The earthly life of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, is rich in narrative and miraculous occurrences. This finely detailed painting from Thailand illustrates one of the ‘eight great events’ of the Buddha’s life, his descent from the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods, Tavatimsa (also Trayastrimsha). Ruled by Indra, king of the gods, Tavatimsa is one of several Buddhist heavens.
Following a gestation of 10 months, the Buddha-to-be was born into a life of regal luxury but his mother, Queen Maya, died when the infant was seven days old. The child was taken into the care of his aunt and Maya was reborn as a god residing in Tavatimsa heaven. After achieving enlightenment, Shakyamuni travelled to Tavatimsa in three strides. There he shared his teachings and insights with his mother who had missed the opportunity to hear him preach on earth.
The upper register of the painting shows Shakyamuni seated in a heavenly pavilion surrounded by attentive deities, many floating in clouds in the vibrant blue sky. Seated, hands together, at the base of the pavilion are green-skinned Indra and Brahma, major Hindu gods also embraced in Buddhist cosmology.
In the centre Buddha is depicted descending to earth on a triple ladder of jewels, gold and silver. Indra appears again on one side of the ladder, while on the other Brahma holds a parasol, a symbol of royalty and protection, above Shakyamuni. At the base of the ladder monks and followers await his return. Illustrated in the lower left is a pit populated with emaciated figures enduring the torture of a Buddhist hell.
The painting brings together three essential components of the Buddhist cosmos—the heavens, the middle world of humans and the hells—and makes an important and appealing addition to the Gallery’s collection of Thai art.
Melanie Eastburn Curator, Asian Art
in artonview, issue 78, Winter 2014