Illustrated Buddhist manuscripts from mainland Southeast Asia are famous for their lavish and often very detailed depictions of scenes from the Life of Buddha and the Buddha’s Birth Tales, known as Jatakas. Although most of these manuscripts date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, their illustrations are based on much older Pali texts originating from Sri Lanka in the first century BCE. The outstanding beauty of these manuscript paintings results from the depiction of the natural environment in which the main character – the historical Buddha – is placed, highlighting the close relationship the Buddha had with nature and all sentient beings.

Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka illustrated in a paper folding book with extracts from the Pali Tipitaka in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century. Source: British Library (Public domain)

Birth tales

The previous lives of Gautama Buddha – the historical Buddha – are the subject of a collection of Birth Tales or Jatakas. They show how he gradually acquired greater virtues and moral stature from one incarnation to the other. These stories, well-known in all Theravada Buddhist cultures, are attributed to Gautama Buddha himself and are included in the Pali Buddhist canon. He is thought to have narrated them during his ministry to his followers, using each Jataka to teach certain morals and values. There are 547 such stories, but more were created in the region of Northern Thailand and Laos at a later time and are known as Pannasa Jatakas.

The Jatakas are a major subject of Thai manuscript illustration, with the oldest extant manuscripts dating back at least to the 18th century. These stories are meant to teach the values of compassion, loving-kindness, generosity, honesty, perseverance and morality. In his previous lives, Gautama Buddha was incarnated in form of human beings, various animals, benevolent spirits, or as deities residing in the heavenly realms of the Buddhist cosmos.

The Bhuridatta Jataka is a fine example that describes the moral abilities of sacred or mythical animals as sentient beings. The Buddha-to-be was reborn as a naga or a mythical serpent prince who practiced meditation and aimed to follow the Buddhist precepts. A greedy snake charmer named Alambayana obtained magic spells from a hermit in order to capture Bhuridatta. A hunter, who in the past was taken by Bhuridatta to live in splendor in the serpent kingdom revealed the serpent’s secret meditation place to Alambayana. The snake charmer captured the serpent while he was coiled around an ant hill and forced him to perform in market places so that he could earn fame and wealth. Bhuridatta repressed his shame and anger in order to follow the Eight Precepts. Eventually, he was freed by his brothers.

In both illustrations great care was taken to paint the serpent in great detail and in bright colours to highlight his sacredness, whereas plants, flowers, fish and different species of birds were added as decorative elements.

Scenes from the Bhuridatta Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 19th century. Source: British Library (Public domain)

The Suvannasama Jataka tells the story of the Buddha-to-be when he lived as the son of blind hermits. Suvannasama looked after his parents with great devotion until one day he was shot with a poisoned arrow by a king who was out hunting deer. When the king realised his grave mistake, he went to ask the hermits for forgiveness. When the parents heard about their son’s fate, they requested the king to guide them to their beloved son’s body so they could pray for his future rebirth. They appealed and called to witness all deities about their son’s merits as he had always looked after them dearly. When their pledge ended, Suvannasama stood alive and well, and the parents also regained their eyesight. This Jataka symbolises the perfection of devotion.

These paintings are fine examples of the late Ayutthaya manuscript painting style of the 18th century with distinguished landscapes, rocks, foliage, birds and deer. Although the scenes depict a sorrowful event, the atmosphere seems calm and peaceful thanks to warm, pleasant colours, leaving a positive impression on the viewer.

Scenes from the Suvannasama Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century. Source: British Library (Public domain)

The Mahajanaka Jataka symbolises the virtue of perseverance. Prince Mahajanaka’s father was killed in battle by his brother, Mahajanaka’s uncle. When the prince found out about his ancestry he vowed to regain his father’s kingdom. He set out on a seafaring voyage, hoping to build a fortune in a distant land and to set up a powerful army. However, the ship sank and everyone on board drowned or was killed by sea creatures – except the prince. He drifted in the water for seven days, but survived through the sheer strength of his perseverance. A goddess, Manimekhala, rescued him and carried him to his father’s kingdom, which he finally regained after his uncle’s death. Thereafter, he sought to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and went on to pursue spiritual attainment as an ascetic.

The paintings illustrating the Mahajanaka Jataka are in the style of the late Ayutthaya period and are set before a magnificent natural scenery in bright colours most of which were derived from natural paints. On the left side, the prince is depicted while meditating under a tree, surrounded by rocks and blossoming plants, similar to Prince Siddhattha who eventually became the historical Buddha. On the right side, an exquisitely painted horse is shown pulling the uncle’s funeral carriage.

Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century. Source: British Library (Public domain)

Prince Vessantara was the Buddha’s last incarnation before he was reborn as Prince Siddhattha and eventually attained enlightenment. This last Birth Tale, also called the Great Jataka, is the most popular across Southeast Asia, symbolising the virtues of generosity and compassion.

Prince Vessantara gave away his white elephant, bringer of rain, to Brahmins of a drought-stricken land as an act of compassion. He was then exiled from his kingdom because people feared that his generosity may bring poverty to the land. His wife and children followed him and they set up a forest hermitage. A Brahmin, Jujaka, found Prince Vessantara and asked for his children to become servants to the Brahmin’s wife to stop other villagers mocking her.

Out of compassion for Jujaka’s wife Prince Vessantra agreed to give away his children while his wife was collecting fruit in the forest. The greedy Brahmin later sold the siblings – unwittingly – to Prince Vessantara’s parents. Prince Vessantara and his wife were finally welcomed back to the kingdom and reunited with the children.

Scenes from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, late 18th century. Source: British Library (Public domain)

The excellent paintings in this Thai folding book depict scenes from the Last Ten Jatakas in the style of the late 18th to early 19th century. Warm colours are used to highlight the beauty of the natural environment and the serenity of the forest hermitage. Although this part of the story is sorrowful, it is one of the most popular scenes from all Jatakas in Thailand, and the painter minimises the sadness by adding beautiful natural elements like plants and trees with every single leaf painted meticulously.

The historical Buddha

The historical Buddha, Gautama Buddha, was born in Lumbini, in modern-day Nepal, over 2,500 years ago. Throughout his life, he had an intimate connection with the natural world: he was born as Prince Siddhattha under a sal tree whose branches provided support to his mother giving birth, at the first seven steps he walked a lotus flower appeared, he lived in forests and in caves as an ascetic, meditated in the rain while a serpent protected him, gained enlightenment under the bodhi tree, gave his first discourse in a deer park, followed the River Ganges to teach the Dhamma, lived with his disciples in a bamboo grove, taught at forest monasteries, interacted with various real and mythical animals during his long ministry, and at the point of his physical passing he attained pari-nibbana between twin sal trees.

In the Sutta Pitaka part of the Pali canon over 13,000 species of animals and over 18,000 species of plants are mentioned which is evidence of the consciousness of early Buddhists about biodiversity. Manuscript illustrations give insight into how the Buddha and nature were benevolent and supportive to each other, and how the natural world supports and sustains humanity. The Buddhist belief that all sentient beings possess inherent Buddha nature is expressed through spectacular depictions of the natural world surrounding the Buddha.

Scenes of Buddha’s meditation and enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Pali Tipitaka and the legend of Phra Malai in Thai language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 1894. Source: British Library (Public domain)

The majority of Thai manuscript paintings are dedicated to Buddhist topics. However, instead of Gotama Buddha’s life these illustrations often highlight his former incarnations, particularly the Last Ten Birth Tales.

The manuscript above includes two illustrations of Gautama Buddha which combine Thai and European painting styles. It is a fine example where team-work of at least two artists can be assumed, one specialising in the traditional style of painting Thai figures, and the other experimenting with European landscape painting techniques.

The paintings illustrate a central moment in the life of Gautama Buddha – his enlightenment. Once Prince Siddhattha had freed himself from all disturbances and distractions by way of meditation, he was able to attain enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi tree on the full moon day of Visakha in May. By touching the earth, he called upon the earth goddess Dharani as a witness of his merits in his previous lives. The gods Brahma and Sakka witnessed his attainment of enlightenment and asked the Buddha to share his insights with all sentient beings.

Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana, or final liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Paper folding book, 19th century. Source: British Library (Public domain)

The scene above, painted in rich colours, captures details associated with the story of the Buddha’s physical passing. At the age of 80, the Buddha fell ill and passed on at Kushinara, between Pava and Sal Grove. The illustration depicts the Buddha resting on his right side next to a sal tree.

A newly ordained monk conveys the message of the Buddha’s passing to his lay followers, whom the Buddha had urged to work towards their own enlightenment with diligence. His body was cremated and the relics were placed in monuments called stupas. The presence of the sal trees in both the Buddha’s birth and death scenes symbolises the cycle of rebirths, samsara, a key concept in Buddhist philosophy.

This article first appeared on The British Library’s Asian and African studies blog.