Votive Terracotta Plaques

The Tamilnadu State Department of Archaeology has located a few remarkable votive terracotta plaques datable to nearly 2000 years back, bearing the engravings in an archaic Tamil and Ashokan Brahmi characters, in the possession of a Vidwan I. Ramaswamy of Poluvampatti in Coimbatore district. Moreover, a considerable number of terracotta figures have also been found having the inscriptions written in the same combined script either on the base or at the top of the images. Vidwan I. Ramaswamy, an octogenarian Tamil scholar has informed the Curator of Coimbatore, Thiru R. Poongundran, and requested him to examine them personally and publish it for the benefit of the public. Immediately, Thiru Poongundran visited his house and examined these plaques and figurines and sent a detailed report to the author of this article.

In turn, the author of this article rushed to Poluvampatti along with Poongundran and made arrangements to take photographs of these objects. With the help of these photographs, we were able to decipher a few sentences here and there in each plaque. To get the readings conformed and clarified, this author approached the veteran scholar Thiru. I. Mahadevan for his comments and improvement. He readily responded to the request and took pains to decipher more sentences and sent back the revised and improved reading to him.

The entire finding includes three terracotta plaques and about 20 terracotta figurines, besides a copper piece engraved with a male figure – probably a chieftain – and his name “Kadan” written in archaic Tamil script. It is presumed as votive offerings to a local temple. When asked about the origin of these plaques and figurines, Thiru I. Ramaswamy informed us that these were brought from Perur, a suburb of the city of Coimbatore and added that they had been collected when the digging were made for the foundation of new houses.

The practice of offering votive objects like terracotta plaques and figurines was in vogue in North India13. As far as Tamilnadu is concerned, this tradition of offering votive plaques has not so far been met with. The installation of terracotta figures of horses, elephants and dogs in front of Ayyanar and Vediappan temples were prevalent from the Pallava period i.e. from 6th – 7th century A.D.. Hence, these terracotta plaques and figurines assume great significance and serve as a valuable source for understanding the religious life in Tamilnadu.

05-06-21-ho(Courtesy: https://lakshmisharath.com/ritual-offerings-at-an-ayyanar-temple-in-chettinadu-for-tamil-new-year/)

It is reasonable to presume that a Jain temple should have been in existence at Perur from the very early period. In support of this, a copper plate, brought to light by Thiru. I. Mahadevan, mentions that a Jain temple known as “Arhata Ayatam” was at Perur and some panam was gifted by a concubine of the Ganga King to that temple. This attests to the fact that Perur was Jain centre from the pre-Christian era. Hence it is possible that the terracotta plaques and figurines could have been offered to that Jain temple. These inscribed plaques refer to some nadus, some villages and some personal names. Eruminnadu and Kumilivur are often mentioned in these inscriptions. These words make us recall the Erumiunadu and Kumolivur referred to in the inscription assignable to 1st – 2nd century A.D. of Sithannavasal in Pudukkottai district.

These plaques and figurines could also be dated to the same period14. A Prakrit word dhanam is also found mentioned. At present, only a few sentences here and there have been deciphered. The decipherment of the full transcription may take a long time. The discovery of these inscribed terracotta votives and figurines mark a milestone in the religious history of Tamilnadu. Thiru. I. Ramaswamy who has brought such an important finding to the notice of this author deserves our congratulations and historians and Tamil scholars should be ever grateful to him.

All these remarkable finds significantly push back the antiquity and evolution of the Jain religion in Tamilnadu. If a systematic exploration is carried out in Perur area of Coimbatore district, one can expect and the more artefacts could be collected to shed light on the origin and evolution of the Jain religion in Tamilnadu.

Therefore, it appears that though the Jain religion was prevalent in Tamilnadu from 5th – 4th century B.C., it started to penetrate only after the upsurge of Saiva Nayanmars and Viashnava Alwars came to an end. For the gradual growth of this religion, the ruling monarchs also lent their support by being tolerant towards them. They themselves built some Jain and Buddha pallis for the benefit of the followers of these religions. The merchants who were next in the hierarchy fully supported Jainism and installed Tirthankara images not only in Jain temples but also wherever they sojourned. At some vulnerable points, they had to employ security guards not only to protect themselves and their properties but also their religious edifices. In spite of this situation, Jain Tirthankaras seem to have been worshipped even in remote corners of Tamilnadu from 10th century onwards.


  1. This sculpture and four others of Ayyanar and Durga were located by myself, M/s. Tamaraikannan and M. Chandramurthy at Kadaimalaipputtur and Inam Sittamur.
  2. Silambu 11.2446-2447.
  3. ARE, A-10/1958-59, TASSI, 1958-59, p-41dft. Endowment made to Vajranandikkuravar is mentioned in this charter.
  4. ARE, 430/1922-23.
  5. Muthu, R., Archeological Officer, Thanjavur located this image and published it in Tholporul Ayuuthurain Ariya Kanupidupukkal (Tamil) 1988 to 1988, (pub) 1998, p. 27.
  6. Sridharan, K., Registering Officer, Trichy discovered and published it in the same report on page 15.
  7. Thulasiraman, D., Curator, and P. Venkatesan, School Teacher discovered and published it in the same report on pages 16-17.
  8. Ibid., pp. 16-17.
  9. Thulasiraman, D., located and published it in the same report on page 12.
  10. This image was noticed by this author, M/s. Tamaraikannan and Muthur Ethirajan while on exploration.
  11. Vedachalam, “Mutal Rajarajan Kalvettu Porikkaperra Thrthankara Tirumeni” (Tamil).
  12. Chandramurthy, Registering Officer, Chennai, made the discovery. The news appeared in Dinamani (Tamil daily) on 26.10.1998.
  13. Poongunran, the Curator, examined it and the news appeared in “The Hobby World”, Vol. I., Issue No. 4, p. 3, Dinamalar (Tamil daily) on 13.6.88.
  14. A similar terracotta disc has been picked out at Piprowash, R. Senguptha, “Mlechas”, Professor K.A. Nilaakanta Sastri Felicitation Volume, 1981, p. 186, fig. 4(b). Few more discs are illustrated in “Origin and Evolution of Indian clay sculpture”/ C.C. Das Gupta, University of Calcutta (1961). Figures 72, 75, and 84 are assignable to Maurya and Sunga period.

Natana Kasinathan
Director of Archaeology (Retd.)
Government of Tamilnadu

Source: Journal of Indian History and Culture, March 2002.

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