A Unique Terracotta Plaque from Ahichchhatra

Indian Sculptures Series – The Puzzling & Remarkable 

No 1 – A Terracotta Plaque from Ahichchhatra

Ahichchhatra (or Ahicchatra) is a small village in Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh. In ancient times, it was the celebrated capital of the North Panchala. Excavations were carried out between 1940-44 under the auspices of Rao Bahadur K N Dikshit yielding large number of terracotta figurines and plaques, now stored in various museums across India, primarily in the National Museum, New Delhi; the Allahabad Museum and the State Museum, Lucknow. A Ghosh and K C Panigrahi1 published their study of the site and pottery in Ancient India No 1 in 1946. Ghosh dated the earliest settlement of the site to around 300 BCE and the city was continuously occupied till around 1100 CE by when it was deserted.

Terracotta plaque from Ahichchhatra

The plaque in question was found in the excavations of 1940-44 from a Shiva temple. It is now housed the National Museum in New Delhi among other finds from Ahichchhatra. It shows two warriors, wearing armors and a channa-vira, mounted over their respective chariots, holding strung bows aimed at each other. Charioteer of the right warrior is shown but of the left is damaged. Their standards are placed over a staff and shown in the background. The standard of the left warrior is a varaha (boar) while that of the right warrior is crescent moon. A figure is shown in the middle of the plaque, probably holding drums in his arms suggesting him as a drumbeater during a war.

V S Agrawala2 was the first scholar to describe this plaque in detail. As the plaque was found in a Shiva temple, and presence of a boar and fight between two individuals, the first suggestion from Agrawala was kiratarjuniya theme however he left it stating that it was not tenable with obvious reasons. His second suggestion was that this war scene may depict a fight between the Chalukyas and king Harsha (590-647 CE), boar being the royal emblem of the Chalukya dynasty. The Chalukya ruler in this case might be Vinayaditya Satyasraya (681-696 CE) or his grandfather Pulakeshin II (610-642 CE), latter is well known for his fights against Harsha. Agrawala concludes that if the contest between Pulakeshin and Harsha supplied the theme of representation of this terracotta panel, its occurrence in the ruins of a Shiva temple cannot be explained in the present state of information.

T N Ramachandran3 was first to suggest that the boar standard was attributed to king Jayadratha in the Mahabharata. Based upon this, he identifies the warrior with crescent moon standard with Yudhisthira or Dharmaputra though his standard was not exactly a crescent moon but . Based upon his study, he concluded that this plaque depicts the key clash between Jayadratha and Yudhisthira when the latter attempted to follow Abhimanyu into the padmavyuha.

Donald M Stadtner4 somewhat agrees that this panel is inspired by Mahabharata however he is of opinion that the two characters cannot be identified precisely. Few scholars5 identify this panel as a fight between Abhimanyu and Jayadratha however they did not provide any arguments for the same.

From V S Agrawala 1948, plate XXXVI

Let’s revisit the panel and reassess the theme. The panel shows two warriors, carrying bows, riding chariots and engaged in a war fight. This theme should be of importance as it found way into the artist guilds and getting carved on a temple. If this is a war fight scene, this may come from, either Ramayana or Mahabharata. If it comes from Ramayana, then one party should be either Rama or Lakshmana and other probably Ravana or his associate. Rama and Lakshmana fought the war with Ravana not in their royal outfit or affiliation. And depiction of Ravana or his associates should be befitting their characters as rakshasas. Also, Ramayana is silent on standards or flagstaffs of warriors fighting the war. As Rama and Lakshmana were of the Solar dynasty (Ikshvaku dynasty) and we do not find depiction of Surya (sun) as standard, probably this panel is not from Ramayana.

Let’s move to Mahabharata war. In this war participated many warriors of different dynasty, clans and countries. Amongst all, it was only Jayadratha whose standard was of a varaha (boar). This explains that the left warrior in the panel, behind whom stands his standard with a boar on its top, represents Jayadratha. Interestingly, amongst those warriors, it was only Yudhishthira who held a standard of moon (Soma). This explains that the right side warrior should be Yudhishthira. Question may be raised that what we see in the panel is a crescent moon however in Mahabharata the mentioned standard is soma or moon but not crescent moon. The answer probably lies in how moon or soma is usually depicted in sculptures, is he shown as a crescent moon but not full circle? In my opinion the answer is yes, as there are many sculptures where we find moon and sun shown as full circle however former is shown with a line in the circle suggesting it to be moon. And in many sculptures, moon is simple drawn as a crescent moon.

Let’s see how the standards of these warriors are defined in Mahabharata. When Jayadratha kidnapped Draupadi and the Pandava brothers followed him, he asked Draupadi to describe her husbands pointing to their chariots. Draupadi described Yudhishthira as that warrior at the top of whose flagstaff two handsome and sonorous tabors called Nanda and Upananda are constantly played upon. She did not describe soma or moon as the standard of Yudhishthira also the flagstaffs or standards of other Pandavas6. In Drona Parva, Dhritarashtra asked Sanjaya to describe the distinctive indications of the warriors who followed Bhimasena against Drona. Sanjaya describes the standard of Yudhishthira as a golden moon with planets around it, two large and beautiful kettle-drums, called Nanda and Upananda, were tied to it7. The standard in the panel, behind the right warrior, shows crescent moon but no drums. However, though the drums are not depicted here, as it was only Yudhishthira who had soma as his standard, if the panel derives its theme from Mahabharata then this warrior should be equated with Yudhishthira.

If the identification of the warriors is accepted then the next question comes is was this fight episode so important that it found its way into the sculptural depictions. Drona Parva section XXXIII mentions that when Arjuna was away fighting Samsaptakas, Yudhishthira and others failed to penetrate into the chakravyuha of Drona. Then Yudhishthira approached Abhimanyu as he only apart from Arjuna, Krishna and Pradhyumna could penetrate that array. Abhimanyu explained that he could except he would not be able to come out in case of any danger overtaking him. For that Yudhishthira told that he and other would follow Abhimanyu once he would create an opening into that chakravyuha.

Once Abhimanyu penetrated the chakravyuha, the other Pandavas tried to follow him, however they all were stopped by Jayadratha. Section XL of Drona Parva explains how Jayadratha was granted a boon by Shiva allowing him powers to contain all Pandavas except Arjuna for a day. Shiva granted him a boon, “O amiable one, I grant thee the boon. Except Dhananjaya, the son of Pritha, thou shalt in battle check the four other sons of Pandu.” Powered with this boon, Jayadratha was able to contain all the Pandavas not allowing them to follow Abhimanyu. Section XLI of the same parva details out the fight between Jayadratha and the Pandavas. He fought equally with Yudhishthira and Bhima as both sides bow were cut and damages were made. No specific fight broke between Jayadratha and Yudhishthira which requires special attention. In absence of Arjuna, Yudhishthira was the leader of the Pandava army therefore it was his decision to sent Abhimanyu to penetrate the chakravyuh and he led his warriors to follow Abhimanyu when the latter created an opening into the chakravyuh.

Though the warriors in the panel may be identified with Jayadratha and Yudhishthira, however both did not engage into any specific or important fight which may require attention or a separate panel except if this panel is a part of other narrative panels illustrating the story of Abhimanyu or Mahabharata otherwise. As we do not possess other panels, not many such panels were found in the excavation, in absence of those, the best interpretation remains the war fight between Jayadratha and Yudhishthira and the credit goes to T N Ramachandran.

1 Ghosh & Panigrahi (1946). The Pottery of Ahichchhatra, District Bareilly, U.P. published in Ancient India No 1. pp 37-59
2 Agrawala, V S (1948). Terracotta Figurines of Ahichchhatra, District Bareilly, U.P. published in Ancient India No 4. p 171
3 Ramachandran, T N (). An interesting Terracotta Plaque from Ahicchatra (U.P.) published in Indian Historical Quarterly pp 304-311
4 Stadtner, Donald M (2014). An Inscribed Gupta Terracotta Panel in the Linden-Museum published in Tribus: Jahrbuch des Linden-Museums, vol. 64. pp 206–218.
5 Dukes & Tomio (2000). The Bodhisattva Warriors. Motilal Banarasidass. New Delhi. ISBN 9788120817234. p 165
6 Mahabharata Vana Parva section CCLXVIII
7 Drona parva section XXIII

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