THE LEGEND OF ZANABAZAR’S DIVINE TARAS
Two phenomenal sculptures of Buddhist art are Undur Gegeen Zanabazar’s White and Green Taras. The White Tara is in the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Art, while the Green Tara and her 21 manifestations are displayed in the Bogd Khaan Palace Museum.
Tara is the most powerful female deity in the Buddhist pantheon.1 Her name means “star” in Sanskrit. According to one legend, she was born from the tears of Megjid Janraisig, who “looks upon living beings with the compassion of all Buddhas.” As his female manifestation, the White Tara is regarded as the mother of all Buddhas.2
Tara is known for her supreme beauty, divine wisdom, and universal compassion. She guides followers on a path to liberation from suffering. She appears in 108 different forms and in 5 colors: white, green, red, blue, and yellow. The Green and White Taras are most commonly known in Tibetan Buddhism.
Zanabazar’s version of the White Tara was inspired by and dedicated to a woman whom he referred to as his Dalai Mother.3 During his infancy, Zanabazar’s own mother, Khandjamts, could not breastfeed her baby despite all her efforts because she had no milk. Concurrently, the queen’s sixteen-year-old maid spontaneously began to lactate and was thus able to nourish the baby. This was regarded as a miracle in Zanabazar’s life.4
The White Tara is characterized by having seven eyes. They are believed to see the past, present, and future. The eyes on the White Tara’s hands and feet signify four qualities of a bodhisattva: compassion, kindness, joy, and equality. She sits in a lotus pose. Her right hand makes a gesture of giving. Her left hand holds the stem of a budding lotus in a gesture of haven.
The Green Tara is the goddess of healing, rejuvenation, and growth. Zanabazar’s Green Tara has an idealized, voluptuous figure that is accentuated by a gracefully seated posture called “the Royal Pose” or Lalitasana in Sanskrit. Her right foot is positioned on an offshoot of the lotus throne. This stance indicates her readiness to take action for the salvation of sentient beings from the dangers of eight destructive emotions: pride, ignorance, anger, envy, greed, doubt, hatred, and jealousy.5 Her hand gestures are the same as those of the White Tara. The Green Tara holds in each hand the stalks of budding flowers that extend passed her shoulders. The flowers symbolize purity and longevity.6
The first and perhaps the most accurate source on Zanabazar’s biography is the “Gegeen Toli” (Sacred Dictionary) from 1702 by the Undur Gegeen’s student and contemporary, Zaya Pandita Luvsanperenlei.7 Presently, S. Erdene’s biographical fiction Zanabazar, written in 1987, is the most popular book on this topic. In the historical novel, S. Erdene reimagines a legend, passed down by oral accounts, of how Zanabazar created his iconic Green Tara.
At 15 years old, the Undur Gegeen falls in love with the incredibly beautiful Aminaa, the daughter of Chinggis Khaan’s descendant, Prince Sungerel. Zanabazar is unable to be with her because of his religious vows and political commitments. While Zanabazar was studying in Tibet, Aminaa’s people, including her parents, are killed due to the ongoing hostility between the Khalkha and Oirad nations. She escapes from captivity thanks to her little brother.
Through a great ordeal, Zanabazar is finally able to see Aminaa again and arranges to keep her safe. However, one of Zanabazar’s counsellors was envious of the Undur Gegeen’s secret source of strength. The double agent dishonors and murders Aminaa without ever getting caught. From the depths of grief for his beloved sweetheart, Zanabazar creates his sculpture of the Green Tara.8 “By remembering your beauty, wisdom, and compassion, may all who suffer pray to you, and through your divine image in the Green Tara may all be guided to liberation by you,” says Zanabazar.
Zanabazar’s profound meditation on compassion for the suffering of others breathed life into an amazing vision of powerful feminine archetypes – the Mother and the Lover. The White and Green Taras are masterpieces that nurture the spirit and stimulate the senses. The Taras’ radiance exudes splendor, as if they were caressed by the sun and the wind. The superb mastery of gilt-bronze sculpting makes them visually palpable through the smoothness of skin, the translucence of silk, and the precision of jewelry work. The hollow bronze casting creates a remarkable lightness that bespeaks the elegance of the sculptures.
Whether they convey the resilience of a tender lotus blossom or the power of kindness to transform despair into creative healing powers, Zanabazar’s sculptures embody the magical harmony of the exquisiteness of form and the profoundness of content.
To this day, the sublime beauty of Undur Gegeen Zanabazar’s sculptures remains an epitome of Mongolian Buddhist art and continues to captivate the imagination of viewers from all over the world.
- McArthur, M. “Tara: A Powerful Feminine Force in the Buddhist Pantheon.” Global Buddhist Door. https://www.buddhistdoor.net/features/tara-a-powerful-feminine-force-in-the-buddhist-pantheon. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.
- Bogd Khaan Palace Museum. Especial White Tara. Ulaanbaatar: Munkhiin Useg, 2020.
- Sarantuya, U., et al. Г. Занабазарын Нэрэмжит Дүрслэх Урлагийн Музейн Дэлгэрэнгүй Тайлбар. Ulaanbaatar: Askpoint, 2012.
- Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO. In Commemoration of the 360th Anniversary of Undur Geghen Zanabazar, the First Bogdo Zhivzundamba Hutugtu, the Mongolian Great Enlightener, Outstanding Spiritual Leader and Statesman. Ulaanbaatar, 1995.
- Bogd Khaan Palace Museum. Green Taras of Bogd Khaan. Ulaanbaatar: Munkhiin Useg, 2020.
- Sources differ in description regarding the flowers above the shoulders of the Green Tara. Some sources define both to be lotus flower blossoms, which symbolize purity. Others state that they are chrysanthemum buds, which symbolize longevity. The flowers above the Green Tara’s shoulders appear to be different from one another. It could be that a chrysanthemum and a lotus both blossom above the Green Tara’s shoulders.
- Syrtypova, S.-K. D. Zanabazar’s Style of Buddhist Art (Using Examples from the Collection of A. Altangerel). Ulaanbaatar: Admon Print, 2019. Pg. 325.
- Erdene, S. Занабазар (3rd ed.). Ulaanbaatar: Admon, 2012. Pg. 184.
- Saruul, N., Sarantuya, U., Munkhzul, J., and Tsedmaa, D. The Fine Arts Zanabazar Museum –Unique Masterpieces. Ulaanbaatar: Admon Print, 2013.
By Ariunaa Jargalsaikhan
Published in UB Post on May 12, 2021