There is so much to a thangka that meets the eye at first glance, and infinitely more that does not. Typically consisting of a central motif, in this case the haloed Buddha Himself, several images branch out from this central motif in skilfully expressed transitions. This thangka revolves around the life of the great Buddha, His enlightened form replete with a bejewelled aureole and in bhumisparsha mudra ('bhumi' means earth and 'sparsh' means touch, in Sanskrit) at the centre, sitting atop a colourful lotus.
The rich life of the Buddha has been portrayed in extensive detail in this painting. For example, in the top left corner, Queen Mayadevi is depicted asleep in her regal chamber, dreaming of the white elephant that is considered in folklore the precursor to His birth as Prince Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakya clan. Beneath it is the image of the birth itself: Queen Mayadevi is in the middle of a forest, the branch of a saal tree in her clutches, as she gives birth to the Buddha. He emerges from her womb, takes seven steps that cause seven lotuses to bloom on the forest floors, and is blessed by no less than the Hindu trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva. To the right of the central figure, the young prince is sitting in the middle of the forest, cutting off his regal mane with his own hands, having renounced at that point the luxurious life he had lived till then.
Further right is a highly thought-provoking image of the solitary Buddha, meditating under a tree. The bottom left corner of the thangka depicts the princely regime of the Shakyamuni. He is sitting cross-legged in the lap of luxury in one image; in another He is frolicking in the palace gardens on his royal pony. Further upwards, He is seen to be mastering the Kshatriya skills of hunting and swimming in the forests surrounding His father's kingdom that was to pass to him. Note how stark the contrast these motifs constitute with the pallid image of death portrayed on the top right side of the Enlightened One in the centre - one of the fateful sights that transformed Him from prince to ascetic and paved the way for His wondrous enlightenment.
This is one of the densest, most gorgeously painted thangkas from the Exotic India collection. Typically, even the simplest paintings of this genre take half a year - and an army of monks with superior training in religion and art - to complete. Do not overlook the soothing confluence of each motif into another, brought about with sections of the skies, forest greenery, and streams done in luxuriant pastels. Note how each crop of greenery, be they the crowns of the ample trees that grace this thangka or the bushes at the feet of the Buddha at various points in the painting, is generously ornamented. The complex motifs of clouds and dragons, a staple of Sino-Tibetan art, contain the painting.
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