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The Jatakas in Indian Art PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Suresh Bhatia   
Tuesday, 18 August 2009 12:54

The word Jataka is employed in a technical sense in Buddhism. It means stories of former births of the Buddha. The largest collection of Jataka tales is the 10th book of Khuddaka Nikaya, the fifth Nikaya of the Pali Canon. It has 347 stories of the Buddha’s Past Lives. The Jataka stories show how Bodhisattva Siddhartha brought into perfection the ten Parimitas or Exalted Virtues, namely, Dana (Charity), Sila (Moral Purification), Nekkhamma (Renunciation), Panna (Wisdom), Viriya (Energy), Khanti (Patience), Sacca (Truthfulness), Aditthana (Resolve), Metta (Loving kindness), and Uppekkha (Equanimity), through life after life as a human being and even in the subhuman realms, animals etc.

Another collection of the Jataka tales in the Pali Canon is the Cariya – Pitaka or ‘Basket of the Bodhisattva’s conduct. The last book of Kuddaka Nikaya is a collection of ‘thirty five tales being told in a tasteless and uninspired manner.’

The most famous collection of Jatakas in Sanskrit is the Jatakamala of Garland of ‘Birth – Stories’ by the poet Aryasura, who probably lived in the fourth century AD, The thirty four stories are retold here by the poet from the legend ‘in ornate, elegant language, the style being that of the Kavya or classical epic, but lofty; and refined, more artistic than artificial’. Of the 34 Jatakas in this work, the first ten Jatakas can be said to illustrate the first supreme virtue, viz. generosity (Dana), Jatakas 11 – 20 pertain to morality (Sila), and the Jataka 21 – 30 refer to forbearance (Khati). The last four are not uniform in theme. Twelve of the stories of the Jatakamala are also found in the Cariya – Pitaka and most of the others are found in the main Jataka Book.


The primary aim of the Jatakas is to instruct, to teach the people the value of a good life and to inspire to have faith in the Buddha – Dhamma. Thus they serve as instruments of preaching the doctrine. As stories, the Jatakas are full of wit and humour, worldly wisdom, moral lessons, and pious legends of semi – historical nature. As such, when narrated to a big congregation of devotees these stories had a telling effect and were very helpful in propagating the Dhamm amongst the masses.


The Jataka were not only handed down orally from generation to generation but were also carved on the stone walls of the Buddhist monuments as inspiring symbols for the devotees. According to Maurice Winternitz, “The Jatakas are among the oldest motifs which are pictorially represented in India, and even today they yield favourable models for sculptors and painters in all Buddhist countries.’ In India, we find scenes from the Jatakas in sculptures at Bharhut (3rd century B.C.), Sanchi (2nd Century A.D.), Bodh Gaya (1st century B.C.), Amaravati (2nd century A.D.), and Nagarjunakonda (3rd century A.D) as well as in the paintings in the Ajanta Caves (6th century A.D.).

As in India, so also in other Buddhist countries, the Jataka tales found spontaneous popularity with the monks and laity alike. Hence, hundreds of Jataka portrayals decorate the temples of Borobudur in Java (12th century A.D.) and Sukhodaya in Thailand (14th century A.D.).


In the third century B.C., Bharhut was a flourishing city on the main highway between Ujjain and Bhilsa in Central India as well as Patliputra (Patna) in Bihar Kosambi and Sravasti in Uttar Pradesh. The ancient city has now dwindled to a little village which is 15 km. south of the Satna railway station on the Central Railway route in Madhya Pradesh.

According to Alexander Cunningham to whom we owe the discovery and salvage of the antiquity from the site in 1873 – 74 of whatever little had escaped destruction of this rich heritage. Cunningham found 208 inscriptions on the coping stones, pillars and railings of the stupa. Of these, barring the two royal inscriptions of Raja Dhanabhuti and his son, Vadha Pala of ancient Punjab, all the inscriptions are by the pious Buddhist monks, nuns and laymen and women. After the decline of Buddhism in India, the Bharhut Stupa fell into oblivion but it survived intact till the end of the 18th century when it was partly demolished by the ignorant people merely for the sake of bricks required for building homes. It may look strange, yet it is a fact that “the present village of Bharhut which contains more than 200 houses, are built entirely of the bricks taken from the Stupa.” The sculptured scenes of the Bharhut Stupa, which have withstood the ravages of time, weather and the destructive hands of humans, have brought to light the finest examples of early Indian sculptures. The wide variety of subjects covered by the pioneer Buddhist artists, at that period of time are a unique example of art and style of their exemplary creativity. The sculptures include 28 visual narrations of the Jatakas, 7 historical scenes, 27 miscellaneous scenes, 6 humorous portrayals and a host of objects of worship.

In the Bharhut sculptures, the Buddha is represented by symbols only and not in human form. Such symbols are: Wheel (Dhamma Cakra), Bodhi Tree, and Footprints (Buddha – padas). Significantly enough, almost all the Jataka scenes have their names inscribed either above or below them.

In his pioneer work on this Stupa, Cunningham has listed 24 scenes from the Jatakas. Of these, 18 scenes have an inscription giving the name of the story. The stories of three other Jatakas which have lost their inscriptions are so clearly told, as to have no doubt whatever as to their identification. The scenes of three other Jatakas were, however, in a mutilated condition. Based on further research of Serge d’ Oldenburg, Rhys Davids has given a table of 28 Jatakas in his famous book ‘Buddhist India’ first published in 1903. Presently a large collection of the Bharhut railing Stupa has been preserved at the Indian Museum, Kolkata. We are publishing nearly the whole collection from this Museum. We acknowledge the generosity of the Museum to allow the Author to photograph the images which are now on display along with this article.

In future issues we will be bringing to you the History and Art of the Sanci Stupa, Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda and finally Ajanta Caves.

For any further information on the site please email:
pilgrims.buddhistheritage [at]




Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 September 2009 07:55