The Buddha's birth is the stuff of legends in the subcontinent to this day. Born into the chief family of the Shakya clan to King Suddhodhana and Queen Mayadevi, His given name was Siddhartha while Gautama was the family name. As a Kshatriya, His sovereign right extended over present-day Lumbini and Kapilavastu located in the East of the subcontinent. However, all this is merely extrinsic fact. Folk tales have it that His promise of enlightenment was conspicuous since His very birth, an event that has been portrayed with great exquisiteness in this superbly detailed thangka.
In patrilocal Eastern India, it has been the norm for an expecting mother to give birth to the baby in her father's home (mayka) as opposed to her husband's (sasuraal). The resplendent Queen Mother was making the customary journey when she came across a particularly handsome grove and decided to camp there to soak in natural appeal for a while. While her entourage of handmaidens were setting up the tents, she paced up to an alluring saal tree and took a branch in her hand. At once she caught herself in the throes of labour. While her handmaidens held up a sheet to conceal her, she had the fateful delivery right then and there, standing erect with the saal branch in her right hand as her only means of support. This happened to have been the start of a tradition of female iconography in thangka: amply endowed, swivelled hips and arm raised over the head, symbolic of fertility and divinity.
Her face is pale from the exhaustion and her torso is flushed. Yet she extends her left hand in blessing over her child, her classical countenance composured in maternal cheer. Legend has it that the baby took seven steps the moment He emerged from her womb, a rubescent lotus blooming on the verdant forest floors where He set his holy foot. The Hindu creator-preserver-destroyer trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva looked on from svargalok (the higher realm of existence equivalent to the heavens) with folded palms, testifying to His holiness. It was then that the baby declared that there is none like Him, the finger raised above the head to include all the three realms of existence in His declaration.
The sheer extent of detail in this painting renders it a jewel among Exotic India's collection of thangkas. The saal tree has been given a curvature so lifelike and a crown so luxuriant, no wonder Queen Mayadevi was struck by its allure. Each blade of grass, curve of the leaves, and outline of animals in the woods have been marked out by the team of monks that put together this work of art, all the way to the background where the pristine towers of her sasuraal-kingdom is visible in the distance. Note how one of the handmaidens holding up the sheet has taken to folding her hands in greeting to the divine, by tucking her end of the sheet under her arms in order to not let it slip. The theme of the painting is so intensely spiritual, the pastels employed so strong, that this thangka is bound to suffuse your space with divinity and beauty.
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