Statue of Tara

Contributed by British Museum

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This statue of the Buddhist goddess Tara combines the spiritual and the sensual. The sculpture would have been used as a focus for meditation on the qualities Tara represents ? mercy and compassion. Originally the sculpture would have been placed in a temple alongside a statue of her male companion, the bodhisattva, Avalokiteshevara. Bodhisattvas are beings who have reached enlightenment but have turned back from it, out of compassion so that they can still help mankind escape from the cycle of death, rebirth and suffering.

Who commisioned this statue?

When this sculpture was made, Sri Lanka had been predominantly Buddhist for about 1,000 years. It was then a hub for Indian Ocean trade and the sculpture may have been made by one of the Sri Lankan kings. Tara appears as a goddess in both Hinduism and Buddhism, as both religions share a common Indian cultural background. The earliest Buddhist deities were conceived as male and Mahayana Buddhism may have incorporated female deities, like Tara, to attract more female worshipers.

Tara is no longer worshipped in Sri Lanka, but is still one of the most popular female deities in Nepal and Tibet

The epitome of beauty

This image of the Buddhist goddess, Tara, is unusual for being standing and almost life-size. If you look at her for long enough she may reach out and touch you.

Tara is the consort of a Bodhisattva – a Buddhist deity who, having achieved enlightenment, chose to relinquish it to help alleviate the suffering of humanity. Tara’s right hand thus reaches forward in a gesture of giving. She is both regal and human. Her narrow waist, rounded hips, full breasts, lips and large almond-shaped eyes all represent the Indian epitome of feminine beauty.

Yet the magnificent image of Tara which stands proudly at the head of the main gallery for South Asia at the British Museum did not always enjoy such an impressive position. When first received into the Museum’s collection in 1830, she was kept from open display for fear her overtly erotic form may offend delicate contemporary sensibilities. However, in ninth century Sri Lanka, Tara’s curvaceous figure and full breasts would have had an entirely different association. Indeed, her very sensuality was precisely what would inspire awe and veneration.

Within Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the division between the sacred and the profane was always a fluid one. Thus the divine, or aspects of it, could be found in all spheres of life. Indeed, there was no part of life in which the divine was not present.
Tara is a goddess of the Mahayana Buddhism. However, Theravada Buddhism is practised in Sri Lanka today, so this image of Tara offers incontrovertible evidence for the presence of Mahayana Buddhism in the island of Sri Lanka.

The unusual circumstances in which Tara was discovered suggest that she was also emblematic for reflecting a practice common in medieval India: the appropriation of images as loot. She was unearthed from a field where she was probably hidden (and forgotten) for the better part of 600 years. This could possibly have been to protect her from the arrival of Islam in Southern India and Sri Lanka in the thirteenth century, or even earlier to protect her from invaders from the Hindu Kingdoms of Southern India.

Human agency is always involved in the transportation of objects and in medieval India the plundering of objects for the validation of victory in war was one of the primary objectives of conflict. Indeed, it was a conspicuously moral action.

Sona Datta, curator, British Museum

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Comments

  • 8 comments
  • 1. At 18:42 on 18 June 2010, bombaymicks wrote:

    Great series so far. Having a problem downloading this episode though. All the others have been fine. Any ideas?

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  • 2. At 10:03 on 19 June 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    I can of course understand the appeal to you for labelling the bronze statue a Tara with its ?great? Hanayamic significance. But I?m afraid to say just the suggestion is too whimsical for me and besides Tara is a predominantly mother figure and the sensual red Tara has a great extravert personality which is not the portrait here. In fact without any definitive iconography your beautiful bronze could just as easily be any one of these other suggestions of mine.
    From the Buddhist tradition: It could so easily be Yasodhar?, The Buddha?s abandoned wife, portrayed thus at her conversion to Buddhism on his return. She has stripped herself accordingly of her worldly accoutrements such as her gold ear rings (studs in the shape of rings) and removed the precious stones from the settings adorning her hair. If the figure of the ?Buddha? figure that sits in place of the diamond is not a later addition but was cast there as part of the original that would seal it for me. (Coincidentally do we know of any diamonds that might have fitted this spot?)
    Bhadra Kapilani the former consort of Mahakashyapa who became successor to The Buddha. As the story goes ? ?Despite growing up in luxury (or perhaps because of it) Mahakashyapa wished to renounce the world and live a simple life in search of enlightenment. His parents insisted that he marry and he reluctantly agreed. However, he commissioned an artist to caste a golden statue based on his idea of what a perfectly beautiful woman should look like. He demanded that the woman his parents chose to be his wife should look exactly like the statue. Of course, he never imagined they would find a woman to match the statue but much to his dismay they succeeded. The woman, Bhadra Kapilani, also wished to leave the home life. In fact, they had deep karmic affinities for each other due to having spent many past lives together perfecting virtue and seeking enlightenment?.?

    And from India where there is a wealth of likely candidates: The Apsara Urvashi from the pre-Buddhist Hindu period who was revered for her sensual charms but whose purity was never surrendered (A tease). The bronze is perfect for her too. The tantric-like yonic swirl to her wrap supports the suggestion perfectly. You just know you aren?t going to get anywhere with her although you might be extremely tempted to try. Perhaps the bronze was cast deliberately semi-naked so as to make it possible to dress her up in the temple environment. Complete with jewel holes placed in her hair to hold precious gems in the tradition of Hindu temple worship she would have looked and glittered magnificently in any South Indian or pre-Buddhist Lankan temple.
    Or following the theme from pre Buddhist Lanka she could well be a portrayal of poor stolen- away princess Sita from the Rama yana epic. She is certainly valuable enough, made of solid brass, for that. Now that would be a discovery of pure dynamite. Again she would have been dressed up magnificently in a temple or palatial setting. It?s a pity you received no provenance with her. (Are you sure there were no jewels that came with her?).
    So tell me again why it has to be a Hanayama Tara? Sincerely yours,

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  • 3. At 18:33 on 20 June 2010, louispierre wrote:

    One might say Tara has as many aspects as there are minds perceiving her. The sole purpose of Buddhas appearing in this world, with their myriad forms and names, is to help living beings realise those same enlightened qualities.
    Arya ( Sanskrit; Superior Being ) Tara is a manifestation of the wind element of all the Buddhas and due to her karmic connections with human beings, can help us ( if we wish! ) very quickly - "like the wind".

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  • 4. At 18:44 on 4 October 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    Hi louispierre. Wasn't Hu the wind's name in ancient Kemet. So, 'Hu are you' would be more of a statement than a question? But then again such ephemeral concepts hardly req

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  • 5. At 19:02 on 4 October 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    req

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  • 6. At 19:08 on 4 October 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    require.... a large bronze statue to illustrate their point. Simply the 'Shu' from a zen master would suit you better wouldn't it?.

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  • 7. At 21:44 on 19 November 2010, pd wrote:

    The wonderful program on the statue of Tara - a bronze figure - states that this figure is cast in solid metal. The accompanying description in the museum also states this. I believe this is not true - the problems of shrinkage in a piece this size, and the cost of the materials would suggest it has a core - using the established lost wax technique already used in Tamil Nadu, and known by the ancient greeks, or using a more sophisticated technique as used in later European bronzes. Has this piece been weighed to establish if it is solid or hollow?

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  • 8. At 22:41 on 19 November 2010, pd wrote:

    If it is in fact solid - it begs the question of 1 how shrinkage problems were avoided, and 2 if someone profited from an unnecessary use of precious materials when an alternative technique was available which would require far less

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About this object

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Location

Sri Lanka

Culture
Period

AD 700-750

Theme
Size
H:
143cm
Colour
Material

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