The Dying Princess

The scene depicted in the ‘Dying Princess’ takes place after Buddha’s arrival at Kapilavastu.

The Buddha had, by the time being talked about, attained enlightenment, amassing, in due course, a wide number of followers who had been indoctrinated in the Buddhist teaching, the very pragmatic way of life as the former prince of Kapilavastu saw it. Given that the srāvakas (direct disciples) had been engaged in fanning out these Buddhist teachings far and wide, it was indeed no wonder that Suddhodana, the reigning Sakya king at Kapilavastu (and the father of the Buddha), having heard of his son’s presence at Rajagriha, planned on sending out emissaries to bring him back to the place of his birth.
Nine messengers were sent as a result; each one of them, with the very simple task of conveying the invitation extended by the father, their King, to the son, the Buddha.
These nine emissary leaders, on reaching Rajagriha, and having already had a conversation with the Buddha, were so impressed with the way of life. He put forth, that they, renouncing the royal titles and their noble dynastic identities, and vowing to put an end to all worldly attachments and desires, entered the order of the Sangha, becoming srāvakas, or direct disciples of the Buddha himself, in quest of attaining arahant-hood.
Back at Kapilavastu however, with none of the emissaries or their retinues having returned, and no communication having been made from their end, a dejected King Suddhodana decides to send out Kaludayi, an efficient administrator, son of another of his most prominent nobles, and a childhood play-fellow of the Buddha, to bring his son back, or if he himself doesn’t return (joining the Sangha was what even Kaludayi demanded the kingly imprimatur for, beforehand), to at-least convey the invitation to the Buddha, asking Him to return to Kapilavastu as and when possible, and to, as noted in a dialogue between Kaludayi (also called Udayi) and the Buddha in the 13th-century Buddhist text (written in Sri Lanka) Jinacaritam, a poem by Ven Medhankara, (translated into English by Anandajoti Bhikku, under the auspices of, and published by the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, Singapore) “be of assistance to his relatives”.
Upon reaching Rajagriha, Kaludayi, unlike the other emissary leaders who had joined the Sangha, and having been ordained thus, disobeyed their King’s command, did succeed in conveying His father’s message to the Buddha. “Reverend Sir, your father the famous and excellent King Suddhodana wishes to see you; let the Sole Protector of the World’s Benefit, the Realised One, be of assistance to his relatives”, he says.
The Buddha, “He who delights in the World’s Benefit”, having heard his childhood companion inform him about this invitation extended to him by his father, set out with a group of 20,000 arahants in order to accompany him on his travel. “Sixty leagues”, he walked at peace, followed by his disciples, covering the land distance between Rajagriha and Kapilavastu, His destination, within two months.
The scene depicted in the ‘Dying Princess’ (Cave 16 at Ajanta) takes place after Buddha’s arrival at Kapilavastu. Sundara Nanda, the protagonist of Ashvaghosha’s literary work ‘Sundara-nanda’ and the groom-to-be of the ‘Dying Princess’ (Janapada Kalyani Nanda) in question, was, by his identity, a prince of the Sakyas, inheritor to the Sakya throne at Kapilavastu (since Buddha, the ceremonial crown prince, had renounced all worldly attachments and become an ascetic), son of Buddha’s father Suddhodhana and his foster mother Mahapajapati Gotami, and therefore, a half brother of the Lord himself.
Regarding the painting at Ajanta, John Griffiths, a British painter, and one who was a part of the reproductions of the Ajanta murals, popularly says, „For pathos and sentiment and the unmistakable way of telling its story, this picture cannot be surpassed in the history of art.” However, what is more appealing here, is the deep-rooted psychological insight it provides, into the minds of a family member or one to be (specifically here, a lover), when the one, the person in question cares for, decides to renounce his/her worldly attachments, severe all ties and bindings that hold him/her back to this mortal world, and joins a sangha, taking an oath of affirmation to the great monastic vows under the directions of the Buddha himself!
Even the great Sakya king Suddhodhana, after getting to know (from Buddha’s wife Yashodhara) that the “Lord of Gods” had been moving from house to house, begging for alms, approaches his son, and resents. “Noble Sakya, this is not the way of your lineage! Do not roam about, do not roam about! In our lineage, Son, not even one King in former times roamed about for alms”, he says. Buddha however responds saying, “Great King, that is your lineage! But my lineage is the lineage of the Buddhas!”
The feeling of belonging is perhaps better justified through the renunciation of Buddha’s half-sister Sundari Nanda. By the time the Buddha would leave Kapilavastu, he would have already ordained Sundara Nanda (Buddha would make him join the sangha, but very soon, weary of the life led by monks and his desire to meet his bride Kalyani, Nanda would want to go back and live the life of a layman. Thus, the Lord would take him on a journey to the Trāyastriṃśa, the world of maya where the thirty-three devas lived, ruled at the helm by Sakra, the Buddhist equivalent of Indra (the Hindu king of the pantheon). On the way up, they would find a scalded she-monkey “who had lost her ears, nose, and tail in a fire, clinging to a burnt-up stump in a scorched field” and then, once up on top, celestial nymphs and beautiful maidens (somewhat similar to the concept of an apsara in Hinduism). Buddha would then ask Nanda who he thinks is more beautiful; Janapada Kalyāni or the celestial nymphs. Nanda would then make a choice no one would have ever expected him to. “Venerable Sir, Janapada Kalyāni is like the singed monkey when compared to those celestial nymphs, who are infinitely more beautiful and fair.”, he would reply. Buddha would, in turn, take this opportunity to entice the young prince to perform penance and strive to attain arahant-hood, which he would succeed at, sometime later. “I guarantee that you will possess them if you persevere as I bid you”, the One true Lord of the Cosmos would reply), the prince Rahula (when in Kapilavastu, Rāhula, urged by Yashodhara, went to claim the Sakya throne for himself from the crown prince Buddha, who, in turn, passed onto him the knowledge of a true arahant, and consecrated him to the monastic order, thus making him the youngest Bhikkhu) and some of the other members of the royal family in the likes of his first cousins Ananda, and Dibbacakkhukānań Anuruddha, both of whom would go on to be renowned ascetics themselves. Mahapajapati Gotami (the first Bhikkhuni), princess Yashodhara, and the “dying princess” Janapada Kalyani Nanda (who attained arahant-hood later, on hearing to the Buddha’s discourse of Kayavicchandika Sutta) would soon, after the death of the great King Suddhodhana, accept the Garudhammas and enter the monastic order of life. Interestingly now, the Buddha’s sister, Sundari, accepted the Garudhammas not because she was drawn to the monastic way of life, but because everyone she cared for, had renounced worldly attachments, and become an arahant.
Coming back to the hagiography of the person of our interest (Sundara Nanda), it was the Buddha who personally admitted his younger brother into the monastic order on the third day of his visit. The entire story has been vividly narrated in ‘the Buddha and his relatives’ by the Sinhalese Theravada monk, Narada Mahathera.
Shifting the focus back to the painting at Ajanta, one is able to, with a closer look, in the background, find erected plantain leaves that might have been meant for the mandapa decorations on the day of the wedding. The bedecked princess, who had, sometime earlier, seen the young prince follow the Buddha with a bowl in his hand (as detailed by Narada Mahāthera, the young bride ran “with tears streaming down her cheeks and hair half-combed, as fast as she could and said to him: “Return quickly, O noble Lord!”), reclines back on what seems to be a bed, supported by a female attendant and some bereaved relatives around, her eyes half-closed, her body low-spirited but otiose, and her swarthy head hung down in despair and despondency. The complexion however, could have, for clarification, been inspired by the artistic depictions of women in what scholars call the Dakshinapatha.
Nonetheless, the perspectives that the Ajanta artist has so verily tried to highlight through this painting, using finite pigments in hand and yet creating a perfect blend of shades and colours to bring about a multi-dimensional aspect of asceticism as seen through the lenses of psychology, make it well defensible that there has been a greater heuristic focus on the emotional and spiritual side of things, rather than on the aesthetic theory concerning the proportion of the use of colours (although the appreciation of what has been penned down in the Vishnudharmothara is seen), for that has clearly been driven by an extramundane demand.
Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author, columnist and podcaster. He is the recipient of the Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, and the honorary Colonelcy of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, US, for his contributions to art and culture. De can be reached at