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Reflections on Early Indian Terracotta Objects

by Pratapaditya Pal July, 2016

From times immemorial the humble clay has remained one of the most popular materials to be shaped the human hands into objects of utility, beauty and spirituality. In the Indian subcontinent today, while modernity is in full swing with all its mechanical and digital inventions, pots of diverse shapes and sizes of unfired clay are still used in both villages and urban areas for quotidian purposes, such as cooking, storing, eating and drinking. And, if not in person then through the internet, it is possible to witness the great annual religious festivals of the goddess Durga in Bengal in autumn and that of the god of auspiciousness, the elephant headed Ganesha in Maharashtra towards the end of monsoon. The brightly colored images are still made of earth mixed with straw and wood, worshipped, and then consigned to the river or the sea. This tradition of using clay in the raw, or in its fired form known as terracotta, goes back many millennia and among the earliest are those discovered in today’s Baluchistan, the troubled western province of Pakistan.

I reproduce here three typical objects surviving from Mehergarh created around 5000 BCE or earlier, reflecting both the aesthetic impulses of their manufacturers as well as their sophisticated mastery of form both in sculpture and pottery (figs. 1 & 3). Indeed, as I have written in the catalogue, and elsewhere, such objects attest the religious beliefs and ritual praxis of the people of the land more graphically than literary evidence which is no older than c. 1500–1000 BCE [1]. Even more compelling is the fact of their relationship to motifs and tropes in the religious art of the historical period. The arresting clay statue of the unidentified female from Mehergarh curiously combining tradition and modernity, naturalism and abstraction makes for an image of startling power, energy and awesomeness, all of which continue to resonate in the later concepts of Indian goddesses, such as Durga/Kali and countless others who populate the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain pantheons (fig. 1).

The painted pots from Mehergarh are also remarkable for the use of graphically rendered vegetal and animal motifs with salient clarity and flair for design that has continued to survive until the present (figs. 2 & 3). Apart from geometric pattern, the animal motifs are a bull with an elongated body like a stretch limo, below which are fish with a row of ibexes above and, in the second, elegantly formed fish and the leaf of the familiar pipal tree alternating on the body between roughly drawn rules. While we cannot determine the exact significance of this interaction between the piscine and bovine animals, what we can assert is that both creatures – the bull and the fish – are metaphors for virility and fertility. As is well known the bull has survived as an important motif in the steatite seals of Indus civilization (c 2500–1500) and later became the favorite vehicle of the Hindu god Rudra-Shiva whose earliest literary mention is in Vedic literature of the second millennium before the Common Era. A much later miniature terracotta bull in the exhibition from probably Kosham (Uttar Pradesh) may have served either as a toy for a child or a votive object for a shrine of Shiva (fig. 4).

The pipal is, of course, familiar in later history as the sacred tree of knowledge below which the Buddha Shakyamuni (5th c.) attained his enlightenment at Bodhgaya (fig. 5). Its cousin the banyon is associated with both Shiva and Krishna and with the Jinas or the Victorious Ones of the Jains. While the connection between the pipal leaf and the fish is unknown, like the bull, the fish too has remained a popular symbol of auspiciousness for all three religions and it appears on a terracotta plaque found in West Bengal, which can be dated to the 1st century BCE (fig. 6). Here we see the goddess, symbolizing abundance and plenitude by her ample breasts and hips and the ears of corn surrounding her head; she dangles a pair of fish with her right hand, clearly signifying aquatic bounty. The pair of fish continued to be an auspicious emblem for all three religions and is specifically regarded as the iconographic signifier of a Jina (fig. 7) [2].

No matter how offensive the idea may appear to the modern woman, the fact remains that at the core of the quotidian concerns of the ancient world were the fertility of the field for the abundant production of food and the fecundity of women for bearing children. The latter notion also inspired the creation of an iconography where the posture has obvious implication (fig. 8). It is the ideal and universal birthing posture in pre-modern times, when the woman sat on her haunches or squatted with spread legs at a height from the floor so that the process was eased by the natural pull of gravity. Although she has been given many names by modern scholars, noteworthy is that her head has been replaced by a lotus, which is the symbol par excellence of the deity Srilakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, plentitude and beauty [3].

All those characteristics are also evident in the iconography of two more fragments in the group of early moulded terracotta plaques, purportedly from the prodigious archaeological site of Chandraketurgarh in West Bengal (India) that flourished (2nd BCE to 6th CE) on the bank of the river Vidyadhari, a tributary of the Ganga or Ganges, 35 km northeast of the modern city of Calcutta [now Kolkata] (figs. 9 & 10). Chandraketugarh [Fort of the Moongod] is a legendary name of the ancient settlement and it has been identified by an eminent Indian archaeologist as the Gangaridaii, the ancient capital of the region according to classical sources [4]. Indeed, material remains of Greco-Roman world found at the site does indicate seaborne trade with the Roman empire of the time, as does the technique of moulded terracotta plaques, such as these two fragments. I illustrate here a complete plaque that shows the full figure of the goddess found at Tamluk south of Chandraketugarh and now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University.

Until the Chandraketugarh excavations, it was the most famous of such plaques from Bengal (fig. 11). In addition to being a goddess of prosperity, she is as well a warrior deity, presaging the later concept of Durga so popular in Bengal and regarded as the Mother who provides both material abundance as well as protection from evil forces. The second fragment (fig. 10) emphasizes her generative organ prominent under the diaphanous garment, which attests to the fine cotton for which the region was already famous in antiquity: The smaller turbaned male upholding a bowl is either making an offering or receiving a material blessing from her open hand, once again emphasizing her dual role as a protector and a bestower of bounty. The hand gesture, known in Sanskrit as varada or varahasta, became popular with deities across the subcontinent.

The contrast between the proportions of the deity and the devotee, the subordinate position and attitude of the diminutive male adorant, the hieratic posture of the female, her lavish adornments and regal bearing, the extended right hand in the gesture of gift-giving, are clearly signifiers of both piety and puja (worship). It may be mentioned that the youth with the bowl may well be a king or a merchant, imploring the great goddess (known generically as Devi in the 5th century religious text glorifying her called the Devimahatmya) to relieve his misfortunes [6]. The continuity of the manner of representing interaction between the deity and the devotee, albeit with stylistic variation, may be observed in a later fragmentary stone figure in the exhibition (fig. 12).

Thus, such humble terracotta figurines, besides being examples of the aesthetic aspirations, are also important historical documents, and convey to us across time both the mundane and spiritual experiences of the ancient community. To cite one more example we illustrate a small but complete squatting pot bellied male with a tall headdress and holding a moneybag (fig. 13). He is identified as a semi-divine figure called a yaksha and conforms to the leader of the group and lord of wealth called Kubera who is a prominent figure in the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain pantheons. However, this hollow object, also from Chandraketugarh, had a very quotidian function, and served as a rattle for a child though with an educational intent. In form it is quite realistic: on a mundane level he could represent a prosperous shopkeeper (baniya) seated in his shop in the bazaar as one often encounters even today. Incidentally, most such terracotta objects in large quantities have emerged from urban sites and it seems that at the time, in an egalitarian manner, modest clay satisfied the needs –both aesthetic and spiritual– of all strata of society in both urban and rural contexts.

That mortals provided the models for the images of the celestials is further clear from a lively and beautifully proportioned figure of a female whose exact identification remains enigmatic (fig. 14). She is generally identified with a yakshi, (the female of yaksha), nature deities providing abundance and protection. But here she is clearly presented as a dancer, an elegant courtesan, comparable to the stars of the entertainment world today. Both the squatting yaksha and the dancing lady are modeled in the round and reflect the continuity of the realistic style that prevailed in the capital of the Maurya dynasty (322–185 BCE) in Pataliputra (modern Patna) in Bihar west of Bengal up the river Ganga, which was the chief highway at the time. Illustrated here is a distinctive and elaborately attired and adorned court lady now preserved in the Patna Museum (fig. 16).

The Mauryas captured political power in northwest India shortly after the departure of Alexander, the Macedonian world conqueror, in 326 BCE from the Punjab. Some of his generals then ruled kingdoms in parts of what is today Pakistan and Afghanistan (ancient Bactria) with whom matrimonial alliances were formed by the house of Mauryas. The Maurya period terracotta figurine from Patna likely preserves cultural influences of the interaction between the Maurya court and those of the Greeks of Bactria. If indeed Chandraketugarh is to be identified with “Gangaridaii” of the classical sources, as has been suggested, then it is surprising that the site is yet to yield a single terracotta figurine of the Maurya type. However, it is possible that after the collapse of the Maurya empire around 200 BCE craftsmen moved southeast to the burgeoning port city of Chandraketugarh. Here they found fresh patronage and evolved a new style that depended largely on molded terracotta plaques with figures in high relief, though occasionally, the Maurya penchant for freestanding figures found expression in such works as the charming dancer in the Santa Barbara Museum collection (fig. 15).

I would like to conclude this brief discussion with some personal reminiscences. I first visited the site of Chandraketugarh as a post-graduate student in the University of Calcutta in 1957. Excavation at the site had begun a year earlier by one of our teachers Dr. Kunjagovinda Goswamy under the auspices of the Ashutosh Museum of the university where we used to attend classes. Until then the most important example of regional terracotta figures was the aforementioned solitary figural plaque that was discovered at Tamluk, which has a stronger claim to be the most important riverine port with international trade from earlier times than Chandraketugarh (fig.10). Every Friday Professor Goswamy would hold an informal discussion at the Ashutosh Museum, which we attended, looked at some of the week’s discoveries and listened to the excited conversation among the more senior archaeologists present. As a result of these sessions and after several visits to the excavation sites, I wrote a pioneering article on the site in 1957, which was published in a local Bengali magazine [7]. Most objects that were excavated then and are now preserved in the Ashutosh Museum are fragmentary, though I do remember seeing better-preserved and more complete examples in the homes of some enthusiastic local collectors in the nearby villages at Berachapa (the local name of the village) and Haroa.

A decade later when I came to the United States to work, I began encountering in the art market in both America and Europe an astonishing amount of art attributed to “Chandraketugarh” in a remarkable variety of media: metal, wood, bone, ivory, etc., apart of course from terracotta. Most striking among them are terracotta figural plaques larger than anything I had seen during my five years at the university and monumental vases and pots embellished with figural forms that are astonishing for their aesthetic aplomb and compositional sophistry (fig. 16). But unlike the smaller fragmentary objects discussed here, which conformed in form and iconography to contemporary objects discovered at other major urban settlements as far west as the Punjab, these substantially larger plaques and vessels –ostensibly from the mythical “Chandraketugarh” without a firm attribution – generally depict secular subjects, unlike the items in the exhibition most of which portray religious themes and were made for devotional function probably for domestic shrines or for talismanic purposes.

The vessel illustrated here embellished repeatedly with festive and joyous couples is unlike anything similar found at any other site, but stylistically conforms to the figural style of the early 2nd–1st century Buddhist sites in Central India with the joie de vivre in the densely populated reliefs in Andhra. Not only are the “Chandraketugish” scenes in relief, whether on plaques or vases, but much more compelling in their complex compositions, with realistic observation and animated expressiveness. Nothing comparable in my opinion has been found in terracotta in any other archaeological site of the period. Perhaps the most surprising and enigmatic is the secular nature of the themes without any mythological or religious content or context as may be seen in early Buddhist art of such sites as Bharhut, Sanchi and Andhra, all of which are more or less coeval. Even where the subjects appear to have obvious narrative intent they have so far defied identification. Nevertheless all these orphaned objects when scientifically examined provide positive results adding to their mystery.

Apart form the prevalence of such technically sophisticated and aesthetically appealing tiles and vessels only among the “Chandraketugarh” terracottas, no satisfactory explanation of their function has yet been given. The only use of the tiles would be to cover walls or floors (as seen in later Buddhist monastic sites in the northwest of the subcontinent). The latter possibility is highly unlikely for the Chandraketugarh tiles and one must assume that they adorned walls, obviously of the houses of the one percent. The vessels must have also served only luxury functions and very carefully handled, especially considering their remarkably well-preserved condition. So far as I remember no complete tile with narrative or elaborately genre scenes or adorned vessels were actually discovered during the original excavations all those years ago.

Thus, “Chandraketugarh,” arguably the most prolific archaeological site for ancient terracotta art on the subcontinent since the beginning of the history of Indian archaeology in the 19th century, remains a conundrum. Well into the second decade of the 21st century, it continues to be as enigmatic as La Gioconda’s smile, and to challenge archaeologists and art historians alike.

Did the “proto-Bengalis” of the last two centuries of the pre-Common Era miraculously manage to better balance the secular secret than their distant descendents today?

Captions for Illustrations

Figure 1 Earthware statue of a Goddess, Pakistan, Mehergarh, 3500–3000 BCE. 7.5 cm. Photograph courtesy of Taiyo Ltd., Tokyo.

Figure 2 Globular Pot with Animals including Bull, Pakistan, Mehergarh, 3500–3000 BCE, 13 x 14 cm. Earthware with painted black pigments 2015.42.1 (rest as in Fig. 3 caption). Photograph courtesy of Kapoor Gallery.

Figure 3 Shallow Bowl with Painted Fish and Pipal Leaves, Pakistan, Mehegarh, 3500– 3000 BCE, Earthware with painted black pigments, 12 x 19 cm. SBMA, Gift of Ramesh and Urmil Kapoor, in loving memory of their son, Vineet Kapoor 2015.42.3. Photo courtesy of Kapoor Gallery.

Figure 4 Bull, India, Uttar Pradesh, Kosham, ca. 200 BCE or earlier, Terracotta with black slip, 2.9 x 8.6 cm. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Stephen P. Huyler, 2008.4.148

Figure 5 Enlightened Buddha meditating below the pipal (Bodhi) Tree, Pakistan (ancient Gandhara), Swat region, ca. 100 CE, Green schist, 28.6 cm. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Anonymous Gift, 2013.48.2.

Figure 6 Plaque with Goddess holding a pair of fish with ears of corn adorning her head. India, West Bengal, Chandraketugarh, ca. 100 BCE, Terracotta, 5 ½ in. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Stephen P. Huyler, 2008.4.43.

Figure 7 Detail showing a pair of fish as an auspicious symbol from an embroidered textile used in Jain ritual, India, Gujrat, Surat, late 19th century. Couched gold and silver toned twisted wire and metallic sequins on cloth. 134.6 x 78.7 cm. Narendra and Rita Parson Collection.

Figure 8 Fertility Goddess with Lotus Flower Head in the birthing posture. India, Uttar Pradesh, Kosham, 1st–2nd century, Terracotta, 16.2 cm. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Stephen P. Huyler, 2008.4.162.

Figure 9 The Warrior Goddess (Proto-Durga?) with weapons surrounding her hair. India, West Bengal, Chandraketugarh, ca. 100 BCE. Terracotta, 8.6 cm. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Stephen P. Huyler, 2008.4.49.

Figure 10 Plaque Fragment with Male Adorant holding up a bowl to a Goddess. India, West Bengal, Chandraketugarh, ca. 100 BCE. Terracotta, 14.6 cm. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Stephen P. Huyler, 2008.4.76.

Figure 11 Plaque with Goddess, India, West Bengal, Tamluk, 1st BCE, ?cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, U.K. Photo courtesy of Museum.

Figure 12 Female Adorant with an offering bowl, India, Madhya Pradesh, 8th century, Sandstone, 33.7 cm. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Pratapaditya and Chitra Pal, 2013.50.2.

Figure 13 Rattle in the Form of a Yaksha holding a moneybag, India, West Bengal, Chandraketugarh, ca. 100 BCE. Terracotta, 10.5 cm. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Stephen P. Huyler, 2008.4.121.

Figure 14 Female Dancer with Turban, India, West Bengal, Chandraketugarh, ca. 100 BCE. Terracotta, 22.2 cm. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Stephen P. Huyler,2008.4.52.

Figure 15 A Court Lady or Courtesan, India, Bihar, Patna, 3rd c. BCE. Terracotta, approx. 30 cm. Private Collection, Image courtesy ACSAA Archive.

Figure 16 Pot with festive rows of dancers and musicians, India, W. Bengal, Chandraketugarh, c 100 BCE. Private Collection, Image courtesy of collector.


[1] The majority of the objects illustrated here are from the exhibition catalogue (Pal 2015) titled Puja and Piety: Hindu, Jain and Buddhist Art from the Subcontinent at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (April 17–July 31, 2016) unless otherwise indicated. The museum’s terracotta works were donated in 2008 by Stephen P. Huyler. I am grateful to Sydney Hengst of SBMA for her help with the images from the museum. See also Pal 1987 for extensive allusions to literary references to the ritual use of terracotta objects.

[2] See Pal 2016, p. 211, cat. # 138.

[3] She is identified inappropriately as “The Shameless Lady,” Lajjagauri [literally The Bashful Gauri], or as Aditi, Earth Goddess, et. al.

[4] See E. Haque 2001, p. 391 and bibliography for Professor Dilip Kumar Chakravarti’s earlier writings on the theory. See also Z. Haque 2014, p. 34. Most recently Chakravarti 2015.

[5] Z. Haque 2014, p. 35 & p.56, endnote 3.

[6] For the story of the meeting of King Suratha who lost his kingdom and the merchant Samadhi who lost his wealth and their joint appeal to the sage Markandeya to suggest a remedy, see Shankaranarayan 1973, pp. 8–10 and 133– 152.

[7] Pal 1957. See also Saraswati 1962, Poster 1986 and Bautze 1995 and Kala 1980 especially for terracottas from Kosham or ancient Kaushambi.


Bautze, Joachim Karl 1995. Early Indian Terracottas. Leiden: E.J. Brill

Chakravarti, Dilip Kumar 2015. “Chandraketugarh” in Chakravarti, Dilip Kumar and Makkhan Lal, (eds.) History of Ancient India III: The Texts, Political History and Administration Till c. 200 BC. New Delhi: Vivekananda International Foundation and Aryan Book International, pp.506–511.

Haque, Enamul 2001. Chandraketugarh: A Treasure House of Bengal Terracottas. Dhaka: The International Centre for Study of Bengal Art.

Haque, Zulekha 2014. Terracottas of Bengal: An Analytical Study, Dhaka: The International Centre for Study of Bengal Art.

Kala, S.C. 1980. Terracottas in the Allahabad Museums. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Pal, Pratapaditya 1957. Chandraketugarh (2 parts). Jugabani (Bengali magazine), Calcutta, June, 1957.

–––––. 1987. Icons of Piety Images of Whimsy: Asian Terracottas from the Walter Grounds Collection. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

–––––. 2016. (editor) Puja and Piety: Hindu, Jain and Buddhist Art from the Indian Subcontinent. Introduction Santa Barbara Museum of Art in association with University of California Press.

Poster, Amy G. 1987. From Indian earth: 400 years of Indian Terracotta Art. New York: The Brooklyn Museum.

Sawaswati, Sarasi Kumar 1962 Early Sculptures of Bengal (2nd ed.). Calcutta: Sambodhi.

Shankaranarayan, S. 1973 (2nd ed.) Glory of the Divine Mother (Devım›h›tmyam) Pondicherry: Dipti Publications (Sri Aurobindo Ashram).

Dr. Pratapaditya Pal

by Dr. Pratapaditya Pal

July, 2016

About Dr. Pratapaditya Pal

Dr. Pratapaditya Pal is an Indian scholar of Southeast Asian and Himalayan art and culture, specializing particularly in the history of art of India, Nepal and Tibet. He has served as a curator of South Asian art at several prominent US museums including Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, where he has organized more than 22 major exhibitions and helped build the museums' collection . He has also written over 60 books and catalogs, and over 250 articles on the subject, taught at several universities, and served as the editor of the Indian art magazine, Marg. In 2009 he was awarded Padma Shri by the Government of India for his contributions to the study of Indian art.

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