Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum

A catalogue of the Ashmolean’s collection of Indian art by J. C. Harle and Andrew Topsfield (published Oxford, 1987).

Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum by J. C. Harle and Andrew Topsfield

Publications online: 143 objects

Reference URL

Actions

Send e-mail

Contact us about this object

Send e-mail

Send to a friend

Plaque with yakshi (nature spirit) or mother goddess

  • Literature notes

    Through the ages, terracotta has been formed the medium for some of India’s most important and beautiful sculpture (see, for exmple, [EA1972.45, EAOS.50, EAOS.50A and EAX.215]). One distinctly Indian type, although probably ultimately derived from western Asia, is the small upright plaque bearing a single moulded figure, usually a woman, or more rarely a couple, man and woman (mithuna). The so-called “Oxford plaque” is the finest and best preserved of these plaques which have been found at many sites in northern India, from the north-west to Bengal. The female figures are distinguished by certain common features of dress; a huge bi-or tri-cornate headdress, the large bolster-like ear-rings and the massive tubular bracelets. Strangely enough, these articles of dress appear on contemporary metal effigies on women [EA1973.7] but never on stone reliefs.

    The Oxford terracotta is also exceptional, in that both the exact location and the time of its finding, in 1883, are recorded, long before similar but fragmentary examples surfaced in excavations in the same area near Calcutta after World War II and revealing by their identical style that here was a distinct Bengali sub-style. The beauty of this plaque lies largely in the exquisite fineness of detail made possible by impression on a faultless matrix of well-levigated clay. After impression by the mould, doubtless also of terracotta, details like the rosettes on the ground were added by poinçon and the lines indicating drapery scratched on. Some of the detail, such as the deer and makara buckles on the sash across the figure’s torso, while perfectly executed are so small they can hardly be seen by the naked eye. A makara is a mythical monster [see EA1971.13]. Aesthetically, there is a curious contrast between the figure’s plump and sensuously modelled arms and her stick-like legs, while the general air of barbaric splendour is quite outside the mainstream of Indian art.

    Various identifications have been proposed for this and similar figures. One of these is a yaksī, the female counterpart of a yaksa or local godling. At one level high-born ladies of the time and it is known from stone reliefs that male figures without any particularly distinguishing attribute could represent Hindu gods or great figures of early Buddhist story. On the other hand, it is possible that they represent mother-goddess, whose cult was widespread; their veneration at a popular level would account for the large number of these plaques. A terracotta of a pregnant woman (seated) wearing a bi-cornate headdress from the north-west in the Peshawar Museum further suggests such an identification.
  • Description

    Terracotta moulded plaque. Exceptional for its elaborate ornament and fine detailing, this famous terracotta was discovered in 1883 in a river bank at Tamluk, the ancient sea port of Tamralipti on the Bay of Bengal.

  • Details

    Associated place
    AsiaIndiaeast IndiaWest Bengal Tamluk (find spot)
    AsiaIndiaeast IndiaWest Bengal Tamluk (place of creation)
    Date
    2nd century BC (200 - 101 BC)
    Material and technique
    terracotta, moulded
    Dimensions
    21.7 x 10.2 x 4 cm max. (height x width x depth)
    Material index
    Technique index
    Object type index
    No. of items
    1
    Accession no.
    EAX.201
  • Further reading

    Harle, J. C., and Andrew Topsfield, Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1987), no. 7 on pp. 6-7, p. 8, pl. 2 (colour) & p. 7

    Penny, Nicholas, The Materials of Sculpture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 168

    Barnes, Ruth, Emma Dick, and Jon Thompson, Textiles Through the Ages (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2002), p. 4, illus. p. 4

    Bradford: Bradford Art Galleries and Museums, 24 September-27 December 1988, and London: Zamana Gallery, 13 April-25 June 1989, A Golden Treasury: Jewellery from the Indian Subcontintent, Susan Stronge, Nima Smith, and J. C. Harle, eds., Victoria and Albert Museum Indian Art series (London: Victoria and Albert Museum in association with Mapin, 1988)

    Untracht, Oppi, Traditional Jewelry of India (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997), p. 691

    Postel, M., Ear Ornaments of Ancient India, Project for Indian Cultural Studies, 2 (Bombay: Franco-Indian Pharmaceuticals, 1989), p. 2

    Lynton, Lynda, The Sari: Styles, Patterns, History, Techniques, photographs by Sanjay K. Singh (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995), p. 10

    Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 24 May 2006-23 December 2008, Treasures: Antiquities, Eastern Art, Coins, and Casts: Exhibition Guide, Rune Frederiksen, ed. (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2006), no. 30 on p. 14, illus. p. 14 fig. 30

    D. K. Chakrabarti, ‘Post-Mauryan States of Mainland South Asia (c. BC 185-AD 320)’, F. R. Allchin, ed., The Archaeology of Early Historica South Asia: The Emergence of Cities and States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 324-325, illus. p. 325 fig. 12.23:1

    Ahuja, Naman, ‘Early Indian Art at the Ashmolean Museum - Catalogue in progress’, 2016, no. 136

Glossary

yakshi

  • yakshi

    A semi-divine female nature spirit.

Location

    • Ground floor | Room 12 | India to 600

Objects are sometimes moved to a different location. Our object location data is usually updated on a monthly basis. Contact the Jameel Study Centre if you are planning to visit the museum to see a particular object on display, or would like to arrange an appointment to see an object in our reserve collections.

 

Publications online

  • Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum by J. C. Harle and Andrew Topsfield

    Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum

    Through the ages, terracotta has been formed the medium for some of India’s most important and beautiful sculpture (see, for exmple, [EA1972.45, EAOS.50, EAOS.50A and EAX.215]). One distinctly Indian type, although probably ultimately derived from western Asia, is the small upright plaque bearing a single moulded figure, usually a woman, or more rarely a couple, man and woman (mithuna). The so-called “Oxford plaque” is the finest and best preserved of these plaques which have been found at many sites in northern India, from the north-west to Bengal. The female figures are distinguished by certain common features of dress; a huge bi-or tri-cornate headdress, the large bolster-like ear-rings and the massive tubular bracelets. Strangely enough, these articles of dress appear on contemporary metal effigies on women [EA1973.7] but never on stone reliefs.

    The Oxford terracotta is also exceptional, in that both the exact location and the time of its finding, in 1883, are recorded, long before similar but fragmentary examples surfaced in excavations in the same area near Calcutta after World War II and revealing by their identical style that here was a distinct Bengali sub-style. The beauty of this plaque lies largely in the exquisite fineness of detail made possible by impression on a faultless matrix of well-levigated clay. After impression by the mould, doubtless also of terracotta, details like the rosettes on the ground were added by poinçon and the lines indicating drapery scratched on. Some of the detail, such as the deer and makara buckles on the sash across the figure’s torso, while perfectly executed are so small they can hardly be seen by the naked eye. A makara is a mythical monster [see EA1971.13]. Aesthetically, there is a curious contrast between the figure’s plump and sensuously modelled arms and her stick-like legs, while the general air of barbaric splendour is quite outside the mainstream of Indian art.

    Various identifications have been proposed for this and similar figures. One of these is a yaksī, the female counterpart of a yaksa or local godling. At one level high-born ladies of the time and it is known from stone reliefs that male figures without any particularly distinguishing attribute could represent Hindu gods or great figures of early Buddhist story. On the other hand, it is possible that they represent mother-goddess, whose cult was widespread; their veneration at a popular level would account for the large number of these plaques. A terracotta of a pregnant woman (seated) wearing a bi-cornate headdress from the north-west in the Peshawar Museum further suggests such an identification.
Notice

Object information may not accurately reflect the actual contents of the original publication, since our online objects contain current information held in our collections database. Click on 'buy this publication' to purchase printed versions of our online publications, where available, or contact the Jameel Study Centre to arrange access to books on our collections that are now out of print.

© 2013 University of Oxford - Ashmolean Museum