The damaged caption in the upper left corner says: [Mah]āvīrakāne ṣīlā – ‘Spikes in Mahāvīra’s ears’.

Mahāvīra is the figure in the centre, with the other elements of the painting representing three physical attacks on him, namely the:

  • key episode of the painting, which is described in the caption and is the last of the tortures Mahāvīra had to survive. Two men are inserting spears of grass – or burning spikes according to some versions – through his head so that they join the left and right ears
  • second attack, when animals harm Mahāvīra. Stinging insects, which here look like wasps or cockroaches, are shown buzzing around his head while a snake and a biting lion wound him
  • cooking pot sitting at his feet.

The men who are sticking spikes into Mahāvīra’s ears are cowherds. When they found their bulls had wandered away, they asked the ascetic about them. Deep in meditation, he did not utter a word. The cowherds became angry and wanted to block his ears, which they thought were of no use since he had not listened to them.

The animals besetting Mahāvīra have been magicked up by Sangamaka, a jealous god who wanted to disturb his meditation.

The cooking vessel at Mahāvīra’s feet stands for the episode where Sangamaka conjured up a camp of people near the meditating ascetic. The cook could not find stones so he made a hearth out of Mahāvīra’s feet and set down a cooking pot. The ascetic’s feet were severely burnt by the fire the cook kindled.

Mahāvīra’s hardships are an inspiring topic for artists, who often devote more than one illustration to the theme. Though no reference to what is seen here is found in the Kalpa-sūtra text, painters commonly illustrate episodes recounted in other sources.

Other visual elements

The original paper is slightly damaged. But, as with many Kalpa-sūtra manuscripts, there is a clear intention to make the manuscript a valuable and remarkable object in itself. This aim is signalled by the:

  • coloured background for the text
  • gold ink instead of the standard black ink
  • decorated border with blue floral motifs
  • the diamond filled with gold ink, surrounded by an ornamental blue border.

The diamond in the centre is a symbolic reminder of the way in which manuscripts were bound when they were on palm leaf. Strings through holes in the paper were used to thread together the loose folios so the reader could turn them over easily. The diamond is in the place where one of the holes would once have been.