The city of Sarnath, located in Uttar Pradesh in north-central India, was one of the major centers for the production of sculpture during the Gupta period, and it is the style of sculpture produced in this city during the last quarter of the fifth century that best exemplifies the art of the imperial Gupta period.
This architectural panel, which once decorated a brick temple, is a charming example of a terracotta in the 5th-century Gupta style. Terracotta, a coarse clay fired at a low temperature, makes for fragile sculptures. It was an important medium in Indian art for centuries, and examples have been preserved for some of India's earliest periods. This panel shows two lightly clothed men seated in conversation. Because of their clothing and the quivers they carry, these figures have tentatively been identified as the Hindu god Rama--a form of Vishnu--and his brother Lakshmana. Rama is the hero of the great Hindu epic poem Ramayana, which tells the story of the loss of Rama's throne, his exile from his kingdom Ayodhya, and his life in the woods with Lakshmana, his wife Sita, and the monkey-king Hanuman. Here Rama, who holds a bow, is shown slightly larger than Lakshmana.
The shape of this architectural panel and the style of the two figures suggest that they were made in or near the city of Bhitargaon, site of an early Hindu brick temple with terracotta decoration that is considered among the finest of its type. The three-quarter view used in this relief was also common in architectural panels from the city, and the cascading loops of hair, full lips, slightly bulging eyes, and distinctive long, flat earlobes have parallels in Bhitargaon art. The treatment of the eyes and the slight elongation of the torso and limbs distinguish sculptures produced in the area from those made at Sarnath and illustrate one variant within the classic style associated with the Gupta empire.