Monday, January 3, 2022



                                                            ( A Harwan terracotta tile.)
                                                      (  A Harwan terracotta tile.)
                       ( A Harwan terracotta  tile in  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, USA)

                                     (Avtar Mota in Metropolitan museum of Art New York..2018 )

                               ANCIENT TERRACOTTA   ART  OF KASHMIR 


Harwan is the name of a small village situated about 12 km to the north-east of Srinagar city  (in Kashmir ) beyond the Shalimar garden. Harwan is one of the earliest archaeological sites in Kashmir to throw up significant and vital artistic remains. The Buddhist monastery at the site is believed to have been founded during the Kushan (2nd century A.D.) rule and later enlarged in the period of the Huns (mid-fifth century A.D.) . The terracotta tiles  ( See Pic.1 and Pic.2  ) relating to a period ranging from the 3rd up to the 5th century A.D. obtained from Harwan are indicators of many key historical facts of ancient Kashmir. The moulded tiles obtained from the excavations of 1925 at Harwan depict designs and images of conventional flowers,   combinations of leaves, leaves of lotus plant,  ducks, cocks,  cows,  elephants, deers,  archers on horseback chasing a deer, lady carrying a flower vase, a dancing girl, semi nude male and female figures , a female musician beating the drum, a soldier in armour, men and women conversing, emaciated Yogis ( naked ), etc. Each tile has a number in the  Kharoshti language that ceased to be in vogue in North-Western India, where it had principally flourished, around  5th century A.D.

As per the  Nilamata Purana and Rajatarangini, dance and music were quite popular in ancient  Kashmir. The archaeological evidence also corroborates the Nilamata Purana and Rajataringini. At page 105 of her book “ The Nilamata Purana ( Volume 1) “,  Ved Kumari Ghai writes this:-


“ A tile from Harwan, with Kharoshti letters which can not be later than 4th century A.D., shows three musicians. The one to the left plays the flute, the centre one plays the cymbals; the third, a pair of drums. Another tile represents a female musician playing the drum. One more tile shows a dancer. The statute of a female dancer was also obtained from the courtyard of Kotisar temple in Kashmir. “


 In his book ‘ Ancient Monuments of Kashmir ‘,  R.C.Kak, who supervised the Harwan excavations in 1925, writes this :-

“ The fact that the Kharoshthi numerals at Harwan were intended for the guidance of common labourers indicates that the script must have been at the highest pitch of popularity at the time the tiles were made. I should accordingly place the date of the tiles, and consequently that of the diaper pebble masonry with which they are associated, at about A.D. 300. This conclusion receives further support from the style of the human figures and other designs stamped on the tiles. For example, the physiognomy and, to some extent, the dress of the men and women are wholly unlike that of any of the races at present residing in Kashmir, or for the matter of that in India. Their facial characteristics bear a close resemblance to those of inhabitants of the regions round about Yarkand and Kashgar, whose heavy features prominent cheekbones, narrow, sunk, and slanting eyes, and receding foreheads, are faithfully represented on the tiles. Some of the figures are dressed in trousers and Turkoman caps. The only period when Kashmir had any intimate connection with Central Asia was during the supremacy of the Kushans in the early centuries of the Christian era when Kashmir formed part of the Kushan empire, which extended from Mathura in India to Yarkand in Central Asia.”

In his book ‘ Indian Architecture: Buddhist and Hindu  Periods’  , Percy Brown writes this :-


“These terracotta plaques at Harwan each of which was moulded with a design in bas-relief, are of a character which makes them unique in Indian art. Pressed out of moulds so that the same pattern is frequently repeated, although spirited and naive in some instances, they are not highly finished productions, but their value lies in the fact that they represent motifs suggestive of more than half a dozen alien civilizations of the ancient world, besides others which are indigenous and local. Such are the Bahraut railing, the Greek swan, the Sasanian foliated bird, the Persian vase, the Roman rosette, the Chinese fret, the Indian elephant, the Assyrian lion, with figures of dancers, musicians, cavaliers and ascetics, and racial types from many sources, as may be seen by their costumes and accessories.”


About these tiles, Pratipaditya Pal writes this:-


"The earliest sites that have yielded terra-cotta objects, which, according to tradition, go back to the Kushan period, are Semthan, Harwan, Hutmurrah, Ushkur, and recently Kutbal. These sites are particularly noteworthy because of the large, stamped tiles with figural and symbolic forms that represent an independent local artistic tradition. Although tiles for paving floors and walls of monasteries were used in Gandhara, they are not as richly and diversely decorated as those from Kashmir. The figures in the Harwan tiles further show both Indian and foreign ethnic types, strange crouching ascetics unique in the Indian plastic tradition and convincingly rendered flora and fauna. Both the Harwan and the Kutbal finds reflect a mature and confident state of artistic skill but, strangely, the tradition did not continue. There is no certainty about the exact dates of these sites, although the consensus is between the third and the fifth century. "


The tiles and the archaeological finds from Harwan show a distinct Parthian or late Sasanian influence revealing the close connections that Kashmir had with the Gandhara region at the time when Buddhism was the prevalent system of belief in both the regions.The Kushana art  of the period shows Mathura, Gandhara, Hellenistic and Buddhist influence. These tiles also depict daily activities of life in those times. Similar terracotta objects, which, according to the tradition, go back to the Kushan period have also been found at Semthan ( Kishtwar ), Hutmurrah ( near Mattan, Kashmir ), Ushkur ( near Baramulla ) and Kutbal (South Kashmir ).  Although there is no certainty about the exact dates of these sites yet a consensus is between  3rd and  5th century A.D.

The archaeological finds that this area yielded include several broken fingers and toes of terracotta figures, terracotta curls belonging to the images of Buddha and some clay votive tablets bearing in relief miniature (small, tiny, little) Stupas. These clay votive tablets give an idea of the kind of Stupas that were built in Kashmir in the early centuries of the Christian era.

 In the year 2018, I happened to see some  Harwan terracotta tiles in the Asian section of the  Metropolitan Museum of Art,  New York. These tiles are displayed in the  ‘ Florence  and Herbert Asian Wing ‘  of the  Museum. Out of the three tiles ( See Pic. 3 ) that are displayed in the MET Museum, two are broken while one looks unbroken .The unbroken tile has images of emaciated ( naked )ascetics and couples drawn on it. The details convey that the tile was found at *Harwan,  Kashmir and is a mixture of Buddhist and Shaivite  Yogic images that relate to a period between the  3rd  and the 5th century A.D. At Harwan , these tiles are believed to have  decorated the courtyard of an apsidal temple . Apsidal Hindu temples are essentially Buddhist shrines subsequently converted to Hinduism.The  Metropolitan Museum details inform this :-

  Given that similar mixtures of Hindu and Buddhist imagery appear at other contemporary sites in Afghanistan and western India, the tiles may be a part of a larger exchange that occurred in relation to the emergence of esoteric  Buddhism. Numerals in the  Kharoshti script have been incised  into the tiles, presumably as an aid to their placement.”

 Such tiles establish without any ambiguity the presence of a fully evolved school of art in ancient Kashmir. A sizeable number of these precious terracotta tiles have moved out from Kashmir. In 1988, I saw many such tiles at the S. P. S.  Museum,  Lal Mandi,  Srinagar. In 1999, a terracotta tile from Harwan  ( Kashmir )  was sold  at Christie’s auction  for USD 16,100  .  This  tile had a male and female figure ( See Pic. 4) . While the  male figure in this particular tile looks like a  Dikapala ( guardian )  ,the  elegant  seminude female figure shown  holding a vase is most likely a river goddess . This river goddess bears close similarity with the portrayal of Hindu river goddess Ganga despicted on bas reliefs inside Elora caves .

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. 

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 during his youth .


 Ajivikas and their way of living 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 the terracotta tiles appear to represent Ajivika way of life although not much information is available about their religious beliefs.

A few curators from the US museums describe these terracotta tiles as " A Tile with Ajivaka" in their museum catalogue. 

 ‌ 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.


In 2014, I visited the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai. This museum has many terracotta images. I saw a terracotta relating  to 6th century A.D. obtained from Akhnoor, Jammu. This terracotta is probably the head of a dancer with an elaborate hairdo. Akhnoor is a place in the Jammu division of the  J&K  state that has yielded a large number of terracotta images of this period. According to a note on the terracotta, it was gifted by Nasima Latifi to the museum.

Buddhist Stupas and remains of an ancient Buddhist monastery were also excavated at Ambaran village near Akhnoor town in Jammu. The excavations were carried out exactly below the new bridge over river Chenab about 28 km from Jammu city. Undertaken in 2001, the excavations threw up a rich treasure consisting of terracotta pots, rusted iron tools, beads, silver and gold ornaments, moulds, tiles and coins that connected Jammu with ancient Buddhist civilization between the second century B.C. and seventh century A.D. , a period belonging to the pre-Kushan, Kushan, and post-Kushan (Gupta) eras. The most significant findings from the site include Stupas, a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics made of high-quality baked bricks and surrounded by stone pathways, meditation cells, and rooms.  A three-layer casket set of copper, silver, and gold-containing bone relics and ornaments is another major finding of the  Ambaran excavations. It appears that civilization had a  link with the ancient  Buddhist civilization of  Harwan in Kashmir. The  Buddhist link between Harwan and Akhnoor needs further exploration.

After the fall of Kushana rule in the subcontinent, the terracotta art disappeared suddenly from Kashmir. Why did this tradition die so abruptly? Did the Huns, who followed Kushanas in Kashmir vandalise  Kushana artistic structures ?  Was this art prevalent in Kashmir before the arrival of Kushanas? Is there any evidence of such terracotta art in the immediate geographical neighbourhood of Kashmir? These questions need answers.


( Avtar Mota )



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