Traditionally, this craft was developed to create votive images for the tribal worship. They are installed in the village shrines and prayed too, for curing illnesses and misfortunes. These potters mainly cater to the Bhil tribes and their Bhopas (priests) who come to purchase these plaques from Molela, having travelled hundreds of kilometers from the borders of Madhya Pradesh.
It didn't take long for this craft to gain recognition among architects and designers; hence, the craft has evolved to suit the times and it is utilized to decorate walls or urban dwellings.
Molela terracotta has also received good exposure and has interacted well with the western market. As a result, the craftsmen have started depicting local scenes of everyday life in villages and their artifacts range from a palm sized image to elaborate plaques.
Apart from making religious plaques to be installed at shrines, human and animal terracotta figures are also made and then offered on the shrines. These figures have gained regional characteristics. Tribes such as 'Chaudhary' and 'Bheel', order for terracotta replicas of human body parts, which are presented as offerings on the shrines to cure the ailment in that particular body part, like a replica of arm will be offered for a fractured arm, even a whole figure is sometimes presented in the case of fever and other ailments which affect the whole body.
The Molela plaques are only made in Molela region exclusively. Molela's clay and climate are conducive to its unique design. The unique type of clay found here helps in making robust deigns compared to the clay found in other regions, which if used, results in cracks in the artwork.
The entire process is carried out by hand and no moulds are involved. All the raw materials are organic, as the plaques are considered sacred. Even the colors which are polished on the plaque surface are derived from lacquer. Traditionally and even now the payment for these idols is in the form of money, clothes, grains or other offerings. The intricacy of work and size together determine the price of the Plaque. The tribals usually change these votives every year; this ritual is believed to prevent misfortune. The tribals consider these Gods as their protectors.
The plaques represent local protective ideals, heroes and saints such as Dharamraj Dev Narayan and Pabuji (Rajput heroes), as well as the other more widespread deities such as Ganesha, Bhairavanath and Durga.
During Maag season which coincides with harvest festival (January-February), the 'Kumhar' (potter) houses host large number of tribes pouring in from Mewar region of Rajasthan, from Gujarat region and from the region near Madhya Pradesh border. However, the time of rice harvest in winter is the busiest period for the craftsmen, as the plaques are made during this time. The extreme summers in the region are too harsh to work and the high temperature renders cracks in the plaque.
The tribes are accompanied by their community priest called the Bhopa who helps them purchase the appropriate plaque or idol. Once the idol is decided upon, the group rests at the Kumhar house, while their idol is being customized. The tribe carries the completed idol on their heads while heading for their native places, as a sign of respect for the votive plaque. On their arrival at native village, the idols are made to visit all the houses in the village, to bless its occupants before it is installed in the semi-open shrine or Devra. Some of the minorities of Rajasthan and Gujarat perform blood offerings during the installation ceremonies, but these sacrificial rituals have been banned by the conservation authorities. The main deity worshipped by the tribals is Dharmaraj, who is a Rajput hero. He is believed to guard the villages against bad omens and accidents, when he rides around patrolling the villages in the nights. His original shrine was moved and hidden in Nathdwara, 10 kms away from Molela, during the Muslim invasions from the north.
Myths & Legends
The story behind this craft talks about a blind potter who dreamt of God Devnarayan or Dharmaraja. The God instructed him to dig out clay from a particular spot and sculpt out an idol with bare hands. As soon as the blind potter did that, his sight was restored. His successors carried on the craft and the traditional image of Dharmaraja on his horse is still made on plaques and worshiped.
The craft of sculpting with terracotta has been in India from time immemorial. There are many archaeological references to earthenware and pottery in the Pre-Harappan and Harappan periods. The craft is also believed to have come via Persia, when Mongol warrior Genghis Khan had conquered China in 1212 AD. The craftsmen have honed the art of sculpting with earth, the most primitive raw material, and displayed an excellent understanding of the human form. During the Gupta period, a more delicate form of the human figure was sculpted. The ornaments of the Sunga-Kushana figurines were lean and delicate. There was a high degree of sophistication which was exhibited by the terracotta sculptures of this period, which continues until today.
The prominent figures depicted in the votives are Dharmaraja and Nagaraja. Several artifacts are left in the original color of the raw material, but the tribes prefer bright colors for the Gods. There are specific colors for the deities. For example, Blue is used for Kaladev and Orange is used for Goradev. Some of the popular themes depict Rajput heroes, local deities, daily household chores, women empowerment, celestial bodies, various professions in countryside, agricultural activities, war scenes, mythological stories like Krishna carrying a mountain on his finger etc.
A few examples of the deities sculpted onto these votive plaques are as follows:
Deonarain: A popular god of Gujar tribe. He is depicted as being seated on a horse holding a spear and lotus. Deonarain is seen attended to by a serpent, herds of cows, sun, man, a crocodile and a peacock. Symbolic representations of this deity, like a hand curved like the hood of the cobra is resorted to, at times.
Bhairavanath: This male deity is made up of two images. One is the Kala Bhairav or the dark one and the Gora Bhairav or the fair one. This symbolizes the deity's potency of encompassing universal polarities. He bears a resemblance to Lord Shiva and holds a Trishul or a trident in his hand. The Kala Bhairav is considered to be cunning and strong willed; he is propitiated by offerings of liquor and animal sacrifice. The Gora Bhairav is mild and compassionate and he is offered sweetmeats.
Nagadev/Takhaji: This serpent god has been worshipped in India since ancient times. Traditionally, this plaque has a central figure flanked by several snakes. The deity is also depicted with twelve hoods sometimes.
Mother Goddess: She is depicted in various incarnations. As Durga, she sits astride a lion, as Chamunda on an elephant. Icons of her mounted on a buffalo show her as Kalika, others as Amba, Aawanmata, Sadumata or Hedamata, each of these showing her holding a sword, a drum, a trident and a khappar, bowl of blood, in her four hands.
Tantra cult: It is a cult which tried to unify the male - female polarities but degenerated into magic and mysticism. The potters make figurines for this cult too though the demand is limited.
Bhopa: They are the priests of the tribal people. Kala Bhopa is a black colored idol made to respect the priests and is replaced every three to five years.
Dharmaraja: A popular tribal deity is shown riding a horse and the background is intricately filled with details like cows, dogs, tigers and humans. The majestic posture of the horse lends grandeur to the image. This plaque is also painted with vivid colors like red, blue, green, yellow and pink.
Gangaur: This is a grand Rajasthani festival in which Parvati and Shiva are worshipped. Parvati, considered the ideal woman, is molded with round open eyes. Young maidens and newly married women worship these figurines for happy married life. These are mostly painted in orange and blue and adorned with silver paper.
Dhola-Maru: These are the names of a couple featuring in many of the folk tales and legends. The lovers, Dhola and Maru, are shown fleeing across the desert on camel back and they are painted in muted colors. Maru is held protectively by her lover Dhola and the camel has its neck bent backwards.
The demand for this craft is seasonal. It is sought after only once a year when new pottery and votive idols are required during harvest festival. During rest of the year, the craftsmen take to agriculture or some other means of income
The designs have become redundant when the same kind of relief and same techniques are used for the different subjects. The subjects and the uses are suggested by the client. This craft requires a strong understanding of composition and subject matter as well as a skill to be able to give each plaque its distinct character with patience.