A Rāmāyaṇa Battle Scene Represented on an Inscribed Terracotta Panel from Gupta Period Haryana

An inscribed fifth century CE terracotta panel depicting a Rāmāyaṇa scene was sold in London this autumn by John Eskenazi (Fig. 1). To the best of my knowledge this piece has not been published before and is an excellent addition to the corpus of Rāmāyaṇa images of this period. Although its find spot is reported as unknown, the panel can in fact be traced back, not to a particular archaeological mound, but to Sirsā in the state of Haryana in North India. The panel might not have been unearthed in Sirsā itself – though the town does sit on large ancient mounds – but could be from a site located somewhere in the region surrounding the town (Fig. 2). This can be inferred from the existence of a second panel with which the ‘London panel’ shares several characteristics, such as style, a similar scale, theme, and colour of terracotta (Fig. 3). Moreover, both panels bear inscriptions that appear to have been engraved by the same hand. I will return to this second panel later in the post.

Figure 1: Gupta period terracotta panel depicting Aṅgada killing Narāntaka. 38 cm in height, 34 cm in width. Photo: courtesy John Eskenazi.
Figure 2: Map showing key places. Sirsā and Nachar Khera are 63 miles apart. Photo: Google Earth.

The Sanskrit inscriptions in Brāhmī script etched on the borders of the ‘London panel’ helpfully inform us that the scene represents Narāntaka, a rākṣasa son of Rāvaṇa, king of Laṅkā, and Aṅgada, the simian son of the deceased erstwhile monkey king, Vālin. Parts of the inscription are difficult to read, but in light of comparable Gupta period inscribed panels from Haryana, the legend could comprise a short sentence rather than simply naming the featured characters.[1] 

It is remarkable just how many details of this concise visual rendering of a battle correlate with Vālmīki’s telling. This episode as told by Vālmīki, is found in the Yuddhakāṇḍa (book 6), and takes place during the Laṅkā war, following the deaths of many key rākṣasas including that of Rāvaṇa’s brother, the giant Kumbhakarṇa. We are told that Narāntaka rampages through the monkey army on his majestic white horse, piercing hundreds of his enemies with his javelin. Alarmed, the monkey king Sugrīva asks his nephew Aṅgada to dispatch the rākṣasa swiftly and put a stop to the carnage. So Aṅgada:

Armed only with his claws and fangs and lacking any other weapon … confronted Narāntaka and spoke these words:

“Stop! Why bother with such common tawny monkeys? Hurl your dart swiftly against this chest of mine, as hard to the touch as adamant.” (6.57.79–80)

An enraged Narāntaka hurls his javelin at Aṅgada and it shatters against the monkey’s mighty chest and falls to the ground. Aṅgada then strikes Narāntaka’s horse on the head and it collapses in a heap. The disarmed rākṣasa hits Aṅgada who, in retaliation, lands a tremendous blow on Narāntaka’s chest with his clenched fist. The rākṣasa falls to the ground, dead (6.57.81–88).

The frenzied one-on-one combat between Aṅgada and Narāntaka is brilliantly captured in the animated panel composition. On the left of the scene stands Aṅgada whose head is fragmented. The bare-chested monkey holds a clenched fist above his head and with his other hand he pushes Narāntaka down by the neck. Aṅgada’s fingers are vividly depicted pressing into the rākṣasa’s supple flesh. Narāntaka has a whiskery moustache and wears a deep frown on his forehead – and no wonder! He is clad in a long-sleeved upper garment and long trousers both etched with horizontal lines. And unusually for early Indian art, he wears shoes. His attire might represent armour of sorts and he certainly looks better dressed for battle than Aṅgada who wears a short dhoti. Both characters have pleated cloth belts tied loosely around the waist, the ends of which flap in the air. This is an ubiquitous trope in South Asian art signifying movement. Even though the rākṣasa still clings to his horse, Aṅgada has forced his upper body backwards so that his head leans over the horse’s rump. One of Narāntaka’s hands is clenched in a fist behind his head, but the battle is clearly lost. The front legs of his horse have collapsed, and the horse’s nostrils are touching the ground. On the lower border of the panel lies Narāntaka’s javelin, broken in two with a horizontal split. This is the only extant Gupta period visual depiction of this story. 

Its companion panel is in the Linden-Museum, Stuttgart, but was originally purchased from a dealer in Sirsā by the Gurukul Museum in Jhajjar (Devakarni 2007: Plate 6). How this panel ended up in Germany is unclear. Donald Stadtner has written on this panel and (like the Gurukul Museum) identifies it by its inscriptions as the killing of the three-headed rākṣasa Triśiras by Rāma, who is not pictured. Together the inscriptions read “In the killing of Triśiras lies deliverance” (Stadtner 2005: 215). In this scene Triśiras is pictured with one remaining head. The nose of this head has been sliced-off recalling the punishment inflicted on Śūrpaṇakhā. In this rather gruesome portrayal, the other two heads of Triśiras are represented lying, one on the ground, and one poised on the rim of the chariot. Both fallen heads are shown from behind with their ringleted hair tumbling upside down. Triśiras stands in his chariot, the wheel of which has flipped to one side. One of the horses is lying on the ground with its back towards the viewer and the other horse is rearing in the background. Triśiras’s charioteer is dead, flopped over the edge of the chariot. His head is missing, and the orifice of his neck is displayed. Triśiras is wearing a short-sleeved upper garment with a fish-scale-like motif.[2] Perhaps this is armour.

There are two demons named Triśiras (“three heads”) in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa. In the Araṇyakāṇḍa we meet Triśiras, a general of Khara who is a brother of Rāvaṇa and Śūrpaṇakhā. The second Triśiras is a son of Rāvaṇa and we encounter him in the Yuddhakāṇḍa. General Triśiras is described as riding a magnificent chariot pulled by horses. He is killed by Rāma who slices off his three heads with arrows (3.26.17–18). Rāma also kills his charioteer (3.27.15). In the Yuddhakāṇḍa, Hanūmān kills Triśiras, son of Rāvaṇa, following a fierce battle (6.58.41). This Triśiras also rides a chariot pulled by horses but no charioteer is mentioned (6.58.4). Which story this panel pertains to is not explicit, though the Triśiras of the Araṇyakāṇḍa features on a contemporaneous terracotta panel from Nachar Khera in Jind district, Haryana (Fig. 4).[3] On the other hand, the companion ‘London panel’ depicts a scene from the Yuddhakāṇḍa in which another of Rāvaṇa’s sons is disposed of. This pair of panels, however, might comprise only a small part of an extensive narrative sequence that could have illustrated episodes from several books of the Rāmāyaṇa.

Figure 3: Gupta period terracotta panel depicting Triśiras in the last moments of life. 38.5 x 38.5 cm. Linden-Museum, Stuttgart.

Both the iconographic style of the panels and the fact that they are inscribed, recalls other Gupta period terracotta panels representing scenes from the Rāmāyaṇa found in Haryana, most of which come from Nachar Khera and from other (unrecorded) mounds in the Jind region. None of these mounds have been scientifically excavated. 

Figure 4: Gupta period terracotta panel depicting Triśiras receiving news that fourteen rākṣasas have been killed by Rāma. Gurukul Museum, Jhajjar. Photo © Laxshmi Greaves.

It is evident that for a certain amount of time during the rule of the Guptas, the Rāmāyaṇa was a popular theme on brick temples in this area. These engrossing terracotta relief panels possess a highly theatrical or even bardic quality, probably echoing, albeit in sculptural form, the manner in which many people would have encountered the Rāmāyaṇa in this era.


Devakarni, Virjanand. 2007. Prachin Bharat main Rāmāyaṇ ke mandir. Gurukul Jhajjar, Haryana: Pranttiya Puratattva Sangrahalaya.

Goldman, Robert P., Sally J. Sutherland Goldman and Barend A. van Nooten, trans. 2010 [2009]. The Rāmāyaa of Vālmīki, An Epic of Ancient India, Volume VI: Yuddhakāṇḍa. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Pollock, Sheldon I., trans. 2006. Ramāyana Book Three, The Forest by Valmīki. New York: New York University Press and JJC Foundation.

Stadtner, Donald M. 2024. ‘An Inscribed Gupta Terracotta Panel in the Linden-Museum.’ Tribus, 64: 206–17.

For more information on Gupta Ramāyana panels from Haryana see:

Bawa, Seema. 2018. ‘Visualising the Rāmāyaṇa: Power, Redemption and Emotion in Early Narrative Sculptures (c. Fifth to Sixth Centuries CE)’, Indian Historical Review, 45.1: 92–123.

Handa, Devendra. 2006. Sculptures from Haryana: Iconography and Style. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.


[1] This information was provided by John Eskenazi.

[2] A Gupta period terracotta lunette housed in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, depicts Sītā being kidnapped by Rāvaṇa, and Jaṭāyus trying to save her. In this image the rākṣasa king also wears an upper garment with a fish-scale-like motif. It is a re-occurring theme in narrative art of the Gupta period that the rākṣasa warriors are fully clothed, while the gods and heroes have bare torsos and wear dhotis. I propose that this is a way of creating an iconographic distinction between the two groups, but probably also of ‘othering’ the rākṣasas by making them look in some way ‘foreign’ or barbaric, at least as far as mainstream Brahmanical culture was concerned. See: http://searchcollection.asianart.org/view/objects/asitem/search@/0?t:state:flow=87e4bd8b-8102-4b52-9c18-3d72bf30ce17

[3] An inscription on the panel from Nachar Khera clearly identifies this Triśiras as that of the Araṇyakāṇḍa.

Pilgrims Represented on a Gupta Period Frieze from Gaṛhwa, Uttar Pradesh

FIG.1. Garhwa Frieze complete image

I recently published a paper on a Gupta period frieze from Gaṛhwa near Prayagraj (until recently Allahabad); one of the most intriguing friezes to survive from early India. Here I am taking the opportunity to discuss a small detail on the frieze that I only considered once my paper had already gone to press. The paper can be accessed here: https://www.degruyter.com/view/book/9783110674088/10.1515/9783110674088-004.xml?rskey=MYCfm5&result=2

Fig. 9
A view of Gaṛhwa with the ruins of a twelfth-century temple, a colonnade from the same period or slightly earlier, and one of two tanks. Incidentally, the sattra dwellers might have been depicted sitting on the sides of one of the tanks to keep cool.

I have interpreted the frieze as depicting two processions – one leading to a temple enshrining Viṣṇu Viśvarūpa who is offering a magnificent theophany of himself to a kneeling king; while the other procession winds its way to a sattra, a charitable institution that seems to have had its naissance in the early Gupta period. Incredibly, this is the only surviving visual representation of a sattra, and moreover, by happy coincidence, Garhwa is also home to the earliest epigraphic mention of this type of sattra. Such sattras were almshouses of sorts; dwelling places attached to temples for the benefit of brahmins, wandering ascetics and the poor. Clothing and food was given to the inhabitants of the sattras, but beyond this little is known.

The sattra dwellers being fed and watered by pilgrims.

One of the most notable features of the frieze is the clever way in which it draws together gods, astronomical and astrological deities, kings and consorts, soldiers, brahmins, the needy, musicians, servants, and possibly mythical heroes, and also I will argue, pilgrims.

The inhabitants of the sattra, who sit on the steps of a tiered structure, are receiving food and drink from a couple who wear unusual head coverings – the woman’s headdress has a long scarf draping down behind her neck and shoulders. The attire of this couple points to them being pilgrims, probably having stopped off at the sattra during a long journey. This I have deduced by making a comparison with imagery on a stone tympanum in two pieces from Kaṅkalī Tīlā, Mathura, produced during the Śuṅga period (c. 100 BCE), although slightly outside of the Śuṅga empire. In three separate registers this tympanum depicts caravans arriving at the city, and comprises figures riding or walking next to camels, horses, buffalos and elephants. Moreover, in each caravan are coaches pulled by animals. These coaches have several windows, each one framing the face of a person who looks out in anticipation. In the uppermost register to the left, the pilgrims stand above a coach carrying offerings to bring to the stūpa pictured to their fore.

Already by the 1st century BCE Mathura was an important religious centre as is evidenced by material remains and epigraphic records, and this evidence coupled with the iconography on the tympanum, suggests that the sacred monuments pictured here were drawing in (or were hoping to attract) worshippers from far and wide. The most salient point here, however, is that several of the travellers wear head coverings that wrap under the chin – strikingly similar in fact to those worn by the couple in the Gaṛhwa frieze. No doubt this is a practical clothing choice for what would be a very dusty journey.

Red sandstone tympanum from Mathura, c. 100 BCE. National Museum, New Delhi. Photo credit: author.
Screenshot 2020-08-31 at 12.26.09
Red sandstone tympanum from Mathura dating to circa 100 BCE. National Museum, New Delhi. Photo: L. Bachhofer, Early Indian Sculpture, Pl. 102.
Screenshot 2020-08-30 at 15.09.33
Here the characters wear the same type of head coverings as the pilgrims in the Gaṛhwa frieze. Photo: S.R. Quintanilla. History of Early Stone Sculpture at Mathura, ca. 150 BCE-100 CE (Leiden: Brill, 2007), fig. 231.
Screenshot 2020-08-31 at 12.23.57
Photo: Pramod Chandra in Quintanilla, fig. 23.

Since giving to a sattra was considered to increase the merit of the benefactor, it comes as no surprise that pilgrims would find it beneficial to make a stop at Gaṛhwa to donate to the inhabitants of the sattra, and to perform pūjā at the Viṣṇu temple.