This must be the most beloved of all bodhisattvas in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition. She goes by many names, depending on where you come from. In the Hindu-Buddhist tradition, she is known simply as Tara.

Who is Tara? She is the Goddess of Compassion often linked to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. She is said to be born from one of the tear drops that Avalokiteshvara shed on witnessing a scene of human suffering. Avalokiteshvara is Tara’s male counterpart. Tara refers to “the one who saves”. Like Avalokiteshvara, she is said to deliver her devotees from suffering and pain.

Here, we have Tara in her green form, otherwise, known as Syamatara. This form of Tara is an energetic form; she is ready to spring to action to aid anyone invoking her name.

She is placed on an important pedestal in both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Syamatara stands on a double lotus pedestal denoting her importance. She wears lots of jewellery indicating her position as a bodhisattva or a buddha who has forgone nirvana in order to stay behind in the earthly realm to assist others to their nirvana. Nirvana can be said to be the ultimate goal in Buddhism when once achieved, there can be no rebirth and the soul is at its purest. (McArthur, pp 206).

Witness her left hand holding onto a flower, the lotus, which is a symbol of purity in generic Buddhist iconology. In Hinduism, the lotus represents the concept of primordial birth which is linked to fertility. However, in the case of our Syamatara from central Java, she would be holding a blue lotus signifying its association to the sacred moon. This further symbolizes her connection to the cult of the Mother-goddess as the moon is often associated with the divine feminine.

The choice of the blue lotus, according to some sources, is linked to its symbolism of rejuvenation. The promise of a prolonged life is considered a boon that Syamatara bestows.

Her right hand holds a fly whisk, representing her compassion for all life forms including that of insects and flies. The whisk is to gently whisk away insects, ensuring that such life forms are not accidentally killed in accordance with Buddhist laws. The whisk is also a symbol of overcoming ill fortune, like mental afflictions, and obstacles, such as ignorance.

In the arts of Indonesia, fly whisks are often associated with Shiva. (Moore, pp 117). There could be a reference here to the Shaivite cult that was fast consuming Java which commenced before this Syamatara’s production.

Her voluptuousness is representative of her status as a Mother-Goddess or Devi. Tara is known to be the “mother of all the buddhas”. (Seow, pp 322). It is in this aspect that she is worshipped and venerated in Java.

A sacred thread traces the crevices of her cleavage to the joint on her right hip. She wears a sarong held up by a belt with a buckle whose shape can still be seen in later belt buckles fashioned in gold. Anklets adorn both ankles whilst her arms are clasped by arm bands with detailed intricate motifs on closer inspection. These intricacies can still be detected in jewellery pieces made in the later centuries. A pendant ear ring decorates one ear lobe. Her hair is piled into a cone like shape wherein a triangular shaped crown is placed. Her eyes are downcast, perhaps representing her compassionate gaze downwards towards her devotees.

She exudes sensuousness, mystic and a form of elegance which is exclusive to Indonesian statuary found in central Java.

This form of Tara is neither strictly Buddhist nor Hindu. Indic in style, she was carved by Indonesian craftsmen who have adopted Indian aesthetics but sculpting in their own terms. (Carpenter). In Java, a form of syncretic faith took shape that combined both Hinduism and Buddhism. This synthesis of spiritual beliefs came to be known as Hindu-Buddhism. It begun in Mataram between 6th  – 7th  centuries and lasted until the advent of Islam in the 11th  century,  where it arrived first in North Sumatra. (Hannigan, pp 60-79).

Links to other forms of Tara:

  • Bosatsu Kanon; Tarani, Tara (Japan)
  • Guan Yin (China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore)
  • Guan Am (Vietnam)
  • Sgrol-ma (Tibetan)

Tara (Syamatara) – The Green Tara (9th century, Central Java, height:130 cm). Private Collection. Photo Credit: Pinacotheque de Paris, Singapore.

Eva’s Notes:

This is my favourite bodhisattva; there are quite a few of these saint-like sentient beings in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition. I love Syamatara for her compassion.

Tara is a Jungian archetype of female sensuality, of feminine mystic and womanly fecundity.  She is pregnant with love. Invoking her name would cause the speaker to feel a sense of overwhelming compassion for humanity and gazing at her image would fill the beholder with a sense of peace knowing that such love exists in the earthly realm.

I first set eyes on Syamatara in a Chinese temple. She was in her Buddhist incarnation as Kuan Yin. In this form, Tara doesn’t do much for me. My passion for Hindu-Buddhist statuary lies in their artistic forms. It’s the art that I’m after.

Tara would take many forms as Buddhism spread throughout Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, her features would change to resemble the Khmer queen of Jayavarman VII, and the ornate lines and voluptuous forms found in our Javanese statue would give way to cleaner lines and a more modest body shape. But my most favourite rendition of Syamatara is still the Javanese one.

Bibliography:

Printed Sources:

Cotterell, Arthur (2014), A History of Southeast Asia. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions. Chapter 4: Early Indonesia.

Hannigan, Tim (2015), A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices and Tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation. Hong Kong: Tuttle Publishing. Chapter 2: Empires of Imagination: Hindu-Buddhist Java. 

McArthur, Meher (2002), Reading Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. pp 47.

Moore, Albert C (1977), Iconography of Religions: An Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. pp 117.

Seow, Marilyn (2006), The Asian Civilisations Museum A-Z Guide. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet. pp 322.

Curatorial Source:

Bruce Carpenter.

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