Tirthankara Suparsvanatha in Kayotsarga, or Standing Meditation, Posture and Protected by a Five-Headed Naga

Unknown Artist7th century - 8th century

Harvard Art Museums

Harvard Art Museums
Cambridge, United States

Formerly thought to represent Parsvanatha, Jainism’s twenty-third Tirthankara, this sculpture has now been identified as Suparsvanatha, Jainism’s seventh Tirthankara. According to Jain beliefs, Suparsvanatha became a siddha, or a liberated soul—that is, one that has destroyed all of its karma and thus gained release from the samsara cycle of birth and rebirth. Although Suparsvanatha is not believed to have been an historical person, Jain beliefs further hold that he was born at Banaras (Varanasi) to Queen Prithvidevi and King Pratistha Raja (of the Ikshvaku clan). His birth date traditionally is given as the twelfth day of the Jayestha shukla month of the Indian calendar. Legend recounts that on the night that Suparsvanatha was conceived, his mother saw the fourteen great signs indicating the birth of a Tirthankara. While the embryo was growing, the Queen saw herself asleep on a couch of serpents which had one hood, five hoods, and nine hoods. On the twelfth day of the bright half of Jayestha, the moon being in Visakha, she bore easily a son, gold colored, marked with a svastika. While young, Suparsvanatha was married and later ascended his father’s throne. He ably conducted the affairs of state, and he tended to the wellbeing of his people. One day while sitting on a rooftop and enjoying nature, he observed the falling of leaves and the wilting of flowers. Suddenly he became aware of the transient nature of life, which gave rise to a feeling of detachment and the desire for spiritual fulfillment. He passed his kingdom over to his son and became an ascetic. After nine months of disciplined practices he became omniscient on the sixth day of the dark half of the month of Phalgun. For a long period he worked for the spread of right knowledge, at the end of which he gained enlightenment and liberation. Because both Parsvanatha and Suparsvanatha are associated with serpents as iconographic symbols—the serpents generally depicted as cobras—images of these Tirthankaras are often misidentified; moreover, because Parsvanatha is represented much more frequently than Suparsvanatha, most Jain images with cobras are identified as Parsvanatha. According to iconographic texts, however, Parsvanatha should be associated with a seven-headed cobra, while Suparsvanatha should be associated with a five-headed cobra. Thus, the five cobra heads that shield the head of the Tirthankara indicate that this image represents Suparsvanatha. Completely nude, Suparsvanatha stands rigidly straight in the Jain posture of meditation, or "kayotsarga" posture, with his head erect, his eyes wide open, his broad shoulders pulled back, his weight evenly distributed on both legs, his bare feet firmly planted on the lotus base. His long arms hang at his sides, his elbows pointing straight back, the palms of his hands facing his legs, his fingertips curved lightly inward and reaching almost to his knees. A roll of flesh immediately below the navel defines his abdomen, while an intaglio line at its base distinguishes abdomen from hips. Crowned by heavy, arching eyebrows, large, fully open eyes dominate Suparsvanatha’s face; his narrow mouth with thick lips appears below the comparatively large nose. (All of the facial features were integrally cast, except for the irises and pupils of the eyes, which appear to have been incised after casting—i.e., cold worked.) His short hair is arranged in snail shell curls, like that of the Buddha; in like manner, the lobes of his large ears are distended. A "shrivasta" symbol, which is typically associated with Tirthankaras, appears at Suparsvanath’s proper right shoulder, just above the proper right nipple. A five headed cobra, Suparsvanatha’s defining iconographic symbol, appears protectively behind Suparsvanatha. Termed a naga, the snake rises up from the lotus base to Suparsvanatha’s shoulders in a series of gently curved zigzags, its five heads spreading, like a halo, behind, above, and to the sides of Suparsvanatha’s head. The snake’s several head are well defined and clearly separated one from the next; their eyes rise in relief, their tongues protrude forward. (The snakes’ tongues are made of bronze; if they were integrally cast with the sculpture itself, which seems likely, this is a supreme technical achievement. That three of the five tongues survive intact, and a fourth survives in part, attests both to the exceptionally high quality of this sculpture’s casting and to its excellent state of preservation.) Probably incised after casting, a regular pattern of crosshatched lines describes the scales on the naga’s back, while, additional incised lines articulate the snake’s undersides, visible around Suparsvanatha’s head. The figure stands on a hollow, two part base, the circular upper portion of which is a double lotus—the form integrally cast but the individual rising and descending petals incised after casting—and the square lower portion of which is stepped and waisted, in the manner of an Indian throne; the double lotus portion rests directly on the flat top of the throne like lower portion. The square lower portion comprises four registers: the lowest register, which is the base’s widest segment and serves as a virtual plinth, has a thickened lower lip and slightly angled side walls; slightly smaller, the second register has rounded sides, suggesting a pillow; evenly spaced vertical bars partition the strongly indented third register, suggesting three rectangular niches or windows; the sides of the flat, topmost register are unadorned, save the short inscription in Grantha script that runs horizontally along its front face in a single row of text, bordered on the top and two sides (but not on the bottom) by a single bowstring line. It appears that the inscription and framing bowstring lines likely were cast, rather than engraved after casting, though determination of the exact technique by which the inscription was imparted will require technical examination. Several Jain ritual implements are depicted on the top of the uppermost register, surrounding the lower portion of the lotus base; the depictions appear to have been integrally cast, rather than incised after casting.


  • Title: Tirthankara Suparsvanatha in Kayotsarga, or Standing Meditation, Posture and Protected by a Five-Headed Naga
  • Date: 7th century - 8th century
  • Physical Dimensions: w13.1 x h35.7 x d13.2 cm (maximum, image and base)
  • Period: Pallava Dynasty, 4th-9th centuries
  • Credit Line: Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Partial gift of an anonymous donor in honor of Robert D. Mowry and partial purchase through the generosity of David M. Leventhal and of the Ralph C. Marcove International Understanding Through Arts and Crafts Foundation, Inc.; through the bequest of Edmund Chi Chien Lin, by exchange; and through the Louis Sidney Thierry Memorial Fund and the Anthony M. Solomon Fund for the Acquisition of Asian Art
  • Creation Place: Tamil Nadu/India/South Asia
  • Artist: Unknown Artist
  • Type: Sculpture
  • External Link: Harvard Art Museums
  • Medium: Cast bronze with cold-worked details

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