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Panel illustrating the legend of Buddha's Great Departure from palace life

At the age of 29, according to the traditional biography, Siddhartha (who later became the Buddha) left his palace to meet his subjects. Despite his father's efforts to hide from him the sick, aged and suffering, Siddhartha saw an old man. When his charioteer Channa explained to him that all people grew old, the prince went on further trips beyond the palace. On these he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic. These depressed him, and he decided to overcome ageing, sickness, and death by living the life of an ascetic. Accompanied by Channa and aboard his horse Kanthaka, Siddhartha quit his palace for the life of a mendicant.

This old wood panel from Burma with gilded lacquer relief decoration shows several scenes from this legend. This was originally the front of a trunk used to hold manuscripts and Buddhist regalia in a monastery.11 This 24 x 33 inch panel probably dates from 1900-1950. The scenes are:

  • Bottom center: Prince Siddhartha, accompanied by his charioteer Channa, rides through town in a large royal chariot pulled by three horses.12 This was before he decided to renounce his royal status and luxurious lifestyle.
  • Bottom right: Prince Siddhartha encounters an old man bent over and walking with a cane, and a diseased or dead person lying on the ground, and an ascetic.
  • Lower left: Prince Siddhartha waves to bid farewell to his sleeping wife and two small children. He is still dressed in courtly attire and carries an umbrella.
  • Top center, Prince Siddhartha rides his horse on his journey after leaving the palace, accompanied by his faithful servant Channa running behind. Another attendant behind them holds an umbrella to denote his princely status, and two divinities holding lanterns wait at the right to greet him in the night.
  • Top left, his horse Kanthaka dies of sadness when he realizes that Prince Siddhartha is has gone, and a sad servant sits beside the dead horse.
  • Right upper side, some fish symbolize a river that is the symbolic and cleansing boundary Prince Siddhartha crosses to begin his new life as an ascetic.
  • Top right: after renouncing his princely heritage, Prince Siddhartha cuts his hair to become an ascetic and pilgrim.

    Ref 11 For other examples, see Burma and the Art of Lacquer, p. 155; and also Myanmar Style, p179

    Ref 12 The symbolic chariot with a large lotus flower wheel and rather throne-like roof is pulled by three horses. The Life of the Buddha, by Herbert, 2005, p.25 shows a similar scene with a chariot in a Jataka painting described as Prince Siddhartha returning to his father's palace before renouncing his royal life.

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