Porous clay, Terracotta is famous for its rich, rustic red and orange colour. Derived from the Latin word terra-cotta, literally meaning baked earth; it has been in use since ancient times for making sculptures and sacred figurines. From China to Egypt and Europe to India, it is known for its versatility and durability.
According to the Hindu belief, it is considered auspicious due to the integration of five elements: earth, fire, ether, water and air.
First developed by the Nok culture of Nigeria, about 1000 BCE and found its way into the Indus Valley and the Harappa civilization. Many prehistoric terracotta artifacts mainly in the form of deities and terracotta vessels have been unearthed in archaeological excavations sites of pre-Harappa civilization and Mohenjodaro in India.
Indian ancient Terracotta art
For around 10,000 years it has been an integral part of Indian heritage and continues to be practiced in states like Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.
The rural areas of West Bengal are a treasure trove of terracotta pots and figurines like dolls and wind chimes. It came to this state in the 16th century with the influence of the Vaishnavite movement. The artisans here use a mix of two or more types of clay taken from river beds and pits.
In Bihar, it dates back to the Mauryan period and till today terracotta elephants are placed on rooftops to signify marriage in the house. In Gujarat, the potter’s wheel is used to create hand-painted clay pots with geometrical patterns.
Tamil Nadu has, Ayanaar horse, the largest terracotta sculpture ever made. The legends have it that the potters here trace their origin to master craftsman Vishwakarma.
In Rajasthan, the art is a legacy of the ancient Kalibangan site of Indus Valley civilization and artisans use coarse clay from ponds for plaques and mix it with donkey dung. Whereas in Odisha, it dates back to the 4th century BC and still produces jars, teacups and jewelry made using clay mixed with ash and sand.
The terracotta bricks, medallions, statues and capitals have been a mainstay of Indian construction and culture. A few 6th-century temples build during the Gupta Dynasty in Uttar Pradesh have terracotta panels depicting Shiva and Vishnu. The other famous architecture is the temple in Bishnupur, West Bengal.
In the west, the Greeks used terracotta for capitals and statuaries and Romans in bathhouses. Under the Georgian architectural style were built the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Natural History Museum of London. In the US between the 1880s–1930s, it emerged as fire and pollution-resistant material and by the 1850s, the New York architects began replacing it for stone.
From being used mainly for sculptures and buildings, today, terracotta finds its place inside our homes. From sleek kitchenware – like curd setter, bowl, baking dish and jars – to home décors – like vases, chairs, photo frames and garden accessories, terracotta has a versatile presence. It is earthy in nature, and hence offers that minimalist elegance to the homes.
Just a simple clay, but passed down centuries and considered sacred, terracotta continues to flourish. In fact, if you want to make the earth a better place switching to terracotta is a smart choice.