The Gold Tara of Agusan
One of the treasures in the Gem Room of the Field Museum in Chicago is the gold image of a Hindu goddess found in Agusan in 1917. Like many who have known this image only from pictures, I was a bit disappointed seeing it in person, because it was smaller than I had imagined or wanted it to be.
The same could be said of millions of pilgrims to the Louvre in Paris who have been set up for a major disappointment by the millions of posters, postcards, replicas and coffee mugs from which “La Gioconda” or the “Mona Lisa” flashes her iconic enigmatic smile. Those who have braved the crowds and peered through the original under bulletproof glass all ask—why is she so small?
School taught me about the “Golden Tara of Agusan,” that it is not golden; neither is it gilded or gold-plated metal. It is solid gold, 21 karats and weighs 2 kilos. I checked the recent spot price of gold online, and the Agusan image is worth about $86,000 if melted down.
But it is priceless to Filipinos who take pride in this evidence of a civilization that existed long before Magellan and the Spanish contact in the 16th century. The image also suggests an Indian influence in our prehistory we know little about. The Tara of Agusan can now be studied in the context of stunning pre-Spanish Philippine gold at the Ayala Museum and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Museum. We look at these gold artifacts, dated 10th to the 12th centuries, and realize that once upon a time the Philippines literally had a golden age.
Gold was quite common in pre-Spanish times; it was used in trade and was worn as a marker of power, wealth and social class. Illustrations in the 16th-century Boxer Codex depict our ancestors ornamented like Christmas trees, making us ask — if our ancestors were so rich, why are so many of our people poor today?
Two decades ago, I went through the acquisition records of the Agusan image in order to settle the debate about its origins: Was it made in the Philippines, or was it imported into the islands, acquired from traders or explorers?
In the Field Museum, I found a note by a Dutch scholar who declared the Agusan image as made in the Philippines by Filipino artisans, because he felt the craftsmanship crude and the iconography wrong. I was so offended by this opinion, I put all the papers back into storage without going through them. I had forgotten all about it until I saw the Agusan image on June 12 during a special Independence Day tour arranged for interested Filipinos in the Chicago area.
After I posted photos of the Agusan image on Facebook, there were many well-meaning but ignorant comments calling for its repatriation. The image may have entered the Field Museum collection during the American colonial period, but it was not stolen or taken as booty in war or invasion. It was acquired for the museum and has been in its care for over a century now. If that image had remained in Agusan or Manila, it would not have survived. It could have been melted down and sold for gold value, as had happened with an estimated 80 percent of our pre-Spanish gold. The 20 percent that survived the melting pot is preserved by the Ayala and Bangko Sentral Museums.
As late as the 1990s, one could buy bits and pieces of pre-Spanish Philippine gold direct from antique dealers and runners, many of whom sold these for gold weight or at 10 percent above gold value, regardless of the fact that many of these were 8 to 10 centuries old. Many of the artifacts ended up in pawnshops where they were melted down and made into modern jewelry. I have no doubt that if these gold artifacts were in prewar Manila museums or private collections, many would have been lost or destroyed during the Battle of Manila in 1945.
In the past month, I have visited museums and libraries in Canada and the East Coast of the United States and found some Philippine artifacts displayed in Canadian and American museums. I know for a fact that they have much more in storage. Do we now ask that these artifacts be returned to the Philippines? Or should we be grateful that they are preserved abroad and made accessible to researchers and the curious online or in person?
An inventory of Philippine artifacts in museums and libraries abroad was funded by the 1998 Centennial Commission. Where is all this data — the first step in a rediscovery of our forgotten past?
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