The caption in the top-left corner says: śrīVīra upasarga 21 – ’21. Lord Mahāvīra’s trials’.

The number 21 probably refers to the number of this illustration in the sequence of paintings in the manuscript, although it is a little surprising that such numbers are not mentioned in other illustrations. The manuscript lacks folios 27 to 55 so it does not correspond to the count now. The number could also refer to the number of attacks Mahāvīra goes through, but 21 does not seem to be a standard number for this.

Mahāvīra is the central figure in this painting and stands up straight, without any movement. This is the ascetic posture of meditation known as kāyotsarga, which makes one resemble a statue. He does so in spite of all that surrounds him, which indicates the trials – upasargas – he must pass through to advance spiritually.

At the upper right corner, a lady is shown. She represents the temptations of physical pleasures. The intentions of the man in the upper left corner are not clear.

Mahāvīra is surrounded by animals that are all aggressive, whether they are real or semi-fantastic. There are two black snakes winding up his body, resting their heads on his shoulders. Kinds of lions are shown biting him. Birds are poised to peck him with their beaks. The flower-like shapes near his ears are likely to be poisonous insects ready to sting or bite.

The text beside the picture is how the Kalpa-sūtra briefly describes the hardships Mahāvīra had to endure before reaching omniscience. The later textual tradition, however, and the painterly tradition have developed this theme into several episodes.

Other visual elements

The bottom of the right margin contains the number 62. This is the folio number, in a square with two blue lines as an ornamental motif.

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
  • three diamonds filled with gold ink, with arrow-like blue lines and surrounding blue border as ornamental motifs.

The three diamonds along the central horizontal plane are symbolic reminders 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 diamonds are in the places where the holes would once have been.