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Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this "Himalayan Buddhist Art 101" series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition.
Himalayan Art 101: Stories of the Buddha Part 3, Jataka Tales Quick Guide
According to the sutra tradition of Buddhism, there are hundreds of Jataka tales that describe the various events of the previous births of Shakyamuni Buddha. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, however, there are far fewer stories that are commonly told and depicted in art. Most painted depictions focus on either the thirty-four Jataka tales or the more expansive one-hundred Jataka tales, which begin with the thirty-four.
Over the last millennium there have been many Tibetan edited versions of texts retelling these narratives and moral stories. There have also been many minor variations, sometimes with the addition of a few extra stories. Despite these differences, the edited versions generally retain the same titles and are know as the two collections of stories: the thirty-four Jataka tales and the one hundred Jataka tales. Because their are so many Jataka stories, they are usually depicted across a series of paintings.
Recognizing and distinguishing between Shakyamuni Buddha life story paintings, Jataka paintings and Avadāna stories can be challenging. Fortunately, the Jataka paintings are distinct in that they consist of a large number of narratives that include animals as the main characters. There are far fewer animal-focused narratives in the Avadāna collection of stories and none in paintings of the life story of the Buddha.
Many of the Jataka stories are about animals or portray animals. Probably the most famous recounts the Buddha in a previous life offering his body to a starving tigress so that she can feed her newborn cubs. The story of the self-immolating rabbit is the source of the Buddhist belief in a rabbit image seen on the face of the moon. The baby quail trapped in a forest fire is a story that speaks to the power of honest and true words based in past virtue.
Learning to recognize narrative vignettes that depict animals is the easiest and quickest method for recognizing Jataka story paintings.
Learn more about the Jataka tales from Himalayan Art Resources here.
Image 1: The Starving Tigress - Jataka Tale. Buryatia, 1800–1899. Buddhist Lineage. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Buryat Historical Museum.
Image 2: Shakyamuni Buddha - Jataka Tales. Tibet, 1700–1799. Uncertain lineage. 71.12x50.17cm. Ground mineral pigment, fine gold line on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art.
Image 3: Shakyamuni Buddha - Jataka Tales. Eastern Tibet, 1800–1899. Uncertain lineage. 87.00x56.52cm. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art.