The worship of the goddess Tara is one of the most widespread of Tibetan cults, undifferentiated by sect, education, class, or position; from the highest to the lowest, the Tibetans find with his goddess a personal and enduring relationship unmatched by any other single deity, even among those of their gods more potent in appearance or more profound in symbolic association. l Tara is thought to protect her people from “the cradle to beyond the grave; and, as Stephanie Beyer, author of The Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet, profoundly elucidates: the poignant relationship Tibetans have with this oddess of compassion, totally unrelated to their place in life. Tara takes many forms – whether a fierce manifestation of herself with frightening figures and allegories Of death, or a compassionate figure such as Green or White Tara holding lotus flowers.
This kind, sweetly smiling goddess is venerated by all in every one of her many forms through a variety of styles of worship – offerings, praises, and prayer ” by ceremonial forms of the monastic community and continues to live on in the Tibetan people’s hearts. 2 She is, arguably, the warmest and inviting of Tibetan deities because of her ompassionate nature and willingness to help anyone who calls upon her; and the fact that thangka paintings and sculptures are equally powerful tools of veneration for her and do not detract from her identity, but rather reinforce it with their iconography.
One of the most important aspects of Tara is that she is an “abiding deity,” her never-ending availability best symbolised by daily repeating her ritual instead of an annual ceremony to commemorate her – she is more of a personal deity rather than a monastic patron. 3 It is no surprise that Tara is one of the most popular deities in Tibetan Buddhism because of her readiness to help those who follow her. In Tibet, Tara is often depicted on thangka paintings with bright, saturated colour, characteristic of Tibetan art; and are centrally-planned around the primary figure.
In Tibetan, Tara is roughly translated as “she who saves,” which corresponds to her function as a Tibetan deity who seeks to help those who follow her attain Enlightenment through meditation. 4 She is thought to have been born from the tears of Avalokitesvara as he saw all of the suffering in the world. Thangkas are intrinsically primary objects of devotion and show hese central figures – principal deities ” surrounded by attendants, structured in a hierarchal manner; and, unlike murals, they contain many less figures are do not portray paradise scenes. Thangkas involving the goddess Tara, the female emanation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, are recognisable by the generally voluptuous but small-waisted central female figure – usually sitting – with a sweet smile upon her face. There are twenty-one major forms of Tara, and each Of them has a particular colour and a corresponding spiritual attribute. 6 One of the most common forms of Tara s Green Tara. In a mandala called “Mahashri Tara and the Twenty-One Taras,” the depictions of Tara (compassionate and wrathful figures alike) are arranged within the branches of a flowering tree.
Each Tara is identifiable by colour and, according to the text on the twenty-one Taras (see The First Dalai Lama’s Six Texts Related to the Tara Tantra, trans. Glenn H. Mullin, Tibet House, New Delhi, 1 980, pp. 7-28). 78 All of these depictions of Tara are less common as the central Green Tara, but they are still very important to the identity of this compassionate deity, and what she can provide for her worshippers. The worship of Tara through looking at thangka paintings is an extremely emotional and moving experience, especially since many of them are very large and quite colourful.
Bright and strong colour is an essential part of Tibetan Buddhism, and is helpful in identifying Buddhist works as Tibetan due to the saturated colours used in thangka paintings. Thangka paintings also frequently display small narratives in them to augment the central figure or scene. According to A Shrine for Tibet, the first six verses are in praise of her more serene forms – most likely the six golden and white Taras at the left of the work. The next seven verses reference her more fierce forms, probably the red, dark-blue, and brown Taras on the central axis, the three at the left of centre, and one right of centre. 0 The remaining seven verses praise various things specific to Tara: the hum syllable, her Dharmakaya aspect, the peaceful and fierce mantras; how Tara shakes the three worlds, how she eliminates the effects of poison, eliminates disputes and nightmares, cures disease, and overcomes ghosts and zombies. 11 Each of the smaller Taras surrounding the centre of the work also sit (or stand) on the light pink blossoms of the flowering tree. The central Green Tara is known as the Mahashri Chintamani Tara.
The Mahashri Tara sits on a white double-lotus base with pink shading that have little to no contouring unlike other aspects of the thangka such as the leaves on the tree and the texture of the trunk itself. This double-lotus base is a style linked to eastern Tibetan styles as seen in 1 9th century Derge paintings. 12 She is adorned with a detailed headdress made of jewels and flowers with vast hoop earrings and heavy-looking necklaces. She is depicted wearing robes made out of red, orange, yellow, and blue fabrics that daintily hang from her shoulders and sit n her lap.
Tara is seen holding two utpala lotuses that are barely visible in the midst of all of the tree’s blossoms that are also present in her body halo, which is considered unusual in the realm of thangka painting; whereas, the head halo is akin to multiple delicately floral patterns against the blue ground, the sky, or perhaps the lake below. 13 According to The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols, the lotus is a major Buddhist symbol associated with renunciation, purity, and freedom from the faults of cyclic existence. 4 Utpala lotuses (attributes of Green Tara and many other Vajrayana deities) are onsidered night lotuses – blue lotuses were especially deemed important in ancient Egypt where they were thought to be aphrodisiacs. 1 5 The word utpala literally means “to burst open” or “without flesh,” and is also applied to one of the eight cold hells of Buddhist cosmology, where the skins of those within would turn blue and break from the extreme cold. 6 At her left and right are standing attendants: the golden Ashokakanta (the two-armed peaceful form of Marichi) who holds a blue ashoka flower and a vajra; as well as the dark-blue fierce figure Ekajata who wears a tiger skin and holds symbols of death – a curved knife and a skull bowl. These frightening objects often accompany fierce figures, and a popular scene involving a fierce figure is when she or he figuratively “stomps on ignorance,” which is usually the body of a dead soldier.
Ashokas are defined as common Asiatic trees with long, delicate fluted leaves and red flowers, the name literally meaning “without sorrow;” the tree is thought to burst into blossom when a virtuous woman touches it. 17 The Vajra signifies the indestructible path of the “Diamond Vehicle” of Vajrayana Buddhism, literally translated to the “Lord of stones” from Tibetan – the Vajra symbolises the impenetrable, imperishable, mmoveable, immutable, indivisible, and indestructible state of absolute reality: the enlightenment of the Buddha. 18 The “tree” symbol in Buddhism is a symbol Of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.
This tree is supposedly a “tree of refuge,” and a monk on the lower right side of the thangka is depicted making offerings, presumably to Tara while two smaller monks below him look as if they are about to be swallowed by the waves coming dangerously close to the opening of the small cave. 19 The heavily stylised tree appears to have grown from the lake below, and various animals uch as elephants, deer, and rabbits roam around the bottom of the thangka painting. In the lake are clusters of corals, jewels, a stele, and a flowering bush, which is a miniature of the huge blossoms ofthe tree that monopolises much of the picture plane. 0 At the top of the picture plane sits a Dalai Lama, probably the seventh, Kelsang Gyatso who holds a text and makes the teaching gesture – on either side of him, two wispy clouds support a group of celestials with banners. 21 What is unique about this particular painting is that it is in a style very different from early Green Tara thangkas of the 1 2th and 3th centuries ” this thangka, in its idealised setting is a creative representation of thangkas when the sense of “auspicious blossoming of perfected beings is captured and brought to our world. 22 Another popular way to meditate upon Tara is by being in front of a sculpture or an artefact of her, many of which made with gilt copper alloy and are a warm golden colour. Sculptures also suggest a profound meditative experience, but not through colour in this particular case – the pigments have been removed probably due to deterioration; but, rather, through their extraordinarily tangible depictions f the Goddess. 23 In Khadiravani (Green or Yellow) Tara, it is as if the viewer is really with her, due in part to how sweet, compassionate, and approachable she looks, her eyes half closed and her head tilted gently over her right shoulder.
She has extended earlobes, which are marks of the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama; as well as lines across her neck, another feature characteristic of the historical Buddha. Other signs of the Buddha include the thousand-spoked wheel, the web of white light around the fingers and toes, the lack of wrinkles, the ushnishna atop his head, his long yelashes, etc-24 Her eyebrows and the bridge of her nose form in a simple “T” shape and her face is quite balanced, although simplified in a rather idealised way. Tara is painted in a beautiful golden colour (gilt copper alloy).
It is cast in five separate parts with the joints visible, but the fact that it was made with several pieces is not obvious at all. She is adorned with coral and turquoise insets around her crown, on her chest piece, and on her wrists. This particular Tara is in the lalitasana pose which signifies her readiness to enter the world to save suffering beings by letting her right foot dangle down off of er throne as if she is ready to jump up to help someone in need ” this refers to the theme, “Tara saves from the eight dangers. 25 Tara sits on a single lotus base, and her right arm is in the vara ” giving ” mudra, as she extends her arm towards the viewer. Her body is curvaceous in the typical Indian style for depicting women as beautiful and fertile beings, but she has a very small waist in comparison to the size Of her head. Another sculpted image of Tara is from one of the famed twenty-one Tara emanations from the second half of the seventeenth century, also made with gilt copper alloy with turquoise nsets.
This image is one of the set of emanations described in the famous Twenty-One Praises to Tara, and, like the previous image, is seated in the relaxed lalitasana pose. 26 She is adorned with a large headdress with eleven points that all have high-quality copper inlaid in them. Her long, heavy earrings that hang down from her extended earlobes also have turquoise in them ” as does the spot on her forehead, where the ushnishna would be on the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. There are still traces of pigment on her face in her eyebrows and her lips, giving her a more naturalistic quality han the previous artefact of Tara.
She is curvaceous, but, like the previous artefact, also has a small waist, and her breasts are nowhere near as large as other depictions of Buddhist women, such as at the stupa at Sanchi. She wears a long necklace that draws attention to both her breasts and her private area with the larger beads placed in these areas strategically. In her left hand she holds the kalasha vase of long life (tsebum) as well as being in the vara mudra.