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HindustanTimes Thu,17 Apr 2014

Those unknown ‘Tarzans of the Apse’

Renuka Narayanan , Hindustan Times   May 05, 2013
First Published: 02:26 IST(5/5/2013) | Last Updated: 02:28 IST(5/5/2013)

That’s a pun I’ve pinched from American cookery queen Julia Child’s lovely book ‘My Life in France’ (her husband, Paul, though suffering from vertigo, gamely climbed the upper reaches of a church to do repair work and won the nickname ‘Tarzan of the Apse’). We know about Michelangelo lying on the rigging to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but who knows who did those elegant dry murals in the early centuries of the last millennium in the Ajanta Caves?

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I mean, don’t you wonder sometimes who those artists were out in the jungle, commissioned by ‘King Harisena’, painting those big Jatakas in which the Boddhisattva took human birth? Especially, what ‘divya drishti’ was given to the muralist who painted ‘Avalokiteswara Padmapani’ (5th century CE, Cave 1), whom we’ve grown up with? As to which, what about the Unknown Storyteller? In haunting resonance with King Solomon’s judgment in 1 Kings 3:16-28 is this intense Jataka retold by TW Rhys Davids (1880):

“A woman, carrying her child, went to the future Buddha's tank to wash. And having first bathed the child, she put on her upper garment and descended into the water to bathe herself.

Then a Yakshini, seeing the child, had a craving to eat it. Taking the form of a woman, she drew near, and (after a little chat) carried it off.

But when the mother saw this, she ran after her, and cried out, “Where are you taking my child to?” The Yakshini boldly said, “Where did you get the child from? It is mine!” And so quarreling, they passed the door of the future Buddha's Judgment Hall.

(When they agreed to abide by his decision) he had a line drawn on the ground; and told the Yakshini to take hold of the child's arms, and the mother to take hold of its legs; and said, “The child shall be hers who drags him over the line.” But as soon as they pulled at him, the mother, seeing how he suffered, grieved as if her heart would break. And letting him go, she stood there weeping.” (The real mother would give up her child rather than risk its safety, as the Bodhisattva and King Solomon both knew she would).

With Easter barely over and Buddha Purnima coming up this month, it’s testimony indeed to the universal power of bhakti that these stories were told so long ago and people risked life and limb ever after to serve them.

— writes on religion and cultureshebaba09@gmail.com


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