Terracotta tile with two ascetic figures

On display

Large moulded tiles of this type formed the risers to a bench at one end of the courtyard of a Buddhist monastery at Harwan near Srinagar (now destroyed). Their iconography is enigmatic, with a row of conversing heads at top; central figures of long-haired ascetics (probably not Buddhist, but of some other sect such as the Ajivikas); and ducks and lotuses below. This tile is numbered 32 in kharoshthi script.


  • Catalogue text

    These large moulded tiles come from the courtyard surrounding the ruins of an apsidal-ended building at the Buddhist monastery of Harwan. Situated a few miles from Sringar, it was unfortunately obliterated by a landslide some years ago. The tiles formed the risers of a bench at one end of the courtyard where presumably the monks sat. Similarly moulded but generally smaller tiles, bearing an astonishing variety of motifs, lined the floor of the courtyard. The Museum possesses some portions of these, one of which shows a mounted bowman.

    The style of the these and the other tiles, quite likely earlier than any other artefacts of the historical period from the Vale of Kashmir, is unique, combining Indian, Sassanian, possibly even Chinese motifs and some so far unknown elsewhere. The villainous faces of some of the figures above faintly recall Roman portrait sculptures. They are consequently particularly difficult to date. On the Indian time scale they would appear to belong to the 4th-5th centuries A.D. Each plaque bears numerals in the Kharoṣṭhi script [EA1985.5], probably indicating the position of each tile when they had been stamped on a large expanse of wet clay before being cut out, for firing, so that they could be re-assembled afterwards. An additional note of uncertainty is provided by the emaciating squatting figures in the two central panels, with their long hair. Buddhist practice did not encourage excessive fasting and even Buddhist monks shaved their heads; perhaps these are the spirits of the dead or ghosts (pretas), creatures of the burning-ground or charnel house which, set against the purity of the Buddhist monk or the Hindu ascetic desiring release from rebirth (mumukṣā), provide one of the constant themes of Indian religious art.

    In: Harle, J. C., and Andrew Topsfield, Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1987)

Further reading

Harle, J. C., and Andrew Topsfield, Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1987), no. 27 on p. 21, p. xiv, illus. p. 21

Ahuja, Naman, Art and Archaeology of Ancient India: Earliest Times to the Sixth Century (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2018), no. 61.4

Reference URL

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