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 . 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) .
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 .
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 . 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.
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 . 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 . 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