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Siamese Illustrations of the Jataka Stories, ca 1800

Set of 4 double-page manuscript pages, each with a pair of painted pictures of scenes from the Ten Lives of the future Buddha prior to his final incarnation as Prince Siddhartha Gautama (the Jataka stories); each 27" W x 11"H. The style of painting is Siamese and the language is Pali. The script is Mon 9 or Burmese (they are the same) and therefore it can be concluded that this manuscript "could belong to the end of the 18th century or beginning of 19th century, written in Central Siam in Mon script."10 The four double scenes are:

    a) scene from the Sama birth tale, which exemplifies the virtue of devoted service. On the right, the misguided king Piliyakka shoots an arrow from his bow towards a deer, but instead hits and kills the gentle hero Sama (the Bodhisatva Suvannasama) who had tamed the deer to carry a jug of water for him. The moral lesson of the usual complicated Jataka story is obscure, but it is more likely that the moral teaching is not to kill animals, since they may represent the reincarnated spirits of people who are peaceful and enjoy their lives, in this case as a deer in the Himavanta forest.
    b) a lion (in stylized Thai portrayal), tiger and leopard confront Madsi (aka. Maddi), the wife of Prince Vessantara (who became the Buddha after his enlightenment), who has been in the forest gathering fresh fruit; she prays to them to leave her alone. These animals are gods in disguise, who block the return of Maddi to her hut in the forest to save her from grief.
    c) Prince Mahajanaka suffered a shipwreck in a storm at sea. He struggled to keep alive swimming in the ocean for 7 days until he was finally saved by the sea goddess Manimekhala at right, who picked him up and carried him to safety. The moral of this story: you may suffer a great adversity or disaster, but you must not give up hope. Be patient, struggle to carry on even if things seem hopeless and help does not arrive right away. If you are patient and do not give up, then eventually you can be rescued by an angel (metaphorically) and your problem will be overcome.
    d) two angels with crowns and jewelry kneel to pray, and hold red flowers.

Ref 9 Thai manuscripts with Mon script are rare, but some have been published. See Ginsburg, Thai Art and Culture. Historic Manuscripts from Western Collections, 2000, p. 7 for an example.

Ref 10 I am grateful to Jacqueline Filliozat, Honorary lecturer-research scholar at the Ecole Francais d'Extreme Orient (EFEO), and a leading scholar of Buddhist Pali manuscripts from Thailand, for this advice on the language, script and origin of this manuscript.

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