Jataka Tale

Jataka Tale: Syama

The complete Syama jataka tale mural.   Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

The complete Syama jataka tale mural. Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

Jataka tales tell of the Buddha's many previous lifetimes. The Syama jataka tale is about one of the Buddha’s previous incarnations as Syama, the filial son who made a point to look after his hermit parents even at his most vulnerable moment in life. 

One day Syama was fetching water from a river in the forest when the king of Benares killed him with an arrow. On his deathbed, Syama asked the king to take care of his blind, hermit parents in his stead.

A mural on the eastern side of the gabled ceiling in cave 302 depicts a continuous narrative painting of the Syama jataka tale. 


Detail of the king of Benares going hunting from the Syama jataka tale mural.   Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

Detail of the king of Benares going hunting from the Syama jataka tale mural. Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

In this section of the mural from Cave 302, the viewer is introduced to the king of Benares who sits under an azurite blue pavilion at his palace and addresses a group of kneeling attendants. The scenes progress as the setting transforms from the palace to the forest.

Sporting an extravagantly red outfit (possibly painted using a red iron oxide pigment), the king waves goodbye to his attendants as he sets off on his royal horse in preparation for his hunt in the forest.


Detail of the king of Benares shooting Syama from the Syama jataka tale mural.   Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

Detail of the king of Benares shooting Syama from the Syama jataka tale mural. Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

Ethereal deer frolic between foliage and across this section of the mural, transitioning viewers to the introduction of Syama.

Syama quietly crouches beside a flowing stream among the trees. He wears deerskins so as not to startle the other woodland creatures. Camouflaged in the forest, he becomes the unsuspecting target of the king's arrow. He is caught ladling water when the arrow flies in his direction. 

The refreshing hue of the water in the river may be attributed to the bright mineral atacamite.

Detail of the king of Benares descending from his horse after he shoots Syama from the Syama jataka tale mural.   Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

Detail of the king of Benares descending from his horse after he shoots Syama from the Syama jataka tale mural. Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.


Detail of the dying Syama from the Syama jataka tale mural.   Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

Detail of the dying Syama from the Syama jataka tale mural. Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

In this image, Syama is dying. With his last words, he tells the king of Benares about his blind, hermit parents with whom he lives in the forest. He makes a plea to the king to protect them.

The viewer can almost hear Syama's respect and love for his parents in the dignified portrait of the couple who float behind him.


In this following section of the mural, the king makes a humble visit to Syama’s parents to tell them what happened to their son. He leads their distraught figures to Syama’s body by the river.

Detail of the king of Benares visiting Syama's parents from the Syama jataka tale mural.   Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

Detail of the king of Benares visiting Syama's parents from the Syama jataka tale mural. Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.


Detail of Syama's mourning parents from the Syama jataka tale mural.   Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

Detail of Syama's mourning parents from the Syama jataka tale mural. Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

Sobbing, Syama's parents embrace the body of their only child. The father holds Syama by the head while the mother holds him by his legs.

The grieving parents swear aloud that if the heavens knew of Syama’s love for them, he could probably come back to life.

At that moment, the guardian deity Indra flies down from the heavens holding a jar of medicine.

Detail of Indra from the Syama jataka tale mural.   Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

Detail of Indra from the Syama jataka tale mural. Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

Moved by the king's penitence and the hermit parents' grief, the gods restore Syama to complete health. The final scene in the Dunhuang mural depicts Syama's return to the world of the living and joyful reunion with his parents.

Detail of the reunited family from the Syama jataka tale mural.   Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

Detail of the reunited family from the Syama jataka tale mural. Mogao Cave 302. Sui, 581-618 CE. Dunhuang. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.