Pots & Vessels and the Philosophy of Plentitude

An ancient Indian perspective of humble utensils as overflowing receptacles of nature’s bounty.

Vessel (ca. 3000–2500 B.C.)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Historically, the Sanskrit word for pot, kumbh, means body. It has been profusely used in Indian literature and art- Interchangeably referring to the womb, bounty, earth, woman and plentitude.

Pot (lota) (18th century)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

The Modest 'Pot' as Manifestation of 'Mother'

The Amara Kosha [11.2.1], one of the earliest established lexicons of the Sanskrit language, states that a synonym for Earth is Kumbhini (she who is the pot).

The Kulu vase (1/99)British Museum

Spiritual Symbolisms

The main Advaita philosophical analogy of the relationship of the individual soul to the brahman (universe) is recounted through the relationship of air inside the pot to the air outside of it. Over the years, terracotta or metal pots have been used in several ritualistic ceremonies, where they are used to fulfill a specific purpose, such as being keepers of spirits or as proxies of divinity. 

Patachitra experimental Painting Patachitra experimental Painting by Akshaya Kumar Bariki, Sushanta Kumar Mohapatra, Narayan Pradhan and Mahindra MalikCrafts Museum


Purnaghata is Sanskrit for a full or brimming vessel and connotes sampannata or plentitude.

“The drink or food of the gods (soma, amrita, etc.) [is] always conceived as contained in or drunk from a special vessel…fashioned for the gods by Tvashtri. … and precisely such a full or brimming vessel (purnaghata) is the commonest of all Indian symbols of plenty.’ A.K. Coomaraswamy, Yaksas, vol II, p. 40, 1927

Reliquary box with lotus design (1st century) by UnknownArt Gallery of New South Wales

As Keepers of Mortal Remains

 The pot in Indian literature is referred to as a receptacle that holds life, spirits, and the dead; water, soma and amrita. The kumbha or kalasha, have had a tremendous significance in Vedic, Buddhist and Jain ritualism as not only symbols of wealth and fertility but also as a repository for mortal remains. Terracotta or metal pots were also used as keepers of spirits.

Bimaran Reliquary (1/99)British Museum


One of the earliest representations of the Buddha in a human form is featured in this small vessel for Buddhist relics. A masterpiece of Gandharan art, this reliquary is an exquisite example of gold metal work. The relief is divided into eight pointed chaitya arches resting on pillars, adorned with garnets. There are two frontal figures of Buddha, flanked by figures of Indra and Brahma.

What we see here is the bearded figure of an ascetic, believed to be Brahma, in a high chignon, carrying a water pot. The kamandalu in Brahma's left hand is understood to represent cosmic energy through which the Universe is created.

In Buddhism and Hinduism, water in a kamandalu symbolises the elixer of life, fertility and wealth.

Five Painted Clay Pots by UnknownOriginal Source: Private Collection

As Chroniclers of Ancient Civilisations

From the Early Vedic Age, utensils have played an integral role in everyday life. In the absence of any archaeological records, terracotta pots and bowls – humble survivors from the Indus Valley Civilization – are aiding historians to further their study of this ancient period.

Bowl with painted decoration Bowl with painted decoration (ca. early to mid-3rd millennium B.C.)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

From the Early Harappan period- an ovoid base clay pot with geometric brushwork

Ghara Lahore to Amritsar to DelhiThe Citizens Archive of Pakistan

An Embodiment of The Ideal

‘…that simple vessel [the lota / ghata] for everyday use, stands out as the greatest, the most beautiful…. it is balance, the center of gravity, when empty, when full, it is balance when rotated for pouring; It is sculpture as it fits the palm of the hand, the curve of the hip; It is sculpture as it as compliment to the rhythmic motion of walking or a static post at the well’ [Adapted from Charles and Ray Eames, 1958 whitepaper for the creation of the National Institute of Design.]

Pots and Lotas by UnknownOriginal Source: Design: The India Story

"Therefore, each pot is nothing less than a sculpture, with a naturalness and suppleness of form and a quality of timelessness. Historical references, spiritual claims, and artistic and literary manifests have all embodied varying, yet fundamentally similar, interpretations of these vessels."

“A finely shaped pot without any ornamentation, therefore, appears perfectly ornamental. In most traditional objects it is noticed that only that much ornamentation was applied as would not come in the way of its usage, so utensils were always imminently suitable for their various uses.”

- Jyotindra Jain

Indian Kitchen by Deidi von SchaewenOriginal Source: Deidi von Schaewen

Utensils In India

A plethora of utensils exist in Indian kitchens. Yet each is a sophisticated masterpiece of form and material, dedicated to performing specific functions. Historically, various types of material have survived side-by-side, influencing one and another, with new technology initially imitating pre-existing prototypes. While some hybrid elements would get absorbed, others would go extinct thus ensuring that only the most purposeful inventions of a time, would survive. [Photograph by Deidi Von Schaewen]

The Lota by UnknownOriginal Source: Design: The India Story


With a shape inspired from natural forms like gourds, melons, mangos, pumpkins, coconuts and lotus - the Lota embodies the essence of beauty and versatility through its absolute appropriateness to form and function.

Bronze ritual tripod and ewer (1000/1000)British Museum


The ingenuity of the Indian craftsman is particularly seen in the vast variety of spouted vessels.

A vessel was assigned a spout to control and temper the flow of liquid stored in it. The design of the spout varied depending on the purpose it was intended to serve. Spouts for water were narrow, whereas those for pouring viscous liquids like ghee were wider.

Spouted Vessels for ritualistic purposes, like the one featured here, were elevated on stands to keep them off the ground to avoid gathering dust.

Ritualistic Vessels by UnknownOriginal Source: Private Collection

While the earliest examples of spouted vessels can be seen in the Harappan remnants of terracotta spouts, it is during the Mughal period that the surahi - perhaps the most elegant versions of the spouted vessel - emerged for pouring sura (intoxicating drink).

Water Pots by Deidi von SchaewenOriginal Source: Deidi von Schaewen


The versatility and utility of water pots has survived through ages. The various shapes, designs and uses of the pot are rooted in the secular life of the Indian household. Earlier, every house had a set of three or four brass pots for fetching water from the well, river or pond. Each of the pots, depending on its size, was structured such that it could be balanced on the head, or hip of the carrier and be stackable on plain surfaces.

A multitude of Indian utensils are dedicated to performing specific functions, yet each is a sophisticated masterpiece of form and material. Historically, various types of material have survived side-by-side, influencing one and another, with new technology initially imitating pre-existing prototypes. While some hybrid elements would get absorbed, others would go extinct thus ensuring that only the most purposeful inventions of a time would survive.

Photograph by Deidi Von Schaewen

Pickle Jars by UnknownOriginal Source: From the collection of MoDE


The origin of these pickle jars, colloquially referred to as bharni's recounts the innate Indian genius to repurpose and re-use objects.

During the colonial period, the British imported earthen jars to transport sulphuric acid, nitric acid and other chemicals needed as manure on indigo, cotton and sugar plantations. These containers were standardised and stamped with indications of weight and capacity. Once emptied, they were cleaned and sold in the market. Antiseptic, sturdy and non-reactive to acids – Indians found these jars just right to store pickles!

Eventually, domestic demand grew such that it nurtured a separate market, with stoneware companies expanding their range beyond industrial products. This legacy lives on and manufacturers from Morbi and other ceramic clusters continue to produce these brown-and-white pickle jars.

Indian Storage Jars by Deidi von SchaewenOriginal Source: Deidi von Schaewen

Various types of storage jars in an urban Indian kitchen

Photograph by Deidi Von Schaewen

Tiffins by UnknownOriginal Source: From the collection of MoDE


The idea of transporting a house-holder's love in the form of home-cooked meals - still popular in India today - developed during the colonial period in India.

The design of tiffins was initially derived from lunch pails carried by British miners, with the intention of satisfying the practice of eating light, English luncheons, while at work.

The structure typically consisted of three to four stackable containers that were fastened by side-latches that also doubled up as handles. This allowed food to be stored without getting mixed, which became a big advantage in the Indian context and perhaps explains the continued existence of tiffins in all classes of society in India.

Dabbawala Tiffin by Deidi von SchaewenOriginal Source: Deidi von Schaewen

Tiffins today, are integral to industrial centers such as Mumbai, where Dabbawalas – Tiffin delivery men – create the link between home kitchens and office desks.

130 years on, their services are employed by more than two hundred thousand office-goers. The Harvard Business Review in 2010 gave them a Six Sigma rating, which means out of 80 million tiffins delivered annually, fewer than 300 of them went astray!

Until the majority of corporate India makes the switch to the concept of office canteens, Tiffins continue to serve the spirit of congregation and conversation over a loving, home-cooked meal.

Credits: Story

Read more about India's design objects on:
- Keeping it Cool, on thermal comfort;
- Beyond the throne, on elevated seating;
- On the trail - devices for safekeeping valuables;
- Transmitting hope, how electronics linked India.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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