PLAQUE WITH YAKSHI (NATURE SPIRIT)

A goddess adorned with heavy jewellery 

Terracotta has been an important and expressive medium for sculpture in India for millennia, used, for example, to fashion religious icons, votive objects and toys. Many of the earliest examples represent standing females, probably mother-goddesses venerated as auspicious fertility figures.

This terracotta goddess was found by chance in 1883, emerging from a river bank at Tamluk (the ancient port of Tamralipti). The first of its type to be discovered, and often described as the ‘Oxford plaque’, it remains the most famous of all early Indian terracottas dating to around 100 BC. Impressed in clay from a very finely detailed terracotta mould, it was given only limited further detailing with the use of tools. The goddess’s smiling face is framed beneath a voluminous headdress with five symbolic weapons worn as hair-pins. Her jewellery includes huge disc earrings, a massive collar, bangles and a heavy girdle worn over a diaphanous robe.

Many similar female figures, wearing heavy jewellery and with weapons in their headdress, have come to light, especially at sites in Bengal. It has been suggested that she may be an apsaras or celestial being, a yakshi or female nature spirit, or an antecedent of the later, many-weaponed martial goddess Durga. While the Ashmolean’s goddess has some of the qualities of the yakshi figures often found in early Indian stone sculpture, it is perhaps more likely that she represents, in the guise of a queen or high-born lady, the type of mother-goddess whose widespread veneration would account for the large number of these plaques that survive.

Tamluk, Bengal
200–100 BC
Terracotta
Height 21.7 cm
EAX.201

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