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Notes on the Geography of Peninsular India: Ajanta: Photo 92

world pictures Peninsular India: Ajanta

Many of the walls are covered with illustrations of a Jataka, the hundreds of ancient tales of the Buddha's past lives. This is one of the more famous ones, the Chaddanta Jataka, a tale of the Buddha as an elephant with six tusks.

The story? King of the herd, the six-tusked elephant has two wives. One is jealous of the other and decides to kill her husband. She becomes human as a queen and, as such, commissions a hunter to bring her her husband's tusks. It takes the hunter seven years, seven months, and seven days (naturally) to find the elephant. When he does, the elephant allows the hunter to take his tusks. When the hunter isn't up to the task, the elephant cuts them off for him, then dies in agony. The hunter takes the tusks to the queen. Overcome with remorse, she dies. The end.

Over 500 jataka were translated from Pali into English about 1900 under the direction of E.B. Cowell, a Cambridge professor of Sanskrit. The stories vary in length as modern short stories do, but their tone is from a different universe. This, the Chaddanta Jataka is No. 514 in the Cambridge series and begins like this: "Once upon a time eight thousand royal elephants, by the exercise of supernatural powers moving through the air, dwelt near lake Chaddanta in the Himalayas. At this time the Bodhisatta came to life as the son of the chief elephant. He was a pure white, with red feet and face."

And so on until the last sentence: "And at the remembrance of the Great Being she was filled with so great sorrow that she could not endure it, but her heart then and there was broken and that very day she died."

(E.B. Cowell, ed., The Jataka; or, Stories of the Buddha's Former Births, Cambridge University Press, six volumes, 1895-1913. The Chaddanta Jataka is in Volume V, pp. 20-31.)

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