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The 21 Taras

Home Nyurma Pamo Loter Yangchenma Sonam Tobche Tsugtor Namgyalma Wandu Lhamo
Jigje Chenmo Zhengyi Mithubma Zhengyi Migyalma Sendeg Nagchi Jigten Gyalma Phagma Drolma
Tashi Dorje Yulle Gyalma Thronyer Chen Rabzhima Rignag Tobjom Pagme Noma
Maja Chenmo Dugkarmo Rito Jonma Lhamo Chenmo Links


    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 this 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. This fact in itself means that her cult may repay scholarly interest, for Tara's rituals differ from those of the "high patron deities" of the monastic cult in that they eschew much of the deeper primarily sexual symbolism which has so upset many Western researchers, and yet they conform to the basic patterns of all Tibetan ritual. Their straightforward avoidance of the textual complexities of the highest Tantras is an advantage, because we can direct our attention to their structure rather than to the "meaning" of their symbolism. Once these structures have been established, they may be generalized to include the most profound Tantric revelations; but we must first ask, simply, what the Tibetans are doing before we can go on to decide the "real" reason they do it.

   Perhaps the most immediately impressive aspect of these rituals is the true devotion with which the Tibetans approach the goddess: she guards and protects her people, they say, from the cradle to beyond the grave, and her devotees cry out to her in their distress and share with her their joys. This fundamental attitude of worship, however, is inevitably channeled through a ritual process of "offerings, praises, and prayer" and is directed to the goddess by the ceremonial forms of the monastic community. Thus to understand something of her cult is to understand something of the whole structure of Tibetan culture and religion.


   This universal veneration for the goddess was the result of a gradual process which began with the charismatic devotion of Atisha, became a potent religious force by the fourteenth century, and culminated in the early seventeenth century with the great Taranatha, from whose time the cult as we know it has emerged. And yet this goddess, though everyone knows that her cult was imported from India, is related by myth to the very beginning of things in Tibet.                

    One of the early pre-Buddhist myths relating the origins of the Tibetan people holds that "a devil and an ogress held sway, and the country was called Land of the Two Divine Ogres. As a result, red-faced flesh-eating creatures were born."' These demonic offspring were gradually given the crafts of culture by successive generations of culture-hero kings, and they became the civilized Tibetans. Other versions of the myth say that the Tibetans were originally the simian descendants of a union between a rock ogress and a monkey. This latter account was eventually adopted as the official Buddhist version, and the monkey became identified first as a disciple and then as an incarnation of Avalokitesvara. But, surprisingly enough, the fierce ogress "lustful and lascivious, under the sway of desire" became identified as an incarnation of Tara. As the Red Annals succinctly says, "Then, from the monkey Bodhisattva, an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, and the rock ogress, an incarnation of Tara, there sprang the Tibetan people."

    The point to be noted in the evolution of this myth is the influence upon it of the developing cult of Tara, for so pervasive had her worship become by the time of the Red Annals in 1346 that the author could give this final version of the tale as a received tradition; so popular was the goddess that the Tibetans sought to relate her to their very origins, at whatever price in logic. Though there is, after all, good reason to consider the monkey ancestor related to Avalokitesvara the ogress threatened to eat up thousands of sentient beings every day until the monkey agreed to assuage her lust, so his act in fathering the Tibetan people might indeed be considered to be one of universal compassion the identification of the ogress who seduced him with the goddess Tara appears gratuitous, for in no version is her divine nature made obvious in her actions, even in the late and expanded retelling of Sumpa Kenpo. But the pious intention of the attribution is clear, and the devotees of the goddess, looking at the history of their people, find more than rhetorical cause to call her "mother."


    A further and historically more important tradition relates the actual introduction of Tara's cult into Tibet to the Nepalese princess Tr'itsun, daughter of Amsuvarman and wife of the first great Tibetan king Songtsen gampo (617-650, according to the calculation of Roerich). It is claimed in the various chronicles that this princess brought with her, among other images, a sandalwood statue of Tara, which was placed in the Temple of Miraculous Manifestation constructed at the princess's orders. There is some doubt as to the final disposition of this image. The great lama and geographer Jamyang ch'entse wangpo (1820-1892) gave an account of the temple and described a miraculous image of the goddess which was named "Lady who Accepts the Ceremonial Scarf"; but in the seventeenth century the fifth Dalai Lama had already reported, in his guidebook to the temples of Lhasa, that the original sandalwood image was no longer there.

    It is thus problematical whether the image currently enshrined is the same as the one brought from Nepal in the early or middle seventh century (the chronicles periodically report the shuffling of images from one temple to another, according to the religious policy of the court), and it is difficult to tell at this late date how much of a cult developed around any of these early images in Tibet, whether those brought by Tr'itsun or the much more famous Jowo rinpoch'e an image of Shakyamuni as a twelve-year-old prince brought by the king's Chinese wife Wen-ch'eng kung-chu. There is no particular evidence that Tara received any special veneration at this time (indeed, the Chinese image of Shakyamuni seems from the chronicles to have received much the larger share of attention, being considered the original image made in the time of the Buddha himself), or in fact that any particularly Buddhist cult spread far beyond court circles. Tara'' image was to the king most likely a piece of political magic, an alien god to be treated with respect for its sacred (and diplomatic) potency, to be put in a special shrine where it could do little harm to the native gods and might perhaps do some good, especially for an imperial policy in the process of consolidating a centralized government. The image represented both religious and political forces to be dealt with, but not necessarily to be worshiped.

    Whatever doubts there may be about the whole tradition of Songtsen gampo's marriages, there is nothing chronologically improbable in the original contention that such an image of Tara was brought from Nepal, or that at least some knowledge of the goddess was carried to Tibet about this time, even though the precise date of origin of Taras cult in India is still very much a vexed question: the earliest epigraphical document relating to her worship is a Javanese inscription of 778 and it is difficult to place with assurance any text devoted to her much earlier than the early eighth century, which is too late by far to verify the Tibetan tradition. But there does exist one reference to the goddess prior to these dates, found not in any Buddhist manual of worship but, perhaps even more valuable because independent, in a pun provided by the illustrious Sanskrit author Subandhu in his romance Vasavadatta  a source not previously adduced, as far as I know, in any discussion of the problem. In this long prose poem we find the following play on words: bhiksuki 'va taranuragaraktambaradharini bhagavati sanidhydhya samadrsyata "The Lady Twilight was seen, devoted to the stars and clad in red sky, as a Buddhist nun [is devoted to Tara and is clad in red garments]."

    The pun centers on the ambivalence of two words: tara as either "star" or "Tara," and ambara as either "sky" or "garment." This sort of pun is perhaps the foremost embellishment of Subandhu's work; indeed, he himself says that he is a "storehouse of cleverness in the composition of works in which there is a pun in every syllable."" In his handbook of poetics, the Kavyddarsa, the theoretician and author Dandin defines "pun" as follows [2.310]: "We consider a 'pun' to be a speech of a single form but of many meanings." And he says further [2.363]:

    The pun, as a rule, enhances the beauty in all ambiguous statements: the speech is divided into two parts, the inherent statement [the "manifest content"] and the ambiguous statement [the "latent content"].

    Examples of this rhetorical adornment abound in Subandhu's romance, and they are usually intimated, as in the present instance, by iva; selection could be made ad nauseam, but perhaps it will be sufficient, to demonstrate that the present instance is indeed a pun on Tara's name, if we give a few more examples from the whole series of puns Subandhu uses, as he did this one, to describe the Lady Twilight: varayosid iva pallavanurakta "reddened with blossoms, as a courtesan [is devoted to her lover]," kamini 'va kaleyatamrapayodhara "having vermilion clouds, as a beautiful woman [has breasts reddened with saffron]." Or again, to show the play on proper names: vanarasenam iva sugrivarigadopasobhita "adorned with a beautiful throat and bracelets, as the army of monkeys [was adorned with Sugriva and Angada]."

    This pun raises certain problems: bhiksuki is not necessarily a Buddhist nun, and tara may refer to Lady Star, the wife of Brahaspati; but it would be curious, after all, to find a nun of any order being devoted to the stellar heroine of a minor epic episode, the wife of Jupiter stolen by the Moon. If we do accept that Subandhu was making a pun on the name of a Buddhist goddess before what was a primarily Hindu audience in his courtly circle and playing with the name as casually as he played with those of the Brahmanic legends it seems reasonable to suppose that this goddess was fairly well known by his time, else the pun would be without effect. And even if we concede that he might have been showing off an esoteric knowledge of Buddhism, at least he himself was acquainted with some sort of cult of Tars, a goddess whose popular devotion extended beyond the bounds of minor legend. Though Subandhu's exact date is by no means a closed question, we would probably be not too far wrong to place him about the middle of the seventh century that is, at just about the time that Tr'itsun is said to have carried Tara's image into Tibet.

    To this we may add as one further consideration the testimony of the great Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang, who traveled in India between 633 and 645, and who reports, in the offhand manner he reserves for things he is not quite sure are orthodox, the existence of two different images of a to-lo Bodhisattva, sex unspecified. One of these images, located about twenty miles west of Nalanda, accompanied Avalokitesvara to form a triad with a central Buddha image; the other image, in its own temple nearer to Nalanda, he reports as being a "popular object of worship." " There is every reason to believe that this to-lo is our Tara, and his remarking upon its popularity reinforces the probable validity of the Tibetan tradition.

    This native tradition, we may add, is actually quite conservative in its bestowal of venerable antiquity upon images. The geography text A Complete Explanation of the World" reports only one other image of the goddess attributed to this period of history:

    Then to the east is the region called Mark'am, where there are some Sacha and Gelug monasteries, and a temple and image of Tara erected at the time of the Righteous King Songtsen gampo. The people of that region are quite fierce, and they speak something like the Minyag language.

    It is, after all, surprising that more images have not been sanctified with age, with all the attendant benefits in increased pilgrimage trade. But later piety expressed itself in another form, for legend holds that King Songtsen gampo was an incarantion of Avalokitesvara himself according to Pema karpo, the king covered up his ten extra heads with a silken cloth and that his two wives were incarnations of Tara. Among Western sources, Grunwedel  and Waddell consider the Chinese wife Wen-ch'eng kung-chu to be an incarnation of White Tara, and the Nepalese wife Tr'itsun to be an incarnation of Green Tara, an attribution defensible from an ethnic point of view, since the epithet syama applied to Green Tara can mean either "green" or "dark, swarthy." Bacot and Sato on the other hand, reverse the identification, maintaining that the tradition holds Wen-ch'eng to have been Green Tara and Tri'tsun to have been White Tara.

    When we examine the old Tibetan chronicles, however, we find no such identification of either princess with White Tara; rather, those sources that report the tradition Buton, for example, does not mention it, while Kunga doje, in the Red Annals, does are unanimous in asserting that the Chinese wife was an incarnation of Green Tara (or just Tara, without qualification) and that the Nepalese wife was an incarnation of the goddess Bhrkuti, the "Lady with Frowning Brows." Thus, by the time of the earliest chronicles, we can see taking place an iconographization of the king and his wives, considering them a historical embodiment of the canonical triad of Avalokite9vara, Tara, and Bhrkuti. This iconographic arrangement of the Bodhisattva with his two female companions is found as early as the Manjushri-mulakalpa it is found in the Mahavairocana-sutra and is placed by the Japanese Shingon sect  in their great Garbhakosa—"embryo receptacle" or "womb"—mandala there are many evocations of Avalokitesvara in this form in the canonical anthologies. The discrepancies between this classical arrangement and the description in modern works may be resolved by considering, simply, that this triad has dropped out of  iconographic style in recent years, and informants other than historical scholars might be unaware of its historical application (although my informants tended, in the main, to report the older tradition); yet the firm traditional identification of the Chinese queen with Green Tara leaves them only the option of considering the Nepalese queen to have been White Tara, as she is the only other iconographic form readily available to replace the little-known Bhrkuti. I have a suspicion that the earlier Western works that reversed this attribution did so on their own, so that it might conform better to ethnological expectations.

    We can follow this original identification with Taras backward in time only as far as the fourteenth-century chronicles that record it; and we can say little more about this earliest development of Tara's cult beyond the fact that there was possibly an image of Tara in Tibet in the mid-seventh century. It is not until the second half of the eighth century that we can say for certain that at least some texts on Tara had been translated into Tibetan, for there is preserved in the Tenjur a catalogue from the reign of King Tr'isong detsen (ruled 755-797) of "translations of scripture and commentary in the palace of Denkar, in the TU'ang.1130 This catalogue and its authors have been discussed by M. Lalou, who sees no reason to doubt the date attributed to it. This list of translations includes only three works on Tara: the Spell called "Mother of Avatokilesvara," the 108 Names of the Goddess Tara, and Candragomin's Praises of the Noble Tara Who Saves from All Great Terrors.

    None of these works, however, can be considered of really central importance to the cult as it later developed (the spell translated, for example, is not a particularly significant one); and these works seem all but buried in the list of more than 700 texts. It is thus almost impossible to say whether during this period of the earlier spread of the Law the cult of Tara took root in Tibet at all, or whether it exerted any influence outside court or scholarly circles; there certainly seems to be little evidence that the great mass of people in Tibet ever heard of Tara. Repachen, the last of the great "Righteous Kings" (assassinated in 836) in the same edict that sponsored the compilation of the Sanskrit-Tibetan wade mecum Mahavyutpatfi, decreed that "secret charms were not to be translated" and the dark ages that followed upon the great persecution by the apostate King Langdarma (beginning probably ca. 840) deprive us of any information beyond that.

(From The Cult of Tara by Stephen Beyer)

NOTE: The graphics on this web site come from Tara's Enlightened Activity by Khenchen Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal.  Color was added by the author of this web site in accordance with a print of the 21 Tara's at The Garchen Buddhist Institute in Chino Valley, AZ. 

  Name of Tara Her Color Her Hand Object Her Activity
01 Nyurma Pamo red conch shell swift, heroic liberation from sufferings
02 Loter Yangchenma white mirror sound of peace, harmony, truth, & wisdom
03 Sonam Tobche golden wish fulfilling jewel increases merit and prosperity
04 Tsugtor Namgyalma golden nectar vase increases life force and longevity
05 Wangdu Rigje Lhamo red bow and arrow magnetizes beneficial wisdom essences
06 Jigje Chenmo dark red phurba/dagger subdues invisible beings, mental disturbances
07 Zhengyi Mithubma blue-black flaming sword destroys internal and external artifices
08 Zhengyi Migyalma dark red flaming vajra destroys maras, subdues illusions
09 Sendeng Nagchi green dharma wheel protects from all outer and inner fears
10 Jigten Sumle Gyalma rich red victory banner subdues worldly distractions, arrogance
11 Phagma Norter Drolma orange-red treasure vase gives wealth, removes sufferings of poverty
12 Tashi Donje gold/yellow infinite knot inner and outer balance, timely seasons, harvests
13 Yulle Gyalma dark red open vajra stops warfare, heals destruction of anger
14 Thronyer Chen blue/black tung shing/pestle crushes subtlest negativity and obstacles
15 Rabzhima rich white small vase purifies greatest evils and obscuration's
16 Rigngag Tobjom red double dorje destroys bad intentions & their source, ego
17 Pagme Nonma orange golden stupa stops violent activities, robbery, hunting
18 Maja Chenmo white rabbit-marked moon protects against outer and inner poisons; protect infants and children
19 Dugkarmo white white umbrella protects from nightmares, disputes, curses
20 Rito Loma Jonma saffron za ma tog dispels epidemics and deadly illness
21 Lhamo Ozer Chenma white golden fish protects life force, brings inner radiance; protects animals


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