KF Special Feature
Ten Jātakas at Wat Ban Khong, Ratchaburi
by Peter Skilling and Santi Pakdeekham
Chulalongkorn University; Royal Society of Thailand
We are pleased to share with you this article and accompanying images from the ten Jātakas—Buddha’s ten lives—by Professor Peter Skilling and Santi Pakdeekham. The article was recently published in the Journal of the Siam Society, Vol. 109, Pt. 2, 2021. Included here are the abstract and an excerpt from the article, with links to the full article and the images. We thank the Siam Society, Bangkok (founded 1904) for permitting us to reproduce this article.
Abstract: In this article, we describe two sets of wood panel paintings kept at Wat Ban Khong in Ratchaburi province. Dating from the Sixth Reign, the paintings are latter-day representatives of an older genre that formerly was popular in central Siam. They stand at the cusp of tradition and modernity, of the provincial and the urban. A polychrome set depicts the first nine of the Ten Jātakas, while a gilt lacquer set is devoted to the tenth and last, Vessantara or the Great Birth. Our aim is to bring these paintings to the attention and appreciation of the interested public. Space does not permit us to go into social and art-historical details or to compare conception and technique to the Jātaka paintings of the region or the capital. We hope that this presentation of visual culture will lead specialists to give more attention to the local paintings of the period.
The Ten Jātakas
The Pāli Jātaka collection is a section of the Tripiṭaka or “Pāli canon”. It preserves 547 individual poems, each spoken in relation to a single past life of Gotama Buddha. The poems are arranged in ascending numerical order, from “chapters” with one single verse up to the closing chapter, the Great Chapter (Mahānipāta), which contains the ten longest Jātakas. This final chapter is grand and great indeed — grand in size (596 pages in Romanized Pāli, 639 pages in English translation), grand in its poetry and prose, grand in philosophy, romance and colourful action. In Thai, the group of Ten Jātakas is commonly called the “Ten lives” or “Ten Births”. The first set of panels presented here depicts the first nine of this series of ten. Why does the set depict only nine stories? This is because the tenth and last of the group—the story of Vessantara, known as the Great Birth or Great Life (มหาชาติ Mahājāti)—has a special status and is often transmitted autonomously or independently. At Wat Ban Khong, it is depicted separately by different artists in a different medium, that is to say, in gilt lacquer. We do not know the reasons for the choice. In large-scale mural paintings, the Ten Jātakas are frequently depicted by grand tableaux, one Jātaka per bay, equal in size. Sometimes, however, additional bays are consecrated to Vessantara alone; in such cases, the Great Birth is painted in further narrative detail. There are many variants and combinations; the variety may depend on available space—the size of the structure and the number of bays—or on the preferences of abbots or sponsors and lay members of the temple community. Foundational documents of any sort that might explain such choices are very rare.
The Great Chapter (Mahānipāta) is one of Buddhism’s most formidable literary monuments and one of India’s great Prakrit (that is, non-Sanskrit) verse and story collections. It has been maintained and transmitted for more than 2,000 years by the Theravaṃsa monastic lineage, and the Ten Lives are frequently depicted as a set in mural and manuscript painting. According to the text, Sākyamuni Buddha relates the stories on different occasions at different sites, like the Jetavana in Sāvatthī, Vulture Peak at Rājagaha, and so on. The stories themselves belong to Sākyamuni’s deep biography as a Bodhisatta over countless past lives, and they took place ages ago in various familiar places, most of them seen as precursors of the great north Indian cities of the Buddha’s own time. Divine figures intervene in various ways in the course of the events, most commonly Sakka or Indra, Lord of the Gods. Goddesses feature prominently in the plots of two stories of the Great Ten. Each Jātaka is associated with one of the ten perfections of the Pāli tradition, but the perfections are not built into the stories, and the several exegetical traditions disagree as to which perfection the individual stories feature.