Desperately Seeking Tara : An attempt to find the Golden Tara of Agusan

Macky Calo does some sleuthing in an attempt to uncover what became of one of Agusan's greatest treasures.

By Macky Calo
July 25, 2011

So Basta Pinas tasks me to write about a historical event in my region that I am most proud of.   I figured that the obvious subject matter should be no less than one of the most spectacular discoveries in Philippine archeology, and an icon of Butuan's past grandeur:  The Golden Tara of Agusan.  

But with my limited knowledge on the subject matter, I feel like someone recovering from amnesia.  It is unnerving to find yourself with writer's block when writing something history-related about your own city, especially when its tourism tagline starts with "HISTORICAL Butuan." So armed with a pen, and scratch paper, I started digging.


Googling it Out

The first course of action was to turn to Google. After reading numerous internet postings, I have surmised that the Golden Tara of Agusan is a 21-carat golden figurine of the Hindu-Buddhist goddess named "Tara" of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism.   Sitting cross-legged, it measures over 5 inches tall, and weighs nearly 4 pounds.   It has a richly-adorned headdress and many ornaments on its arms and other parts of its body.  The religious statuette was stumbled on by a woman of the Manobo tribe, jutting out from the muddy banks of the Wawa River in Esperanza, Agusan del Sur, after a storm and flood during 1917. 

Geeky old me had a little more fun and went to Wikipedia (which can also be erroneous at times) to search about the goddess "Tara" and had an AHA!-moment when Wikipedia revealed that Tara is a Sanskrit name for a female Boddhisattva who appears as a female Buddha in Vajrayana Buddhism.  Tara is a tantric meditation deity and Vajrayana is tantric Buddhism of the Mahayana Buddhism branch; hence, the cross-legged, yoga-like position.

It can be deduced that this religious icon could date back to as early 6th, 7th or 8th century up to the 13th century because Vajrayana Buddhism was heavily practiced during that time.  Although,if you look at it in conjunction with the other gold jewelry discovered in Agusan, coupled with Balangay archeological findings, this Tara could possibly have been cast during 13th to 14th century, when trading and commercial connections with the Sailendra dynasty of the Srividjayan Empire was prevalent, and during which Javanese miners were known to have been engaged in gold mining in Agusan.

I then searched for "Sailendra" to find out that besides being active promoters of Mahayana Buddhism, these rulers were considered to be a Thalassocracy ("Rule of the Sea"), and they controlled maritime Southeast Asia.  This brings us back to the famous Balangay boat!  So it all ties up, as far as Wikipedia is concerned.

The Missing Tara


After reading about the Golden Tara on the internet, and having ample background knowledge to appreciate it, I then proceeded to the Butuan Regional Museum to see this pretty little thing, only to find out that what they have in the museum is only a replica, and that there is hardly anything in there that alludes to it.

So I go back to the internet to search for more information.  And lo and behold!  I find a picture of the original Golden Tara of Agusan used as a webpage poster image of the Asian Anthropological collection of the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History.  

How did it get there?  Here is a an email posting of Vicente de Jesus, a historiographer from Butuan City, that details out a chronology of how the figurine went from the hands of the Manobo woman to the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History :

  • 1917-- After a storm and flood Manobo woman finds a gold image "projecting" from the silt in a ravine at the left bank of Wawa River near Esperanza, Agusan.
  • From the Manobo woman the image then passed into the hands of Agusan Deputy Gov. Bias Baklagon, for which reason it became known as "Buwawan ni Baclagon" (Gold of Baclagon).
  • Ownership next passed to the Agusan Coconut Company to whom Baclagon owed a sizeable debt.
  • 1918--Dr. H. Otley Beyer, father of Philippine Anthropology and Archaeology, attempts to have the government buy it for the National Museum. His attempt failed due to lack of funds.

  • 1920 or 21 --The image becomes major item at the Manila Exposition of 1920/21. There, the wife of American Governor General Leonard Wood, Faye Cooper-Cole, curator of Chicago Field Museum's Southeast Asian department and Shaler Matthews of University of Chicago, bought the image for P4,000.00.
  • 1922--The image is shipped to the United States and finally housed at the Chicago Field Museum.

What now?

I have learned that even before Spanish colonization, we were already a complex and sophisticated society, with trade and cultural interactions with other Asian kingdoms in the Sri Vidjayan Empire.  We could possibly have been a totally different people--a Vajrayana Buddhist-practicing people.  And since we were literally sitting on a gold mine, we would have continued to progress as a gold-adorned, boat-sailing people. To know more about our past gold technology, witness the permanent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum called The Gold Rush: Tours of the Pre-Hispanic Gold Collection

The archeology of Butuan and Agusan has been crucial to a dependable reconstruction of the Philippine pre-colonial past.  Artifacts such as the Golden Tara of Agusan, or even just a simple shard of pottery, become important insofar as they are able to tell us a story of who we were as a people.

And so my search shall disappointingly end here, and will have to continue when I finally get to go back to Chicago.  Although on the bright side, this exercise has allowed me to answer the question Basta Pinas posed:  What happened in your region that you are most proud of?  The answer is Butuan.  Butuan happened.

Basta Pinas, Rock and Roll! 

Macky Calo is a local restaurateur from Butuan City. He owns a coffee shop, a restaurant, and a beer and wine lounge bar. He travels around the CARAGA Region in search of secret surfing spots and local delicacies.