Rāma and Sītā on a Chariot: A c.5th/6th Century CE Terracotta Panel Recently Sold at Auction

Rama and Sita

This terracotta relief panel (44 x 37 cm) depicts an enamoured couple of high-status seated together on a chariot under an elegant canopy from which swags of fabric hang. The pair have previously been identified as Rāma and Sītā and there is little reason to doubt this reading.* The male figure wears a channavīra (cross-belt) with a quiver of arrows strapped behind his right shoulder. Fragments of a bow survive above his right knee. He wears jewellery and a crown or elaborate turban, signalling his aristocratic rank. The female figure is adorned with jewellery including an ornament that resembles a channavīra, albeit without a martial function. Both have disproportionately slender legs in comparison with the rest of their bodies.

This image most probably represents Rāma and Sītā after their marriage, or perhaps returning to Ayodhya following their forest exile and Sītā’s horrific ordeal on Lanka.

The panel dates to the Gupta or early post-Gupta period (5th/6th century CE), and judging by style, probably originates from eastern India or Bangladesh. This image is rare for two reasons. Firstly, to my knowledge, despite plentiful Rāmāyaṇa temple images surviving from the 5th and 6th centuries, none depict Rāma and Sītā on a chariot together wearing ensembles more lavish than the ascetic garb we are accustomed to seeing them in. Secondly, there is only a border on the lower register rather than the usual frame.

I have only recently become aware of this panel. It was sold by Van Ham Fine Art Auctioneers in June of this year for €8500. The plaque has undergone thermoluminescence testing (Oxford Authentication N116c43). Apparently it has been in a private collection in Hong Kong since 1990. Frankly, however, without the name of the owner, this provenance is entirely meaningless and may or may not be factual. It is worth remembering that Hong Kong is a free port and thus an ideal channel via which to smuggle antiquities. Curiously the panel also seems to have been sold recently by Galerie Hioco, Paris, although no date of sale has been provided online.

It is a great shame that this terracotta relief has no recorded find spot or known archaeological context. Yet, regardless, it is a wonderful addition to the corpus of early Rāmāyaṇa iconography.

* I am following the identification of the auction house.

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