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Book: Narrative Visions and Visual Narratives in Indian Buddhism

Chapter: 4. Visualizing a Teaching: Sermon Scenes in Kucha

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.39990


Moving from text to art, this chapter seeks to explore the role of images and imagery through a study of one of the most interesting early Buddhist artistic sites. Nowhere else in the Buddhist world are so many narratives illustrated as in the cave temples in Kucha. Jātakas, conversion stories, venerations of the Buddha(s), praṇidhis, scenes from the Buddha’s life, particularly from the parinirvāṇa cycle, and Maitreya preaching in Tuṣita heaven – we find as many as 100 narrative representations in a single cave. The settings of depictions located indoors are preset, and they reoccur in the settled iconography.

The jātakas are usually reduced to the single most dramatic moment of action. This is often also the case for scenes including the Buddha, but not for all. The sophisticated pictorial conventions make it possible to represent complex contents, even when the manner of depiction is very minimalistic. One pictorial unit can incorporate portrayals of the same person in different rebirths, or an illustration of the very narrative about which the Buddha, depicted in the same scene, is preaching. These considerations shed light on how images of narratives were being used at this key site, with wider implications for our study of Buddhist narrative art.

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