Carving Devotion in the Jain Caves at Ellora.

Author:Cort, John E.
Position:Book review

Carving Devotion in the Jain Caves at Ellora. By LISA N. OWEN. Brill's Indological Library. vol. 41. Leiden: BRILL. 2012. Pp. xiv + 224, 119 figures. $153.

The medieval caves of Ellora are justifiably among India's best-known artistic monuments. The twelve Buddhist and seventeen Hindu caves, dating from the sixth through the tenth centuries, have long been on the itineraries of travelers to India and in the contents of surveys of Indian art. The mid-eighth century Hindu Kailasanatha temple, carved entirely from the mountain to replicate a structural temple, is a spectacular masterpiece. All too often, however, the Digambara Jain caves from the ninth and tenth centuries located at the northern end of the site--five according to the Archaeological Survey, but comprising twenty-three separate excavations according to Lisa Owen--are given short shrift, as later and derivative monuments. Owen quotes one well-known art historian who went so far as to characterize the Chota ("Little") Kailasa temple, an unfinished Jain rock-cut temple from the early ninth century, as the "anticlimax" of Ellora (p. 30). This treatment of the Jain caves at Ellora by art historians mirrors a broader neglect of the artistic and architectural works of the Jains as being merely the products of an ascetic religious tradition that are "somewhat insignificant in the 'larger picture' of Indian studies" (p. 1). Lisa Owen's book is a welcome exception to this general rule, and shows how a patient, thorough exploration of a Jain site such as Ellora can make important contributions to an enhanced understanding of the place of the Jains in South Asian history and culture, and thereby change our understanding of South Asia more broadly.

The organizing principle of Owen's study is the samavasarana. This is the "universal preaching assembly" created by the gods at the moment of a Jina's enlightenment. Gods, humans, and animals come to hear the sermon, which the Jina broadcasts in all directions in language intelligible to all beings. The samavasarana has long been an important element in Jain visual and devotional culture. The Jina is seated upon a throne in the middle of the assembly; to convey visually the universality of his sermon, there are often four Jina images, facing the four cardinal directions. The assembled beings are depicted in expanding symmetrical arrays from this sacred center, in a visual setting that clearly shares much with the concept of the mandala. That Geri...

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