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Savior Goddess Tara and Other Deities
Central Tibet, ca. 1075
Pigments on cotton, 48 x 31 1/2 in (122 x 80 cm)
Published: Pal 1984, appendix; Huntington and Huntington 1990, pp. 318-20
Rhie and Thurman 1991, pp. 128-32; Singer 1994, figs. 7, 8a-b, and 9a;
Allinger 1995, fig. 1; Fisher 1997, pp. 132-33; Kossak and Singer 1998, pp.54-59; Allinger 1998, fig. 1; Singer 1998, fig. 1
Catalogue #131

Since its first publication in 1984, this thanka has acquired an "iconic" status in the history of Tibetan art. Not only is this the most well-known work in the Ford collection, but it is also one of the most intriguing. While each successive publication has thrown some new light on our understanding of this painting, questions still remain about its origins. A full discussion would require a monograph, and since the thanka has been extensively described and analyzed, especially by Jane Casey Singer in 1998, only the briefest summary will be presented here with some additional remarks.

The central goddess is the Green Tara, who is the female counterpart of the male Avalokiteshvara. Like him, she is said to protect the devotee from the eight great physical perils, including fire, floods, and attacks from predatory animals and bandits. On either side of the large central figure are eight identical but miniature images of the deity that represent her eight manifestations. Four attendant goddesses, also heirophanies of Tara, are grouped around her behind her lotus seat, which is supported by an elaborate stem that rises from a pool of water. Other deities include two bodhisattvas (at the bottom of the two side columns of eight Taras, just above the consecretory register), with two more bodhisattvas flanking the central figure of the five transcendental Buddhas along the top. In the bottom register are the scenes of consecration by a Tibetan monk followed lay five female deities who have been identified as the five consorts of the five transcendental Buddhas. Slightly beyond the trefoil arch above Tara's head, which seems to define the entrance of a cave, are two monks who are very likely Atisha (982-1054) and his principal disciple Dromton (1004-63), the founder of the Kadampa order.

It is tempting to associate the painting with Atisha, as Tara was his tutelary deity, and he is known to have commissioned statues and paintings of her. The style of the painting is so close to the eastern Indian tradition of Bihar and Bengal, known mostly from manuscript illuminations, that scholars are still uncertain whether this was an import from Bihar or created in Tibet lay an Indian artist. It has been suggested that the painting was inspired by the eulogy of the goddess composed by the seventh-century Indian scholar Chandragomin, which was translated into Tibetan by Atisha and his assistant, the Tibetan Naktsho. If this painting was done for Atisha, then could the officiant who is performing the consecration ceremony at the bottom be Naktsho?

The problem is compounded further lay the recent discovery of Tibetan inscriptions at the back (see appendix) discussed at length by Singer. Not only do these writings characterize the goddess as the "Reting deity," but they inform us that the thanka was the personal meditational image of Chason Dru-o, was consecrated by Sechilpuwa of Chakhawa, and was installed at the Chilbu monastery. Singer assumes, probably correctly in the Tibetan context, that the painting was once in the Reting monastery, founded in 1057 by Dromton; became the property of Chason Dru-o, another Kadampa teacher who died in 1175; and finally came into the possession of Sechilwupa (died 1189), who was the founder of Chilbu. It is, indeed, not unusual for Tibetan religious objects to change hands from generation to generation. However, stylistically, a date in the third quarter of the twelfth century is difficult to sustain for this thanka, and Singer concludes that it was probably painted in Tibet sometime between 1057 and 1082 at Reting.

This dating seems to find confirmation in the presence of only Atisha and Dromton among the early teachers of the Kadam lineage. And, assuming that both were deceased when the thanka was commissioned-as seems likely from their placement-one can narrow the date further, since Dromton died in 1063. Thus, it may have been commissioned soon after his death by a ranking monk devotee of both Atisha and Dromton; and a century later it was identified as the "Reting deity" because of its association with this location, just as a particular emanation of the goddess in India came to be known as Khadiravani Tara, because her shrine was in a grove of Khadira trees. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the particular form of Tara in the painting also represents Khadiravani Tara. Singer sees in the mountainous landscape, especially the cave and the pool of water, visual reflections of Chandragomin's description of Tara dwelling "on a lake, in a jewel cavern." She further suggests that the highly stylized trees above may represent the Khadira forest (Kossak and Singer 1998). However, except for the water, the landscape elements, like the stave-like, crystalline rocks and such "Indian" trees, are ubiquitous in early central Tibetan paintings.

It may be interesting to note that among "the many marvelous things" associated with the site of Reting-prophesized by Atisha himself as an auspicious place for a monastery-were a spring where the two (demons) Klu Dung-skyong and 'Dzin-pa-lag-mang reside separately, and a large grove of juniper trees," which are said to have sprung from the discarded hair of Dromton himself (Wylie 1962, p. 87). Furthermore, there was an image of Tara (although we are not told whether a statue or a painting) at this monastery. All this may explain the characterization of "RetingTara."
Finally, Singer has pointed out, following Tucci, that the stupa (destroyed and looted during the Cultural Revolution) commissioned by Dromton at Reting for the physical remains of Atisha was built by an Indian master architect/artist called Acharya Manu. The title acharya is given only to master craftsmen who are unusually skilled in several arts. Considering its strongly Indian style, could this painting have been the work of Manu? This would explain the strong Indian stylistic characteristics and its masterly execution. Even though rendered in Tibet, this outstanding early painting remains of seminal importance for the history of Pala-period painting in India as well.

Detail: close-up #1
Detail: close-up #2

all text and images © The Trustees of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore


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