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| Last Updated:: 29/08/2023

The Terracotta Tradition of the Sacred Groves









The relationship between human beings and clay is as old as civilisation itself. Mud was used to construct homes to live in, pots to store food and water and much of Paleolithic and Neolithic life depended on it. With the discovery of metal, new materials were used, but the dependence on clay has continued till the present day, particularly in rural and tribal India. From the off-white and yellow clay plaster of the Santhals of Bengal, the sticky black clay of Manipur and the grey clay of Kutch to the strong bronze clay of Tamilnadu, the clay comes in different colours and strengths and is put to as many uses as India has diversity of cultures.




The sacred groves are intimately connected with the terracotta tradition. In Tamilnadu, the grove is generally dedicated to a form of Amman or the mother goddess. Made of clay, she is Mother Earth, Bhoomidevi herself. The figures of the veerans, bhootas and Amman’s consorts, - including Munisvaran, Muniyandi, Karuppan, Madurai Veeran, etc., - are also made of clay. All are housed in clay shrines and are given votive offerings of clay, including the horses ridden by Ayyanaar. Thus the clay figures of the deities and the animals are an inseparable part of the sacred grove. It is only in recent times that clay figures are substituted by stone, stucco or even cement, all alien to the traditional clay.




The most popular goddesses are Mari, the goddess of the pox, Kaali, the blood-thirsty and avenging nature, Ellai, the goddess who marks and guards the village boundary, and many others such as Pidari, the seven Kannimaar, etc. I have even come across a rare Isakai Amman (Isakai - Yakshi) who, in spite of her Jaina origin, is portrayed as a blood-thirsty goddess with a child hanging out of her mouth. Their worship includes animal sacrifices, wine, fire-walking, visitations by spirits and so on. What binds all the goddesses is the fact of their being aspects of Amman, the Mother Goddess, the Earth Mother.




The role of terracotta is very important. The clay represents the horse, etc., for a certain time: as it slowly disintegrates and goes back to Mother Earth, it is time for the creation of a new figure. The figurines can only be worshipped for a limited period of time. In fact, the new figure is often made from a handful of clay from the old figure to which more clay is added. The main figures of Amman and the male deities must be renewed every one or two years, hence they were never, traditionally, made of any other material besides clay. Unfortunately, stucco, cement and even stone are becoming more popular as rich patrons and villagers complete to build bigger and stronger temples, forgetting Amman’s role as the Earth Mother.




The votive offerings - the horses, bulls, elephants and ram - are always made of clay and left in the open to go back to the mud they came from. It is interesting to note that only working animals are given as votive offerings. Wildlife, such as leopards or peacocks, which once visited and sometimes continue to visit the groves, are rarely given as votive offerings.




The making of a votive offering is a momentous occasion. The order is placed on one auspicious day and the work commences on another. The figure of the animal is made in parts - first the four legs, then the body, then the head - then joined together, with the facial features and decorations coming at the end. The opening of the horse’s eyes and its installation is a festive day for the village, with offerings of pongal for a bountiful harvest. The potter alone can give life and sight to the offering and install it in the grove.




The potter is the priest at the sacred grove, as he is in the village. His pots are broken at every birth and death, representing the renewal powers of the earth. They are painted in gay colours and displayed prominently at weddings: in fact, the wedding cannot begin without the arrival of the pots. The potter performs both the ritual of making the terracotta figures and the ritual of worship at the temple, before the clay figures are offered to Ayyanaar.




He belongs to the Velar or Vishvakarma (creator of the world) caste. His tools are few - the potter’s wheel and his own hand. For the figurines, he uses a mixture of sand, husk and clay, unlike the mixture of sand and clay used for pots (Inglis, Madurai, 1980). But the offering must be installed in a grove, under a tree. In time, the grove gets cluttered with gods, goddesses and animals, particularly horses.




The sacred grove thus becomes the site of Mother Earth’s bounty. But from where did the tradition of giving votive offerings come from? The earliest terracottas in the Indian sub-continent can be traced to the fi gurines of the Zhob and Kulli cultures (3000 BC), followed by the Harappan figurines. The next important phase is Mauryan period, although terracottas are found in intermediary periods. According to the Mahabharata, Satyavan, the husband of Savitri, is described as Chitravasva, a maker of equestrian figures. Could they have been votive offerings? The terracotta horses of the Satavahana period from Kondapur in Andhra Pradesh are outstanding examples of this art.




The Chaudhari, Gamit and Bhil tribals offer terracotta figures of human beings or even parts of the body to appease the gods - a clay leg to heal a leg injury and so on. The terracotta horses of Bankura in Bengal, of Gorakhpur in U.P. and the elephants of Bihar are similar tribal votive offerings. Lambadia, Chhota Udaipur and Buhari in Gujarat are important sites of terracotta horse-making, for dedicating to Mother Earth.




In Tamilnadu it is believed that if a vow of gifting a horse is made to the Mother Goddess and not kept, she will come to the person in a dream, sit on his chest and ask why he did not give her the promised horse.




The territory covered by the horse as it roamed for a year was claimed by the tribe. It thus appears that the tradition of dedicating horses goes back to the Vedas and is still found among tribals all over India. Many tribals, such as those in Gujarat or Karnataka, may only dedicate clay pots as votive offerings. But it is interesting to note that what is, today, a village tradition, has deep Vedic roots which continue to be respected by the tribals.




Finally, the terracotta tradition is linked to Mother Earth as a symbol of fertility, and the many offerings to her are in fulfilment of vows for good health, a bountiful harvest and for the gift of life. The wealth of the grove, the richness of the plant life within and the life- and health-giving properties of these plants (which are generally medicinal) are all gifts of the earth, who is thus venerated as the Mother Goddess, the Great Earth Mother.