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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 6.1 (2023): 336–378;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Buddhist Narrative Literature)

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Maitreya, the Saviour? Enigmatic ‘Mahābodhisatvas’ in Kucha

Monika ZIN
Saxon Academy of Sciences and Humanities / Leipzig University

Abstract: Narrative art requires pictorial conventions to convey the content of pictures. Artists have to provide information about the social status of a person, the place and time of an event, etc., without employing words. Pictorial conventions have to be consistent to be understandable; any deviation will be detected and is therefore probably meaningful. In paintings from Kucha, a clear distinction is made between the headgear of a king and the hairdo of a Brahmanical ascetic. However, in a number of jātaka representations the self-sacrificing king is shown with the hairstyle of a Brahmanical ascetic. There even are jātaka paintings in which the Bodhisatva is shown with a mandorla—a feature reserved in Kucha exclusively for the samyaksaṃbuddhas and the ‘Mahābodhisatvas’ like the future Buddha Maitreya. It is obvious that the paintings are transmitting a particular message. But how would a viewer in the past have understood, for example, an image of the King Pradīpapradyota—shown guiding the merchants on their way with his hands burning—represented with the ascetic hairdo of Maitreya… or rather, of Avalokiteśvara?

Keywords: Kucha, Buddhist murals, self-sacrifice, Maitreya, Avalokiteśvara


About the Author: Prof. Monika Zin is the head of the research group ‘Buddhist Murals of Kucha on the Northern Silk Road’ at the Saxon Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Leipzig, Germany. She studied Dramatics, Literature, Art History, and Indology in Krakow and Munich where she also taught Art of South and Central Asia for twenty-five years. Zin’s dissertation focussed on the Sanskrit dramas discovered in Trivandrum; for her second dissertation (Habilitation) she studied the paintings at Ajanta. Among her research contributions are monographs (Ajanta – Handbook of the Paintings 2: Devotional and Ornamental Paintings, Wiesbaden 2003; Compassion and Miracles. Difficult Conversions and their Iconography in Indian Buddhism, Wiesbaden 2007; [with Dieter Schlingloff] Saṃsāracakra. The Wheel of Rebirth in the Indian Tradition, Munich 2007; all written in German; the English edition of Saṃsāracakra. The Wheel of Rebirth in the Indian Tradition was published in 2022) as well as numerous shorter studies on Buddhist narrative art ranging from Kucha in Central Asia to Borobudur on Java. One of her long-term research interests is the art of ancient Āndhradeśa; her book on the stūpa at Kanaganahalli (Karnataka) was published in Delhi in 2018. Her book Representations of the Parinirvāṇa Story Cycle in Kucha, the second volume of the Leipzig Kucha Studies, was published in 2020. Her Gods, Deities and Demons in the Paintings of Kucha was published in 2023 and won the prestigious Keimyung Silk Road Award 2023.


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