The Tale of Prince Vessantara

Exhibition dates: 27 March to 9 September 2018

Gallery 29 | Admission Free

The current display in the Eastern Art Paintings Gallery (Gallery 29) highlights the Vessantara Jataka, the most popular story in the Buddhist world. It explores how the story was represented in Burmese and Sri Lankan art during the 19th century, using examples drawn from the Ashmolean’s own collection.

The Tale of Prince Vessantara, exhibition view © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Vessantara Jataka is the last and most popular of the jataka tales, or stories of the past lives of the Buddha. Numbering around 550, the jatakas (‘birth stories’) are among the most ancient and largest collection of tales in the world. In these stories the Buddha was born in many different forms, not only as other human beings but also often as animals. The tales typically contain a moral and they play an important role in conveying Buddhist teachings and values.

Vessantara gives away his magic rain-bringing elephant to brahmins, from the Vessantara Jataka. Sri Lanka (Ceylon), 19th century. Paint (probably gum-bound) and gesso on wood, 43.5 x 61.4 x 3 cm. EAX.174 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In the Vessantara Jataka the Buddha was born as Prince Vessantara, a very generous man who gave away everything to help others. His actions exemplify the virtue of generosity (dana), which in Buddhism is one of the ‘perfections’ (paramita / parami) required to achieve enlightenment.

The story is as follows: After giving away his magic rain-bringing white elephant, Vessantara was exiled from his kingdom. He leaves with his wife, Maddi, and their two young children, Jali and Kanhajina. A greedy brahmin named Jujaka needed slaves for his wife and asked Vessantara for his children. Vessantara gave them away to Jujaka, and later also gave away his wife to the king of the gods, Sakka. However in the end the whole family was reunited, while Jujaka died from overeating due to his greediness.

Vessantara gives away his children to Jujaka, from the Vessantara Jataka. Japan and Myanmar (Burma), c. 1880s. Watercolour, gouache and gold on paper and bamboo, 32.4 x 44.5 cm. Presented by Mrs K. L. Ferrar, 1970, EA1970.141.ii © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Versions of the Vessantara tale can be found among most of the major languages of the Buddhist world, including Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhalese, Burmese, Thai, Chinese, Sogdian and Tibetan. It is also often depicted in art. The earliest known depiction of the tale is on the stupa of Bharhut (second century BC), and further examples can be found in the major Buddhist sites of Sanchi, Ajanta, Dunhuang, Pagan and Angkor. Today the story still continues to play an important role in the rituals, literature, art and performance of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka (Ceylon).

Vessantara gives away his chariot and horses to brahmins, from the Vessantara Jataka. Wall painting in Wat Chaiyamangalaram, a Thai temple in Penang, Malaysia. Photo: Farouk Yahya

Events in the Vessantara story played a very important role in the Buddha’s final life as Siddhartha Gautama. As he was meditating under the bodhi tree, the demon Mara tried to distract him from achieving enlightenment. Siddhartha touched the earth to witness his generosity during his life as Prince Vessantara. The earth testified to this and Mara was thus defeated, enabling Siddhartha to reach enlightenment and become the Buddha. Images of the Buddha in this earth-touching gesture, as well as the forces of Mara, can be seen in Gallery 32 (India 600-1900).

The Buddha in the earth-touching gesture. Arakan, Myanmar (Burma), 13th – 14th century. Sandstone, 58 x 39 x 11 cm max. Purchased with the assistance of funds bequeathed by Fleurette Pelly, in memory of Colonel Hutcheson Raymond Pelly (last British Commissioner of Tenasserim Division, Burma, 1942), 2008, EA2008.70 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

For general information on The Tale of Prince Vessantara and related events, click here


Further reading:

Naomi Appleton, Sarah Shaw and Toshiya Unebe, Illuminating the Life of the Buddha: An Illustrated Chanting Book from Eighteenth-century Siam, Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2013.

Richard F. Gombrich and Margaret Cone, The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara: A Buddhist Epic, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977. Reprinted by the Pali Text Society, 2011.


Farouk Yahya


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