The Role of Clay Art in Preserving India's Intangible Adivasi Heritage
“For Dust you are, and to Dust you shall return.” 
Genesis 3:19, Old Testament, Bible. 

Our previous article on the Khumars (“potters”) of Molela village, Rajasthan highlighted the significance of patronage from the Bhil, Mina, and Garasiya tribal communities of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. This unique relationship, which blends art, deity worship, ritual, and mutual respect, is particularly fascinating to explore for two reasons:


1. It has enabled the potter caste to preserve their tradition dating back to the Indus civilization!

2. The evocative spiritual significance that the clay tradition holds for its practitioners.


For instance, in the town of Poshina within the Sabarkantha district of Gujarat, numerous adivasi shrines hold over 100-2000 votive terracotta horses. Sombre, tall, and neatly arranged in rows, these clay horses with “O” shaped mouths collectively present an auspicious image to passer-byes. With pointed ears and intricate patterns on their bodies, the terracotta figurines stand silently still like an army ready to battle, so to say. Though this imagery might seem exaggerated to readers unsure of its symbolism, these reddish-hued horses actually represent a community’s everyday realities. Each horse is undoubtedly an expression of desire. Whether it be a desire to give birth, a desire to be healed, a desire to be wealthy, to be blessed, to increase livestock, to send rains, good crops etc., the statues are stand-ins for peoples’ vows. 


Votive Horses of Poshina: Adivasi Clay Art Traditions
Fig. 1 Votive Horses of Poshina (Photography by vacationindia)


The making of the votive horses depends on the patron’s desire. If it is a simple wish, the Khumar makes a small figurine which is then carried and placed in a shrine by an individual. In cases where the request is bigger, the ritual is grander. The individual(s) consult with the Badvo or Bhadwa (translated as “village priest/pandit”) who then sets an auspicious date. Sometimes richer patrons will arrange for a village festival and lead the horse in a procession of dance, chants, and accompanying music. Offerings of food, money, oil, incense, flowers and so on are placed at these shrines. Although each terracotta horse defines an individual’s vow, they are not detached from the community. The food often prepared in lieu of these gatherings are collectively shared by other participants. These interpersonal exchanges carry testament to the care, affection, kindness, religious affinity, and togetherness that small-knit communities hold. As rightly noted in an article titled “Votive Horses of Poshina, Gujarat” (2018) Mitraja Bais writes: “Tangible objects [of clay] represent the intangible cultural heritage” of the Adivasis. 

The tradition-bound act of worship  surrounding the making of votive horses is a compelling event that foments questions on the symbiotic relationship between folks across clans, castes, tribes, and regions. Listeners, participants, and readers are challenged to examine the processes in which clay creations have travelled over the ages to “become” so central to community expressions. The caste of peasant-potters working and living out of art from soil, are not merely labouring in the sense of income. Their position within the structures of society is vibrant, intimate, and necessary. In areas like Odisha, only clay vessels made by Khumars are utilised for rice distribution in Jagannath (Vishnu’s form) temple at Puri. In this light, the patronage of the Bhil communities to the Khumars of Rajasthan makes sense. However, this is not to state that all clay work is sourced from the latter. In overlapping and polysemic cultures like India’s, communities and identities are not one-dimensional! For example, the Rathwas adivasis who live in the forests around Devhat in Chota Udepur, Gujarat, practise a local form of clay work called Adivasi Mattikam, translated “mud work of the forest people.” Primarily used in making cooking utensils, the main dish in particular is the tavlai, a spherical shaped bowl. Of the four types of tavlai, paina, which is a deep-set large bowl, is used for boiling vegetables. A flat round bowl called tavi is used to deep fry items, and threeka which is the only unglazed utensil, is used for other recipes. These clay bowls are interesting to study because their properties offer an alternative to plastic cookware coated with harmful chemicals like polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).


Adivasi Mattikam: Adivasi Clay Art Traditions
Fig 2. The Rathwa Adivasis prepare utensils for firing by using dry leaves of the Taad tree. (Photography by


Made from a combination of black clay, soil, and animal dung, womenfolk mix these ingredients and beat them into flat cakes which are then placed atop an overturned matka (“pot”) to give a concave shape. After being dried, the surface of the bowl is polished with water, red-ochre paste, and stone for smoothness. This rudimentary form is then placed upon wood covered with palm fronds (the local tad tree) and burned for over one hour. Finally, while the pot is still hot, sticky lac collected from the Indian Lac (a south Asian scale insect) and applied all over the inside of the pot. According to research, the finished product contains a perfect balance of magnesium, calcium, and iron which neutralises acidity in food, thus making it safe and healthy for everyday use. Another sub-tribe of the Bhils called the Dhanka or Dhanak adivasis also practise this method. Though both Rathwas and Dhanaks are sub-tribes of Bhils, and although their customs, rituals, practices, culinary habits overlap, they are endogamous in nature. It is also noteworthy to mention that the Rathwas community also is home to the famous fringe Pithora paintings. Like the votive horses, these paintings are cosmographies that illustrate the observable universe around them. Its process of drawing also involves similar rituals like the Bhadwa (“priest”) consultations and community ceremonies. 

Taking all these minute practices into consideration, the article hopes to make a strong case for the relevance of indigenous knowledge that combines influences from nature with the practicality of existence. The making of clay horses, the evocation of desires, the ingenious system of food habits – all come together to explain a simple yet complex articulation: of folks, of folkloric knowledge, of orality, of (un)learning. As one Dr. Meena writes: “The Adivasis have so much to teach.”


  1. Terra Cotta of Molela
  2. Molela: Rajasthan’s terracotta plaque art patronised by Bhil, Mina & Garasiya tribal communities
  3. On Dinesh Chandra Mohanlal Kumhar: Molela Terracotta
  5. Dhanak Adivasi Art of Non-Stick terracotta Cookware with Lac Coating - Prakati India
  6. The Sustainable Way of Life



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