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.

It appears that Ajivaka was  an atheistic school of philosophy. Ajivikas believed that everything in life was predetermined. They called it ‘Niyati’.  Human effort or no effort, whatever was predetermined will happen . 

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.

  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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