The Village Gods of South India. Lord Ayanaar Shrines in Tamil Nadu.Grama Devatas. Terracotta, terracotta Arts and crafts, terracotta Art in Southern india . HARRY HOLTZMAN COLLECTION.




 In a letter of November 6 1966, the late  Art historian of South Asian art  Ms Stella Kramrisch (1896 Nikolsburg (now Mikulov), Czech Republic – 1993 Philadelphia, PA) , at that time  Curator of Indian Art of the Philadelphia Museum of Art asked and then obtained  some photographs from the late American Artists Mr  Harry Holtzman  ttp://  (1912 NYC – 1987 Lyme Ct) for her scheduled exhibition on traditionally Indian village Art “Unknown India Ritual Art in Tribe and Village”(Philadelphia Museum of Art 1968). (Source: Harry Holtzman paper, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven CT USA).





 Horses in a village sanctuary of Mariamman Polanalur (Namakkal), Harry Holtzman (New York 1912 – Lyme Ct 1987), edited as Cover of the  Catalogue “Unknown India Ritual Art in Tribe and Village”.   Courtesy Madalena Holtzman.


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 Village sanctuary of Ayanar under Banyan tree on a peninsula; Velankulattur (Paramagudi) this photo of Harry Holtzman was edited in the inside cover of the Unknown India Catalogue. Courtesy Madalena Holtzman.

Ms Stella  Kramrisch used this show,  her major exhibitions in the United States (1968) to break and   explore  new and unknown  ground,  introducing the art world  to  the Indian  folk and tribal  artistic traditions she valued as much as India’s courtly cultures, thinking  that  both aristocratic and common art objects were necessary to appreciate a culture’s artistic accomplishment.
 Still today the main emphasis of indian students is in the direction of literate culture, centered on court and temple. In my opinion in the living experiences of a  great part  of South Indian population this higher culture has played a secondary role because the cultivators of the soil, for example, have praticed a really different religion, which has few links with the gods and goddesses worshipped in the temple. From an immemorial time the cults of the soil is linked with unseen spirits which haunt groves, roks and ponds. To be clear, it’s not a question of general disbeliving in the deities of the higher religion … of course, sincretism is maybe the best definitin, the higher gods however are followed, but when trouble comes, it’s not to these higher gods that the people turn, they turn to the spirit which share their terrestrial environment. The religion of India looks like to involve preminently , using the words of John Irwin “… the notion of an immediate, haunting presence of the supernatural, which does not admit of any straight opposition of good and evil: the spirits can be either good or evil according to the treatment they receive. Hence, worship is not directed with a view to improve prospects of life hereafter; rather it’s directed to gain immediate temporal advantage, or to avert the malignity of the spirits…” (the late Mr John Irwin, keeper of Oriental Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and foremost authority on Indian Art, in the mid 70′ wrote this texte  for the Harry Holtzman photographs  exhibition “Village Gods of South India”, organized  by the Neuberger Museum on the Purchase campus of the State University of New York. )

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Detail of inside front cover.

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 Village sanctuary of Ayanar; Chettampatti (Tiruchirapalli). This photo was edited in the second plate of the catalogue. Courtesy Madalena Holtzman.

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Village shrine of Bhagavati Amman; Ganapathipalayan (Kodamudi). Courtesy Madalena Holtzman.

Follow an interesting writing  Mr Harry Holtzman   wrote  in the mid 70′ for the exhibition “Village Gods of South India” organized  by the Neuberger Museum on the Purchase campus of the State University of New York.


“I encountered the village gods of South India during my first trip there in the winter of 1957-1958. I was immediately astonished , delighted, amazed, perplexed. Altough I have never had pretense as an Indologist, at that time I thought had a reasonably complete acquaintance with the rich varieties of India’s marvels of religious sculptural form and monumental architecture, gleaned from a lifetime of art books and museums…”


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 Offering of votaries; village shrine of Mariamman; Tirripuyanam (Madura). Courtesy Madalena Holtzman.

“…The reason for my delight, amazement and astonishment are readly conveyed by the photographs in this exhibition (selected from hundreds), for the character, the styles, the sites are unlike anything else in India, or anything else I’ve seen in the world.
I was perplexed because the three sites I had found between Trichinopoly and Madura in that first trip were so extraordinary, so exciting, that I couldn’t believe what I was later to verify through foremost authorities in London and Paris: that the village gods (Grama Devatas) were virtually unknown except to a few theologians and anthropologists…” 

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 Shrine of Muniapan (showing images of the Seven Sisters); Vadugapalayam (Coimbatore). Courtesy Madalena Holtzman.

“…With this certitude, I was prepared to return to India during the winter of 1960-1961. I explored the regions south of Mysore, from Madras to Cape Comorin, which is the southernmost tip of India, north again to Cochin, to Coimbatore, to Madras, criss-crossing in depth three main areas. I regard this field trip as a pilot study. I discovered and photograped one hundred and thirty sites of this vital and incredibly fascinating expression. Dravidian in origin, antedating the great Hindu pantheon.
The worship of the village gods is considered the most ancient form of Indian religion, antedating the Aryan invasion, circa 1500 B.C. originating with the oldest inhabitants of the South, the Dravidians. These beliefs and customs are also common to other primitive culture. The world is peopled by a moltitude of spirits, good and bad, who are the cause of all unusual events, especially of disease and disasters. The object of their religion is to propitiate and appease these innumerable spirits. Each village is under the protection of some one spirit, its guardian deity. The problems of the universe are not the essential concern. These simple people look only for explanation of the facts and troubles of the precarious nature of village life…”

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Village shrine of Ayanar; Nallur (Tiruchirapalli). Courtesy Madalena Holtzman.


“…The village deities are  to be found in almost every town and village of Southern India. Altogether different from imposing traditions of Hinduism, as in the Brahmanical temples, the village gods may sometimes have only a very small building, platform of terra cotta miniature to house the main deity, which may often be represented by a few rough stones. Or indeed, as the exhibition shows, by extraordinary arrays and complexes of very small to giant figures. They symbolize the facts of village life. They relate not to great world forces but to cholera, small pox, diseases and disasters, the misfortune of daily life more intimately connected with the happiness and prosperity of the villagers. The clay sculptures (low temperature ceramics) vary in size from about five inches to as much as twenty feet in height. Each village has its own deities, and the sculptures themselves constitute the temples.Their arrangements are unique from a single figure to groups, clusters and long arrays; sometimes scores, sometimes hundreds; always in varying environments : in open spaces, upon platforms, in walled enclosures, on hills, under sacred trees, on the banks of reservois, along rivers, in mysterious wilds and dense  groves, never repeated in form or disposition. The newer images, recent propitiations to these demonic deities, are seen to possess brilliant colors…”


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 Temple of Irulansami; Manalur (Madura). Courtesy Madalena Holtzman.

 “…The old sculptures, washed by monsoons, are a rich terra-cotta red  against the lush, heavily satured greens, yellows and deep shadows of the deep tropics.
How old are the sculptures in these photos? From brand  new to perhaps 150 years old. Who makes them? Village potters and priest potters. Often made of unrefined clay and fired at relatively low temperatres, most tend to disintegrate rapidly in the extremes of heat, monsoons and high winds.” (Harry Holtzman Courtesy Madalena Holtzman). 


 The Grama Devatas represent still today an important key to understanding the basic model of thought of a  part of South Indian population, still living the village way of life. These particular forms of image and worship have further the extraordinary characteristic of representing the most ancient tradition of the earliest past brought into the present. From the religious art view point, the village shrines represent an outstanding expression of forms and sites unique to India. Mr Stephen Inglis in his writing “Night Riders: Massive Temple Figures of Rural Tamil Nadu”, about the terracotta horses of South Indian Shrines wrote that “… technically they are the most ambitiuous achievements in clay found in India and by any survey probably the largest hollow clay images to be created anywhere.”  


  Terracotta objects from the Collection of Mr Harry Holtzman. A wide group of these  items was exhibited for the first time in the Philadelphia exhibition of 1968 “Unknown India Ritual Art in Tribe and Village”. (Photo Madalena Holtzman, Courtesy Madalena Holtzman) Some pieces were also exhibited in the exhibition  ”From Indian Earth: 4000 Years of Terracotta Art” at Brooklyn Museum, about this exhibition read the interesting article of the New York Times  by John Russel (published February 23 1986)  “Art View: Ancient Sculptures tell of India’s life and legends” .



n.52: Votive horse and rider, Bhil Tribe Poshina, Sabarkanta, Gujarat Terra-cotta: 2′ 7″x 1’3″ x 7″.

n101 a,b Two circular Plaques representing Heads of Demons a: Shrine of Muniapan; Palladam, Coimbatore b: Shrine of Mariamman; Udamalpet, Coimbatore. Painted Terra-cotta diam. 9″ and 10″.

n102 Votive Horse Tindivanum Terra-cotta 2′,8″ x 9″

n103: Four votive Figures One each from Madura, Viralimalai, Tiruchirapalli and Pudukkottai, Terra-cotta; h: 1′,6″, 1′,5″, 11′,1/2″, 11″, respectively.



 n104: Crawling Figure, Madura Terra-cotta, h. 11 1/2 “,( photo Madalena Holtzman, Courtesy Madalena Holtzman) 



Crawling terra-cotta  figure from Madura frontal view detail.



Crawling terra-cotta  figure from Madura side view detail.

  n105: Heads of Heroes, Demons and Devotes, one each from Tiruchirapalli and Pudukottai, two each from Madura and Coimbatore, Terra-cotta, h. 9 1/2″, 8″, 7 3/4″,  6 3/4″, 9″ and 8″, respectively.

n106: Votive Bull Tiruchirapalli Terra-cotta, h. 1′ 1/2″

 n107: Head of Bull Madura, Terra-cotta, h. 5 3/4″ (photo Madalena Holtzman, courtesy Madalena Holtzman).

n108: Votive Horse Pudukottai Terra-cotta, h: 5 1/2 “

n109: Dog Pudukottai Terra-cotta; h: 11″

n110: Bird Coimbatore Terra-cotta; h: 8″

n111: Votive Plaque Wandiwash Terra-cotta, h: 1′


 Some original  slides of the exhibition are actually  in the Harry Holtzman paper at Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven CT USA).


Archeological Museum, Mathura, Uttar Pradesh

Mildred and W.G. Archer Collection

Asutosh Museum of Indian Art, University of Calcutta

Poonam Backliwal, New Delhi

Guruaday Museum – Bengal Bratachari Society.

C.L. Bharany, New Delhi

Bion A. Bowman, Boston Massachusetts

British Museum London

Pamela Bull, Villanova, Pennsylavania

Vittorio Cacciandra, Bombay (and Milan)

Promod Chandra, Chicago

Crafts Museum, New Delhi

Nirubhai Desai, Ahmedabad

Mr and Mrs Thomas C. Dove

Mrs J.L. Eastwick, Charlestown, Pennsylvania

Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachuttes

Arts and Crafts Museum, Gandhi Smriti, Bhavnagar (Gujarat)

Collection of Mr and Mrs James Greene

D.P. Ghosh, Calcutta

Government  Museum, Madras

Harry Holtzman, Lyme, Connecticut

Mrs. Pupul Jayakar, New Delhi

 Clifford R. Jones, Rochester, New York

J.J. Klejman, New York

Craig Makler, Philadelphia

Collection: Master Benjamin Marks, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Mr. and Mrs. Earl Morse, New York

Manu Narang, Bombay

National Museum, New Delhi

Collection Dorothy Norman, New York

Philadelphia Museum of Art Philadelphia

Courtesy Trustees of the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, Bombay

Rr O.W. Samson, London

Haku Shah, Ahmedabad

Robert M. Shapazian, Fresno California

Nalini and Haridas K. Swali

Mrs Srimati Tagore, Calcutta

Jennifer Turner, Philadelphia

John Turner, Philadelphia

Mrs Aruna Vasudey, New Delhi

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

William H. Wolff, New York.