his minister and son Abhayakumāra to Bhadrā's house to fetch Śālibhadra.

9 verso

Bhadrā kneels in front of Śreṇika and touches his knees in a humble attitude. She asks him to visit Śālibhadra's house, arguing that her son is too fragile to go out.

10 verso

Finally King Śreṇika, mounted on an elephant, departs for Śālibhadra's house. He is accompanied by soldiers on horseback, camel and foot.

11 recto

Śreṇika and his entourage are shown round the house. The king is amazed by the beauty of the first floor – a life of ease in various small pavilions symbolises the luxurious atmosphere in Bhadrā’s house.

11 verso

When Śreṇika is shown the second floor of the house, he is even more astonished.

12 recto

And he is staggered by the sumptuous third floor.

12 verso

Meanwhile, Śālibhadra is in his private apartments, reclining on a couch and enjoying the company of his wives. His mother arrives to bring him to the king.

14 recto

Śālibhadra complies with his mother’s wish and comes to see the king, accompanied by his wives.

14 verso

The king shows his favour to the young man. Everyone present rejoices, except Śālibhadra himself.

17 verso

After meeting the king, Śālibhadra is thoroughly dejected, reflecting on what being a king really means. Even the company of his wives does not cheer him up.

19 recto

Bhadrā tries to soothe her son, who has decided that he should give up everything.

19 verso

A woodsman arrives at the house and reports that a Jain monk has come.

20 recto

Śālibhadra, happy of this opportunity, goes to pay his respects to the monk. The mendicant sits on a raised seat – āsana – in a park with trees where monkeys and peacocks are playing.

21 recto

Śālibhadra asks his mother to grant him permission to leave worldly life.

22 recto

Bhadrā tries to persuade her son not to do this and finally refuses his request, asking for a delay.

23 verso

Śālibhadra decides to leave his 32 wives one after the other.

24 recto

When the fourth wife realises that her turn will come the next day and that her husband will leave her at the end of the fourth part of the night, she climbs on the roof of the house. The caption says ‘the fourth wife marks the tigers’, referring to a phrase in the text. In many illustrations of this episode, the moon is pictured with four tigers, representing the four parts of the night.
Here, however, four women hold each other's hands while a man sits before five other ladies. This is probably to be interpreted as a depiction of the whole episode of Śālibhadra's leaving his wives.

25 recto

While Subhadrā is bathing her husband, Dhanya, she begins to weep, knowing her brother's wish to give up the life of a householder.

25 verso

In vain Subhadrā tries to dissuade her husband from taking mendicant vows.

27 recto

She grips Dhanya's sash to stop him from leaving.

27 verso

Subhadrā holds her husband's feet to keep him at home.
These three successive scenes, all on the same theme, form a visual accumulation, which is a way to translate the long and lively dialogue between Subhadrā and her husband in the text.

28 recto

Dhanya tries to persuade his wives that he is right in wishing to renounce worldly life.

29 verso

He goes to Śālibhadra to tell him that his decision to give up worldly life is right and that he should continue with his plan.

30 recto

Dhanya is carried on a palanquin and wants to take the vows.

30 verso

Śālibhadra again asks his mother's permission to become a monk. She finally agrees.

32 recto

Śālibhadra is carried on a palanquin, preceded by musicians. This scene indicates he is on his way to perform dīkṣā – the ceremony of initiation into mendicancy. Now monks, Dhanya and Śālibhadra live a wandering life.

33 recto

It so happens that Mahāvīra comes to preach in Rājagr̥ha. He is shown here in the samavasaraṇa – universal assembly – with his emblem, the lion, sitting at his feet. A lion and a bull, and a mongoose and a snake represent the pairs of natural enemies at peace on this occasion. Two monks and a group of śrāvikās – lay women – symbolise the audience.

34 verso

Mahāvīra had told Dhanya and Śālibhadra that they would break their month's fast at the hands of Śālibhadra's mother. But when they reach the gate of Śālibhadra's former house, the doorkeeper does not recognise them and turns them away. This happens twice.

35 recto

A milk-woman is shown with a pot cooking on the fire. The pair meets her outside the city. She pours food into the bowl of one of the monks.

36 recto

Dhanya and Śālibhadra are emaciated monks as they have begun the ritual of fasting unto death. Three women, representing Śālibhadra’s mother and wives, pay the monks their respects. Other lay men and a monk surround the fasting men to honour them.

38 recto

After death, Dhanya and Śālibhadra are reborn in the Sarvārtha-siddhi heaven. It is depicted through gods shown in various compartments and two banners – dhvajas.

38 verso

Later on the pair are reborn. They become monks, fast to death and ultimately reach the final liberation from rebirth, symbolised by their sitting in meditation in the white crescent.

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