Two metal images of Mahasri Tara

by  Pratapaditya Pal

Published in Indian History Congress, Vol. 21, 1958, pp. 137-141

The images, under discussion, were both found in Nepal and are at present in the private collections of Shri S. K. Saraswati and Shri Bratindra Nath Mukherjee in Calcutta. Cast in bronze, they are identical iconographically as well as, sculpturally. The following description will therefore suffice for each.

The image shows a goddess seated on a lotus pedestal in lalitasana, the right leg hanging down and being supported on a smaller lotus. The two hands are held near the breast in dharmacakrapravartana-mudra. She is flanked on the left by a blue lotus and on the right by an ordinary one. She is clad in a sari and a scarf girdles her waist. She is richly decked with elaborate jewellery, such as, anklets (nupura), a waistgirdle (mekhala), bracelets (valaya), armlets (keyura), necklace (hara), neck-collar (graiveyaka) ear-rings (kundala) and on her head is a tiara with the hair raised up in a chignon.

As regards the identification of the goddess, reference may be made to a sadhana which is found to have a fundamental agreement with the image. The sadhana may be quoted here:

Mahasritaram chandrasanastham syamavarnam dvibhujam

hastadvayena vyakhyanamudradharam ekabaktram sarvalankara-

bhusitam parsvadvayenotpalasobham suvarnasimhasanopari apas-

rayadisobham nand-puspasokachampakanagesvaraparijatakadibhi-


Mahasritaraya parsve Ekajatamardhaparyankapbistam nila

varnam kartrikapaladharam sakrodham lambodaram pingalajatabi-

bhusitam vyaghracharmambaradharam daksine parsve Asokakanta

pitavarnam ratnamakutinim vajrasokadharam punarvame Aryya-

Jangulim syamavarnam sarpavaradahastam daksine Mahamayurim


Rajalila (lalita) sthita devi Mahasri karunanvita ll

"The goddess Mahasri Tara should be conceived as seated in Chandra-sana on a golden throne; she is of blue complexion (syama) and two armed; the two hands are held in the vyakhyana-mudra; she is one faced and is profusely ornamented; two lotuses adorn both her sides while lotuses and various flowers like Asoka, champaka, nagesvara, parijata, etc. surround her figure; the goddess bears the effigy of Amoghasiddhi on her crown.

"On her left is Ekajata seated in ardhaparyankasana; she is of blue complexion, holds the dagger (kartri) and the skull-cup (kapala) in her hands and shows and angry expression on her face; she is pot-bellied and wears a tiger skin; the hair is raised up in tawny matted locks. On her right is Asokakanta, of yellow complexion, having a jewelled crown and holding the thunder (vajra) and Asoka-branch. To left again is Arya Janguli, who is of blue complexion (syama) and who shows snake (sarpa) and boon-giving pose (varada) in two hands. To right again is Mahamayuri holding the tail of a peacock (mayurapiccha) and showing the boon-giving pose (varada).

" Mahasri Tara, the all compassionate, should be seated in the rajalila (or lalita) pose."

It will be noticed that in each of the images under discussion the goddess holds her hands in dharmacakrapravartana or vyakhyana-mudra as given in the text with lotuses of two varieties adorning the two sides. As far as the asana is concerned she is seated neither in chandrasana nor in rajalila but in lalitasana. The last attitude is also prescribed for the goddess as noted above. The goddess represented here is thus evidently Mahasri Tara. Indeed, the absence of the attendant goddesses should not make us hesitant about our identification. Being metal images, the accessory divinities in each case must have originally been placed on the throne pedestal which however is, unfortunately, lost. In any case, the only other goddess in the Mahayana pantheon, who could possibly be identified with that in the images in question, is Prajnaparamita. But, necessarily, Prajnaparamita must have a manuscript either in one of her hands or placed on a lotus at the side, which definitely does not occur in the present images. The fundamental agreement of the goddess represented in each of the images with the description of Mahasri Tara in the Sadhanamala leaves no doubt about the identification. Incidentally, Mahasri Tara, as the mantra (om tare tuttare ture dhanam dade svaha) included in the sadhana suggests, was invoked for obtaining wealth.

Images of Mahasri Tara are comparatively rare and reference may be made here to other extant representation of the goddess. A stone image, in the Indian Museum, Calcutta and two miniatures in two manuscripts of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita supply us with three other known representations of the goddess. The stone image had been noticed by Dr Benoytosh Bhattacharyya, once in his Indian Buddhist Iconography (pp. 106-107) where it was described as Khadiravani Tara, and next in his Introduction to the Sadhanamala (II, p. CLXXIV) where it was correctly identified as Mahasri Tara.

It is interesting to note that the principal goddess in this image has been rendered identically as in the two bronzes. Seated on an ornate pedestal in lalitasana, her hands show the dharmacakrapravartana-mudra. Two lotuses, one blue and the other conventional adorn her sides. On her left is Ekaja?a, pot-bellied and angry-looking, holding a kartri in her right hand and a kapala in the left with the hair raised up in a chignon. On the right is Asokakanta Marici, the right hand holding a vajra and the left the twig of an asoka tree. The elaborate stela shows two vidhyadharas immediately above the head of the goddess and five miniature figures of the Dhyani Buddhas arranged in a circle, the central position being occupied by Amoghasiddhi.

Of the two miniatures, one occurs in a manuscript, dated, N.S. 184/A.D. 1064, now in the collection of Shri S. K. Saraswati. The goddess is seated on a throne with her right leg tucked up on top of the left which is spread out. The two hands show the dharmacakrapravartana-mudra, but there is only one lotus at her side, which is blue. Her complexion is deep green (haritavarna); while she is dressed and bedecked as richly as in the metal images. The goddess, seated in the centre, is accompanied on either side by five attendant figures. On her left is a pot-bellied goddess in blue (nilavarna), of a terrible appearance and she holding a kartri in her right hand and kapala in the left. She is definitely Ekajata of the sadhana. On her right is a goddess, yellow complexioned (pitavarna), the right hand showing the vyakhyana-mudra while the left cannot be seen. It is difficult to identify her except for the factthathercolour, yellow, is the same as that prescribed for Asokakanta in the sadhana, Behind Ekajata is a standing male figure of yellow complexion (pitavarna), the right hand showing the jnana mudra, the left not being visible. He is flanked by two figures at the sides as also one behind at the extreme and whose faces only are visible. Correspondingly and similarly positioned on the other side of the principal goddess, there is a white male figure whoso right hand shows the vyakhyana-mudra and who is accompanied by three other figures whose faces only are visible. The insufficient data therefore make the identification of these attendant figures almost an impossibility. It may be noted that the background in the painting has been filled up with foliage motifs, evidently representations of the various flowers as prescribed in the sadhana. The miniature, it is interesting to observe, bears a label ‘Khairavani (Khadiravani) Tara; but it is certainly wrong.

The other miniature is found in a manuscript (No. A.15) in the collection of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta. Here the goddess is seated on a lotus seat with the right leg placed across the left which hangs down freely. Her complexion is dark green and both her hands are held in dharmacakrapravartana-mudra. On her left is a single blue lotus. She is clad in a sari and is as exuberantly ornamented as in the representations described above. An oval shaped aureole graces her head while the background is decorated with foliage motifs. The goddess is seated on one side in the painting and has eight attendant figures in front of her, all of whom are not identifiable. A figure in yellow, three-eyed, and seated in paryankasana immediately in front, has her right hand held near the breast while the left holds the vajra and the branch of an asoka tree. Evidently there can be no doubt in identifying her with Asokakanta Marici of the sadhana. Next, a figure in blue, pot-bellied, of a terrible appearance, holding the kartri in her right hand, the left not being visible, and the hair raised up in a chignon, is undoubtedly Ekaja?a of the sadhana. Behind them are two rows of three figures each. In the row immediately behind Asokakanta and Ekaja?a, a figure in red in the centre is flanked on the sides by a figure in purple showing the jnana-mudra and one in white showing the Anjali-mudra with their hands. The extreme row has a figure in yellow showing the vyakhyana-mudra flanked by two figures in blue whose faces can only be seen.

On a comparative study of all these representations we find that, iconographically, although none of them is in exact conformity with the injunctions laid down in the sadhana, they are, none-the-less, fundamentally faithful. As has already been noted, the bronzes might have had the accessory divinities, which are now lost. The stone image not only shows two of the four attendant divinities as required by the sadhana but is the only example bearing the effigy of Amoghasiddhi, whose emanation the goddess is. It is possible that the bronze images too might have had this characteristic iconographic cognisance on the prabhavalis which are now missing. Among the large number of attendants in the miniatures, it is probable that, besides the ones identified above, the others are also present but are unrecognizable being inadequately rendered. It may also be noted that the leaves and blossoms, decorating the background in these paintings, are an attempt to render the various flowers as given in the sadhana.

In conclusion, a few words may be said on the sculptural aspect. Indeed, from an artist's point of view, the stone image leaves little to be desired. Scholars have been effusive in their eulogies regarding this piece of sculpture, some drawing an analogy with that supreme effort on the part of the Javanese artists to express the form of Prajnaparamita, now in the Leiden Museum. Curiously enough, this stone figure has a striking resemblance with the two bronze images under discussion. Besides iconographical traits, which were identical as described above, these three images resemble one another in form as well as in style, the materials of the last two being different. The same modelling, the same sharp features of the various limbs and the same plastic volumes and linear contours, characterise all the three images. In fact, the metallic precision of the bronze images is singularly perceptible in that stone. Necessarily, the bronzes are completed in the round whereas the stone image is in a very high relief, being provided with a stela at the back and yet hardly is there any fundamental difference. That the stone image belongs to the Pala period is evident not only from stylistic considerations but also from the palaeography of the inscription on the pedestal. The bronze images, it is not unreasonable to think, belonged also to the same epoch, and were possibly also of the East Indian workmanship. Stylistically again, the figures of the goddess in these images have close affinities with the representations in the miniatures.

Published in Indian History Congress, Vol. 21, 1958, pp. 137-141

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