Article: Monastic equipment

The items that Jain ascetics carry around are known as upadhi in earlier texts, or, more commonly, as upakaraṇa. It is important to understand that these are not possessions of the monks and nuns, because the principle of non-attachment or non-possessionaparigraha – is a crucial one for Jain mendicants. They do not own these items, which are given to them, and they aim to avoid feelings of attachment or possession towards them. These items are considered necessary for living and, in particular, for living according to religious principles.

This monastic equipment has tended to become an identity marker of asceticism. These items also mark out Digambara mendicants from Śvetāmbara ones. Even among Śvetāmbara mendicants, there are some differences in the practices of various monastic ordersgacchas. The equipment has been the starting point of numerous discussions that parallel the emergence of monastic orders in the medieval period. A vast body of literature is devoted to such topics, which are not as superficial as they may look. These sources are still being explored by scholars today.

These daily utensils are simple. But these days it is not forbidden to embellish them in various ways. Śvetāmbara nuns, in particular, may spend a lot of time in such manual activities and transform some of the implements into true artistic objects. The Terāpanthins are especially proud of this and have collected a number of such objects in the museum of the Jain Vishva Bharati, Ladnun in Rajasthan.

In all sects, the implements are normally not private or individual property. Mendicants get them from the laity. They are parts of the religious gifts – dānalay people can offer. Other monks or nuns can also pass on implements to their colleagues. There is a tendency, however, to consider the implements that belonged to a famous monastic figure as kinds of relics.

Inspecting the implements – Sanskrit pratilekhanā, Prakrit paḍilehaṇā – is part of the mendicant’s daily activities. There is a specific rule of behaviour which concerns carefulness in taking and putting down monastic equipment – ādāna-nikṣepa-samiti. The reason is the constant concern of non-violence. It is part of the general attitude of vigilance which a mendicant must have.

The use of the broom and of the mouth-cloth often figure in the accounts of European travellers in the 16th and 17th centuries who happened to cross the path of Jain mendicants and were amazed by them. Even now, these two implements are striking for outsider observers, who see them, often with a slightly mocking condescension, as an extreme application of non-violence.

Literary sources

This detail of an Uttarādhyayana-sūtra manuscript painting shows a Śvetāmbara monk teaching. As the highest-ranking monk, the teacher is the largest figure and sits on a dais. The junior mendicants gesture in homage while a bookstand is between them

Monastic teacher and pupils
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Monastic equipment can be seen today but it has also been described and debated in the texts down the centuries. These sources are of three kinds, namely:

These texts contain technical terms and technical details of material culture. They are not always easy to understand and still need to be investigated by scholars. Concerned with the shape and characteristics of the implements, the texts distinguish between proper and improper items. These descriptions and prescriptions combine ethical considerations with more general magical concerns or superstitions. Some basic information, however, is sometimes missing. For example, these texts do not say which type of wood is used for the monastic staff.

Monastic equipment and the concept of possession

This manuscript painting shows monks in a forest. Fully-fledged monks from the Digambara sect are easily identified from their nudity, which signals complete detachment from worldly concerns. They carry only water pots and peacock-feather brooms

Digambara monks walking
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Non-possession is the theoretical ideal of Jain mendicants and thus monastic equipment should not be thought of as items that the monks and nuns own. These monastic tools are thought to be the minimum necessary to achieving proper religious life.

The Digambaras take the idea of non-possession literally, believing that monastic equipment should never be more than the minimum. Rejecting clothes and therefore practising total nudity, achieved by their most advanced ascetics, is the most conspicuous sign of this view. The only two objects they admit are necessary are the monastic broom and the water pot.

Śvetāmbaras promote a different interpretation of possession and non-possession – for them parigraha is attachment or feeling of ownership. Thus it is not related to the number of items of monastic equipment. They are all needed for the protection of living beings and they are not ornaments. There is, however, a line between objects required permanently and those that are occasional or secondary. This line is drawn at different points by the various monastic orders, and partly accounts for the fact that the equipment varies among the main Śvetāmbara groups of Mūrti-pūjaka, Sthānaka-vāsin and Terāpanthin.

Whatever the items are, this equipment is not property as such. The newly initiated mendicant receives equipment from the laity or other monks. Even if the items carry an identifying mark, they should not become objects of psychological attachment.

Monastic equipment as identity markers

Barefoot and dressed in three simple white garments, Śvetāmbara monks are surrounded by their monastic equipment – upakaraṇa – which consists of brooms, staffs and begging bowls. Every day the monks beg alms from the lay community.

Śvetāmbara monks and equipment
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Jains see monastic equipment as outside signs – liṅga – of sectarian identity. Such attitudes are common in many religions. Lengthy debates on the validity of this or that implement are a common topic in the literature from the 14th century onwards.

While being naked or clothed is the quickest way to distinguish between monkssects of Śvetāmbara and Digambara, there are other identifying signs. The use of a begging bowl and water pot, and differences in the mouth-cloths and monastic brooms reveal monks’ sectarian identity. Within these two main groupings, the smaller sects also use equipment that marks out their monastic order from others. Items such as bookstands, staffs and seats are used by Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka ascetics.


Digambara monks live naked and without possessions as part of their renunciation of the 'householder' life. After they take religious vows to become wandering ascetics, Digambara monks use only a water gourd and a peacock-feather broom to sweep insects

Digambara monk sitting cross-legged
Image by Jainworld ©

This has become the most obvious way to differentiate Śvetāmbara and Digambara mendicants, who form the two main Jain sectarian traditions. Śvetāmbara means ‘white-clad’ while the latter means ‘sky-clad’ – that is, naked.

However, nudity applies only to certain Digambara monks – the munis. It applies neither to their nunsāryikās – nor to those who are not considered full monks or nuns – kṣullakas and kṣullikās. Practising total nudity is considered part of being able to renounce all possessions and live without attachment to anything. In 19th-century British India, nudity was seen as disturbing and this attitude is said to partly explain the reduction in the number of Digambara monks in that period. In today’s India this feeling is also occasionally found so that Digambara monks sometimes avoid public places in daytime. Among the Jains, however, nudity produces great respect because only those who are capable of full detachment from worldly matters can practise it in total freedom.

In Śvetāmbara early scriptures, there is some flexibility regarding the connection of clothes to the idea of non-possession. As suggested by the name, Śvetāmbara monastic robes are white. In Western Indian manuscript paintings of the medieval period, the robe of the Śvetāmbara mendicants is depicted as white or transparent with white dots. In later times, the robe is simply shown as white, as it is today.

Śvetāmbara ascetics are allowed to wear three garments – two of cotton, worn inside, and one of wool, worn on top. But the rules on clothing vary according to the status of the mendicant, the age of the texts discussing it and the practice of various monastic orders. The simple clothes are plainly stitched, then folded and wrapped around the body. The mendicants wear the complete outfit whenever they go out of their lodgings.

From time immemorial Jain mendicants have walked barefoot. In recent years, however, a minority has started wearing cotton sandals or socks. This development is usually witnessed only among aged or suffering monks or nuns, but some younger ones wear them, especially in winter in North India.

Alms bowl or begging bowl

Made of gourds, wood or clay, Śvetāmbara begging bowls – pātra – are usually red or dark orange and are often stacked up inside each other when not being used. String is wound around jars for liquids to create carrying handles.

Śvetāmbara monastic bowls
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

This implement is used by Śvetāmbara mendicants to receive and eat the food donated by lay Jains. The Digambara mendicants eat directly from their hands. Hence they are known as pāṇi-pātra – ‘having hands as recipient’.

The common word used for the alms bowl is the Sanskrit pātra, which simply means ‘recipient’.

The bowls used by the Śvetāmbara monks are made of gourds, wood or clay. They are coated using sesame oil, at least in olden times (Deo 1956: 267). Today, begging bowls are generally red or dark orange. But among the Ancala-gaccha, one of the prominent Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka orders, they are black.

Bowls of different sizes can be piled up one inside the other like Russian dolls. A specific vessel for liquids can also be used. There are various articles connected with the begging bowl, such as a piece of string to use as a carrying handle. Details of these are provided in the Ogha-niryukti or Cheda-sūtras and in the scriptures.

An ornamental motif such as an auspicious symbol or a small design is sometimes painted on the bowls, for decoration. It may be used to distinguish the bowls used by different mendicants. However, according to the vow of non-possession, a bowl is not the private property of a particular individual.

Water pot

Śvetāmbara mendicants carry water or any liquid that they have received as alms in their begging bowls.

Mendicants in the Digambara tradition drink water in their interlaced fingers when receiving alms. But they also carry a special water pot containing boiled water for toilet purposes. This is usually referred to as a kamaṇḍalu.

Monastic broom

Detail of a Śvetāmbara monastic broom – rajoharaṇa or oghā. Each Jain monk and nun carries a broom with which to sweep the ground before sitting or lying down. This avoids harming living beings, which is against the key principle of ahiṃsā or non-violence

Detail of a Śvetāmbara broom
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

All Jain mendicants use a broom, regardless of their monastic order. They use it in all their daily activities and it never leaves their side. This is why it is so striking for observers in the past or present. Mendicants use the broom to ‘sweep the area before sitting or lying down in order to avoid harming insects and minute forms of life’ (Wiley 2004: 177).

Śvetāmbara mendicants use a broom ‘made of long strands of soft white wool that are attached to a short wooden handle’ (Wiley 2004: 177). This is called by either the Sanskrit term rajoharaṇa or the Prakrit word oghā. The size of the broom differs among the monastic orders. Among the Sthānaka-vāsins, who do not use the monastic staff, the broom has a much longer handle than among the Mūrti-pūjakas. The latter sometimes wrap the handle in a cloth decorated with the eight auspicious symbols.

Digambara mendicants use a broom made of peacock-tail feathers, shed naturally by the birds. It is known by the Sanskrit word picchikā or its modern equivalent – piñchī. The feathers are arranged in a circle and attached to a short handle.


A group of Jain nuns walks barefoot up a hill. Dressed in white robes with their heads covered, they all wear cloths fixed over their mouths, attached by strings over the ears. This identifies them as either Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin nuns.

Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin nuns
Image by arjunstc – Arjun © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

The Sanskrit word for this piece of mendicant equipment is mukhavastrikā – ‘mouth-cloth’ – but the modern form – muṃhpatti – is more commonly used. Traditionally, this is a small rectangular piece of cotton which the mendicant keeps in front of his mouth when he or she speaks.

The mouth-cloth is intended to:

  • prevent minute living beings from entering the mouth and being killed or hurt
  • protect wind-bodied beings, which are one-sensed living beings according to the Jain classifications of life, when breathing out.

In many paintings of ascetics the mouth-cloth is depicted as a small white rectangle, which is easily recognisable.

The way to use the mouth-covering has been the subject of several debates over time. The result is that today it has become a marker of sectarian identity.

Mouth-cloth use among Śvetāmbara ascetics

Mendicant group

Mouth-cloth usage


When conditions indicate a need – temporary use


Permanently covers the mouth and is fixed to the ears with strings


Permanently covers the mouth and is fixed to the ears with strings

Among the Sthānaka-vāsin and Terāpanthin orders the mouth-cloth can be made of a kind of whitish plastic nowadays.


The cloth of this bookstand is embroidered with colourful examples of the auspicious symbol of the svastika.

Monastic bookstand with embroidered svastikas
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

The term ‘bookstand’ is a convenient though partly inadequate equivalent of the Sanskrit word sthāpanācārya. It means literally ‘substitute teacher’ and is used among Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka mendicants.

The bookstand consists of four sticks of wood bound together about halfway down, which open out either side of the binding. This enables the bookstand to support its own weight and creates an empty space between the upper sticks. This space is occupied by a piece of cloth tied to each of the wooden sticks. Today five cowrie shells wrapped in cloth are tied to the stand. They represent the Five Supreme Entitiespañca-parameṣṭhin. This detail is not found in earlier times, as shown in depictions of bookstands in Jain manuscripts.

The bookstand is placed in front of the mendicant when he or she performs various religious acts, such as confession or repentancepratikramaṇa – and is alone. It represents the absent teacher and, more generally, the whole mendicant community. During preaching, a manuscript or book is placed on it, even when the ascetic’s teacher or other mendicants are present.

Monastic staff

The monastic staff and broom of a Śvetāmbara mendicant lean against shelves in a corner. Monks and nuns in the Śvetāmbara sect use alms bowls, staffs and brooms as their monastic equipment – upakaraṇa

Śvetāmbara monastic equipment
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Ascetics from Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka orders carry a long wooden staff, known by the Sanskrit word daṇḍa. Mendicants in other Śvetāmbara orders, such as the Sthānaka-vāsins and the Terāpanthins, do not use a staff. Over the centuries Śvetāmbara Jains have had some debates about this implement.

In today’s practice, the staff is made of a variety of woods, particularly sīsam (Dalbergia sisoo), which is hard and long lasting. It has various shades, ranging from beige and light brown to dark brown. The top part can be decorated with a svastika, one of the most important auspicious symbols. The length depends on the mendicant’s height because when held upright the staff should reach the forehead. The staff is about 5 centimetres in diameter.

The staff was originally meant for protection. Mendicants travel only on foot and often have to cross wilderness. A passage of an old canonical Śvetāmbara scripture from the Ācārānga-sūtra describes Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, walking among hostile people and carrying a staff as protection against dogs. He obviously did not harm anyone, but having a stick was enough to deter potential attackers.

Nowadays mendicants use the staff as a tool when walking, for instance to help estimate water depth. Since it is human height, a staff could also have been used like a gnomon, a time-measuring instrument that uses the length of shadows.

Mendicants carry the staff when they go outside, especially when begging alms. On these occasions they have to wear their full equipment. They hold the bowls in their right hand and the staff in their left. They do the same when they are wanderingvihāra.

When ascetics are in their lodgings – upāśraya – the staff is either kept outside resting on the wall or inside in a corner. It is primarily an implement for outdoors.

The top of the staff is an elaborately sculpted knob in four parts. This can be seen in manuscript illustrations. In recent times the decoration on the staff has taken on religious symbolism that makes it more than a mere practical object. Each part is understood in cosmic and doctrinal terms.

Symbols on the mendicant staff

Part of staff


small cone

Mount Meru

triple circle

the three worlds or the three jewels

water jug – kalaśa

also found on Jain temples

five rings

five supreme entities or the five great vows

This symbolism does not seem to be found in literature earlier than the 20th century but it is familiar to present-day mendicants, who pass it on orally.

Thus the staff is also a physical emblem of the Jain universe and Jain teachings.


Mendicants usually sit on the ground itself, after having checked with the monastic broom that they will not hurt any living creature by doing so.

Religious teachers of some rank use a higher seat when preaching. This is a kind of large stool or raised platform. Junior mendicants should always sit lower.

Other objects

A common sight in India, nuns in pairs or small groups walk along the road. Jain mendicants undertake the wandering life – vihāra – which means walking miles most days to find accommodation and alms. They carry monastic equipment in bundles and bags.

Nuns carry their mendicant equipment
Image by Sam Syverson © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Śvetāmbara mendicants going along the roads and carrying bundles wrapped in cotton cloth in their hands or on their shoulders are a commonplace sight in northern, central and western India. When they practise vihāra they take all their monastic equipment and other items. Apart from the usual monastic equipment, they may carry manuscripts, printed books or personal notebooks.

When these bundles are too numerous or too heavy, or when the group of walking mendicants is large, they can be carried in a small van that follows the ascetics. All these practical arrangements are made by the local lay communities.


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Nalini Balbir
Vividharatnakaraṇḍaka. Festgabe für Adelheid Mette
edited by Christine Chojnacki, Jens-Uwe Hartmann and Volker M. Tschannerl
Indica und Tibetica series; volume 37
Swisttal-Odendorf, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany; 2000

Full details

History of Jaina Monachism from Inscriptions and Literature
Shantaram Bhalchandra Deo
Deccan College Dissertation series; volume 17
Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute; Pune, Maharashtra, India; 1956

Full details

Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details


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