Ink and color on wood; 2 1/4 x 12 15/16 in. (5.7 x 32.7 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Eisenberg, 1984 (1984.479.1b)
Early Nepalese and Indian books derive their format from the long, narrow pieces of dried palm leaf that serve as their pages. The horizontal leaves were not bound together but, rather, kept in sequence by strings that passed through holes. These, in turn, were aligned with others inside wooden covers, which kept the pages flat and safe when the book was stored. The inside surfaces of these covers were often richly illuminated with groups of deities and, less frequently, scenes from the Buddha's life. Usually, little correspondence can be found between the subject of the paintings and the text recorded in the manuscripts.
This cover, one of a pair, is painted with scenes from the past lives of the Buddha (jatakas) as well as from his historic life. It is divided into several scenes. At the far left, a bodhisattva adores Prajnaparamita, the Goddess of Transcendent Wisdom, seated in a shrine. In the center, the Buddha in a former life receives a gift of honey from a monkey. To the left of this scene, a figure, possibly a Buddha, sits on and leans against a cropping of rock while another figure appears before a cloth screen. At the right, a woman emerges from a palace and walks toward two seated figures, observed from above by two gods. Nepalese paintings such as these preserve a naturalism that harks back to the great Indian cave painting of Ajanta and, curiously, is seldom found in Indian manuscripts of the same period.