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Mahavira on the Way to His Initiation (obverse); Tonsure of Mahavira (reverse)

1432
Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Jain devotees commissioned sumptuous copies of illustrated sacred texts and donated them to monastic libraries to gain spiritual merit. Since more costly manuscripts accrued greater merit for the donor, Jain illustrations abound with gold and the rich blue made from ground lapis lazuli. Even after paper came into general use around the late fourteenth century, Jain manuscripts retained characteristics of the palm leaf books sanctified by tradition. These include a long, horizontal page format as well as continuous text interrupted by occasional images of key scenes. As here, artists even repeated the central red dot, although the paper pages were no longer pierced and bound by strings but loosely stacked together.

This image summarizes the Jina Mahavira’s various renunciations (clothing, food, home, and wealth), through which he enters the order of wandering monks. Dressed in a garment of unstitched white cloths, his earlobes empty of princely jewelry, Mahavira, the most recent of Jainism’s twenty-four perfected teachers, grasps his long hair in one hand in preparation for pulling it out and thereby creating his monk’s tonsure. The god Indra kneels beside him to honor his actions.
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