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The marvels of Terracotta in Tamilnadu

While the whole village is fast asleep, God Ayyanar guards and protects over them. He is an imposing figure with large eyes, a valiant moustache and a huge sword. His shrine is flanked by two large terracotta horses, about 15’ high. It is believed that these horses are given to the god for his night time perambulations, indicating his swiftness to ride after trouble makers in the dark.

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These terracotta horses are one of the most ambitious achievements in clay found in India. They are probably the largest hollow clay images created anywhere, which has survived for more than hundreds of years. The majestic horses are meticulously detailed and vibrantly coloured. Unfortunately, these horses are no longer built in Tamilnadu as they used to be, and the skill is in the verge of endangering.

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Traditionally, the people who sculpt the horses belong to the Kuyavar or Velar community, the potter-priests. Skilled in not only making pots, about 4-5 potters are sufficient to build these hollow structures in just about 15 days.


The building of the horses requires intuition and experience in understanding the elements. For over 100 years, these terracotta figures have survived, suggesting their expertise in climate. Though rains soak the clay, there is no damage caused as water does not penetrate and expand. Even after so long, there are no cracks or breakage from moisture or heat.

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A rooster’s neck is split, and the blood is dripped in the ground to consecrate the horse’s place in the temple. With a wide range of offerings including coconuts, food and liquor, people pray to Ayyanar before starting to sculpt the horse. The horses range from about 9’ to up to 20’ high. They are modelled with clay and rice husk(karukai) and for the relief details, clay is mixed with straw. The ingredients have very significant role in contributing to the monumentality of the clay horses.


A circular pit is made, to mix sedimentary soil and topsoil with silt content. Water is mixed to achieve a medium viscosity slurry. To provide for tensile strength, rice hull and straw are added, and the whole slurry is mixed with foot. Years of expertise and instincts tells the potters how to make the clay castable.


The clay figures are made by a combination of throwing and coiling techniques. The horse is made in three sections-lower leg and upper thigh, neck and head. A ledge is formed around the edge of this first section to fit into the next thigh portion. Some liquid clay slip is smoothed over the surface to cover up the coarse rice husks. The neck and head are throwed on the potter’s wheel to get its outline and then moulded along with the body. A thicker mixture is used to mould decorations by hand. High reliefs of rope, bells, teeth and eyes are carved out. A face of Yalee is attached to the breast of the horse. The products are dried, fired in a furnace and coated with lime and ochre.


Many of the horses that one sees today are made of concrete and painted in bright yellows, blues, and whites. In many parts of Tamilnadu including Rajendrapuram, Koothadivayal, Narthamalai, Urupetti, we can see groups of terracotta figurines of horses, bulls and elephants, deteriorating and breaking to pieces without care.

What comes from earth, eventually goes back to earth.

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