Shri Amar Muni
The Symbol of
Tirthankar: A Study
There are twenty four Tirthankars. Every Tirthankar has
a specific representative symbol that is known as Lanchan".
Generally all the idols of Tirthankars are similar
except for Parshvanath which has a serpent hood over the head. Some idols
of Rishabhdev show locks or a bun of hair on the head. Suparshvanath idols
too have a serpent hood sometimes but there is a marked difference from
that over Parshvanath. The hood over Suparshvanath has five serpent heads
whereas that over Parshvanath has seven, nine, eleven or one thousand
serpent heads. Besides these there is hardly nay difference between the
idols of different Tirthankars. It is with the help of the symbols carved
at the base of these idols that the specific Tirthankar is recognized.
Where the symbol is absent the idol cannot be attributed to a specific
Tirthankar. Sometimes an idol without symbol is taken to be of a future
Tirthankar. In the field of Jain iconography the symbol of Tirthankar
occupies an important place because it is the only means of recognizing
the specific Tirthankar. Any idol without a symbol, Shrivatsa and eight
attributes is of a Siddha (liberated soul) in general.
The points worth considering in this regard are-what is
the purpose behind these signs or symbols? When the tradition of carving
them on idols began and what is the classical view on this matter?
Some of the themes could be traced back to the earlier
incarnations of the Tirthankars. For example during one of its incarnation
the being that became Mahavir was a lion. (Mahavir�s sign is a lion). In
earlier incarnation Bhagavan Parshvanath was closely associated with
serpents. (Parshvanath�s sign is a snake). Bhagavan Rishabhdev was the
originator of farming and its techniques and bull is closely associated
with farming. (Rishabhdev�s symbol is bull). There is an incident from
Bhagavan Neminath�s life when he blew a famous conch-shell. (Neminath�s
symbol is conch-shell).
All the Tirthankars laid emphasis on equality of all
life forms. They also practiced and promoted compassion for all beings in
the animal kingdom. This is reflected in the fact that seventeen out of
the twenty four Tirthankars have animals or birds as their symbols.
In this context traditionally it is believed that at
the time of annointing during the post-birth celebrations Indra looks for
the birth-mark on the right toe of the new born and accordingly declares
the symbol of the Tirthankar. There is a mention of this in "Trikalvarti
In the early period of Jain sculpture these symbols
were not carved on the idols. On the ancient sculptures of Maurya and
Kushan era from Lohanipur these symbols are not found. This tradition
appears to have started later when at some point these symbols began to be
carved at the base of the statues. Still a systematic research is needed
in this field in order to reveal the themes, and psychological background
of these symbols and the virtues of Tirthankars they are related to. The
January-February 1990 issue of Tirthankar (a periodical published from
Indore) provides a useful reading on the subject. We have included all
these symbols in the page-boarder in this book.