Home Creative Arts Craft Earthenware and Pottery
Creative Arts
Performing Arts
India Heritage and Beyond
Contributed Articles
Site Map
Advertising Enquiries
Discussion Groups


Earthenware and Pottery


India has a rich tradition of clay crafts and pottery throughout the country. There is hardly any Hindu festival or ritual, which is complete without the use of earthen lamps or the diya. The terracotta tradition is the continuation of the Indus valley traditions that date back 5000 years. India also has an age-old tradition of clay toys and terracotta figures. Terracotta work is mainly centred in the states of West Bengal, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.

It is estimated that pottery appeared in Bengal, in or around 1500 B.C. In an alluvial region like Bengal, fine clay is a distinctive geological feature. The ancient inhabitants of the region exploited this natural resource for making numerous pottery wares. Archaeological sites, such as Pandu rajar dhibi, Mahishadal, Chandraketugarh, Tamralipti, Rajbadidanga, Harinarayanpur and Bangarh (all in West Bengal) and Mahasthangarh, Gobinda bhita, Bhasu vihara, Raja Harish Chandrer Badi, Mainamati and Paharpur in Bangladesh have produced varieties of potsherds (fragments/broken pieces of pottery).

Coming to the brass tacks, pottery may be broadly classified into major sections: The utensils and vessels and secondly the votive terracotta and sculpture. In both these arenas the traditional Indian potters have made substantial contributions.The clay for the earthen vessels are thrown on a hand spun wheel, beaten with a paddle to achieve their final, round bellied shape; they are frequently decorated with slip colours before being baked in kilns.

Terra cotta

(Italian word for “baked earth”) is hard, semi-fired waterproof ceramic clay used in pottery. The term is also used to refer to items made out of this material and to its natural, brownish orange colour. Down the ages terracotta has been extensively used for sculpture and pottery, besides bricks and shingles. In ancient times, the clay sculptures were dried (baked) in the sun after being shaped. Later, they were left to harden, amidst the ashes of open hearths; finally they were baked in kilns.

Bankura district in West Bengal is famous for the Terracotta Temples located in Bishnupur. However the most famous product of this area is the ‘Bankura Horse' fashioned out of terracotta. It is produced exclusively by the artisans of Panchmura, a village, about 8 Km. south-east of the headquarters of the Taldanga block. The long-necked Panchmura Horse is made hollow with some circular vents to facilitate uniform firing in the country kilns. The horse stands on its four legs with the neck held high; the ears and the tail erect.

The original function of these terracotta horses were a highly ritualistic one. People would offer them as a token of their devotion to Dharma Thakur, Manasa and several other local deities. These horses have also been offered as tokens of thanks giving, on the tombs of Muslim peers (saints). All in all, the 'Bankura Horse' is widely recognised as a symbol of devotion. It has also become the symbol of matchless rural handicrafts of India.

The majestic terracotta
Bankura horse

Ruins of a terracotta temple,
Blue Pottery

The use of blue glaze on pottery made from Multani mitti, (a.k.a Fuller’s earth), is essentially a foreign art which was imported into India. It was first developed by the skilful Mongol artisans who combined Chinese glazing technology with the decorative arts native to Persia. Over a period of time, this technique travelled southwards to India with the batches of Muslim invaders and rulers around the 14th century. During its infancy, this art was mainly confined to tile-making meant for decorating mosques, tombs and palaces in the Central Asian region. Later, the Mughals began using them in India, in a bid to recreate the beauty and splendour of their favourite edifices which lay, beyond the mountains, in Samarkand. Gradually the blue glaze technique was released from its status as an architectural accessory, when the Kashmiri potters adapted to it with great enthusiasm.

Still later, the technique permeated down to the plains of Delhi, and in the 17th century ended up in Jaipur. The rulers of Jaipur greatly encouraged this art form, incorporating it vigorously in their palaces and havelis, some of which remain intact even to this day.

Black and red pottery

The items in this category are distinguished by black in the interior and the exterior top, and red on the exterior. These pots are generally made by the inverted firing technique. They are turned on the wheel except a few handmade specimens. The clay is tempered with fine sand. In most pots a slip is applied on both sides but vases are treated with the slip on the exterior and up to the neck on the interior. Some fragments with a smooth and shining surface (due to burnishing) have been discovered. Firing under different conditions has given a few pots a completely black interior and red exterior, while others are partly black and partly red on both sides; the latter are more in number. The common shapes are the tulip-shaped flower pots, bowls, channel-spouted bowls, basins, jars, dishes-on-stands and vase stands. Researches and findings suggest that the Black-and-Red pottery flourished in Bengal around 1500 B.C and continued to evolve, well past the Chalcolithic age, into the historical period around the 3rd century BC.
Northern Black Polished Ware

This type of pottery occurs in a larger area than any other known ceramics in India. This wide distribution has been ascribed to Mauryan imperialism, the propagation of Buddhism, and to trade routes. The first phase of this kind of pottery spans the 700 BC – 400 BC period and the late phase 400 B.C. – 100 B.C. or even later. Northern black polished ware is made of smoothened clay with little tempering material and has a strikingly lustrous surface. The cores of such pots vary from blackish to grey to red in colour. The surface colour ranges from jet black, brownish black to steel blue, pink, silvery, golden, brown, chocolate, violet and deep red.

The commonest type of black-slipped ware includes bowls of different shapes and sizes; the other objects include dishes, jars, spouted jars, dishes-on-stands and bowls- on-stands, vases and miniature vessels. In India prominent sites where NBPW remnants have been unearthed are Mangalkot, Chandraketugarh, Bangarh, and Mahasthan (all in West Bengal) among others.

Rouletted Ware

This type of pottery is characterised by thick incurved rims, a contiguous body and base, without any foot stand. It has a smooth shiny surface, displaying a variety of colours and indented concentric circular decoration on the interior surface of the base. The pattern consists of one to three bands of concentric circles; each band containing three to ten rows of closely placed indentations that look like tiny dots, strokes, wedges or triangles.

The remnants of rouletted pottery discovered near Arikamedu near Pondicherry, in southern India have been dated between 2nd - 1st century B.C. It is likely that the technique of 'rouletting' was introduced to the area from the Mediterranean region. There are chances that a portion of the pottery might have been imported but the cruder varieties were possibly local imitations. Based on the analyses of clays from the sites that have yielded fragments of rouletted ware, it has been concluded that besides Arikamedu, this type of pottery was also produced in the Chandraketugarh-Tamluk (modern West Bengal) region of the lower Ganges valley, in eastern India.

Roulette pottery
Dull Red & Grey Ware

The pottery of this kind has a coarse to medium texture. They are made with the help of the potter’s wheel as well as by hand. In this case the clay is deliberately not smoothened. Painting on these wares is rare and graffiti marks are totally absent. Some of the pieces are decorated with incised and stamped designs. In certain cases mat and basket-like designs are discernible.

Black Pottery of Manipur

The pottery is native to the Ukhrul district of Manipur and are carried out by local inhabitants (including a sizeable Thangkul Naga population). Unlike other Indian states, in Manipur this craft is pursued by both men and women. The pottery is purely functional and mainly black in colour. A major ingredient of this black ware pottery is hard serpent nine rock, which needs to be crushed and mixed with a few other ingredients including clay to mould into pots, traditionally used for cooking. The most incredible aspect is that there is no potter's wheel. The artisans use basic bamboo implements and the appropriate movements of their body to give shape to their creations. The black pottery items include cups, vases, cooking utensils. It is said that the meat cooked in these pots tastes heavenly.

The blackware pottery demonstrates how deeply traditional crafts are linked with nature. Each ingredient — the rock, the clay — is obtained from the immediate environment. A very natural, non-mechanised process completes the process leading to the final products. The tools used, are made of bamboo; the pots are moulded on logs of wood or stone slabs - all natural products.

Ethnic pottery from
Uttar Pradesh


© Designed and Developed by Macro Graphics Pvt. Ltd. 2005.