Earthen Vows: Terracotta Sculptures of Central India

Votive Elephant. Terracotta. Dhamna village, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh. Artist: Devideem Prajapati. Photograph courtesy: Sushmit.

Elephants such as the one above, adorned in elaborate trappings detailed with numerous bells were traditionally offered to goddesses in their respective forest realms for a prosperous harvest. According to Jane Perryman, these elephants were a speciality of Masora village (now in Bastar, Chhattisgarh) created by a single family. Several tribal groups who inhabit in and around the area would commission these images solely for ritual purpose. Over the years, with initiative of an NGO, the skills required for making such detailed terracotta was imparted to a few more. The production that resulted out of this was then marketed in big cities and craft fairs to an urban clientele who bought them for decorative use. Now, the same images fetched more money in these new found markets which seemed impossible for the humble tribal customers.  Therefore, there was a reduction in demand for large pieces (could go up to a height of four feet) which were earlier quite often commissioned by the locals.[1] This also explains the production of such elephants today in Dhamna village, far away from its initial place of origin.  The artisan made it because it was beautiful and easy to attract customers without any knowledge of its purpose. Nevertheless, the craft survived but without its original context or patrons, which was also partly due to separation of Chhattisgarh from Madhya Pradesh.

The Hatere or Harere kumbhars in a small village called Dhamna in Chhatarpur District of Madhya Pradesh create a huge repertoire of terracotta products ranging from pots and utensils of daily nature to votive objects of high artistic value for local religious festivals. The potters here use a small terracotta plate instead of a wheel. Sometimes for bigger sizes, a spoked wheel is used. Today, most of it is done by an electrically powered wheel.

Animals such as horses and elephants have always stood for prosperity and played an important role as votive images. Striking sculptures of tigers were offered to goddesses Dhate Sara Mata and Mauli Mata to prevent illness and female monkeys, bendri, were created for family bliss.  Earthen oxen offered to Bhora Dev promised a good harvest.[2] During the Boliki festival which falls on the date of Makara Shankranti (14th January) each year, clay horses are created by the Hatere kumbhars and sold in the local fairs in Khajuraho. These horses are associated with Lord Shiva and are bought by villagers for rituals to gain blessing for their male child. Vows are taken and the earthen horse is packed with other food offerings on a box, to be opened finally on Vasant Panchami. The food from the box is then distributed among the boys and the idol of the horse is immersed in the village pond.[3] For a girl child, a small terracotta bowl called maliya is used for the same. Elephants associated with Goddess Lakshmi symbolising abundance and prosperity, are made for Diwali festivities as well. They are sold not only in markets but also traded door to door of rich landed households in exchange for grains and money. These elephants are depicted in rich detailed trappings and embellished with diyas (lamps) and pots.

Sharada mata
Sharda Mata. Terracotta. Dhamna Village, Chhatarpur village, Madhya Pradesh. Artist: Devideem Prajapati. Photograph courtesy and collection: Janaki Turaga.

Other captivating artefacts of religious nature created by these potters comprise a stylised image of Sharda Mata or Goddess Sharda. Sharda Mata is the principal mother goddess of the town of Maihar. In fact the name, ‘Maihar’ comes from ‘Ma ki har’ meaning mother’s necklace. It is believed that Shiva while carrying the body of Sati around the world, her necklace dropped at this place and a temple germinated at the spot. Another popular piece is the composite mythical being, Kamdhenu or Surabhi. This divine wish-fulfilling bovine goddess is partly made by hand and party using a mould. Traditionally, images of Kamdhenu would be offered at the local Shiva temples during the Shivratri celebrations.

Kamdhenu or Surabhi. Terracotta. Dhamna Village, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh. Artist: Devideem Prajapati. Photograph courtesy: Sushmit.

With the advent of new cheaper mass produced plastic and aluminium vessels and also changing lifestyles, the demand of terracotta products in the traditional markets declined over the years although not completely gone. This demand however diminishing, sustained the livelihood of traditional potters but never been enough to flourish. Hence, few of them who still continue their profession, evolved their product range with new subjects and themes. They would sell these in big cities in craft fairs to be used as decorative pieces, fetching them a fair amount of money, which otherwise is impossible in traditional markets.  Now, various animals which inhabit the vast forested lands of the region such as tigers and porcupines occupy the table of their stalls.  Alongside, village belles engaged in various daily activities such as grinding grains, tending to their child, playing chaupar (board-dice game) or fetching water are also frozen in terracotta.  According to artisan, Devideen Prajapati, these themes are inspired from things around and reflect the traditions of Bundelkhand, Bundelkhand parampara, which he emphasised with pride.


[1] Jane Perryman. Traditional Pottery of India. (Great Britain: A & C Black Publishers Ltd.), 130.

[2] Ibid, 134-135.

[3] Stephen P. Huyler. Gifts of Earth: Terracottas and Clay Sculptures of India. (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1996), 91-92.


Earthen Vows: Terracotta Sculptures of Central India

One thought on “Earthen Vows: Terracotta Sculptures of Central India

  1. Deepika Singh Darai says:

    Thanks for this information Sushmit.I am very fascinated to know why does this community make these hanging bell accessories on terracotta over the body of elephant or any other animal. That is the whole focus point in this craft. Is their any similar looking accessory present in the ancient time of that community ?


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