Photo courtesy of Roar Media

She stands tall at the heart of the British Museum’s South Asian exhibit. In all her gilded bronze glory, her eyes search passing spectators, although the jewels which once adorned them have now been ripped out. Her curving silhouette holds her history, her hands poised in a gesture known as varadamudra (granting a wish), although she is missing fingers. Tara, a Buddhist deity, bodhisattva (Mahayana Buddhism), female Buddha (Vajrayana Buddhism) and the spirit of generous compassion. Her crown is missing, lost in her turbulent, forced journey from Sri Lanka to the depths of the museum.

Tara is presented as the divine feminine in her golden glory. Her upper body is bare and her lower body is draped in a thin sarong around her curving waist and hips. Spectators, museum staff, tourists and locals weave through the artifacts around me, pausing in her presence. Tara is a shapeshifter, created and reimagined by her environment and viewer. Here, she is pushed to the background. An aesthetic backdrop designed for a white gaze. A couple stands, laughing, absorbed in their own world. Perhaps they read the description of how Tara was peacefully acquired and believed it. Their muted colors against her golden stature. While she still peers forward, her meaning is diluted and her image is reduced in the eyes of an unknowing audience.

The statue of Tara dates back to the 7th-8th century AD in Sri Lanka, stolen from the last Kandyan king when the British annexed Sri Lanka in the early 19th century on the premise that (1) she was too sexual for Sri Lanka and (2) the sculpture would be inadequately preserved. These arguments were fabricated to justify cultural property theft by colonial powers. Now the original bronze statue stands in the British museum, donated by the former Governor of Ceylon, Robert Brownrigg (1830) while only a replica remains in Sri Lanka. At the British museum, the statue was hidden from the public for 30 years alongside erotic artifacts in the name of the Secretum in 1865 through the Obscene Publication Act as it was considered too sexual. This hypersexualised misrepresentation is particularly problematic considering Tara’s rich genealogy and spiritual significance in Sri Lankan society. The de-contextualisation of Tara, and the ostensible silence surrounding her historical significance continues to result in her fetishization, sexualisation and exoticisation, repurposed for white audiences.

By acknowledging pre-colonial patriarchal systems, I analyze how British colonialism reshaped, reinforced and imposed patriarchal body politics to create a dominant, exploitative form of oppression manifested in Tara’s representation. The argument I enter is not one regarding whether or not Tara should be returned to Sri Lanka. Rather, I argue that Tara’s return is an essential step in postcolonial cultural repatriation. But structural measures must be taken to dismantle the patriarchal systems which exist in Sri Lanka as a vestige of pre and colonial influence. As such, the repatriation process cannot simply be a performative transport of the statue; repatriation must address the structures which have historically rendered Tara’s spiritual significance misunderstood and diluted.

Tara’s spiritual, social and cultural significance

Tara (Sankritt translation:savior or star) appears as a female deity in both Hinduism and Buddhism, adopting different roles in Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana schools of Buddhist philosophy. She is a symbol of transformation, capable of manifesting in 21 different forms, invoking varied powers while encouraging adherents towards transformation themselves. Focusing on Tara as a Buddhist deity, she personifies compassion and offers salvation from the suffering of rebirth and death. In Vajrayana Buddhism, she notably appears as the first female Buddha, a previously unattainable spiritual status for women. Historically, women were deemed metaphorically tied to samsāra – the cycle of birth and death – because their bodies were considered primarily for the growth and birth of children. Thus attaining the status of a buddha (the highest state of enlightenment), one who is enlightened and emancipated from  samsāra, was deemed impossible. As such, a woman would have to be reincarnated as a man, by death and rebirth, in order to attain a state of enlightenment. Further, in Theravada Buddhism, women were also excluded from becoming bodhisattvas (individuals on the path to enlightenment). Numerous jataka tales (stories of the Buddha) depict the bodhisattva as a human, animal, naga (serpent deity) or god but never a female. The widely considered master text on the topic of women in Buddhism is the Sūtra on Transforming the Female Form,  a text outlining the process of female liberation in early Mahayana teachings. It reads, “May all women be transformed into men, courageous, intelligent, and full of wisdom. May they practice the bodhisattva path at all times, cultivating the Six Perfections until they reach the realm of enlightenment”. These notions were inextricably linked to ideas that to be born as a female was a result of bad karma where women were disadvantaged in that they could not access positions of leadership in Buddhist communities.

Tara’s origin stories conflate as historical Buddhist cosmography has many different world spheres operating in varied realms of time simultaneously. However, the most prominent one follows her attainment of Buddha status, appearing as the embodiment of the divine feminine and the mother of mercy and compassion. According to this story, a young princess, Yeshe Dawa (Wisdom Moon) had attained a high level of spiritual insight upon continued practice with the monks. She took the vow of the bodhisattvaand was advised by monks to pray to be reborn as a male so she could advance in her spiritual journey. To this, Dawa had responded, Here, no man, no woman, No I, no individual, no categories. “Man” or “Woman” are only denominations, Created by confusions of perverse minds in this world. Rebuking the monk’s advice, she vowed to always be reincarnated as a woman for as long as she continues in the realm of samsara (until samsara was emptied), responding directly to the unequal representation of men and women serving as role models of the enlightened path. Through continued practice in developing spiritual wisdom, compassion and power and sustained meditation, she attained the meditative state of liberating all beings, a power through which she could free infinite numbers of souls from samsara (rebirth and death). Now known as the liberator, she became the goddess Tara, “the savioress, always ready to respond to the cries of those who called upon her”

Tara is therefore specifically important as a figure of female power and divinity, transforming perceptions of women in the realm of spiritual enlightenment and liberation.

Tara’s current positioning in the museum

The museum exhibits are divided by world region, a physical manifestation of Britain’s colonial legacy, unapologetically displayed and exoticised for a Western gaze. I am both repelled and saddened as I pass these stolen treasures – fundamental artifacts from former colonies’ cultures stolen with no remorse. I walk through the Ancient Egypt section, where mummies have been dug up and placed on display. The energy is haunting. Young children weaving through remnants of dead bodies, peering through with such disconnectedness, such desensitization. The persistent colonial mindsets enabled and enforced by such institutions had never seemed more evident. Considering the reverence and devoutness granted to British royalty, it is deeply telling of perspectives towards these world regions when their kings and queens are dug up from their graves to be aestheticized. I then arrive back at the South Asia exhibit, where Tara stands alongside various other looted artifacts.

Since the 19th Century, Tara has been hidden, hurt and exoticised. She is now presented alongside an audio explaining that “Tara was ‘given’ to Robert Brownrigg, the third Governor of Ceylon (as the British referred to Sri Lanka) and that Brownrigg had ‘donated’ it to the museum ‘perhaps finding her voluptuous form rather out of place in his English country home’”.  As with most artifacts in the museum, histories of violence, colonialism, genocide and white supremacy are gilded by phrases of peaceful acquisition and property donation.

Tara was initially considered too perverse to be publicly displayed, and was locked away in The Secretum (otherwise known as the porn room) for 30 years through the Obscene Publication Act, a British law through which the state was granted the power to seize and destory artifacts it deemed offensive or obscene. This hypersexualisation is particularly disturbing considering Tara’s spiritual importance as a figure of power and liberation. This projected image was imposed upon Tara by the West to both fulfill and construct an Oriental fantasy. The West not only decorated their archives with statues such as Tara but actually constructed their very identity on projected images of former colonies. The British imposed an imagined, hypersexualised image upon the statue of Tara in an attempt to construct their own identity as a saviorist, liberating power – the only country “capable of housing her justly”. Thus the British Museum, a vestige of colonial legacies, depends on the projected, Western-oriented constructions of its artifacts to justify its very existence.

An analysis of pre-colonial patriarchal systems

Oftentimes when navigating history, binaries are established in attempts to understand the past. In colonial studies, this results in harmful rhetoric that either pre-colonial settings were completely free from oppressive structures or that systems of patriarchy were already developed in pre-colonial spaces and thus colonial powers cannot be held accountable for the continuation of these systems. These arguments at their core fail to acknowledge the intersecting forms of oppression, and the exploitative processes through which imperial powers contorted, reshaped and restructured specific pre-colonial systems in order to reproduce their own domination.

In pre-colonial Sri Lanka, caste is inextricably linked to the treatment of women. Higher caste women were not allowed to interact with those of lower castes and specific policies and legislation was implemented to prevent caste mixing. Women mostly of royal and noble rank were granted individual liberties and participation in economic spheres, comparable to that of men. Interestingly, despite these caste linked systems of patriarchal oppression, notions of glorified motherhood and the idealized feminine (tying into notions of divine femininity represented with Tara) were integral to the social fabric. To understand the precolonial lives of inhabitants, early references are embedded in cave inscriptions and two key chronicles, the Dipavamsa (4th Century) and the Mahavamsa (6th Century).

The treatment of women was most closely linked to caste and the implementation of certain gender biases present in interpretations of Buddhist ideology. A key set of legal texts at the time, Manusmriti (The Laws of Manu), evidences that women were able to participate in labor and economic activities but were structurally excluded from positions of leadership and respect depending on their caste. In pre-colonial Sri Lanka, the Laws of Manu were influential in the treatment and position of women. While women held an honorable place in society and were able to access the highest knowledge and participate in all religious ceremonies, these laws enforced primary obedience to male relatives, preached chastity to widows and opposed women marrying below their social class. However these laws themselves had numerous inconsistencies and internal conflicts. Namely, much of the document appears as intending to protect women and encourages economic participation and (limited) ownership over property. The British application of such scriptures exploited certain aspects of Manusmriti to found and justify their introduction of patriarchal systems.

Certain pre-colonial laws enforced double binds of caste and patriarchal oppression such as the breast cloth/tax controversy. This breast tax enforced a penalty on lower caste women if they did not uncover their breasts as a sign of respect, particularly in the presence of higher castes. The exploitative process of colonialism saw that such pre-existing laws were used to cement colonial ones. For example, in direct response to the breast cloth controversy, colonial laws stigmatized and hypersexualised the female form. The extractive nature of colonialism as such resulted in a dominant form of patriarchy, shifting the representation and understanding of women in society.

An analysis of colonial systems of patriarchy

While pre colonial systems of oppression were interwoven with notions of caste relations and Buddhist philosophy, the current patriarchal landscape in Sri Lanka is vastly structurally distinct. Colonialism made these systems of oppression far more pervasive, totalizing and legislated.

The British introduced Victorian notions of marriage and family, gender roles and economic standing, creating specific laws which continue to be used in enforcing the subordination of women. The education systems implemented not only excluded women structurally but reinforced gender stereotypes through promoting the values of the nuclear family, stigmatizing divorce and creating fixed, submissive images of women. Pre-colonial notions of marriage were not tied to the state or religion but rather deemed a civil affair. With the introduction of Christianity, principles of monogamy and required marriage registrations were enforced. Marriage subsequently became a tool for the male exertion of power over wives and their property.

Simultaneously, the British Land Policy of the 19th century resulted in many women losing control over their property and through the Land Development Ordinance of 1935, preference was granted to the eldest son in case of intestate succession to state land allotments. Under colonial rule men were granted greater control over inheritance and the British relied increasingly on local elites (predominantly male) to govern and administer the country. The British also enforced a cash based economy and advanced the needs of Western capitalism, monetizing domestic labor which was predominantly performed by women. This both relegated women to a private, unrecognized sphere of labor and rendered them often unpaid, undervalued and economically dependent on male counterparts. These structural manifestations of patriarchy resulted in a dominant, intersecting form of oppression emerging – one of Sri Lankan subordination to British colonial powers and the reduction of women’s position in a colonial state.

Specific laws including the Vagrants Ordinance (1841), modeled after the English Vagrancy Act (1824), were used to criminalise sex work and legally enforce ideas of “decency”. Notions of moral purity and conservative values, the Penal Code criminalizing homosexuality and laws such as the Marital Rape Clause all evolved as vestiges of patriarchy under British colonial influence.

These laws imposed strict notions of femininity and decency, including a woman’s role, responsibilities and capabilities. As such, the female body fell directly under control of the state and was structurally oppressed and limited. Such legislation creates social shifts in the perception of the female form, leading to increased stigmatization and sexualisation. These ramifications are manifested in the shifting, hypersexualised representation of Tara in a society where the female form was reframed and reconstructed.

The necessity of cultural property repatriation

The lack of cultural repatriation to date has not simply been a matter of negligence but rather a blatant and intentional denial of Sri Lankan requests for the return of their rightful cultural property. In fact, British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer told The New York Times that “the collections have to be preserved as whole”, (2018) when arguing for the preservation of the British collections as they stand. Sri Lankan authorities consider Tara one of many treasures stolen from the country. The Government of Ceylon (colonial Sri Lanka) under British Rule made an official approach to the British Museum in 1937, requesting the return of specific objects. After being denied, the Sri Lankan government in 1980 once again made an official request for repatriation, which became fruitless upon the second refusal by the British in 1981. This acknowledges the attempts at reclaiming historical artifacts by the colonies and the persistent postcolonial power dynamics which still prevent repatriation efforts. Much of these cultural artifacts have now been privatized by museum collectors, making the legally founded documentation contestable in its representation of ownership. This poses challenges to the protocols surrounding repatriation but still fails to acknowledge that the privatization of museum property in and of itself was immoral and unjustified.

The British Museum has been known to refuse requests for repatriation or in rare circumstances, agree to lending objects to the country of origin and subsequently reclaiming them. For example, ​​Australia requested repatriation of the Gweagal shield, which the British stole from Aboriginal Australians in the late 18th century. The museum refused to repatriate the shield to Australia and instead loaned the shield temporarily and reclaimed it afterward.

One justification invoked for the continued British control over these artifacts is the assumption that property would be ineptly maintained in Sri Lanka. This is an ironic argument considering the significant damage dealt to Tara during her forced removal from Sri Lanka, including the removal of numerous jewels in her headdress and the damage dealt to her sculpted fingers and toes. Furthermore, the thwarting of Tara’s meaning through a British lens is more harmful to its original purpose than the supposed physical degradation that could occur if kept in Sri Lanka, although the latter is also fallacious. It is a baseless claim that the country which built such artifacts cannot maintain them, considering that most, if not all of the rock carvings, frescoes, ruin sites and temple statues remain preserved in their entirety. This rhetoric also furthers saviorist complexes, not only attempting to justify the blatant property theft, but also frame the forced removals as a charitable act which should be revered. It is a reinforcement of the colonial ideology that the colonized cannot rule themselves and preserve their own property – an attempt to justify the mercenary aspect of colonialism. It seems not a question of whether Sri Lanka can handle Tara but rather a question of why these oppressive structures currently exist as they do, and how we can dismantle them to allow for a meaningful discourse and subsequent repatriation.

The British Museum’s continued refusal for repatriation is also based on potential economic loss and the required acknowledgement of the wrongful acquisition revealing the violence of historical property theft. The British Museum made roughly 4.3 million pounds (2019-2020) for their collection of colonial-era artifacts reflecting the long standing dependence of the British economy on the exploitation of former colonies.

Structural changes required for effective repatriation

Upon dismantling the intersecting patriarchal systems that remain in Sri Lanka as a result of exploitative colonial forces contorting ancient systems of oppression, it is vital that in addition to the process of physical repatriation, structural changes are undertaken to ensure the creation of a space in which Tara may exist in her spiritual entirety. Ultimately, the responsibility of repatriation efforts should fall upon the British, the former colonial power which dealt irreparable damage to the social, cultural and political fabrics of former colonies. While the damage sustained by former colonies is irreversible, attempts for amends are essential. Beyond simply a return of Tara, the residual colonial systems in place must be dismantled, particularly as they relate to the understanding of the female form. Structurally, this would involve years of reform, disrupting many of the patriarchal laws currently in place as well as enacting social change to create shifting attitudes towards women.

As a tangible call for immediate action, education and awareness are crucial. I propose, in addition to the repatriation of Tara, a proper historical plaque presented alongside her with the true context on her origin, theft and return, as well as her spiritual significance as written in Buddhist doctrines. It is essential to create the space, spiritually and physically, for Tara to exist in her entirety. In direct response to the claims that Sri Lanka is not ready for Tara, this repatriation would actually help bolster visibility of historical discrimination against women and feminine spirituality in public spaces in Sri Lanka. The return of Tara does not only have the capacity to begin a process of restorative justice but also to symbolize the possibility of change in Sri Lanka.

This repatriation is not simply performative or decorative but necessary in shifting perspectives towards cultural property in both the British Museum and Sri Lanka. It is a process involving acknowledgement of the historical wrongdoings by imperial powers and the necessary shift in perspective towards ownership in attempts to rebuild Sri Lanka’s cultural legacy.

I stand facing Tara, Goddess of compassion, deity, and Buddha. My eyes trace her dull crown. While jewels from my country adorn the crown of British monarchs, the Goddess of my country has been stripped of her gems. Years of reform cannot fully heal the violent past of colonialism but efforts for restorative justice are necessary in constructing a morally righteous future. Through physical repatriation to Sri Lanka in conjunction with structural social shifts, a meaningful spiritual space for Tara to exist in her entirety can be evolved.