The Indus Valley civilization was rediscovered in
1920-21 when engraved seals were unearthed in the
Punjab province of Pakistan at a site called Harappa,
a name which is often used to describe the
civilization as a whole. Subsequent excavations at
Harappa revealed the size and complexity of this
ancient city. Other sites were unearthed as well along
the banks of the Indus River, including the equally
large city of Mohenjodaro. Through archaeological and
historical research, we can now say for certain that a
highly developed urban civilization flourished in the
Indian subcontinent over five thousand years ago.
Though the Indus Valley script remains undeciphered,
the numerous seals, statuary, and pottery discovered
during excavations, not to mention the urban ruins,
have enabled scholars to construct a reasonably
plausible account of the Indus Valley civilization.
Some kind of centralized state, and certainly fairly
extensive town planning, is suggested by the layout of
the great cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. The same
kind of burnt brick appears to have been used in the
construction of buildings in cities that were several
hundred miles apart. The weights and measures also
show a very considerable regularity, suggesting that
these disparate cities spread out across a vast desert
shared a common culture. The Indus Valley people
domesticated animals, and harvested various crops,
such as cotton, sesame, peas, barley, and cotton.
Indus Valley seals have been excavated in far away
cities such as Sumer, suggesting that a wealthy
merchant class existed, engaged in extensive trading
throughout the subcontinent and the Near East.
Considering the size of this civilization, it is
puzzling that no monumental art remains, glorifying
the names of the powerful rulers or wealthy merchants
who could have afforded to construct such memorials.
Instead, we find an emphasis on small, elegant art and
sophisticated craft technology. Three-dimensional
representations of living beings in the Harappan world
are confined to, with a few exceptions, small
terracotta figurings. Ranging in size from a few
inches to a foot in height, the anthropomorphic and
animal terracotta figurines from Harappa and other
Indus Civilization sites offer a rich reflection of
Harappan life in the Bronze Age. Traditionally, the
terracotta figurines have been described as toys.
Other objects such as carts, wheels, and cots
discovered alongside the figurines has only reinforced
this notion. However, whether these figures were idols
meant to be worshipped or merely charming
representations of daily life meant to entertain
children remains debatable.
Other than the archaeological ruins of Harappa and
Mohenjodaro, these seals provide the most detailed
clues about the character of the Indus Valley people.
Bulls and elephants appear on these seals, but the
horned bull, most scholars agree, should not be taken
to be congruent with Nandi, for the horned bull
appears in numerous Central Asian figures as well. The
women portrayed on the seals are shown with elaborate
coiffures, sporting heavy jewelry, suggesting that the
Indus Valley people were an urbane people with
cultivated tastes and a refined aesthetic sensibility.
A few thousand seals have been discovered in Indus
Valley cities, showing some 400 pictographs: too few
in number for the language to have been ideographic,
and too many for the language to have been phonetic.
The Zebu bull, an ox with a prominent hump that had
been domesticated in the east since the earliest days
of history, represents power, strength and nobility.
In particular, the humped bull has been a prominent
theme in the pottery and decorative arts of the Indus
Valley civilization. The Zebu bull, the leader of the
herd, the protector and procreator of the species,
likely symbolizes a powerful clan or top official from
Harappa or Mohenjodaro. Valued for its milk, its
flesh and its hide, the bull was considered to be one
of the sacrificial offerings most pleasing to the
gods. A sculpture like this one may have once stood
in an ancient temple as a substitute for the real
creature. This particular terracotta sculpture of a
bull bears a strong resemblance to similar
representations of Zebu bulls from the ancient Near
East. Perhaps these ancient cultures once shared
similar beliefs. The head of the bull is emphasized;
the horns are wide and prominent. The creatures legs
are thick and sturdy. The pointed hump emerges from
the back. Dashed lines created by lightly poking the
wet clay with a stylus divide the bull’s body and head
into various segments.
For a discussion on zoomorphic figurines see:
J-F. Jarrige, Les Cites Oubliees de l'Indus, Guimet Museum, 1988.