Vessantara Jatakaya on Stamps – Laos, Thailand and Sri Lanka

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One of my favourite areas to collect (and yes, I know I have too many) is the depiction of Jataka stories on stamps, something made easier by living in Asia. Each “Jatakaya” features a story about a previous birth of the Buddha in either human and animal form. Sri Lanka has issued several Jataka stamps in the past but recently, I got my greedy paws on some great issues from Thailand and Laos featuring the popular Vessantara Jatakaya.

The story in short is about this gormless muppet Vessantara who walks around giving away all his possessions, including his children. As a rather zealous antinatalist, I find this last point upsetting because duh, bringing new humans into this hellhole of a world without their permission is bad enough, but TO GIVE THEM AWAY LIKE THEY ARE YOUR FUCKING PROPERTY? I MEAN SERIOUSLY? However, since Vessantara also becomes the Buddha in a later life, I suppose we should refrain from calling him names. At least he didn’t try to chop their heads off because God asked him to.

So on 5 December 2001, Laos issued a gorgeous set of four stamps depicting scenes from the Vessantara Jatakaya. The relevant section/chapter of the Jatakaya is mentioned on the stamp.

200 K, Himavanta

200 K, Himavanta – Vessantara giving away the magical elephant which brings rain to his kingdom. Dude felt sorry for envoys from his neighbouring country of Kalinga who were facing a massive drought. Suffice to say, his own countrymen were not too pleased and demanded that he be banished. The pouring of water is meant to signify that the requested boon has been granted.

900 K, Vanapavesa

900 K, Vanapavesa – Although he got a chariot in which to leave the kingdom, our genius Vessantara gave that away too, so we find him and his family trudging through the forest, on foot.

3200 K, Kumarakanda 3200 K, Kumarakanda – Vessantara sends his children away to be slaves to a nasty old man, Jujaka who beats the crap out of them.

3600 K, Sakkapabba 3600 K, Sakkapabba – Sakka, the king of the Gods appears in disguise to ask Vessantara for the gift of his wife Maddi and Vessantara complies. This Maddi was obviously a spineless wench because she should have just kicked them both in the goolies and run off with her lesbian lover but to be fair, Sakka was only playing a trick. He gave her right back to Vessantara framing it as “a reward for all the generosity you have shown so far”. Wiley old fox that one.

Going back a few decades now, Sri Lanka issued a lovely set of four stamps in 1972 featuring rock and temple paintings. One of these (35 cents value at top left) happens to feature the scene of Vessantara giving his children to Jujaka, taken from an 18th century painting housed at the Degaldoruwa temple.

A more recent set of 50 stamps issued in 2006 to mark 2550 Years of the Buddhist Era included one stamp featuring a scene from the Vessantara Jatakaya. Adapted from a wall painting at the Bodhirukkharama Maha Viharaya in Eluvapitiya, it features Vessantara’s children cooking Jujaka’s meals because well, they are essentially his slaves.

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So Vessantara Jatakaya is certainly a popular stamp theme because Thailand has also issued a four stamp set in 1998 paying homage to the legend. Is this because everyone secretly dreams of being able to give away their progeny?

To commemorate Visakha Bucha or Visakhapuja Day (Vesak in Sri Lanka) in 1998, Thailand Post issued four stamps featuring scenes from the Totsachat (the Thai-Pali name for stories about the last ten lives of the Buddha). One design featured a scene from the Vithura Chadok, while the other three depict scenes from the Maha Wetsandon Chadok. In Sri Lanka, these are referred to as Vidhura Pandita Jatakaya and Vessantara Jatakaya respectively. The three Vessantara stamps are shown below.

4 baht, Vessantara is banished from his kingdom and travelling in a chariot with his wife and two children. The two stags are supposed to represent deities who have taken the place of Vessantara’s horses which he has already given away. Two men are now asking him for the gift of his chariot and Vessantara obliges

6 baht, Vessantara in the forest with his two children

7 baht, Sakka asking Vessantara to give him Maddi

And to round us off, here is the 1982 Vesak souvenir sheet from Sri Lanka which also features the Vessantara Jatakaya on a lovely background of squiggles. When you turn it upside down, you can see that the squiggles are actually Sinhalese lettering but it seems mostly gibberish because I can’t discern a single word that makes sense. Still, it’s a gorgeous sheet. The paintings are from the Arattana Rajamahaviharaya in Hanguranketa.

The 35 cent stamp shows Vessantara giving away his rainmaker elephant while the 50 cent one depicts the scene where he and Maddi go into the forest with their two children. Those two strange creatures atop the mountain? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Rs 2.50 stamp shows his children being gifted to Jujaka who takes them away, beating them as he goes. The final scene is a happy ending where everyone is reunited and brought back home in a glorious royal chariot procession. Because you know what? YOU JUST GOTTA GIVE ALL YOUR SHIT AWAY AND HAVE SOME FAITH BECAUSE EVERYTHING TURNS OUT PEACHY IN THE END.

Yeah right.

Are there any other depictions of this Jatakaya on stamps that I have missed? Let me know in the comments!

One thought on “Vessantara Jatakaya on Stamps – Laos, Thailand and Sri Lanka

  1. Those two strange creatures atop the mountain are (I think) kinnaras (or kinnarees) on Mount Vamka or Vamka (at the foot of which they build their hermitage), or possibly Mount Nalika which they pass on the way to get there. The 1901 Cowell and Rouse translation of the Jataka—the one on the sacred texts website, which is the first thing that comes up when I try to look it up—renders “kinnara” variously as spirit, sprite and fairy, which is sort of funny for sheer inappropes? And indicates that both mountains and this general neighbourhood are generally spirit-haunted and populated by “unhuman beings”, until these assholes move in and gentrify the place. This might be what the stamp is trying to convey.

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