NEPALESE, EARLY MALLA DYNASTY, 13TH CENTURY
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exquisitely poised in elegant abhanga with hips thrust to the left, her head inclined with eyes narrowed and lips gently smiling in a compassionate gaze, wearing large hoop earrings and a tiara encrusted with lapis lazuli, turquoise and semi-precious stones and secured above each ear in a fan of cloth, with hair tied in a high chignon and tresses falling to the shoulders, her naked upper torso adorned with a large beaded necklace and a string of jewelled pendants, and a long double strand of pearls draping over her breasts and down to her navel, with gem set triangular-form armbands and jewelled bracelets and bangles, her left hand raised in vitarka mudra and the right lowered in varada mudra, a scarf draped over the shoulder and falling in rippling pleats at her side, and standing barefoot with jewelled anklets wearing a long diaphanous skirt decorated with textile designs of elephants, horses, mythical animals and floral sprays and secured at the waist with a jewelled girdle, stand
This sublime figure is one of the most enchanting of all Nepalese sculptures of Tara, the Buddhist goddess of salvation. The female form is so well conceived that only serene expressions of divinity remind us of her spiritual nature, a temperament instilled by the sculptor that conveys Tara's compassion for the devotees who have gazed upon this magical image over centuries. While her expression is contemplative her gestures are of generosity and openness to her worshippers. The right hand is held in the varada mudra expressing charity and refuge, and the left in the vitarka mudra of debate and religious instruction. Her posture is relaxed and fluid, emphasising the rounded female form with graceful poise and balance. The youthful appearance of the goddess belies the depth of compassion and spirituality imbued in the statue: she is described in the sacred texts as a maiden of a mere sixteen years of age. Exquisite jewels adorn her naked torso, and her diaphanous skirt is delightfully decorated with floral sprays, jewel-bearing elephants, wish-granting horses and mythical beasts. The bronze embodies the sensuous quality of Nepalese sculpture, manifest in the voluptuous female form and an overwhelming sense of engagement with the viewer.
In Tibetan mythology Tara appeared from within a lotus bud on a lake formed from a tear shed by the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara for the suffering of sentient beings. Her face is said to embody "the delicacy of a million lotus blossoms", see Mullin, Mystical Verses of a Dalai Lama, 2003, p. 57 for the translation of a commentary on Tara by the First Dalai Lama, Gendün Drup (1391-1474). Tara is worshipped as a saviour and liberator from samsara, the earthly realm of birth and rebirth, and numerous bronzes such as this supremely elegant example testify to her wide popularity in the Himalayan regions. Stylistically the figure may be compared with the finest works from the early Malla period (c. 1200-1479), often regarded as the apogee of Nepalese sculpture in terms of the sensuous expression realised in complex castings, enhanced by exquisite gem-set jewellery and rich mercury gilding: cf. a thirteenth century gilt copper Indra with similar lozenge-shaped lapis insets to the crown band, and remarkably similar in its expressions of elegance and poise; and generally agreed to be one of the finest known Malla period sculptures, see Pal, Nepal: Where the Gods are Young, Asia Society, New York, 1975, p. 116.
The prowess of the Newar artists of Nepal's Kathmandu Valley was internationally recognised. In 1260 the Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan (1215-1294) commissioned a memorial stupa to Sakya Pandita (1182-1251) to be erected at Sakya monastery in Tibet. Phagspa (1235-1280), the Sakya hierarch and Khubilai's imperial preceptor, summoned a group of some eighty of the best artists in Nepal to fulfil the charge. Aniko (1244-1306), the group's leader, was a precocious talent as an architect, weaver, painter and sculptor, and so impressed his sponsor that Phagspa recommended his talents to Khubilai. Aniko was embraced by the emperor and rapidly elevated to prestigious posts. Amongst many honours he was appointed Supervisor-in-chief of All Classes of Artisans, and later Minister of Education in charge of the Imperial Manufactories Commission, responsible for the court's supply of precious materials such as gold, pearls and rhinoceros horn. Official documents of the Mongol dynasty record Aniko's biography, and describe monuments, Buddhist sculpture, painting and textiles made to his design, see Karmay (Stoddard), Early Sino-Tibetan Art, Warminster, 1975, pp. 21-4. He was awarded great wealth and status at court.
Aniko's arrival at the Mongol court with twenty-four fellow Newars established a Nepalese presence in the Chinese imperial workshops that would last for centuries. They brought an invaluable familiarity with Himalayan Buddhist iconography when Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism became the state religion of the Yuan dynasty, and a renowned ability to adapt to the artistic traditions of a sponsor. Yuan period Chinese works of art that reveal Nepalese influence include a statue of a bodhisattva in the Freer Gallery that is a done in the uniquely Chinese medium of dry lacquer, but with pronounced Newar style in the sculptural detail, ibid., p. 22, pl. 11. An imperial Vajrabhairava mandala in kesi, a favoured medium of the Mongol court, is drawn in the Newar style seen in Tibetan paintings associated with Sakya monastery, see Watt and Wardwell, When Silk was Gold, New York, 1997, cat. no. 25. And another Yuan period kesi mandala integrates pure Nepalese scrolling vine motifs with landscape done in the classical Chinese blue-green style; ibid., cat. no. 26. All three works of art are unmistakeably Chinese while subtly incorporating Nepalese characteristics. The Tara meanwhile exemplifies the indigenous Newar sculptural aesthetic of the thirteenth century: a sculpture made for Newar or Tibetan patrons in the prevailing Nepalese style of elegantly modelled, richly gilded and bejewelled statues imbued with spirituality. Indeed the type of sculpture with which Aniko would have been familiar in his homeland, and that Phagspa would have sought to fulfil Khubilai's commission at Sakya monastery. This divine statue of the goddess remains one of the finest examples of thirteenth century Nepalese sculpture, and a document to the artistic genius that brought renown to Newar artists throughout the Himalayas, and at the imperial courts of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
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