The third-floor murals inside Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon stupa at Wat Nong Wang temple tell the story of Prince Vessantara (Phra Wetsandon in Thai). It’s the last of the 547 Jataka tales, a collection of birth stories from the Pali Canon (the Buddhist equivalent of the Bible) recounting some of the Buddha-to-be’s pre-enlightenment lives. The Jataka tales are, for the most part, morality stories in which the Buddha-to-be somehow overcomes a problem or a foe, or sets someone else on the right path, often using supernatural powers.
The Vessantara Jataka is a very important Buddhist legend, particularly in Thailand where it shows up in temple paintings and woodcarvings almost as often as the Buddha’s life story. A casual reader would condemn Prince Vessantara as mentally ill for giving away his children to be slaves, but this is a religious tale not meant to be analyzed logically. As a demigod, the prince can do no wrong and the result of the story is what matters most, not the way it gets there. The final ten Jataka tales illustrate the ten perfections of character that a person needs to develop before they can become enlightened, and the Vessantara Jataka’s perfection is generosity (dana). The Buddha-to-be pursues perfect generosity by giving away everything he is asked for without exception. And as readers, we know that the gods are looking out for Prince Vessantara and his family and so everything will be alright in the end.
These murals (painted by Kru Thammarong Kaewboran) are unique in that they set the story in what is unmistakably Isan.
The paintings on the window shutters and doors below the Vessantara murals tell the story of Nang Phom Hom, “The Fragrant-Haired Lady.”
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(1) Once a year, in temples throughout Isan, monks recite the Vessantara Jataka in its entirety (the standard version in English is nearly 28,000 words) as part of the Boon Pha Wet celebrations. The main reason people spend a day listening to this story is because when Phra Malai, a mystical monk very popular in Thai folklore, visited heaven he met Maitreya, who will be the next Buddha, and Maitreya asked Phra Malai to tell people what they should do if they want to be reborn during his time on earth. One of the things is listening to the Vessantara Jataka in a single day.
(2) The Buddha-to-be was born as Prince Vessantara. His beautiful mother, Queen Phusati, had been the chief queen of Indra, king of the gods, in heaven. When all her merit had been used up and it was time for Indra to send her back to earth, he granted her ten wishes, one of which was that she would have a generous, glorious son revered by kings. Prince Vessantara’s father, King Sanjaya, was wealthy beyond measure and honored by all.
(3) For his entire life, starting on the very day he was born, Prince Vessantara was generous beyond compare – when anyone asked him for something, he gave it to them. By the time he was married with children, he was giving away six hundred thousand coins worth of alms per day. His generosity was so legendary that when a neighboring kingdom suffered a drought and famine, he donated his auspicious white elephant, which brought rain wherever it went, to help them. The people of his own kingdom were furious over this, believing that ruin would soon befall them. Every citizen demanded that he be banished to Vankagiri mountain (Thai versions of the story usually call it Khao Wongkot, “Labyrinth Mountain”) deep in the Himalayan wilderness for his terrible decision, and his father had no choice but to agree.
(4) Prince Vessantara rejected the idea that he had done anything wrong, but agreed to leave for the sake of harmony; and his wife, Maddi, chose to keep the family together and go with him. Before he had to depart the city, he spent all of his last day offering the “Gift of the Seven Hundreds,” which was giving away seven hundred of many kinds of things, from elephants, to cows, to slaves, to foods. 1
(5) The next day Prince Vessantara and his family rode off in a carriage pulled by four horses, giving out ornaments adorned with jewels to beggars they met along the road. When these were gone, some brahmins asked for the horses and carriage, which he gave without hesitation, so they had to walk.
(6) Their new forest home was a long, long way away, though the gods supported Prince Vessantara and magically shortened their journey. And Indra built them two huts surrounded by a garden. Once they arrived, the family all began living as ascetics, eating roots and fruits and wearing clothes made of natural materials.
(7) There was a decrepit old brahmin named Jujaka (Chuchok in Thai) with a very young wife, Amittatapana, who was given to him in lieu of a debt.
(8) Amittatapana took very good care of her husband. So good that some men in their village criticized their own wives for not being as good as her, and the resulting arguments led to some of these men beating their wives. 2
(9) The other women of the village blamed Amittatapana for their problems at home and grew to hate her. One day when she went to fill her water pot at the river she heard some women speaking ill of her, and she went home in tears.
(10) Amittatapana gave Jujaka an ultimatum: get her some domestic help or she would leave him. He didn’t have enough money to hire workers or buy slaves, so she suggested that he go to Vankagiri and ask for the Prince Vessantara’s children as slaves. Jujaka first traveled to the prince’s kingdom to ask how to find him, but people there attacked him, saying that greedy people like him were the cause of the prince’s banishment. But the gods, wanting to support the prince’s generosity, guided Jujaka onto the correct roads.
(11) As he walked through the forest, Jujaka was chased by a pack of dogs and he climbed a tree to safety. A forester who vowed to protect Prince Vessantara found Jujaka and was about to kill him, but he lied and said he was sent by the king to tell Prince Vessantara that he had been forgiven and could return home. Hearing this good news, the forester gave Jujaka directions to Vankagiri mountain and some food for the journey.
(12) The forester told Jujaka to visit the ascetic Accuta to get directions for the final part of the path. Accuta also assumed Jujaka had bad intentions, but Jujaka said he was only going to pay his respects, not take Prince Vessantara’s wife or children. Accuta believed him and pointed him in the right way.
(13) The morning before Jujaka arrived, Maddi had a dream that a man cut out her eyes, cut off her arms, and ripped out her heart. She asked her husband what it meant, and though Prince Vessantara knew that it foretold someone coming to ask for their children today, he did not want her to worry about it. He lied and said it meant nothing. So Maddi went to the forest to collect food as normal.
(14) Jujaka waited until Maddi was gone and then came to ask for the children. Prince Vessantara, who had not been able to offer charity for many months, gladly agreed to give them away.
(15) The children heard them talking and ran off and hid in a lake. But their father followed their footprints and brought them back.
(16) Prince Vessantara asked that the children be allowed to say good bye to their mother before they left, and he also suggested that Jujaka, instead of making them slaves, take the children to his father who would pay a big reward. But Jujaka rejected both ideas. Jujaka tied the children’s wrists and whipped them like cattle as they walked down the path. The sight of his children, bloody and in pain, made Prince Vessantara doubt his quest for perfect generosity. He broke into tears and momentarily considered killing Jujaka. But he used his superior mental ability to calm his mind and concentrate on nonattachment until he felt calm again.
(17) The gods knew that when Maddi returned and learned that Prince Vessantara had given away her children she would run after them, and she could get hurt. So three gods became a tiger, lion, and leopard and blocked her from following the path home until it was evening.
(18) Prince Vessantara did not want to upset her, and so even as she begged him, he would not tell her where the children were. So Maddi spent the whole night searching for the children in the trees, fields, and caves around their home where they loved to play. When morning broke, she was so distraught that she fainted. Prince Vessantara revived her and then finally revealed what he had done. She was relieved that they were not dead and not angry with him because she understood that he was on a quest for perfection. They both believed that they would see their children again someday.
(19) Knowing that Maddi was the only thing of value that Prince Vessantara still possessed, and wanting to support his perfect generosity, Indra took human form and went to take her. The prince said yes, and Maddi felt joy at her husband’s achievement. But right after this, Indra revealed himself, returning Maddi and granting Prince Vessantara eight wishes. He first wish was for his father to let him come home very soon.
(20) The gods took care of the children on their journey. Each night Jujaka tied them up on the ground while he slept up in a tree, safely out of the reach of wild animals. And when he fell asleep, gods took the shape of the children’s mother and father. They untied them and gave them good food and a heavenly couch to sleep on.
(21) During the day, the gods guided Jujaka along the wrong path so that he went to the Prince Vessantara’s city instead of his own village.
(22) Jujaka was brought before the king, who was overjoyed to see his grandchildren. The king convinced Jujaka to accept payment for the children, which included a seven-story mansion. Jujaka went to his new home and ate so much meat that he died that same day.
(23) When the king heard about how difficult life in the forest was for them, he decided to lift his son’s banishment and prepared a grand caravan to go retrieve him. They were so happy to see each other that they all fainted. Indra sent a rain to revive them and the family had a joyous reunion. Prince Vessantara forgave his father and his father made him the new king.
(24) Prince Vessantara mounted his sacred elephant, which had been returned by the other king, and after a year he triumphantly returned home. Indra caused a rain of the seven precious jewels that filled the entire city knee-deep and Prince Vessantara collected them all, filling the royal treasuries full enough to support a lifetime of generosity.