The Tale of Prince Vishvantara

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During my recent visit to the Humboldt Forum, I also came across a captivating image from a series that dates back to 1837. Crafted in Nepal, this distemper on cotton artwork spans 10 meters and illustrates the life of Prince Vishvantara through 86 sequential scenes. This prince’s life was emblematic of unparalleled generosity, a trait vividly depicted in the artwork. The narrative is accompanied by verses in the Newari language, native to Nepal.

A scene fom The legend of Prince Vishvantara series, Nepal, dated 1837, distemper on cotton. A scene fom The legend of Prince Vishvantara series (Nepal, 1837, distemper on cotton), that I have captured during my latest visit to the Humboldt Forum.

Though from the 19th century, this artwork echoes a deeply rooted Buddhist tradition. It represents the Vishvantara Jataka, a tale recounting one of Buddha Shakyamuni’s previous lives and his acts of compassion. The narrative of Prince Vishvantara, also known in Pali as Vessantara, stands as one of Buddhism’s most celebrated stories. Annually, in various Southeast Asian nations, this tale is honored during festivals. The story is also traditionally showcased on lengthy scroll images, paraded through villages in ceremonial processions.

The legend narrates how Vishvantara, upon his father’s decree, retreats to the forest with his family. Despite previously parting with an elephant, horse, and chariot, the prince’s generosity is further tested when an old Brahmin requests his wife and children. Without hesitation, Vishvantara complies. His unwavering spirit of giving culminates in his rebirth in the Tushita Heaven, exemplifying the pinnacle of generosity.

You can explore the artwork at the Museum for Asian Art in the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.


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