- Museum number
Lacquer panel from a manuscript chest, 'sadaik'. As a single panel from what must once have been a most impressive and remarkable chest, one can only wonder at the overall effect of the complete item. This panel is decorated in the 'shwe zawa' technique and is a rare and magnificent example of the type.
Set within a border of open lotus blossoms, it is decorated with scenes from the 'Mahosadha Jataka', the fifth of the 'Mahanipata' ( the 'Ten Last Great Jatakas' of the 'Jatakatthakatha'), which are placed in a contemporary Burmese setting, thus providing the viewer with a palimpsest of Burmese life prior to 1850. For ease of identification, the reader should note that three palace buildings are depicted in the panel: left, that of king Vedeha at Mithila; centre, that of king Culani at Uttarapancala; right, the magical palace of Mahosadha. Mahosadha is tested by the king who tells him to find a jewel, which is seen in a lake (shown as a square tank at top left). In fact the jewel is hidden in an over-hanging palm-tree and is merely reflected in the lake; the Bodhisattva quickly understands this and the jewel is recovered (figure climbing in the palm-tree above the water). The Bodhisattva encounters the four sages at the court of king Vedeha of Mithila where riddles are asked by the king (palace building at left of panel). He then meets Amara, later his wife (far left of panel where they are shown asking each other riddles both verbally and using hand gestures). The evil sage Kevatta brings the armies of India against Mithila, but is defeated through the cunning of the Bodhisattva (armies with elephants at top, centre). The wicked 'brahmin' Kevatta sets out to lure Vedeha to the city, Uttarapancala, of his king, Culani; this he does by inflaming Vedeha's desire for the daughter of Culani, Pancalacandi (the palace is seen at the centre, Culani is shown in council and Pancalacandi appears in the small pavilion above and to the right of her father). Mahosadha erects a magical palace filled with magnificent rooms (palace building on right side of panel) and linked by a tunnel to the Ganges via the palace of Culani (exit from the tunnel shown as an arched doorway at the bottom of panel beneath the palace of Culani, and the entrance at bottom right beneath the magical palace of Mahosadha). Vedeha enters the magical palace on his arrival from Mithila and is threatened by the army of Culani (horses and elephants massing around the left side of the magical palace of Mahosadha). King Vedeha is terrified and realizes he is trapped. At first he requests the aid of the four sages who only suggest suicide (four figures in lower section of magic palace of Mahosadha); the king then consults Mahosadha who tells him of the existence of the tunnel, down which he escapes to the Ganges. Meanwhile the troops of Mahosadha capture the princess who is also smuggled down the tunnel. She then meets Vedeha and they are married (scene at top right above expanse of water and up against the border of the panel). They leave for Mithila by elephant and by boat (expanse of water on far right-hand side up against border and beneath the 'marriage scene'). They are then enthroned back in the palace at Mithila (couple in pavilion at far top right-hand corner).
The panel is remarkable not only on account of the large number of scenes shown on it and the quality of the 'shwe zawa' lacquerwork, but because of the inscriptions it bears. These are of two types: the inscription along the top of the panel in large characters; and the more than fifty captions in more cursive script that accompany the different scenes.
- Production date
Height: 74 centimetres
Length: 163 centimetres
- Curator's comments
- Isaacs and Blurton 2000:
The identification of this panel as the front element of a manuscript chest, 'sadaik', is based on its shape, its inscription and also on the presence in the back surface of the panel, at the top right-hand corner, of a rectangular slot cut into the wood. This surely marks where the small rectangular box was located in which page-turning spatulas and other manuscript equipment were kept. This would have been attached to the front panel and its presence helps confirm the function of the object. Such boxes are common in manuscript chests, and there is an example in the Isaacs collection.
Monastic life is dependent on the possession of manuscripts, so that chests to contain them are essential items of monastery furniture. They are made of heavily lacquered teak and consequently the manuscripts stored inside are protected both from the humid climate and from insects. Typically, they are set on stands, raised up above the floor, as is appropriate for chests containing scriptures. Many chests survive, but few bear decoration of this grandeur, especially as 'thayo' decoration on the exterior, rather than 'shwe zawa', is more common; this may, however, be partly explained by the robustness of 'thayo' decoration compared to the fragility of 'shwe zawa', which is easily rubbed and damaged. An example of a chest with 'shwe zawa' decoration in the British Museum, Department of Ethnography, is much smaller and of lesser quality. Many examples of these chests are found in Britain, since they were brought back during the colonial period as items that were both decorative and useful - they made ideal blanket or linen chests. In this guise, however, they invariably exist without the stand. The example from Kedleston is thus of great interest as this element is still intact. A further example exists at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The date of the production of the panel is unknown. However, its history in this country indicates a date of at least pre-1850, as it has descended through the same Scottish family since it was acquired by their forebear during the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852). Considering its function and the Buddhist nature of the decoration, it is very unlikely to have been made for him, so a date some time earlier than 1852 is most likely. The serviceman from whose family the panel came, was stationed at Pegu and it is for this reason that we have suggested that it was produced there. Given the geographical theatre of the Second Anglo-Burmese War, a provenance in Lower Burma, if not actually Pegu itself, is most likely. The Glasgow Museum at Kelvingrove possesses a palm-leaf manuscript which is labelled 'Taken at the fall of Taung Oo' during the same Second Anglo-Burmese War. For the very substantial contribution of the Scots to the British control of Burma in the colonial period, see McCrae 1990.
The 'Mahanipata', the 'Ten Last Great Jatakas' of the 'Jatakatthakatha', is a fifth-century AD compilation of the entire series of 'Jataka Tales' in Pali. The bringing together of all the 'jataka' material into a single text, all in Pali, is believed, traditionally, to have been undertaken by the great Indian scholar, Buddhaghosa, using earlier material then still preserved in Sri Lanka. It is made up of elements of verse (the 'Jataka Tales') and prose (commentaries). Only the verse element, the 'gatha', which linguistically is substantially earlier than the prose part, is considered canonical. These ten are enormously popular in Southeast Asia and are both more widely known and more frequently represented in the decorative arts than any of the other 'Jataka Tales'. The special character of the Last Ten goes back at least to the pre-Pagan era. G. H. Luce (1956: 292) says, "The earliest Mon descriptions of the ten great Jatakas occur in Makuta's pandit inscription at the Shwezayan pagoda, Thaton; in the glazed terracottas of the middle terrace of the Thagya pagoda, Thaton; and in the stone carvings of the boundary pillars of the baddhasima (ordination hall) at the Kalyani Thein, Thaton". In the same article he lists the temples at Pagan - the Ananda and the Mingalazeidi - where the Mahanipata has a special place in the decorative scheme. The 'Mahosadha Jataka' is no. 546 in the standard Pali listing of the 'Jatakas', but is 542 in the sequence found in Burma, both in antiquity and today. See Cowell 1895, vol. VI: 156-246, where it is listed under its Pali name, the 'Maha-ummagga [Great Tunnel] Jataka'. Luce (1956) says that in Burma, both in antiquity and in the present, 'Mahosadha' appears as 542, immediately after the 'Nimi Jataka', rather than as in the Sinhalese Pali version, where it appears as 546, immediately before the final, 'Vessantara Jataka'.
As the narrative depicted on the panel begins part way through the 'jataka', we may speculate that the first part (the prophetic dream of king Vedeha, the miraculous birth of Mahosadha [the Bodhisattva] and his early wisdom demonstrated in a series of judgements) was shown on one of the side panels of the chest, while the other side panel would have shown the final scenes in the story (the confrontation between king Culani and the Bodhisattva, and the triumph of the latter). In the Cowell edition the jataka begins on p. 156, but the first scenes on the panel relate to the story from p. 172 and continue to p. 231; the scenes narrated in pp 232-46 do not appear on the panel.
The backs of manuscript chests were, almost without exception, not decorated, though it is possible, with such a magnificent example as this, that there were also scenes depicted on the lid. The Burmese convention whereby scenes in the same locale are depicted together irrespective of their chronological place within the narrative creates some problems of identification.
This piece shows the way in which narrative scenes from either the Life of the Buddha or as here from his previous lives - the 'jatakas' - were used to great effect in the decoration of monastic equipment. Such a remarkable example of the lacquerworker's skill will certainly repay much further study.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2000 Apr - 2000 Aug, BM, 'Visions from the Golden Land: Burma and the Art of Lacquer.'
- Some damage
- Acquisition date
- Registration number