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Gift For A God

Denis Finnin/AMNH

Terra cotta horse figure, Pondicherry, India, 2007, by Shri. V. K. Munusamy. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ranobir Roychowdhury.

In India, riding a horse was once an honor enjoyed only by foreign conquerors or rulers with fabulous wealth. Over the centuries, the horse has become a symbol of nobility and power.

Even in southern India, where living horses are rarely seen, images of horses are presented to gods as sacred offerings. Hundreds of horses shaped of clay or cement can be found at temples in rural Tamil Nadu. The people who made these majestic statues may travel on foot, but the gods will ride.

Terra Cotta Horse

In the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, village potters create horse figures as offerings to Aiyanar and other local gods, who are said to patrol village borders and protect people from harm. Many village shrines contain hundreds of these votive horses, some standing more than 16 feet (5 meters) tall. This horse is trimmed with garlands, like the stone horses in grand Indian temples. The face on its chest is Yalli, a spirit who protects Aiyanar.

An Ancient Art

When Tamil potters make a large terra cotta horse, they start with a handful of earth from the floor of a shrine, then build the figure and fire it there. Today, temple horses are also made out of plaster or cement.

Royal Sacrifice

In the Vedic religion that flourished in northern India some 3,000 years ago, kings held a ritual involving the sacrifice of a horse. This illustration from the Hindu epic known as the Ramayana shows a scene from the ceremony: the king's favorite wife slays a stallion and then lies next to the corpse.

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