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14 artefacts used in religious rituals and festivals, and what they mean

  • Artefacts
Nov 22, 2019

Every religious practice, across creed, culture and even era, has a tradition of artefacts used in ritual ceremony and prayer. Conduits between the worldly and the worshipped, these objects can be categorised by function: lighting, the dispersing of incense or smoke, receptacles for water or ash. Idols and figurines are sculpted to represent gods. Masks and puppets are used in religious storytelling while relics remind the pious of the sages who wore them.


Their religious significance may or may not be relevant to the individual collector but their historic and cultural value is timeless. Discerning collectors delight in the subtle nuances that mark the longevity and craftsmanship of these objects that carry the patinas of decades of devout handling.


Established in 1860, older than its venerable neighbours—the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and even Flora Fountain up the road—Phillips Antiques is one of India’s most respected, authentic sources of artefacts.

In the large windows of its gothic building, the curious passerby is often rewarded by a precious glimpse of an exotic caravan moving slowly over the years—maybe a large iron horse or wild wooden mask or a larger than life exemplar of the Tholu Bommalata leather puppet tradition of Andhra Pradesh.


The Issas, its fourth-generation owners, historians in their own right, are happy to share information even with those who walk in with nothing more than a genuine interest in this ‘living museum on sale’.


On the inside, the hustle of modern-day Mumbai is muted. Sitting under an elaborate nineteenth century chandelier that travelled from Italy by ship a century ago, the Issas introduce us to a special section of their stunning store – vintage artifacts of religious or ritualistic significance. 

Ash Box: Early 20th Century

Used to store vibhuti or bhasma (said to symbolise the mystic power of Shiva), this rare piece is a nandi with a lingam on top. The Nandi (white bull), Shiva’s vahaana (conveyance) symbolises dharma (moral and religious duty) and virility, fertility and strength. The lingam, an aniconic symbol of Shiva is meant to represent his three functions—creation, preservation and destruction.

Pair Of Chiragdhans

A conduit to the divine, the intersection between the corporeal and the cosmic, the lamp features as an element of worship in both domestic and public sacred spaces.


These, from the Deccan, are special. Their lotus flower tops resemble the Turkish Ottoman lamps’ tulip tops. While their features are typical of south Indian figurative oil lamps, their baluster shapes and ridged pillars suggest Deccani Muslim design. It is likely these beautiful lamps were lit in a Deccani Sufi shrine.

Panchadipa Lakshmi Lamp: Early 1920s


Reminiscent of the ‘dancing girl’ of Mohenjodaro, this epitome of ‘Dokra’ work (non-ferrous metal casting using the lost-wax method) showcases a process that is over 4,000 years old in India. From the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, Panchdipa the goddess of light, rides an elephant, a pitcher of oil on her head, bearing four lamps.

Gajalakshmi Lamp, Kerala

This finely cast lamp features a four-armed Gajalakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, seated on a lotus, flanked by elephants under an arch of interlocking hamsas (geese). The arches are supported by vyalis—mythical leonine beasts whose statues traditionally guard temple and sanctuary entrances in southern India.

The mother goddess and fertility motifs are common to Buddhist and Hindu iconography while the hamsas have deep mythological significance, revered by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.


Relics of a saint or mendicant or an inheritance from a generations-old puja tradition, the paduka is traditional to South Asia and South East Asia. The shapes vary as do the materials they’re made of, the most common being wood, ivory and even silver.


The story from The Ramayan of Bharat placing Lord Ram’s golden padukas on his head as he administered Kosala while Rama was in exile explains the reverence with which these slippers are treated.

Horse Utsav Murti

This brass horse was most likely used during festivals and processions honouring the god Khandoba (Shiva), a ‘fierce’ deity. Worshipped by farmers, shepherds, warriors and Brahmin communities, it is believed he married women of various castes to indicate the equality of all. Khandoba also has Muslim devotees who worship him as Ajmat Khan or Mallu Khan.  


Receptacle of the element of water, the shape of this brass jug is reminiscent of a botanical form that evolved several millennia ago, in India. Wide necked, broad at the centre and richly incised with patterns depicting flowers and birds, its ornateness distinguishes it from the big water pots still used to transport water in rural India today. In ritual it is used to lustrate large idols in temples, carried on the head at house warmings and used in havans and daily worship. A version of this, the ‘puna ghataka’ or vase of plenty, sits at the centre of the emblem of Andhra Pradesh.

Male And Female Votive Figures

Figures of men, women or children are part of the offerings made to Aiyanar a folk deity also known as Sastha or Saththan. Made by the Velar community of potters, these figures are found in sanctuaries in the forest or along village boundaries, as well as within the temples. They’re usually offered in thanks on the fulfilment of a petition, the birth of a child, cure from illness etc.


While the figures are decorated, the pupils of the eyes are not painted until they are offered at the temple.

Tiger Mask

Used to invoke and appease the tiger goddess, Odisha’s ‘bagh nritya’ dancers daub their bodies with yellow and black paint, wear a tail made of cloth, and a bell on one ankle and dance to the tattoo of drummers wearing these fierce masks. The Thankurani Yatra has idols taken on the streets, preceded by animal mask dancers—the bull, the horse and the tiger. The Baagh Naach is performed in districts of Odisha but is a dying tradition and the masks are increasingly rare to procure.

Aarti Lamp, Kerala

Versions of the aarti lamp, an integral part of the puja ceremony, exist across the country. This particular lamp is from Kerala. The recesses are meant to contain oil into which a cotton wick is immersed and lit at the time of the aarti.


The handle facilitates the moving of the lamp, warding off evil, during the prayers and devotions.

Nandi Temple Toy 

Typical of toys found in Maharashtra and Karnataka, this polychrome, wooden bull is embellished with painted trappings—a saddle, and head and neck ornamentation. This toy is reminiscent of the recumbent bulls you see in south India, placed opposite the main sanctuary facing the lingam.

Ritual Bell With Nandi Finial, Kerala

The ritual bell, usually of brass, is a significant part of religious practice. Held and rung with the left hand while offerings are made with the right, the ornament at the apex of the handle (the finial) is usually to signify in whose worship the bell must be used. Here, the sculpture of Nandi signifies that this bell is used to worship Shiva. (A bell used to worship Lord Vishnu may have a Garuda on it.)

Appliqué Kanduri Shrine Cloth

Heavy with imagery featuring elephants, birds and other motifs, in the centre of this cloth is the shrine of the Saint Salar Masud. Sacred to both Muslims and Hindus of the Bharaich district of Uttar Pradesh, the Afghan warrior saint is believed to cure people of polio and other problems of the legs. 


On the day of the saint’s anniversary, his flagstaff—a relic at the shrine—is honoured by pilgrims. Offerings of food and incense are made, including a preparation called khule ghore (frisky horses)—wheat balls, shaped like horses, dipped in syrup and then buried.


The kanduri or dastarkhwan cloths are used as tablecloths on which the rest of the food is served. This is why kanduris are usually stained or singed with incense.

Theyyam Footwear

The theyyam dance is a form of worship that is several millennia old. Dancers wear costumes, make-up and these heavy rings on their feet. Called chilambu or kalchilambu, the rings are usually made of silver and hollow, and have beads inside. The dancers add to the percussive elements of the ritual dance with the movements of their feet.

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