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Episode 54 - Statue of Tara

Statue of Tara (made between eighth and ninth century AD). Bronze; from Sri Lanka

That's the sound of Buddhist monks chanting - and as you could perhaps hear they are invoking the name of Tara, the spirit of generous compassion. We all need help to tackle the predicament of life, even the powerful and the privileged, whose private worlds I am focusing on this week. And pretty well every religion has spirits or saints, gods or goddesses that can be called upon to see us through. If you were a Sri Lankan around 800 AD you would probably have turned, like the monks we've just heard, to Tara. Over the centuries many artists have given Tara physical form, but it's hard to imagine many more beautiful than the golden, nearly life-size, figure that now serenely presides over the long Asian gallery at the British Museum.

"I am not a religious person so I just see it as a wonderfully beautiful, and indeed quite sensuous, figure of a woman, and you can also see it is a work of extraordinary technical perfection." (Richard Gombrich)

The statue of Tara is cast in one piece of solid bronze, that has been covered in gold. When new, she must have been dazzling when she was seen under the Sri Lankan sun. And even now, when her gilding is rather worn, and she stands in the cool light of Bloomsbury, she still has a compelling lustre. She is about three quarters life-size, and she stands, as she always would have, on a plinth, so that as you look up at her, she benignly gazes down at you. Her face tells you at once that she comes from south Asia. But that's not the first thing that strikes visitors as they look at her.

She's got a quite impossible hour-glass figure, and her upper body is completely naked. Her full and perfectly rounded breasts float above a tiny wasp waist, while below, a flimsy sarong is draped in gleaming folds, which cling to and beguilingly reveal her shapely lower body.

So you will hardly be surprised to learn that when Tara arrived at the British Museum, from Ceylon as it was then known, in the 1830s, she was seen as so dangerously erotic and voluptuous that she was at once put into the store-rooms, and kept there for 30 years, visible only to specialist scholars on request. But this statue was absolutely not made to titillate. She is a religious being, one of the spiritual protectors to whom the Buddhist faithful can turn in distress, and from a religious tradition that has no difficulty at all in happily combining divinity and sensuality. The statue of Tara takes us into a world where faith and bodily beauty converge, to move us beyond ourselves. It also tells us a great deal about the world of Sri Lanka and south Asia, 1,200 years ago.

The island of Sri Lanka, separated from India by only 20 miles (32 km) of shallow water, has always been an important hub in the seaborne trade that stitches the lands of the Indian Ocean together. In the years around 800 AD Sri Lanka was in close, indeed constant, contact with the neighbouring kingdoms of south India, but also with the Islamic Abbasid Empire in the Middle East, with Indonesia, and with Tang China. Sri Lankan gems were particularly highly prized, and 1,200 years ago rubies and garnets from here were being regularly traded to east and west, reaching the Mediterranean and possibly even Britain. Some of the gems from the great Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo may well have come from Sri Lanka.

But it was not only goods that travelled. The teachings of the Buddha, who lived and preached in north India some time around 500 BC, had gradually evolved into a complex philosophical and spiritual system of conduct, designed to liberate the individual soul from the illusion and suffering of this world. The new faith spread rapidly along the trade routes of India. So that when this sculpture of Tara was made around 800 AD, Sri Lanka had been predominantly Buddhist for over a thousand years. The particular strand of Buddhism that flourished in Sri Lanka at this time gave a special place to divine beings called bodhisattvas, who could help the faithful live better lives. Tara is one of them.

Here's Professor Richard Gombrich, a leading expert on Buddhist history and thought:

"Now, who exactly is this Buddhist image called Tara?... She is a personification. She represents in person, symbolically, the power of a Buddha to save you, to take you across the ocean which is this world, into which, according to most Buddhists, you are continually reborn, until you find your way out. There is a particular future Buddha, a bodhisattva called Avalokiteshvara, and he is first found in texts which probably date from the first century AD. Initially he operates by himself, but after a few centuries the idea came that his power to save could be personified as a goddess. She represents his compassion and his power. Tara is simply an aspect of Avalokiteshvara."

Tara probably stood inside a temple, and there must have been a matching sculpture of her male consort, Avalokiteshvara, nearby, but his image has not survived. Strictly speaking Tara was not made to be worshipped, but to be a focus for meditation on the qualities she embodies - compassion and the power to save. She would have been seen essentially by priests or monks from a privileged elite - so in fact relatively few would actually have been able to meditate on her image.

Standing in front of her now, in the gallery, we can. And knowing something of what she meant to believers, we can better understand why her makers chose to represent her as they did. Her beauty and her serenity speak of her endless compassion. Her right hand, held down by her side, is not at rest, but in the position known as 'varada mudra', the gesture of granting a wish - a clear demonstration of her prime role as the generous helper of the faithful. Her gilded skin, and the jewels that once adorned her, make it clear that this statue of Tara can only have been commissioned by people in command of enormous wealth.

It's very rare for a statue of this scale to survive; indeed, we know of no other example of this size from medieval Sri Lanka. At this date most large bronze statues would be cast by pouring the metal around a hollow clay core. Tara by contrast is bronze through and through, so whoever made her must have had a great deal of bronze, rare skill and a lot of experience of this very challenging kind of work. Tara is not just beautiful; she is a remarkable technical achievement, and she must have been very, very expensive.

We don't know who paid for Tara to be made. It could have been the ruler of any one of several kingdoms that squabbled and fought over territory in Sri Lanka around 800 AD. Whoever it was clearly wanted her help on the path to salvation. But in Sri Lanka, as anywhere else, gifts to religious institutions were also an important part of political strategies of rulers, a means of asserting their privileged links to the divine.

One of the things that I find fascinating about this sculpture is that, at the time it was made, Tara was a relatively recent convert to Buddhism. She had originally been a Hindu mother goddess, and was only later adopted by Buddhists - a typical but particularly beautiful example of the constant dialogue and exchange between Buddhism and Hinduism that went on for centuries, and which can be seen today in statues and buildings all over south-east Asia. Tara shows that Buddhism and Hinduism are not tightly defined codes of belief, but ways of being and acting that can, in different contexts, absorb aspects of other faiths. Tara is, in modern parlance, a strikingly inclusive image made for a Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking, court in Sri Lanka, but stylistically part of the wider world that embraced the Tamil speaking, Hindu courts of southern India. Indeed Sri Lanka was shared, then as now, between Sinhala and Tamil, Hindu and Buddhist, and there were close links and many exchanges through diplomacy, marriage and, frequently, war.

Nira Wickramasinghe, professor in history and international relations, spoke to us about what this long-established pattern means for the region today:

"I think in many ways you can speak of a south Indian/Sri Lankan region with many points in common, culturally and politically as well. There has also been a two-way flow of influences in art, religion, technology. Of course it has not always been a peaceful relationship; there have also been invasions and wars between southern states and chiefdoms in Sri Lanka.

"It's really trade that brought people from India to Sri Lanka. You have certain communities which are really fairly recent migrants from south India, so they would have come in the ninth to thirteenth centuries. In fact, they merged their south Indian identity with a more Sri Lankan identity, and what is curious now is that many of these are the most ardent Sinhala nationalists. I mean if you look at their roots, their roots are very much in south India."

And so it goes on, 1,200 years later, the complex working-out of the relationships that we see embodied in Tara, between Sinhalese and Tamil, between Sri Lanka and south India, between Buddhists and Hindus. Relationships that in Sri Lanka have tragically included the recent long and bloody civil war.

But Tara may in fact have survived thanks to earlier warfare. Marks on the surface of the sculpture suggest that she was buried at some point, perhaps to avoid her being looted by invaders and then melted down. Unfortunately, nothing is known about how or when the statue was later found, nor how it came to be owned by the then Governor of Ceylon, the soldier Sir Robert Brownrigg, who brought Tara to Britain. Ceylon had been taken over by the British from its Dutch rulers during the Napoleonic wars, and in 1815 Robert Brownrigg had conquered the last remaining independent Sri Lankan kingdom on the island.

Many centuries before, the island had abandoned the particular strand of Buddhism in which Tara had played such a prominent part, and her statue may well have been removed from the temple and buried for safekeeping during that religious upheaval. But if no longer revered in Sri Lanka, Tara is in many places very much a living force, especially in Nepal and Tibet. And today millions of people, all over the world, still turn - as they did in Sri Lanka 1,200 years ago - to Tara, to see them through.

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