Dancing figure of Cāmuṇḍā), made of sandstone.

Tantra at the British Museum – Collecting histories

The British Museum has one of the most extensive collections of Tantric visual culture in the world.

The complex stories of how some of these objects came to the Museum speak to the entangled histories of European imperialism, Orientalist scholarship and the international art market.

Throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, many of the objects from the Museum collection were donated by a range of archaeologists, diplomats, politicians and patrons who frequently operated with financial or institutional support from an expanding British imperial state. Yet this history is also international – donors of various nationalities have bequeathed objects to the Museum.

The following six examples of Tantric objects entering the Museum present the complex relationships between the lives of individual donors and the colonial power structures they were operating in since the Museum's foundation in 1753.

Collecting and the East India Company

From 1600 to 1858, British engagement with South Asia was almost exclusively mediated through the East India Company. Britons who travelled to India during this time usually did so under Company employ.

At the heart of the British Museum's collection of Tantric objects is a series of sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses, collected in the 18th century by Major General Charles Stuart of the East India Company army.

By all accounts Stuart was an unusual man. Born in Ireland, he moved to India in 1777, while still a teenager. Once there, he developed an Orientalist passion for the country, and particularly for Hindu customs, earning him the nickname 'Hindoo' Stuart. Simultaneously exoticising and embracing these customs over his own Western culture, he promoted wearing traditional Indian dress, bathed in the sacred Ganges each morning alongside Hindus, and fiercely criticised 'obnoxious missionaries' for attempting to convert Hindus to Christianity.

He also amassed an extensive collection of medieval sculptures of gods and goddesses at his residence in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), which he was said to worship. The residence became an informal museum with servants trained to provide tours. We do not know how Stuart acquired these sculptures. He may have bought some of them, but it's also possible others were removed from sites without permission. On his death in 1828, the collection was shipped to London. Stuart was buried in Calcutta, beneath a mausoleum loosely modelled on a Hindu shrine.

1. Collecting and the East India Company

Once in London, the collection was auctioned in 1830 at Christie's, where the majority was purchased by John Bridge (1755–1834), a partner in a goldsmithing firm. Bridge built a museum for the sculptures at his residence in Shepherds Bush – salmon pink, with crenellations (parapets) and 'cusped' arches in the 'Moorish fashion'. Some of the sculptures were darkened with boot polish for heightened effect, then cemented into the walls of this fantasy construction. In 1872, after Bridge's death, the museum was dismantled and the collection donated by surviving family members to the British Museum.

Housed in Stuart's residence in Calcutta, these sculptures reflected the idiosyncrasy of a man who spent the majority of his life in India. Back in London, they became additions to Bridge's luxurious estate. Once donated to the Museum, they were transformed into examples of 'world culture'.

Today, these sculptures can tell us about their complex and problematic past lives, as well as about their original functions as objects of devotion.

A Yogini in Paris

The pictured Yogini sculpture originally belonged to a 10th-century temple in Kanchi, south-east India, dedicated to the Yoginis – fearsome Tantric goddesses with the power of flight. These deities travelled in packs, and the sculpture at the Museum probably originally belonged to either a set of 42 or 64 Yoginis. The temple had fallen into ruin by the 20th century, although seven of the sculptures had been removed and refitted into a nearby temple in the late 19th century.

The driving force behind the sculptures' exportation was the archaeologist Gabriel Jouveau-Dubriel (1885–1945), a Frenchman born in Saigon to expatriate parents. Dubriel emigrated to the French colony of Pondicherry in south-east India. He arrived as the unofficial agent and scout for Ching Tsai Loo, a Chinese-born Parisian art dealer who established C. T. Loo & Co. – the pre-eminent dealership of Asian art during the first half of the 20th century.

The company operated out of Loo's home, the 'Pagoda Paris', a self-Orientalising fantasy of a townhouse that reflected the dealer's canny use of his 'hybrid' cultural identity to successfully market Asian artefacts. 

2. A Yogini in Paris

Dubriel located the sculptures in the 1820s and, by 1826, had begun the process of shipping 19 sculptural fragments to Loo's dealership in Paris. Dubriel sent two sculptures to the Government Museum in Chennai – potentially in exchange for permission to export the objects, as it's unlikely they left India without British acquiescence – but he was keen to ensure others reached a public museum in his 'motherland'. Three sculptures appear to have been promised to Joseph Hackin, Director of the Musée Guimet in Paris. The remaining fragments were distributed to private collectors and institutions across North America.

The British Museum acquired one of the Kanchi Yoginis in 1955 from Loo's auction house, with the financial support of Percy Thomas Brooke Sewell, a merchant banker who admired the arts of India. This was eight years after Indian independence from Britain, but seven years before the French gave up their colonial territories in South Asia.

Dubriel was given freedom to operate in Kanchi by the British, but viewed his discoveries as glorifying French institutions. Loo, on the other hand, saw distributing these sculptures across North America as promoting 'cosmopolitanism', or openness to other cultures.

Tantric sculpture and the Secretum

Tantric sculpture and the Secretum

The collecting histories of Tantric objects tell us much about the values of the periods in which they were acquired. The pictured erotic temple frieze from Maharashtra received varying interpretations, hinging on the period's fascination with or aversion to the intimate relationship between sexuality and religion.

The sculpture was brought to Britain in 1784 by Captain Alexander Allan, a cartographer for the East India Company and commander of the warship HMS Cumberland. A caption accompanying an engraving of the sculpture published in 1786 in Richard Payne Knight's A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus states that it was 'detached from one of the ancient temples which are excavated in the solid rock upon the island of Elephanta near Bombay'.

The sculpture was first bought by Thomas Astle, before it entered the famous collection of Charles Townley (1737–1805), a collector and connoisseur of mainly Greek and Roman antiquities. Within Townley's intellectual social circle, the sculpture was thought to demonstrate the fundamental place of fertility cults across ancient 'Indo-European' religions.

The sculpture entered the British Museum in 1805, and over the next century attitudes to it changed dramatically as Victorian moralism hardened. The Secretum, or Secret Museum, was created in 1865 to store 'indecent' objects; the sculpture subsequently disappeared from the view of all but the 'respectable' gentlemen who applied to 'study' the Secretum's contents. It was not until the sexual revolution of the 1960s, itself influenced significantly by Tantric ideas and imagery, that the sculpture emerged from its furtive seclusion.

Colonial collecting in the Himalayas

The pictured example of a rus gyan, or bone apron, was likely made in Tibet, where it may have been used in rituals including Cham dancing – masked performances that re-enacted stories such as the arrival of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. It was acquired between 1889 and 1908 by John Claude White, the Political Officer for the Kingdom of Sikkim – a small hereditary monarchy nestled in the Himalayas, which since 1861 had become a British protectorate.

White had taken part in the 'Younghusband expedition' (1903–04), a British invasion of Tibet led by Francis Younghusband. The invasion led to the deaths of at least 2,000–3,000 Tibetans. Many cultural objects were looted by military officers from monasteries and the homes of Tibetans, especially in the Tibetan town of Gyantse, although a minority were paid for. 

White's extensive photographic archive of Himalayan cultures reveals a scholarly interest. In his memoir, White describes an inspection tour of Talung Monastery in Sikkim in 1891, where he was shown bone aprons:

4. Colonial collecting in the Himalayas

here is preserved…some splendid specimens of 'Rugen' (apron, breastplate, circlet and armlets), exquisitely carved from human bones…All these treasures were produced for my inspection and examination…and were then most carefully put away and re-sealed, but before this was done some of the lamas put on the old dresses, to enable me to see them to greater advantage.

Several photographs survive of the lamas who posed for White in the bone aprons, taken by Theodore Hoffman (of Johnston & Hoffman, an India-based photographic studio regularly used by the British government). 

It's unclear how or where White acquired the bone apron that entered the British Museum in 1911. This uncertainty reflects the significant power imbalances between the acquisitive British official and those who often had little choice but to give up, sell, or ritually gift cultural artefacts. Equally, White's career in the Himalayas was itself shaped by the broad geopolitical concerns of Britain and Russia at the turn of the 20th century, with the Museum's example of a rus gyan reflecting this aspect of Britain's overarching imperial history.

Crime and paranoia in London and India

Crime and paranoia in London and India

From the 1830s, stories circulated by colonial officials and Christian missionaries based in India revolved around the so-called Thugs (gangs of bandits) and their Thuggee 'cult'. Although banditry did occur in India as a result of socio-economic instability, exacerbated by colonial taxation policies, the fantasy of Thuggee as a supposed 'cult of stranglers' was in reality a stereotype promoted by British officials to impose stricter controls over the local population.

Crime and paranoia in London and India

According to William Henry Sleeman, the British administrator who claimed to have discovered details of their 'perverse' practices and intentions via informants, Thuggee was a 'dreadful system of murder, by which thousands of human beings are now annually sacrificed upon every great road throughout India'. The apparent recipient of these sacrificial murders was Kali – a Tantric goddess particularly popular in Bengal. 

Thuggee inspired voyeuristic imaginations back in Britain, so much so that there was a demand for three-dimensional recreations. The pictured example is one of four models commissioned in the early 19th century by Benjamin Worthy Horne (1804–1870), a coach and railway proprietor who paid 14 guineas to have them made in Madras (present-day Chennai) by a local craftsman. The four models illustrate the different stages of attack, showing Thugs strangling and killing travellers with handkerchiefs, then burying the bodies.

5. Crime and paranoia in London and India

Record-keeping was not what it is now at the British Museum, but we know the models were displayed after they were acquired because, in 1857, the Chaplain of Newgate Prison made a complaint about them in The Times. He felt they were corrupting British audiences and inspiring young men to commit crimes around London: 'I have often thought, and still think, that the origin of garotte robberies took place from the exhibition of the way the Thugs in India strangle and plunder passengers, as exhibited in the British Museum'.

Reflecting on these models today allows us to identify the colonial anxieties that fed into these kinds of representations. To a modern viewer, they reveal the contradictions of imperial rule: on the one hand, they were products of a voyeuristic fascination with India's supposed 'otherness'; on the other, they crystalised a paranoia that this 'otherness' would be impossible to dominate and conquer, and might eventually lead not only to the downfall of the colonial regime but also to the corruption of the 'dangerous masses' of urban poor back in Britain.

'We Tibetans'

Louis Magrath King (1886–1949) donated 22 Tibetan objects to the British Museum shortly after the First World War in 1921. He was the third member of his family to be born in China. He joined the British Consular services in 1905, during a period of significant turmoil in East Asia.

King was stationed in a small town on the Chinese-Tibetan border, nominally as an observer of trade, but secretly gathering information so that Britain could mediate the ongoing Chinese-Tibetan border conflict. While stationed in the province of Kham, King met, and later married, Rinchen Lhamo (1901–1929), who descended from Tibetan nobility. Their marriage in 1919 was the first-known Anglo-Tibetan partnership; Lhamo was 18 years old and King was 33.

When word of their wedding reached King's superiors, it sparked a scandal; he was obliged to resign his position in the consular service and return to England. Because she was a native of Tibet, it was said that she was 'insufficiently civilised for the position of a consul's wife'. The pair returned on a Japanese ship in 1925, Lhamo apparently being denied transport on a British vessel.

Setting up home in Hildenborough, Kent, Lhamo was outraged by British perceptions of her homeland, and authored We Tibetans – a work aimed at educating Western audiences about Tibet and its culture. The success of this work catapulted her into the position of Tibet's principle advocate in the Anglophone literary world. In an impassioned article, published in the Sydney Mail, she proclaimed: 'we are neither primitive nor bizarre...we are like yourselves, a people with a highly developed culture, spiritual, social, and material. Our minds are no less active, our wits are no less keen, than yours.' Lhamo was only 28 years old when she died of tuberculosis.


Rinchen Lhamo in Tibetan attire.

We are neither primitive nor bizarre...we are like yourselves, a people with a highly developed culture, spiritual, social, and material. Our minds are no less active, our wits are no less keen, than yours. 

Rinchen Lhamo, writing in the 'Sydney Mail'.

Curator's tour of 'Tantra: enlightenment to revolution'

Curator's tour of 'Tantra: enlightenment to revolution' exhibition at the British Museum.

Experience Tantra online

Exhibition curator Imma Ramos takes you on a guided tour of the British Museum's landmark exhibition Tantra: enlightenment to revolution.