Wednesday, January 27, 2021


( Avtar Mota near three  Harwan Tiles displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,New York )
( A Harwan tile at Los Angeles County Museum)



Some art historians and scholars are of the view that the emaciated, crouching and almost naked ascetics appearing in the terracotta tiles recovered from Harwan and various other archaeological sites like Kutabal, Semthan, Ushkur and Hutmurrah in J&K have no link with Buddhism or Shaivism as is generally believed. Scholars like Robert E. Fisher are of the view that the tiles are part of an Ajivika religious site, later reused in a nearby Buddhist monastery. A few curators from the US museums describe these terracotta tiles as " A Tile with Ajivaka" in their museum catalogue. 

 Ajivika was a sect in ancient India. It is said that Ajivikas wore no clothes, and lived as ascetic monks in organised groups. They practised severe austerities. The Ajivikas mostly spent their time in large earthen pots wherein they practised penance. Buddhist and Jain texts are somewhat  critical of the Ajivikas and their leader Makkhali Goshala. That in itself goes to prove that Ajivikas must have been rivals of Buddhists and Jains. The Ajivikas were known to eat very little food that was needed for bare survival. However, some texts of Buddhism accuse them of eating secretly. Similarly, some Jain texts describe a violent quarrel between Mahavira and Makkhali Goshala. Being influential, Ajivikas had many powerful followers, especially during the Mauryan rule.  Even  Emperor Ashoka, who spread Buddhism all over India and Southeast Asia was an Ajivik for most period of his early life. Bindusara, father of Ashoka believed in Ajivika way of life.

 According to Buddhist sources, Makkhali Goshala , the founder of Ajivaka sect was a contemporary of Gautam Buddha and Mahavir Swami. Some sources say that he was a disciple of Mahavir Swami. It was a rival sect to Buddhism and Jainism. Philosophy of Ajivaka sect is not found in its original form. It is obtained from secondary sources such as Buddhist and Jain scriptures. Some scholars believe that Ajivika, Jainism and Buddhism  originated from the same source - the Shramana School.

 Ajivikas formed a third heretical sect besides the sect of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism and that of Mahavira Vardhamana, the twenty-fourth Tirthankara of the Jainas. The three heterodox sects react against the ritualistic creed of the Vedists. The cult of Ajivikas was founded by Makkhali Goshala, the contemporary of Mahavira Vardhamana, on the basis of strict determinism with a belief in the all-embracing rule of Niyati (principle of order). According to Gosal, it was Niyati which ultimately governed our action, controlled phenomena and left no room for human volition.

 Ajivikas and their ways of life  has been reflected in many terracotta artefacts recovered from ancient archaeological sites of India. Many caves in Bihar have Ajivika inscriptions. The images — especially flowers, elephants, and swans found in these terracotta tiles appear to represent Ajivika way of life although not much direct  information is available about their religious beliefs.


In her seminal work  “Lakulisha-Pashupata (Philosophy and Practice)’,   Geetika Kaw Kher  writes this :-

“Some early examples about the kind of cults and sects prevalent in Kashmir in early centuries of Christian era can be seen at Harwan (identified as Shadarhadvana by Stein (grove of six saints), a locality mentioned in Rajatarangini.These days, strenuous efforts are being made to project Harwan as an unproblematic Buddhist site and promote it as a destination for cultural tourism by linking it with the great Central Asian tradition. In this effort, scholars have deliberately underplayed facts and attributed all monuments found in the area to Buddhists, ignoring any other cultic possibility.

Immediately around the Buddhist stupa is a narrow fringe of figured tile pavement. Closer examination showed that nearly all pieces were fragmentary and no group of adjacent pieces completed a motif. Such incoherence is usually seen in monuments which are constructed using fragments of existing monuments, such as the Quwat-ulIslam mosque in the Qutb complex, made from the remains of 22 Jaina and Hindu temples. Though iconoclasts in their zeal to ravage whatever is left of the past try their best to eradicate proof of its existence, there are always some clues, some hints hidden at deeper levels, and it is for the discerning eye and questing mind to locate them. The tile pavement thus raises interesting questions regarding the original monument to which the tiles belonged. Closer scrutiny of the hillside revealed that the ruins were arranged in level terraces, on each of which stood several buildings. On the highest terrace was excavated a large apsidal temple built in picturesque diaper-pebble style masonry. The temple consists of a spacious rectangular antechamber with a circular sanctum covered with a terracotta tiled floor with various motifs. The plan of the temple is very similar to Lomas Rishi cave in Barabar hills (Bihar) and the early chaitya at Kondivite near Bombay.

There is no trace of a stupa, while what remains at the site is a low section of the wall and original floor of the courtyard, which were faced with stamped terracotta tiles. The floor tiles were arranged to suggest the form of an enormous open lotus, possibly representing the cosmic lotus. The lotus symbology pervades all Indian art, whether Hindu, Buddhist or Jaina. Similarly, the motifs found on these floor tiles do not point towards any sectarian affiliation. That these tiles occupied exactly the position they were laid in by ancient workmen is borne but by the fact that each one bears a number in Kharoshthi script, the order of the tiles in a series being in strict accordance with their consecutive numeral order. The existence of Kharoshthi numerals also more or less allows one to tentatively date the tiles. According to R.C. Kak, by the 5th century AD Kharoshthi ceased to be the main language in the area and the fact that even a common labourer was expected to know the language points to the time when the language was at its peak popularity; hence he suggests 3rd-4th century as the date of the structure.[2] Most curious and interesting are the tiles running all around the temple, depicting three naked ascetics in the central band with a row of geese holding half blown lotus in their bill in the lower band.

The upper band portrays figures conversing above a railing. The division of space as well as the conversing figures on the top band is very similar to Kusana Mathura sculptures from 2nd CE. On the basis of the script and style, the tiles can be dated to 3rd-4th century AD. The facial features resemble faces found at Ushkur and Akhnoor regions.Most interesting here is the posture and the nakedness of the ascetic figures–both unseen in Buddhist representations. Hence one

cannot club them together with the stupa and vihara ruins. This shows that before the Buddhist monuments were constructed, a part of the site or the whole site was dedicated to some other sect or cult. The ascetics are shown seated in “kakasana” and seem to be in meditation. The possibility of the monument being dedicated to Ajivikas seems probable, because the ascetic figure seems to fit the description of an Ajivika ascetic. Plan-wise also, it has similarity with Lomas Rsi cave which along with Sudama cave have been dedicated to Ajivika monks .”


Were there some large Ajivika settlements or movements in the Kashmir valley during the ancient period especially in the early second to the fifth century? Did the Ajivikas move out of Kashmir that led to complete vanishing of this terracotta art after the arrival of Huns? There is an imperative need for serious research on the issue.


(Avtar Mota )

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