Dr Mohammad Ajmal Shah, assistant professor-cum-curator of the Centre of Central Asian studies, University of Kashmir (Courtesy: Dr Abdul Rashid Lone)

In Conversation with Dr Mohammad Ajmal Shah on the Early Historic Terracotta Art of Kashmir

in Interview
Published on: 21 August 2019

Abdul Rashid Lone

Dr Abdul Rashid Lone is an archaeologist and historian. He holds a Masters degree in History from Aligarh Muslim University, and has worked on the early historic archaeology of Kashmir for his PhD thesis at the University of Delhi. He is currently working as Assistant Professor at the University of Kashmir.

Dr Mohammad Ajmal Shah, assistant professor-cum-curator of the Centre of Central Asian studies, University of Kashmir, discusses the early artistic practises in Kashmir.

Dr Shah has extensively researched on the early historic (early centuries of the Christian era) archaeology of the Kashmir region and has authored various scholarly texts on the subject.

This interview was conducted by Dr Abdul Rashid Lone in Srinagar on March 23, 2019.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Dr Abdul Rashid Lone: Would you please elaborate on the history of the Kushanas in Kashmir and the art that emerged during their time?

Dr Mohammad Ajmal Shah: If we look at the architectural evidences of the Kushana history in the region, Kashmir during their rule produced some of the best specimens of art. In many literary resources, Kushanas have been mentioned with names such as Yuehchis and Kueishang.

Kushanas migrated from Central Asia, either due to political pressure or because they wanted to explore newer avenues, and came down to the Indian subcontinent, occupied lots of areas in India and Pakistan and, once the whole region was occupied, extended their rule towards the Kashmir Valley. As per archaeological and numismatic evidence, we see that the earliest coins of the Kushana period have been recovered from the Kashmir Valley, especially its northern parts. Many archaeological theories suggest that the area was occupied by the Kushanas before they conquered other parts of South Asia. We do not have concrete evidence for this hypothesis but there are emerging proofs from many parts of northern India.

A.R.L: We have a number of material remains from different archaeological settlements throughout the Kashmir region. Could you throw light on the material culture of Kashmir during the Kushana period?

M.A.S: This is an interesting question because if we see the Kashmir archaeology, from the Neolithic period to the early historic, from a broader perspective, we do not have as many [material] evidence from other chronological periods of Kashmir history as we do from the Kushana period. During the Kushana period, Kashmir was almost transformed into a huge settlement area, as reported by archaeologists as well as Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, a literary source which mentions that Kashmir was occupied by the Kushana rulers Hushka, Jushka and Kanishka.

A lot of sites were discovered, excavated and explored in the last hundred years. With the help of Sir Aurel Stein’s investigations on Kashmir archaeology, and the excavations that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) conducted in 1947 and afterwards, we see settlements as well as material culture emerge. The most significant aspect of Kushana material culture, which we find in almost all their sites in the valley, is the Kashmir terracotta tile art.

A.R.L: You are talking about the terracotta tiles as the most important art form developed under the Kushanas in Kashmir. Could you please specify some of its major features?

M.A.S: There are quite a lot of sites that were excavated, which include Harwan in Srinagar District, Ushkar and Kanispur in Baramulla, and Semthan in Anantnag. Quite recently, we also excavated Ahan. So, from all these sites, we can find a lot of materials, especially sculptural art and terracotta tile art. Terracotta tile art is one of the best preserved arts from the Kushana period in the Kashmir Valley. We have concentric circle formations of the tiles in many of the sites. In Harwan, for example, nine concentric circles were recovered during excavations. All these were made of tiles around the Buddhist sites, mostly monasteries, viharas and other Buddhist establishments. There are decorated forms of the art as well as undecorated forms that show the gradual development of the Kashmir terracotta tile industry in many forms and aspects.

A.R.L: You mentioned different archaeological sites where we find materials of terracotta art. Can you name the most significant among these places?

M.A.S: Undoubtedly, it is Harwan in the Srinagar district. It is a unique Buddhist archaeological complex from the Kushana period. British archaeologist Sir Aural Stein has mentioned about the site and it also figures in Kalhana’s Rajatarangini probably as Shadarhadvana. Stein translates this as Harwan; some people call it a groove of six saints and others call it the residence of Nagarjuna, one of the most important Buddhist figures. It was excavated long back, in the 1920s, by archaeologist R.C. Kak. The site has very important archaeological material culture from the Kushana period. This was the first well excavated site in the Kashmir Valley. Different types of archaeological material culture have been recovered from this site, which include tiles and many other figurines, sculptures and parts of sculptures. If we see structural evidence from the archaeological site of Harwan from a broader perspective, it is distributed into three terraces—the uppermost terrace has an apsidal temple, the middle terrace has a staircase that connects the three terraces, and the lower terrace has a three-tier stupa. Terracotta tiles that we recovered from Harwan were reported during excavations from the uppermost terrace and were in a concentric circle type pavement. The number of concentric circles were reported to be eight to nine, apart from the apsidal temple at the topmost terrace. The major themes on these tiles include animals, women carrying water, women with flowers, and couples talking to each other. Apart from these illustrations, the tiles also have Kharoshthi numerals inscribed on them. Many people are of the opinion that these tiles were numbered before they were actually placed, so that the themes and other panels would not be disturbed.

A.R.L: What is the relevance of these themes? Can we relate these themes to any particular faith or culture?

M.A.S: There are a number of themes represented in these tiles. Of course, there have been a lot of theories and debates about them being associated to Buddhism, Ajivikism or Jainism. Some people support these theories. But if we look at them, they carry scenes from the daily lives of the people. No doubt these tiles have been placed around particular monasteries or viharas of Buddhism, but they do not represent any sect or religion.

A.R.L:  Are there any sites outside this Himalayan valley that suggest diffusion of these art forms, or do we see this as regional development of the material culture in Kashmir?

M.A.S: There are a lot of debates already happening around whether this was a regional phenomenon or was influenced by cultures outside the Kashmir or Himalayan region; were the tiles brought from somewhere else? As of now we can just say that there are a number of evidence on the terracotta tiles that could compare them to tiles from other parts of the world, such as Egypt, the Sumerian cultures as well as neighbouring China, Pakistan, and other parts of India. There was an evidence from Bamala in Taxila, Pakistan. Some terracotta tiles were reported from a stupa there but they were not in concentric form. From the neighbouring regions in Central Asia, we do not have many reports of such types of material culture.

A.R.L: Can we say that this is a unique development under the Kushanas in Kashmir?

M.A.S: Of course we can say that this is a regional development. Terracotta tile-making was a big industry in the Kashmir Valley; we sometimes report around 300 to 400 tiles from a single site. This might have been a big industry in the Kushana period, where they had skilled artists involved in the craft. From the archaeological findings, we can say that it [such large-scale production of terracotta tiles] did not happen anywhere else outside the Kashmir geographical region during that period.

A.R.L: How far do outside cultures influence the tiles and the themes that appear on them? Could you provide some examples?

M.A.S: We can find the celebrated image of the Parthian shot in many terracotta tiles in Kashmir. Parthian shot as an iconography appears in various parts of Central Asia in different cultures and time periods, which shows the cultural influence Kashmir’s terracotta art borrows from that region. Of course, the Kushanas came via Central Asia and ruled the Kashmir region for a long time.

Another common image is of the intertwined neck of two animals in a fighting posture, which appears in the archaeological sites of Hoinar in the Kashmir Valley. This particular image has a long history in Egypt as well as in Sumeria. There has been a lot of research on this theme and it is believed to have emerged from Egypt and travelled along the Silk Road, via Syria and many other regions, before reaching Kashmir.

Then there is the griffin posture, which is an illustration of a combat scene where a man is shown fighting a griffin; it is common in Iran and comes from the story of a king who, it is believed, single-handedly fought and killed a griffin.

A.R.L: You talk about foreign influences on the themes of these tiles. Could you please specify the nature of these influences? Were they restricted to these art forms?

M.A.S: Kashmir was very well connected with outside regions through Central Asia via the Silk Road, and the material culture evidences demonstrate that. These influences went beyond the domain of terracotta tiles. Some fifth-century Persian literary sources mention that Kashmir shawls were presented to many of the kings in the eastern territories as gifts. Palmyra, in present-day Syria, is one of the cities that was very well connected with Kashmir. There are a lot of art forms, such as grapevine scrolls, that appear in Palmyra as well as on Kashmir terracotta tiles. If we just link these threads together, we have definitive evidence that there was a long tradition of trade relations between the Kashmir Valley and other parts of the world.

A.R.L: How was trade conducted between these distant sites and which were the major trade routes?

M.A.S: From an archaeological perspective, there were three major important trade routes in ancient times. These three routes were active during the Kushana period. One of these crossed Baramulla, Taxila and some Central Asian regions. There are a number of archaeological sites on this route, particularly from the Kushana period. Then there is the route that went via Bandipora to Gurez valley, Gilgit and other areas.

The third route was via the Ladakh region, which connected Kashmir to Central Asia during the Kushana period. Trade flourished during the time because the Kushanas in Kashmir controlled the Silk Road, which connected the valley to the rest of the world. These business relations also promoted cross-cultural exchange of arts.  

A.R.L: Can we say that Kashmir was a kind of a regional kingdom of the Kushanas? That despite ruling vast territories beyond the valley, they maintained a regional identity in Kashmir?

M.A.S: The Kushanas ruled large parts of the Indian subcontinent. Once they captured the Gandhara region [which today would extend from the Swat Valley in Pakistan to the Jalalabad district in Afghanistan], Kashmir, as it was very close to the confines, also came under their rule.

You are right when you say that the Kushanas maintained a regional identity that was already present in Kashmir as the various art forms that we find here cannot be seen outside. In the Gandhara region during the Kushana rule, there had been a lot of focus on stone as the material for art. But in Kashmir, stone came in very late; the Kushana artists in the Kashmir Valley focused on clay as a medium to express their artistic dexterity. Figurines, sculptures and terracotta tiles were mostly made out of clay because of this regional identity, which followed from the time of the Indo-Greeks to the Kushanas.