A Glimpse at the Human Figurines of the Indus Valley Civilization - Jithin R. Veer

Seated Mother Goddess of Çatal Hüyük
c. 6000 B.C.
The Fall 2004 Module, "History of the Portrait," focused on the evolution of art, beginning from ancient drawings of animals, and sometimes humans, on cave walls, to figurine sculptures such as "fertility figures," and on to artwork during the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman eras, eventually leading to the more sophisticated portraiture of the Northern and Southern European Renaissance. I found the concept of human figurines to be very interesting because I did not expect figurines of the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic Eras to be ancestors of the Renaissance-era work of da Vinci, or Velasquez, or the predecessors of modern paintings from artists such as Picasso or Dali. The human figurines discussed in class were primarily "fertility figures" – figures paying homage to the fertility of the female and the virility of the male in the act of procreation -- originating from European, or "Western" cultures such as Mesopotamia, closer to the waters of the Mediterranean. Professor Bromley mentioned in class that Eastern European art of the Paleolithic through the Neolithic Eras focused more on this type of sculpture compared to portraiture. However, the use of human figurines is not exclusive to Western art; it extends to the art of Eastern Asian cultures as well. Human figures of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization in present-day Pakistan and India of South Asia exemplify the common use of human figurines as fertility figures, and also illustrate the roles of children, women, and men of Indus Valley culture. The Indus human figurines are somewhat similar in their purpose in society, but are differentiated from their Western counterparts in the figurines’ ornamental features.

During the Paleolithic and much of the Neolithic Eras, mankind was primarily living as a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, first using stones as tools. Humans needed to hunt animals for their sustenance; communal bonds between hunters and their families may have developed, but the need to settle permanently on the land was not justified. However, by the end of the Neolithic Era, a few civilizations such as Egypt and Mesopotamia in the West/Middle East, and the Indus Valley and China in the East, began to develop as people began to depend on each other for physical, psychological, and cultural means. Of these ancient civilizations, perhaps it is the Indus Valley Civilization that is most easily overlooked by modern researchers. Nevertheless, the Indus Valley Civilization was one of the most advanced settlements of its day. Situated along the banks of the Indus River moving inland from the Arabian Sea, the Indus Valley Civilization is thought to have extended for about 700 years, from around 2600 to 1900 BC. The Indus Valley Civilization was only brought to an end by a combination of attacks by Aryan neighbors to the west and a decline caused by an overextension of resources. The Indus Valley Civilization could be best described as a complex network of at least 1500 towns and cities spread over 680,000 sq. kilometers of land. The inhabitants of the Indus Valley are believed to have been dark-skinned, or Dravidian, most likely ancestors of the darker-skinned peoples of South India. A few of the most well-known Indus cities include Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. All cities were designed according to a master plan, and featured organized housing for the rulers, well-to-do, and the commoners. Most cities were constructed out of brick and featured communal areas such as "Great Baths," likely used for cultural/spiritual purposes. Cities were also advanced – in Mohenjo Daro, every house had a private well dug deep to provide water, along with public wells located outside for the general public and travelers. All cities also had an organized system to safely transport sewage waste away, and most houses had private bathing areas and latrines. While the language(s) of the Indus Valley have not yet been deciphered, evidence of written documents and inscriptions prove the presence of sophisticated communication in the Indus society. Art and cultural development was also important to the dwellers of the Indus Valley Civilization. The importance of art can be seen on ornamented seals belonging to rulers, to terra-cotta disposable drinking cups.

Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro
c. 2500 B.C.

Beaded necklace of the Indus Valley
c. 2,600 – 1,900 B.C.
  Jewelry was highly ornamented, and every man and woman wore at least one piece of jewelry. A few types of jewelry such as necklaces and bangles show direct lineage to the more ornamented necklaces and bangles of modern Indian jewelry.  

Terra-cotta figure with a headdress of flowers
c. 3000 B.C.

Human figurines were also found in the Indus Valley. Like other civilizations such as Mesopotamia which featured human figurines, the use of these figurines was to primarily celebrate childbirth and fertility in the female and virility for the male. It is presumed that the human figurines may have been involved in a cultural or ceremonial event. However, one reason why human figurines are often hard to find intact or in good condition in the Indus Valley is that the figurines were often given as toys to children after their ceremonial use and then likely discarded. This is in sharp contrast to Mesopotamia, where human figurines were often involved in the burial process. In addition, the figurines at the Indus Valley excavation sites were found to be primarily made out of the medium terra-cotta.
Figurines of children are a common find among the Indus figurines. Children were highly revered as they were the products of the successful act of procreation and childbirth. Due to complications in pregnancy, the mortality rate for women and children during childbirth was relatively high. Many children figurines are actually children nursing at the breasts of their mother. The position of the figurine is usually a nursing infant situated on the left hip, while leaving the mother’s right arm free to perform other tasks. This anatomical position is similar to the characteristic pose of Indian village women, nursing their young, today. Like other civilizations of the time, the children are depicted to be primarily male, perhaps showing a gender bias. However, the children figurines of the Indus Valley are markedly different than their counterparts in the West in their ornamentation. Children figurines of the Indus are usually shown nude, but their ornamentation often includes a necklace and a turban (males). This is culturally significant because both genders wore necklaces and the turban is a hairdressing still worn today by many Indian men. Other figurines of children include their toys as well. One common toy many children figurines have in their hand or are associated, is a small disc. These small discs are part of a game called "pittu." In this game, still played today in North India and Pakistan, a group of children stack up their discs and attempt to knock all of the discs down by throwing a ball. Other games include terra-cotta spinning tops and miniature objects such as musical instruments and cooking pans, meant to prepare children for an adult life.
"Figurines of women are perhaps the most plentiful of the figurines in Indus Valley. The reason for this is unknown, but it proposed that women were given a special place culturally in society, due to their ability to produce offspring. Indeed, studies of burial sites at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa have shown that a man was often buried with his wife’s family. The female figurines are easily distinguished by a curving, pear-shaped body with large protruding breasts. The effect of these female figurines is two-fold: it emphasizes the beauty, and phallic/ sexual nature of the female; but at the same time, cherishes the nurturing, motherly nature of the female. The figurines of the women tend to also be heavily ornamented. It is, therefore, easier to learn about the culture of the Indus Valley through these female figurines." (encarta.msn.com)

The head region of the figurines usually show a complex arrangement of hair and flowers and usually head ornaments, therefore showing a greater cultural interest in hair style, likely related to a particular ethnic community or family within the civilization. On many figurines seen today, parts of the headdresses have broken off. Clothing on women figurines include short skirts. Additional ornaments on the female figurines include belts, necklaces, and bangles. While males also wore these accessories, the female figurines demonstrate that the women most likely wore larger, more prominent necklaces, and a variety of many bangles on their arm. In reality, this jewelry was gold, bronze, agate, ivory, and semiprecious stones. However, in the figurines, they are simply outlined and sculpted onto the surface. Almost all figurines were crafted from terra-cotta, but a few sculptures towards the end of the Indus Valley Civilization have been cast of bronze. Modern bronze sculptures, especially prominent in Hindu India, seem to have originated from the human figurines of the Indus Valley.

Figurines of men are slightly harder to find in the Indus Valley excavations compared to those of females. Figurines of men tend to be more simplistic, and little can be told of their clothing or accessories they may have worn. This is because most male figurines are shown in the nude. The reason for this is not known, but could be because of the ceremonial purposes of the male figurine related to strength and virility. Because the male figurines were not considered to be as beautiful as the female figurines, many male figurines studied today are broken in half or have substantial parts missing. Nevertheless, it is possible to reconstruct the ornamental design of the male figurines and draw parallels to the Indus Valley society. For example, almost all male figurines have a turban, or similar style of headdress. Some male figurines which are intact with their arms may hold a spear, signaling strength and protection of the Indus from outside attack. Many adult male figurines have a projection on the chin for a beard, some closely combed, others combed out, and spread wide. Male figurines tend to have much less jewelry than the females; male jewelry in the Indus Valley figurines typically includes one necklace or one bangle on an arm. It is likely that the materials used to make these ornaments for men were different than the materials and styles used for the women, however it is difficult to make a distinction in the figurines themselves. However, males in higher socio-economic levels tended to have more ornaments; the famous "Priest-King" sculpture (right) of Mohenjo-Daro shows multiple pieces of jewelry, such as a bangle and a headband.

The human figurines of the Indus Valley Civilization reflect the common use of figurines in all cultures during this time period, to celebrate the act of procreation and childbirth. While celebrating fertility and virility may seem arcane in a modern context, producing children successfully was a crucial yet dangerous task for all members of society, in order to ensure survival of the family unit, civilization, and their culture. However, the human figurines of the Indus Valley Civilization are unique in that their figurines are more than objects celebrating procreation – the figurines also include details of the clothing, jewelry, hair styles, and toys that were integral to the Indus Valley Civilization. While much of the puzzles surrounding life in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China have been solved by extensive research, excavation, and a deciphering of their languages, modern society is only now beginning to unlock the stories behind one of the oldest civilizations of the world - the Indus Valley Civilization. Because the ancient languages of the Indus have not been deciphered yet, by studying the significance of these human figurines and other pieces of art, researchers can better understand the civilization that is arguably the birthplace of all modern cultures of the Indian subcontinent.

2200-1900 B.C.


"Indus Valley Civilization." Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Online. Internet. Online ed. 2004. <http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761556839/Indus_Valley_Civilization.html>
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Pulsipher, Lydia Mihelic, and Alex Pulsipher. World Regional Geography. 2nd ed. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 2003.
Kenoyer, Jonathan Mark. Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Bromley, David J. 17 Dec 2004. History of Portraiture - VCU Honors. 01 Nov 2004. <http://www.artviews.net>.

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