An evaluation on Scientific Investigation of Bronze Tara image from Sri Lanka at the British Museum: A critical evaluation on controversy of its provenance

The life size gilded Tara image exhibited at the British Museum (acc. no. OA-1820-6-12-14, see photograph 5) which had been found in 1800s somewhere between Trincomalee and Batticoloa on the eastern coast of the Sri Lanka. The then governor Sir Robert Brownrigg later donated it to the British Museum. The metallurgical study on South Indian bronze images by Sharadha Srinivasan analyzed this Tara image by means of stable lead isotope and trace element analyses (Sirinivasan 1999 (a): 95). By comparing stable lead isotope ratio values and also trace element values of this Tara image with some other South Indian values she argues the possibility of it having a possible South Indian origin. She further states that the trace element trends of the Tara image fit the Pallava trend and suggests perhaps the re-use of Pallava metal (Sirinivasan 1999 (b): 204). The aim of this paper is to discuss the scientific results of the Tara image in comparison with the lead isotope and trace element results of Sri Lankan bronze images and address the existing controversy regarding the provenance of this Tara image and open up a discussion.

Tara is a female Bodhisattva Deity of Mahayana Buddhism. Archaeological evidences show the wide spread flourishing of Mahayana Tradition in the island with the existing Theravada Tradition after 5th – 6th Century AD probably through the intense maritime trade activities Sri Lanka had with China, India and South East Asia. The Mahayana influence can be clearly identified by the addition of Mahayana Bodhisattvas and other architectural features to the existing Theravada monasteries, as well as building of new ones throughout the country. There are hundreds of Bodhisattva images found throughout the island, most of them are of stone or carved on rock faces, varying from small to life size to huge (30 -40 feet high). Numerous metal Mahayana Bodisattwa images including Tara images specially made out of copper alloys such as bronze which were dated to 7th – 9th Century AD have been found from different parts of Sri Lanka.

Arjuna Thantilage
Senior Lecturer, Coordinator, Laboratory for Cultural Material Analysis (LCMA),
Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka

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