Illustration of "Nine-Coloured Deer Jātaka"
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West wall of Mogao Cave 257
Northern Wei period
Copy by Chang Shuhong
This mural illustrating the jātaka (stories of Śākyamuni's previous births) tale of a nine-coloured deer is meant to promote the Buddhist concept of "benevolence and good deeds will bring good retribution; ungratefulness and evil deeds will incur severe punishment". This is also the only jātaka illustration at Mogao Caves using an animal as the protagonist. The mural is located in Cave 257 of the Northern Wei period. Its content is based on the Nine-Coloured Deer Jātaka translated into Chinese by Zhiqian from the Wu Kingdom of the Three Kingdoms period.
This jātaka tells of the story of a nine-coloured deer (one of the previous births of Śākyamuni) saving a man from drowning but the ungrateful man went to the palace to disclose the whereabouts of the deer and led the king to pursue the antlers and fur of the deer. The fearless deer appealed to the king by exposing the treachery of the man. Deeply moved, the king issued an order to forbid his countrymen from hunting the deer. The ungrateful man suffered from sores all over his body in return for violating his pledge.
Portrayal of characters (Figure 1)
The painter excels in depicting the inner world of the characters through details. For instance, the deer is not portrayed as kneeling before the king as narrated in the jātaka tale, but standing tall and holding its head high while making an eloquent appeal. The image is meant to emphasise the fearless nature of noble beings in the face of brutal force. The king's compassion and concern for the deer is expressed by his lowered head while listening to the appeal of the latter.
In the scene depicting the man betraying the whereabouts of the deer to the king, the image of the queen hints coquettishness. She is resting one hand on the king's shoulder and another on her left knee; her fingers slightly flipping outward; the exposed sole suggesting she is tapping her feet. The overall image shows that she is very pleased and confident with her plot.
Colour scheme (Figure 1)
The colour scheme of the mural is very decorative. The earth-red background creates a rich and profound visual effect. Hues are alternately used to depict the houses and the chariot. The mountain peaks in the foreground are represented by malachite green, ocher red, white and black in alternation. The painting is interspersed with flowers and other vegetation depicted in white and green, further accentuating the decorative effect of the entire painting.
Portrayal of horses (Figure 2)
A black, a turquoise and a white horse are depicted in the painting. Their pointed jaw and narrow belly are typical of the horses in ancient Chinese paintings. They have flex legs and small hooves. Although the legs appear slender, the horses appear stout and powerful. Their prick-up ears and the intensely bridled horse head suggest that the horses could have been sneezing and ready to speed off. The horse of turquoise colour, which does not exist in reality, is the painter's ingenious creation. This mural is a fine example of the early jātaka illustrations at Dunhuang.