The Prince Vessantara Tale

The James H.W. Thompson Foundation

 A Story of Charity

The subject of the religious paintings in Thailand is largely limited to the life of Buddha and the last ten Jatakas (Tosachat), the stories of Buddha's previous births. The Jatakas illustrate the virtues by which the future Buddha perfected himself and finally achieved enlightenment. They are used for teaching and as a subject for painting. The last Jataka, known in Thailand as the Mahachat, or Great Birth, tells the story of Prince Vessantara who displays the virtue of perfect charity.
Ref: "The Tosachat in Thai Painting" by Elizabeth Lyons (1963)

The Vessantara Jataka
Monks were the artists for the religious paintings. This set of thirteen paintings on cloth illustrates each one of the thirteen episodes the Vessantara Jataka. The fine workmanship and coloring, the painted frame of leaves and flowers that surrounds each painting show great elegance.

First episode, Totsaporn, The Ten Blessings on Pusati from Indra. Indra is god of thunder and ruler of the thirty-three gods in the heaven, Tavatimsa. He requests his favorite consort, Pusati, to be reborn as a human princess eventually to become the wife of King Sanjaya of Siva and the mother of the future Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be). A child, named Vessantara, is born and brought up in luxury at his father's court. Married to Madsi, the daughter of a neighbouring king. A son, Jali and a daughter, Kanha, are born to them.

The god Indra is usually colored in green in Buddhist iconography.

Second episode, Himaphan, The Name of a Forest. As a very young prince, Vessantara was given a white elephant whose magical rain-making ability guarantees fine crops in the kingdom. In this scene several Brahmins, sent by the nearby king of Kalinga, whose land has been suffering from a prolonged drought, seek out Prince Vessantara and beg him to give them his elephant that they may return with it to their own country and save it from drought and famine. Prince Vessantara is shown pouring water onto the hands of the suppliants, signifying the gift of the elephant. The people of Siva, however, are greatly angered by the departure of this wonderful beast whose presence has assured their prosperity, and they persuade the king to banish his son from the country. Vessantara's wife, Madsi, insists upon accompanying her lord and husband into exile, and with the children, they set out in a royal chariot drawn by richly caparisoned horses.

The pouring of water over the hands is a symbol of giving away something that cannot be carried in the hands.

Third episode, Tanakan, Gift. The horses are given away to begging Brahmins, whereupon gods disguised as deer pull the chariot until prince Vessantara, accosted by more beggars, gives away his chariot, as well.

Fourth episode, Wanapawet, A Forest. Prince Vessantara carrying Jali and Madsi carrying Kanha continue afoot toward a forest retreat where they are to find a sanctuary in a hermitage at the base of Mount Vampka.

Fifth episode, Jujok. Meanwhile, in a Kalinga village lives an old mendicant Brahmin named Jujok with his beautiful young wife who was married to him in payment of a debt her family had incurred. But the marriage between the ugly old man and pretty young girl causes the other wives in the village to mock and taunt her so that finally she no longer will to go to the well to draw their domestic water. She insists that she be provided with servants for this purpose. Unwilling to deny her anything, but very poor and unable to secure servants or slaves, and having heard of the generosity of Prince Vessantara, living not far away, he resorts to seeking him out and asking for his children as servants.

The marriage between the ugly old man and pretty young girl causes the other to mock her.

Sixth episode, Julapon, Little Forest. A hunter, enjoined by the ruler to protect the exiles is tricked by Jujok, who tells him he is a messenger sent by king Sanjaya to summon the exiles back to the court of Siva. Thus Jujok is given directions and allowed to pass.

Seventh episode, Mahapon, Big Forest. Similarily, a hermit (easily identified as such by his truncated headdress and tigerskin costume) is tricked and he further directs Jujok to Vessantara's mountain hermitage.

Eight episode, Kuman, A Child or a Prince. Waiting until Vessantara's wife is away gathering fruit and berries on the mountain side, Jujok accosts the prince and begs for the children. He is immediately granted them.

Ninth episode, Madsi. Madsi, with her basket brimming of forest fruit, is blocked in her path and prevented from returning to the hermitage by a lion (stylised Thai portrayal), a leopard and a tiger. These are actually disguised deities who, knowing the sorrow it would cause her to see her children led away to rude servitude, prevent her return to the hermitage until after dark, and after the children are far away.

Madsi is blocked in her path and prevented from returning to the hermitage by a lion (stylised Thai portrayal), a leopard and a tiger.

Tenth episode, Sakabab, Indra. Seeing that Vessantara has passed all tests of selfless generosity, the gods fear he will endure the supreme sacrifice and bestow his beloved wife on the first mendicant who asks for her. Accordingly, Indra (in green) appears as a Brahmin and makes the request for Madsi. Vessantara willingly gives her away, pouring water over the supposed Brahmin's hands. Indra immediately assumes is godself, heavens open, the earth shakes, and the oceans roar as the gods acknowledge Vessantara is worthy of Buddhahood.

Eleventh episode, Maharat, The Great King. The children are tied with a creeper and led away by Jujok toward his home. At night, he climbs onto a bough to escape the dangers of the forest, but leaves the children bound to the tree trunk. Jujok, lost in the forest, is misled by the gods to King Sanjaya's capital where the royal grandchildren are recognized and handsomely ransomed by the king. Jujok, with his new found wealth, lives in sudden luxury, and dies of gluttony. The grandson, Jali explains to the king for being too harsh. Whereupon the king, with his court, goes on a Royal Procession (often shown as one of the episodes) to Mount Vampka to bring Vessantara and Madsi back to the royal court.

At night, Jujok climbs onto a bough to escape the dangers of the forest…

…and leaves the children bound to the tree trunk. But gods intervene in the guise of the parents to protect the children.

Twelfth episode, Chakasat, The Reunion of the Six Royals.

The reunion of the King Sanjaya and Pusati, Vessantara, Madsi together with the children, Jali and Kahna, shows them weeping with joy at being reunited. While no facial expression is used in this art, the iconographic symbol of weeping is the right hand curved over the eye.

Thirteenth episode, Nakhonkan, The Town: This episode is shown in this set by a trio of armed soldiers scouring the advance of the royal procession on the return to the court of Siva.

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