A demonic form of the Hindu goddess Bhairavi sits on the body of a decomposing corpse

A timeline of Tantra

Exhibition updates

Our special exhibition Tantra: enlightenment to revolution (24 September – 24 January 2021) is now available to book. Advanced booking is required for everyone including Members. 

From its inception to the present day, Tantra has challenged religious, cultural and political norms around the world.

A philosophy that emerged in India around the 6th century, Tantra has been linked to successive waves of revolutionary thought, from its early transformation of Hinduism and Buddhism, to the Indian fight for independence and the rise of 1960s counterculture.

 

Timeline

AD 500

The birth of Tantra

Palm leaf with script
Folio from the 'Vajramrita Tantra (Nectar of the Thunderbolt Tantra)'. Palm leaf, Nepal, 1162. © Cambridge University Library.
Tantra as a philosophy and set of practices develops in India, taking its name from sacred instructional texts that describe rituals for invoking all-powerful deities. Tantra begins on the margins of society, among devotees of the Hindu god Shiva, destroyer of the universe, and Shakti, the universe's all-pervasive force. By the 700s the Tantras are being studied in Hindu and Buddhist monasteries across India.

AD 500–1500

The rise of Tantra in India

Sculpture depicting Tantric goddess Chamunda dancing
Temple sculpture of the Tantric goddess Chamunda, 9th century, Madhya Pradesh, Central India.
Tantra takes hold in South Asia during a period of political turbulence with the breakdown of the Gupta and Vakataka dynasties and the rise of many new kingdoms whose rulers were drawn to Tantra's promise of worldly as well as spiritual power. They commissioned magnificent temples enshrining Tantric deities, particularly from AD 900. The philosophy inspires a range of new deities and triggers the dramatic rise of goddess worship.
Collection online

AD 600–1500

The spread of Tantra across Asia

Rectangular votive panel showing a three-headed and four-armed male deity, seated cross-legged supported by two white bulls
Shiva as Maheshvara (Great Lord), Dandan Oilik, Khotan, north-west China, AD 600–800.
Tantric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana (Path of the Thunderbolt), flourishes in monasteries in Eastern India, before travelling across Asia via pilgrimage, trade and diplomatic networks. Tantric masters transmit teachings from India to Tibet from about AD 700, and between the 1000s and 1300s several Vajrayana schools of thought develop there. In the early AD 800s, a Japanese monk named Kukai brings Tantric teachings from China to Japan and establishes the Shingon (mantra or 'true word') tradition.
Collection online

1500–1800

Tantra and India's royal courts

Painting on paper depicting a ruler and his attendants visiting Nath yogis
A ruler and his attendants visiting Nath yogis, gouache on paper, Rajasthan, India, 18th century.
The allure of Tantra remains tantalising to rulers at India’s courts between 1500 and 1800. These include the Hindu Rajput rulers of the north-west, the Muslim rulers of independent sultanates to the south and, from 1526, the Mughal rulers of an empire that dominates India for the next 200 years. One form of Tantric practice that becomes popular is Hatha yoga (yoga of force), which harnesses the body as a sacred instrument.

1757–1947

Tantra and revolution in colonial India

Kali holding a severed head
Print of the Tantric goddess Kali, published by Ravi Varma Press, about 1910–20. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
British rule develops across India following the decisive Battle of Plassey in 1757. Until 1911, the British capital is at Calcutta in Bengal (now Kolkata), a centre of devotion to the Tantric goddess Kali. Misinterpretations of Tantra reinforce British stereotypes of India as corrupted by black magic and sexual depravity, while Bengali revolutionaries play on these anxieties and reimagine Kali and other Tantric goddesses as figureheads of anti-colonial resistance.

1960–1980

Tantra and global counterculture

Colourful artwork in blues, reds and oranges
'Kalika', 1974, by Prafulla Mohanti (born 1936).
In the 1960s and 70s, global countercultural movements draw on Tantric ideas and imagery. South Asian artists associated with the Neo-Tantra movement adopt Tantric symbols and adapt them to speak to the visual language of global modernism. In Europe and the USA, interpretations of Tantra influence the period's radical politics – inspiring anti-capitalist, ecological and free love ideals.

21st century

Tantra today

Crouched headless figure holding skull
'And all the while the benevolent slept', 2008, by Bharti Kher (born 1969). Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth.
As a worldview, philosophy and set of practices, Tantra is as alive as ever, and there are many Tantric sites that are actively worshipped. In the contemporary art world, female artists have harnessed Tantric goddesses through the bodies of real women, evoking them through a feminist lens.