Jain Altar of Rishabhanatha Enshrined

India, Karnataka. 10th century
Gift of Jagdish and Madhu Sheth

This bronze sculpture is an altar in itself, and contains in tiny and stunning miniature all of the twenty-four Jinas, or conquering liberators, who are the spiritual masters of Jainism. Rishabhanatha is seated in traditional meditating pose at the center, identified by his long curls and the flaming halo behind his head. Parasols and palm leaves behind him suggest supreme royalty and dignity. The entire altar is crowned by Parsvanatha, the twenty-third Jina, whose head is covered by a snake canopy-a snake eternally grateful for Parsvanatha's having pitied and saved him in a previous life.

Many Jain temples are built with the idea of representing the entire Jain cosmos through enumerating all of its spiritual leaders. Here, the altar itself replicates the temple, and acts as a kind of cosmos in miniature. A worshipper would have seen this as nothing less than an exquisite encapsulation of the history of the world.