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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The James H.W. Thompson Foundation