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Three kalaga (wall hangings) Illustrating the Vessantara Jataka

Black velvet with appliqué and sequins

Burma/Myanmar; 19th Century
BC 90.0201.02-03; Northern Illinois University
Bennett Collection

Decoupage wall hangings are especially characteristic of Burma/Myanmar and consist of fabric pieces, needlepoint, jewels, sequins, glass beads and metallic threads (frequently of gold and silver) appliquéd onto a dark background in silk or velvet. Such assemblages were originally very costly and were necessarily commissioned under royal patronage. This textile art, also known as Shwei-gyi (i.e., gold thread) became quite popular at the court of King Mindon (1815-1878).

Large kalaga like these were used either as wall décor or as room dividers within sacred interiors; inside temples or monasteries, or perhaps a royal palace. They usually, but not invariably, illustrated religious themes: most frequently stories from legendary previous incarnations of the Buddha, formalized in the Pali Canon as the Jataka.

This exhibit presents an original set of three splendid kalaga comprising different episodes of the Vessantara Jataka, probably the best-known and most-beloved Jataka, as well as the last of the complete 547 Jataka tales. The Vessantara Jataka illustrates the extraordinary generosity of Prince Vessantara, whose final act of selflessness was to give away his wife and children (which in due course are eventually returned).


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