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Larger than Life: The Terracotta Sculptures of India
Article by Ron du Bois

Photos by Ron du Bois, 1980, unless otherwise stated. ©

Massive terracotta horses have been built by Tamil villagers in south India for thousands of years. Stephen Inglis states that "technically they are the most ambitious achievements in clay found in India and by any survey probably the largest hollow clay images to be created anywhere" (1).


Massive terracotta Horse. Environs of Puthur, Tamilnadu, South India. This fifty year old massive clay image was fired on site. Because the fired surfaces are porous a solution of oxides used as colorants are easily absorbed and thus made durable. Fifty years have altered them only slightly. Although the annual rains soak the porous clay, no harm results because Tamilnadu never freezes. In other climates water penetrating the clay could freeze and expand causing disintegration within a season.
Created from sacred temple ground, this horse now stands purified by fire. No cracking or breakage due to trapped air or moisture occurred. The non-ceramic decoration of calcium carbonate and water penetrates the porous clay and thus becomes durable. Rain and subsequent freezing weather could spell the the disintegration of such massive clay images within a season...but the temperature in Tamilnadu is always warm, and thus the images stand for generations.

The methods used to construct and to fire images nine to fifteen feet or more in height are unique in ceramic history and of unusual interest to clay specialists. They differ dramatically from the images of horses and soldiers recently excavated in China, in that they are larger than life-size and fired in situ. Not only is the size impressive, but the proportions and embellishment are superb. These works are created by a caste of hereditary potter/priests who are products and heirs of an ancient tradition in which clay and religion are inseparably linked.

This massive terracotta Aiyanar horse image was built around 1955. It is distinctive for its high relief modeling. Much the original white wash is still extant. The high relief elements are technically possible because copious amounts of temper (rice straw) are mixed in the clay.

Detail of relief modeling, 18 inches high, on neck of ancient Aiyanar terracotta horse. Environs of Puthur, near Chidambarum, Tamilnadu, India.

Yet because the images are built in remote village shrines they have been virtually ignored by scholars. As Inglis observes, "visitors to Tamil Nadu may catch a glimpse of such images from the window of a bus or train yet an interest once aroused is difficult to pursue.

Katervil, master craftsman in clay, is known throughout the region as a specialist for his skills in building votive terracotta horse images as well as those built in cement. He can make every type of utilitarian pottery as well. Heir to an ancient tradition, his ancestors have practiced similar skills for thousands of years. He is a "velar", or Tamil potter-priest. Here he rests beneath the breast of of the horse on which he has just completed the modeling of "Yallee", spirit guide, protector of Aiyanar, able to see in all directions, able to see into the future. Mystical skills enable him to guide the horse safely.

Tamil people of the cities know little of them and for the ordinary village people, work on such images involves skills and a sacred ritual of which they have little knowledge. The work is almost never seen in big towns or cities, sold in fairs, or otherwise displayed. Although some attention has been given by scholars to the religious complex in which they playa part, information about massive images and the craftsmen who build them is not to be found in the literature on south India" (2).

In May, 1980, as an Indo-American Fellow, I was able to observe at first hand, in remote and abandoned village shrines, ancient examples of these massive terracotta horses "with fiercely noble heads standing ready to carry god or demon" (3). As I looked at them, numerous questions came to mind: How old were they? Who made them? What was their purpose? Were they still being made? How could such huge clay images be fired? How could passages of clay varying in thickness from two to sixteen inches be dried and fired without mishap of any kind?

The answers to these questions would shed new light on the methods used in the past by the Etruscans, the Chinese, and pre-Columbian peoples to create such larger-than-life terracotta images. The craftsmen who made them clearly used methods of construction and firing outside the spectrum of Western ceramic skills and processes. Few, if any clay specialists in the Western world would attempt to build and fire on-site ceramic sculpture of such monumental scale.

Through the unfailing support of Ray Meeker and Deborah Smith of the Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry, I found some important answers. Former students of Susan Peterson, they are the only American potters successfully producing hand-thrown stoneware in India at present.

Their plan of organization made the documentation possible. Intrigued with the projected filming of the construction of an Aiyanar horse, they offered me the use of their recently purchased jeep to search for Aiyanar shrines and potters. The three of us, together with Ray's assistant, Ratchagar, to serve as translator, set out on a four-wheel drive field trip.

On a single day's outing, we sighted five Aiyanar shrines in the outskirts of Chidambaram. Each of the sites held one or more terracotta horses, each ten to twelve feet high constructed within the last one hundred years. The surface decoration, in most cases, had weathered away and the patina indicated considerable age. There was nothing to indicate the date or the names of either the potters or donors. Such facts were never recorded.

This ancient terra cotta horse was built and fired on site some one hundred years ago. It measures over ten feet in height. The high relief images on the neck of the horse image were modeled of clay with an admixture of straw. The images symbolize spirit attendants who ride with Aiyanar at night to guard the village boundary.
Detail of ancient horse (with villager standing in front): The high relief images on the neck of the horse were modeled with the solid clay mixture. They symbolize spirit attendants who ride with Aiyanar at night to guard the village boundary.
About 100 years old, four massive terra cotta horses constructed and fired on site stand in a seemingly abandoned Aiyanar shrine.

Were such horses still being built? Thanks to my friends' fluency in Tamil we soon found a pottery community reputed to have horse- building skills in the village of Puthur, sixteen kilometers from Chidambaram. When we found the earth and thatch dwellings of the potters, we discovered an Aiyanar shrine nearby complete with a huge standing terracotta horse, which the potters claimed was more than one hundred years old. Near the older form was a more recent horse built of cement, a material that has now almost completely replaced clay as the medium for shaping ritual images. To the west stood a large cement image of Aiyanar and to the south, a shrine housed a much smaller image flanked by two consorts. The shrine is in active use. Each evening some forty villagers worship there, the women touching their foreheads to the ground and the men prostrating themselves completely.

The indigenous religious system, involving the belief in a male deity, at once hero, protector, companion, and councilor, is Dravidian. It predates by centuries the Aryan introduction of Hinduism with its complex pantheon of deities in the second millennium B.C. During the Middle Ages, in order to upgrade and legitimize Aiyanar through association with mainline Hinduism, devotees evolved the story of his birth as a son of Shiva and Vishnu (in the form of a beautiful woman). Aiyanar helps on many important occasions in life -to choose a bride or groom, to cure sickness, or to punish a wrongdoer. He holds a metal sword in his hand on which devotees thrust paper messages stating their various problems. Often the solutions are revealed in dreams.

S. Kalia Perumal was an important member of the four man crew who constructed the horse. This potter's wife standing before the shrine is in a state of trance. The closer presence of Aiyanar and the forces of village deities stimulate states of possession. For some their bodies temporarily become containers of the divine.

We learned that the last large Aiyanar horse was commissioned more than twenty years ago. But the potters assured us they still knew how to build one. Would they do it? Would they accept a commission from a non-Hindu - a foreigner? I was impressed with the potters and had a genuine sympathy and liking for Aiyanar and his shrines. Unlike Hindu temples, his shrines were always located in secluded country areas in which trees were a necessary and auspicious component. They were restrained-the sculptural quality of the clay or cement images was stable and impressive. Perhaps the potters were moved by my positive attitude and interest in Aiyanar; at any rate, they decided to accept the commission. They agreed to build a horse nine feet high in twenty days; it was to be situated next to the existing horses. They quoted a price of 500 rupees. After haggling, they reduced the figure to 400 rupees- ($48.00) - a good price by Indian standards but by Western standards extremely low when one considers that four or five men would work for twenty days to complete the commission.

Day One:
They knew their business. On Monday, May 26, 1980, a puja (ritual) was held to ensure the success of the project. To consecrate the ground on which the horse was to be built, the potters encircled the area using the blood streaming from the neck of a decapitated rooster. Coconut halves were placed to each side of the area. Liquor, an essential ritualistic ingredient, was present although Tamil Nadu is a "dry" state. Technically, liquor is illegal but this was "home brew," which escaped official scrutiny. Food offerings to Aiyanar completed the ritual. Secure in the assurance that Aiyanar was now companion to the project, the potters began construction.

The preparation of the clay had taken place the day before. A circular earth pit about four feet in diameter served as a mixing trough. One part sedimentary earthenware is mixed with one part earthenware topsoil. Although fine-grained, it contains silt. To this enough water is added to produce a medium-viscosity slurry. The potters knew this clay would fail as a medium for building large sculpture. Large quantities of non-plastic ingredients are essential to prevent shrinkage and hence cracking, as well as to permit thick passages of clay. The non-plastic ingredients consist of three parts rice hulls and approximately one part (by volume) of three-to-four-inch lengths of rice straw. The potters added this to the earthenware slurry and mixed it by foot to produce a medium soft mixture possessing all the qualities of a "castable."

First Day of Construction. Aiyanar Shrine, Puthur, Tamilnadu, South India, 1980. Holes 12" deep and 12" wide were excavated in the ground possible to relieve air pressure during firing. Katervil applies a heavy coil of clay with an admixture of rice straw to form the "hooves", the first stage in the construction of a massive terracotta horse. These constitute the first procedures in the construction of a massive Aiyanar horse image. When completed it will stand ten feet high. In the background stands an ancient terracotta horse said to be 100 years old.


Large coils of this material were used to form rings around previously inscribed twelve-inch circles on the ground marking the four "hoofs" of the horse. A second coil of clay joined to the initial ring extended the diameter to sixteen inches. Four of these clay rings were formed to establish the four "hoofs" of the horse's legs. This accomplished, a potter, using a metal excavating tool, dug holes approximately twelve inches deep inside each ring of clay. A potter set a wooden pole about six feet high inside one hole and held it while a colleague quickly filled the entire hole with clay thus supporting the pole in a vertical position. In a similar fashion, vertical poles were set in the three remaining holes. Each wooden pole, therefore, was supported by a solid mass of clay mixture about sixteen inches across and twelve inches deep. Without the use of rice hulls and straw such passages would shrink and crack.

These ingredients are the major part of the mixture by volume and are essential to this type of monumental clay construction. The last part to be constructed was a clay base for the central rectangular support, 24" x 24". This completed the first day's work. Nothing further could be done until the moist clay mixture stiffened.

The potters spent their time in the afternoon preparing ropes made of rice straw. Wrapped around the wooden uprights these ropes create a compressible internal support system for the application of about a four-inch wall of clay thereby eliminating any possibility of the clay cracking as it dries and contracts.

Woman Creating a Colam. Colams are ritual diagrams or drawings that welcome the dawn, or gods to their festivals. They illustrate the power of geometricity to create a force field or maze by which untoward forces are confused and thus kept at bay. Mostly women create the geometric designs with rice flour. Colams celebrate the impermanence of art and art as an essential aspect of daily devotion. Their beauty of form and endless variety are at once decoration and ritual.

Day Two:
On the morning of the second day of construction the potters completed the task of winding the straw ropes around the four wooden uprights. They then applied a four-inch wall of clay so that four large tubes about 40 inches tall were formed, each serving as a metaphorical leg. Next, four vertical uprights were fixed at the inside comer of the base of the central rectangular support previously completed. Straw ropes were wound around them to create an armature for a thick application of clay. The potters worked surely and quickly in spite of a 112 degree Fahrenheit temperature. Descendants of generations of clay craftsmen, they have learned the skills from childhood and are concerned only with the work at hand, In the afternoon they completed the front and rear legs and the central rectangular support. The front legs now stood as a single unit 44 inches high, 38 inches wide, and 17 inches across, measured at the top center. By fixing wooden supports to the wooden uprights, the potters created a horizontal passage of clay that bridged the two front and rear legs. The clay mixture was laid over and under these supports to create a level horizontal surface. This completed, nothing more could be done until the horizontal passages of clay stiffened.

The legs of the horse are constructed of four wooden poles, rice straw, and rope. Clay slurry is applied over all. The potters bridged the front and rear legs. The two front legs are now stiffened. Katervil uses a wooden support covered with rice straw to form a compressible internal support. As the thick clay passages dry and shrink the internal straw support compresses to prevent cracking.

Day Three:
On the morning of the third day, additional wood supports were placed horizontally to connect the front legs to the central support and. then to the rear legs' unit. The potters molded the horse's under-belly by laying "gobs" of the clay directly on the wood supports (both above and underneath); this process produced a slab four inches thick, seven feet, ten inches long, and thirty-four inches wide! Such a feat was possible only because of the wooden internal support system.

Third Day of Construction. To bridge the pillars forming the legs and the central support unit clay was applied over horizontal lengths of wood wrapped with rice straw held in place with rope. To prevent cracking rice straw is essential as an internal support because it compresses as the clay dries and shrinks. Four wooden poles wound with rope and rice straw formed an internal support on which clay was applied to form the central support unit. The height of all three units is three feet, eight inches.

After the burning rays of the sun had stiffened the slab, the potters next added coils of clay to form the curve of the belly, a process which added seven inches to the height. They tapered the edge of the final coil. When the clay was stiff, the diagonal slant provided a broader surface and hence a good join for the next application of clay.

Day Four: In the afternoon the potters, using thick gobs of the basic clay mixture, modeled the figure of the guardian (or groom) of Aiyanar's horse directly on the surface of the central support form.

The modeling of the image of Aiyanar's groom starts with massive gobs of the clay mixture and will be finished with a levigated slip mixed with sand. This older, mustached image symbolizes the neither aspects of the deity's nature. Katervil's deft fingers bring the image to life and vitality. Potter-priest and master clay craftsman of both utilitarian and sculptural forms, he models the groom of Aiyanar with thick gobs of clay on the central support of a massive Aiyanar horse image. He, poses beside the completed form which took two hours to complete.

An older, moustached image on the opposite side of the central support column symbolizes the neither aspects of Aiyanar's nature...dark and problematic. The smooth, ever youthful groom seen here symbolizes his divine nature.

Day Six: lengths of bamboo are placed inside the figure to complement exterior supports.

Katervil laid wooden sticks horizontally to connect the front legs, central support column and rear legs. He applied the clay mixture around these supports to form a horizontal slab, thirty-four inches wide by seven feet ten inches long.

Horizontal lengths of bamboo (one visible on the top interior wall) are used to support the walls and to reduce accidental damage by children or cows. Because the shrine is sacrosanct there is no intentional vandalism.

Some of the passages were four inches thick, attesting to the non-plastic nature of the basic clay mixture. An application of pure clay over the coarse basic clay followed, and detailing was done with fingers and a wooden modeling tool. The modeling skills are of a high order and result in a figure with remarkable spring and incipient energy.


Katervil and two assistants are shown in process of hand modeling in high relief the bells associated with Hindu and some village deities. In the modeling of the jewels, bells, and other decorative details, the intersection of the potter's skills and the common elements of Indian design are seen. The decorative clay bands are identical to those applied to mounts on great temples by stone carvers, and to processional mounts and decorative architecture by wood workers...the skills of the garland and harness maker all flow behind the potter's skill.

Ron du Bois and 16mm film camera. Aiyanar Shrine, Puthur, Tamilnadu, South India, 1980. An attendant holds an umbrella over the camera to protect it from the blistering sun. At 114 degrees F., the camera could become burning hot and the canister of film inside ruined. A homemade evaporative cooler was devised to store and save the 16mm film canisters from damage. They were kept dry by placing them a lidded plastic container. This in turn was placed within a large terracotta vessel. Sand poured around the plastic storage container was then watered to cool the film by evaporation.

7th Day of Construction. Ron du Bois, Indo American Fellow, with massive terracotta horse in process of construction. The final height of the massive sculpture was nine feet, ten inches. An ancient terracotta horse built over 100 years ago is seen in the background. Photo by Ray Meeker, 1980.

The basic clay mixture is similar to what, in the West, is considered to be a "castable" -a clay body suitable for bricks, refractory linings, or kiln construction but rarely considered as suitable for ceramic sculpture. Again, to the Western craftsman, a kiln for firing ceramic sculpture would appear essential. As a result he limits himself to forms that can be lifted and moved into a kiln. The idea of firing "in situ" at the site of construction rather than in a studio/workshop has never been the practice. Permanent kilns, plumbing and wiring for gas, oil, or electricity have all been part of the Western paradigm - yet the Etruscans, pre-Columbians, Africans, and the potter-priests of India as well all constructed temporary clay walls for on-site firing of monumental ceramic forms.

Only a portion of the back form is closed. To form the tail a wire serves to support solid masses of the soft clay mixture. The back is then completely closed by a massive clay slab supported by shards placed on sticks within the horse.

A red slip or sigillatta is applied to seal and to smooth the course surface. The length of the horse is thirteen hands, the height of both torso and legs is each four hands. The length of the still to be built neck will be four and one-half hands. These proportions passed from father to son may be adjusted only slightly depending on the judgment of the team leader.
The face on the breast of the horse is Yallee...it's fierce gaze guides the god on his nightly rides. Developed over the ages this image is shared with the Hindu art of large towns and cities, but is now part of the village modeling tradition. Able to see in all directions, able to see into the
future. Because of this he guides the horse safely

Day Nine: The entire neck, saddle and tail are complete.

Right: To prevent sagging a wooden brace was used to support the mass of soft clay used to form the head. It is now the 10th morning and the clay has stiffened overnight. The potters work to complete the final details - eyes, ears, bridle, mouth, teeth and tongue.

Day Twelve: Moist earth chopped from an adjacent drainage ditch was carried by baskets to the construction site to form the wall for an "open Field" firing. At a height of 18 inches it is left to stiffen before adding more earth. A 10 inch wall thickness is maintained until the final height of five feet is attained.

Right: The image peeks out, almost completely covered by earth, clay vessels, wood, dung, and straw. As the wall grows around the image, the image of the beast inside is felt. The horse remains an almost mythical creature in South India ...imported in small numbers for the ancient kings, and now transformed from clay into the mount of a god.

A slurry made from ditch mud and water is carried in baskets and poured over the straw...five men take only twenty minutes to spread the thick slip over the entire surface and to overlap the clay wall. The fire is started through a firehole igniting the layers of straw, dung and wood that surround and support the figure.

Day Fourteen: The firing is completed within three hours.

The potters brought the project to a conclusion with a final puja (religious ceremony) and a "bringing to life" of the successfully fired and decorated horse. It is hoped that these notes and photographs will benefit Western craftsmen and serve to enhance internationally the most impressive but little-known skills of Indian potters.

Download a one minute video of the pre-construction puja ceremony. Warning - this video contains footage of an animal sacrifice that may be distressing to some viewers. Download video (6.5 Mb, Quicktime movie).

  • 1-2 Stephen R. Inglis, "Night Riders: Massive Temple Figures of Rural Tamil Nadu, in V. Vijayavenugopala (ed.) A Festschrift for Prof. M. Shanmugam Pillai, Madurai University Press, 1980.
  • 3 Stella Kramrisch, Unknown India: Ritual Art in Tribe and Village. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Ron du Bois, an emeritus professor of art, taught ceramics and studio art at Oklahoma State University, USA. He was Fulbright professor to Korea in 1973-74, where he taught ceramics at three Korean universities. His award winning documentary, The Working Processes of the Korean Folk Potter, was filmed at that time. In 1979-80, du Bois traveled extensively in India as a 1979-80 Indo-American fellow to research and document the work of Indian potters. Among other projects he filmed the entire construction of perhaps the last massive terracotta horse to be built in India. The documentary, "The Working Processes of the Potters of India: Massive terracotta Horse Construction" was completed under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities and deals with the subject matter of this article. In 1987, du Bois was awarded a 10 month Fulbright Senior Research Scholar grant, African Regional Research program, to research and document Nigerian potters. For information on his POTTERS OF THE WORLD FILM/VIDEO SERIES contact: Ron du Bois, Professor Emeritus, http://www.angelfire.com/ok2/dubois, 612 S. Kings St., Stillwater, OK 74074, (405) 377-2524, email: duboisr@sbcglobal.net, fax: 1-405-372-5023


Also by Ron du Bois: A Saga of Synchronicity -
Making a Film Documentary on African Ceramics

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