Illustrated Tirthankar Charitra
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. (Mahavirs sign is a lion). In earlier incarnation Bhagavan Parshvanath was closely associated with serpents. (Parshvanaths sign is a snake). Bhagavan Rishabhdev was the originator of farming and its techniques and bull is closely associated with farming. (Rishabhdevs symbol is bull). There is an incident from Bhagavan Neminaths life when he blew a famous conch-shell. (Neminaths 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 Mahapurush".
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.