LOSAR GREETINGS AND NEW ART REVIEW: 15th Century Tibetan Tārā with the ‘Roman nose’

ཨོཾ། འཇིགས་པ་བརྒྱད་སྐྱོབ་མ་ལ་ཕྱག་འཚལ་ལོ། །
Oṃ! To the protectoress from the eight fears. prostrate!
བཀྲ་ཤིས་དཔལ་འབར་མ་ལ་ཕྱག་འཚལ་ལོ། །
To the female blazing with the auspicious splendour  prostrate!
ངན་སོང་སྒོ་འགེགས་མ་ལ་ཕྱག་འཚལ་ལོ། །
To the female who blocks the door to the lower realms, prostrate!
མཐོ་རིས་ལམ་འདྲེན་མ་ལ་ཕྱག་འཚལ་ལོ། །
To the female who draws us onto the path of the higher realms, prostrate!
རྟག་ཏུ་ཁྱེད་ཀྱིས་སྡོང་གྲོགས་མཛད། །
May you always accompany us as a friendly ally!
ད་དུང་ཐུགས་རྗེས་བསྐྱབ་ཏུ་གསོལ། །
Moreover, please protect us with compassion!
འདི་ནི་ཇོ་བོ་རྗེ་ཨ་ཏི་ཤའི་བླ་མ་གསེར་གླིང་པ་མཇལ་དུ་ཕེབས་སྐབས་རྒྱ་མཚོ་ཆེན་པོ་གྲུ་ལ་བཞུགས་པའི་སྐབས་རྒུད་པའི་འཇིགས་པ་བྱུང་བའི་སྐབས་སུ་གསོལ་བ་འདི་གཏབ་པས་སྒྲོལ་མ་དངོས་སུ་ཞལ་གཟིགས་ནས་འཇིགས་པ་ལས་བསྐྱབ་པར་གྲགས་སོ། །
It is well known that while the Precious Lord Atiśa was travelling across a huge ocean to meet his teacher Serlingpa, on one occasion the ship was in danger of sinking. Due to making this supplication, he saw Tārā’s face directly who saved them all from disaster. (Tr. Adele Tomlin (2022)).

For the Tibetan Water-Tiger New Year 2149 (Losar) today, and following on from my last art review of the 17th Karmapa’s new goddess deity painting of Marici (see here), I offer a new (and first) review of a White Tārā statue made out of bronze, said to be from 15th Century Tibet. It is currently residing in the British  Museum, London.

Despite its historical significance, neither the exhibition it is part of, nor the British museum website, appear to give any detailed historical or artistic information about the statue in terms of who made it, where it came from and how it was brought to the UK and so on. Nonetheless, the statue is incredibly striking, not only in terms of its craftsmanship but also the aesthetic style.

White Tārā statue, British Museum, London. Image: A. Tomlin (2022).

In particular, the face, eyes, nose and mouth are striking. Not like many contemporary representations of Tārā, which seem to make her look more like some male ideal of oriental, youthful prettiness. Here Tārā’s face has a sublime and mature kind of beauty, with Romanesque and Indian features, a large hooked, almost crooked nose, big drooping eyelids over semi-closed eyes.  Her expression one of bliss, ecstasy, peace and wisdom. The style looks very similar to the Gandharvan Buddhist art typical of that period (see images below):

“The Gandhara region had long been a crossroads of cultural influences. During the reign of the Indian emperor Ashoka (3rd century BCE), the region became the scene of intensive Buddhist missionary activity. And in the 1st century CE, rulers of the Kushan empire, which included Gandhara, maintained contacts with Rome. In its interpretation of Buddhist legends, the Gandhara school incorporated many motifs and techniques from Classical Roman art, including vine scrolls, cherubs bearing garlands, tritons, and centaurs. The basic iconography, however, remained Indian.

Gandhara’s role in the evolution of the Buddha image has been a point of considerable disagreement among scholars. It now seems clear that the schools of Gandhara and Mathura each independently evolved its own characteristic depiction of the Buddha about the 1st century CE. The Gandhara school drew upon the anthropomorphic traditions of Roman religion and represented the Buddha with a youthful Apollo-like face, dressed in garments resembling those seen on Roman imperial statues. The Gandhara depiction of the seated Buddha was less successful. The schools of Gandhara and Mathura influenced each other, and the general trend was away from a naturalistic conception and toward a more idealized, abstract image. The Gandhara craftsmen made a lasting contribution to Buddhist art in their composition of the events of the Buddha’s life into set scenes.” (from Britannica.com)

White Tārā statue, British Museum, London (Image British Museum).

The British Museum photos do not show the bronze colour and sheen of the statue so well, so I have included my own photos (taken on a mobile phone, so apologies for the quality!).

The Museum itself does not currently exhibit many statues of Tārā. However, for the Tara statues they do have, see here. One example is this statue from Sri Lanka below, of which more detail of its origin and so on, can be found in this art review, here.

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Newly painted Water-Tiger by HH 17th Gyelwang Karmapa, released for the Losar today, see here: https://kagyuoffice.org/losar-tashi-delek/

May seeing these images and face of Tārā, while supplicating her like Jowo Atisha, lead to the whole planet and all its abundant life and beauty being protected by Tārā ! Wishing all a happy, healthy, peaceful and meaning full Losar 2149!

Music? White Tārā mantra by Deva Premal and the Gyuto monks, and I Wish You Heaven by Prince.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 3rd March 2022.

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