Xuanzang and the Silk Road Pt. 3

December 17, 2010

Jinja Taishou on the left and Xuanzang on the right. Close up of 85-28-9.

The iconography of Xuanzang, and its history,  is quite fascinating.   Bearing the typical shaved head of a Buddhist monk, Xuanzang is depicted in our painting with a large backpack of sutras, a canopy over his head (with a hanging incense burner) and holding a scroll in his left hand and a fly wisk in his right.   The backpack has an opening at the top so you can actually see the sides of the scrolls that he has collected (presumably to bring back to China).  These scrolls represent only a fraction of the material he would have collected while traveling in India.   What is curious is the use of rolled scrolls to represent Indian Buddhist texts.  The actual texts would have almost certainly been palm leaf manuscripts with sanskrit characters inscribed into the leaf.  In an article in the journal “T’ang Studies”, Professor Victor Mair speculates that at some point  the iconography of itinerant storytellers, who used pictures scrolls to to teach Buddhism along the Silk Road, must have been mapped onto depictions of Xuanzang!  This explains why instead of flat, palm leaf manuscripts, he has the large backpack of scrolls.  Additionally the fly whisk and incense burner are both props often utilized by these picture storytellers. One almost wonders why we can attribute the figure to Xuanzang at all!

There is one way.  Next to Xuanzang is the demon Jinja Taishou 深沙大将. Depicted with red skin,  elephant-headed pants, a skull necklace, and holding a snake, Jinja Taishou supposedly appeared to Xuanzang in a dream and helped him find his way through Central Asia while en route to India.  Legend tells that Xuanzang helped convert him to Buddhism and so he therefore appears opposite him in this painting.  His presence lends credence to the assertion that this monk is indeed Xuanzang.   The full explanation of Jinja Taishou’s iconography, however, remains elusive to me at this point.  I hope to find out more in the future. (for starters, why is there a child’s face on his belly?)

In the next post I hope to talk a little bit about my visit to Yakushiji Temple which came about because of a courier trip to Nara.  I went seeking a similar statue to one we loaned to the Nara National Museum but ended up  face-to-face with a beautiful pagoda dedicated in Xuanzang’s memory!