University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Identifying the Celestial Beings


November 10, 2014

In my previous post I explained how we identified the Buddha in our Tejaprabha mural.  But what about the other figures?  If we take a close look at the mural we notice that many of the figures have different attributes. For instance, they may be holding something in their hand or have a mark in their headdress. These are clues to their identities. Take the figure (second in from the left) who has a white disk in her hair.

The moon with a white disc in her headdress.
The moon with a white disc in her headdress.

A quick look at the text that this mural is based on reveals that she is most likely one of the following celestial beings: the Sun, the Moon, the five planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) or Rahu and Ketu (representing eclipses).  We could reason that this is either the Sun or the Moon given their disc-like appearance.  If we look to her left we see an attendant holding a rabbit.  This is how we know that the female figure is in fact the Moon, as the rabbit is associated with the moon in Chinese mythology.

Attendant holing rabbit for the Moon.
Attendant holding rabbit for the Moon.

We can then work through each figure identifying them based on their respective attribute and corresponding iconographies.  To left of the Buddha there is a figure holding a pipa with a crow in her headdress. This represents Venus.  Across from her on the other side of the Buddha is Mercury, who has a monkey in her headdress.  The Sun is on the right side of the painting with a black disk in his headdress and he is flanked by Jupiter, who holds a plate of peaches. The two eclipsing stars, Rahu and Ketu appear on the right with a sword and a snake.

The Sun with a black disc.
The Sun with a black disc.

 

Jupiter holding a plate of peaches
Jupiter holding a plate of peaches

 

Ketu with a snake
Ketu with a snake

Noticeably absent from the mural is Mars and Saturn. Where did they go? If you draw a line down the middle of the Buddha we can start to speculate where these would have originally appeared since often times Buddhist paradise images such as this one were symmetrical. The left side of the mural looks a little sparse. While the Sun, with his black disc, is surrounded by Jupiter and Rahu and Ketu, the Moon doesn’t have any  major figures to her left. However, if you look closely you can actually just make out a sword right near the moon attendant’s shoulder. This is most likely the sword associated with Mars! He probably appeared with four arms to her left when the mural was complete. Where is Saturn? If I had to speculate he probably would have been right above the Moon’s head, mirroring where Ketu and Rahu reside on the right. It’s possible that this piece was already gone when the mural was moved out of it’s monastery. If the piece of the mural depicting Saturn still exists we would expect to find a figure that looks like an Indian ascetic with a bull symbol.

The other figures in the mural are either Bodhisattvas, attendants, or worshippers and speak to the devotional nature of the mural itself. In my next post I will turn my attention to our other mural showing Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, along with his twelve Yaksa Generals.


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