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Arts of the Indus Valley


Dating to the era of late Neolithic art, the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) – also known as the Harappan Civilization – lasted from 3300 to 1300 BCE and included parts of Afghanistan, most of Pakistan and north-west India as far south as Rajkot. The most significant early civilization of the Indian sub-continent, it ranks alongside Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as source of ancient art, notably sculpture, seal carving and ancient pottery, as well as decorative crafts.

It is also noted for its urban planning, baked brick buildings and water supply systems, although archeologists have yet to find evidence of any monumental architecture, such as palaces or temples. IVC flourished in particular along the Indus River and its tributaries, extending to more than 1,056 cities and settlements with a total population of over five million. Among the key centres of Indus Valley culture were the settlements of Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Kot Diji and Mehrgarh. Excavations have revealed an extensive caravan trade with Central Asia to the north and Persia to the west, as well as links with both Egyptian art and Mesopotamian art, and possibly even with Minoan culture on Crete.

Harappan craftsmen developed numerous techniques in metalwork and jewellery. These are most evident in their goldsmithing and their bronze work.


The Indus Valley Civilization is probably best-known in the West for its bronze figurative sculpture – notably the famous slender-limbed statue known as the “Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro” (2500 BCE) – the extraordinary quality of which is comparable with Late Classical Greek Sculpture (c.400-323 BCE) and Hellenistic Greek Sculpture (c.323-27 BCE). No one has yet established how Indus sculptors managed to anticipate forms associated with Greek sculpture of classical antiquity.

In addition to bronzes, Indus culture produced a variety of stone sculpture and also red coloured terracotta sculpture, featuring images of dancing girls as well as animals like cows, bears, monkeys, and dogs, plus a number of unidentified hybrid animals and anthropomorphic figures, seen mostly on Harappan steatite seals.

Harappan Arts and Crafts

Indus Valley culture is also known for its decorative crafts, especially its jewellery art, featuring a range of beautiful glazed faience beads, necklaces, bangles, combs (kakai), and other ornaments and toiletry items.

Stone Statues

There exists several specimens of stone sculptures which were crafted during this civilization, of which two male statues deserves a special mention and consist of the statue of the ‘Bearded Man’ and ‘Human Torso’.  Another impressive stone sculpted statue is that of a naked human male, made in red stone. The arms and head of this idol have been created separately.

Terracotta Sculpture

Terracotta art was also practised by the people of Indus Valley. The figure of the Mother Goddess crafted in terracotta, discovered in Mohen-jo-Daro is one of the significant terracotta sculptures of this age. It consists of beautiful embellishments of the body and a punched nose, and reveals the concept of the Mother Goddess as a sign of prosperity and fertility.

Terracotta seals were also manufactured. These seals included the carvings of peepal leaves, female figurine with forms of deities and animals. All these definite & distinct shapes of stones or seals were enshrined and worshipped during that time by people of the civilization. Some of these seals also depicted a harp -like musical instrument, which confirm the presence of stringed musical instruments which were in use in this ancient civilization.

Animal Sculpture

Indus valley sculptures also emphasized more on civic life. So, animal sculptures were found their presence in every form of them. Animals like elephants occupied a special place in the life and artistic tradition of India, right from the Indus Valley Civilization to date. Elephants were depicted in the architectural sculpture.

At places like centuries-old temples, monasteries, forts and palaces, elephants were carved for making the ceremonial entrances. In most of the cases, sculptures of animals from Harappan civilization denote every minute detail; for example the bottom of the statue depicted the animal is in sitting position, but even though the hidden leg was originally indicated in the final appearance without its direct & visible denotation. And is numerous cases, the entire body of the animal is carved within a single unbroken outline & in single rock. In fact, the combination of closed outline balanced with broadly modelled masses and a minimum of incised detail can be said as the characteristic of animal sculpture from the Harappan-period.

Another animal found in Harappan civilization that is noted for the sculptural appearance is ‘Nandi’, the ‘vahana’ of Lord Shiva. The close association between Shiva and Nandi can be marked with the presence of a statue of Nandi at the gate of the ‘Garbha Griha’ of every temple that is dedicated to Shiva.

Bronze Casting

The Harappan artisans were dexterous in the sphere of bronze casting and employed the lost wax process while sculpting figurines, which implies coating the wax idols with clay.

The bronze statue of the ‘Dancing Girl’ belonging to Mohen-jo-Daro is notable. It depicts a female dancer whose one arm is covered with ivory or bone bangles and is adorned with necklaces. Braided hair, head slightly tilted back, flat nose and large eyes are the salient features of this work. Bronze figures of a humped bull and a buffalo are the other metal sculptures made during this period.


Terra-cotta Figures tell us something about how people dressed at about 3,000 BCE. Because clay survives over centuries archeologists are able to find statues of terracotta even today.

A terracotta figure representing the large sized mother goddess is one of the best preserved and comes from Mohenjodaro. The significance of the broad pan-like appendage on either side of the coiffure of the goddess is not easily understood. Since she is the bestower of fertility and prosperity, she was worshipped for this very purpose. The sculptor at Mohenjodaro was adept in his art and could fashion both realistically as well as stylistically.

The terracotta figure representing a bull is a forceful representation, eloquently proclaiming the special study of the anatomy of the animal by the modeller who fashioned the figure. The animal is shown standing with his head turned to the right and there is a cord around the neck.

The pair of squirrels is interesting in a very natural and characteristic fashion seated on their haunches and nibbling at some fruit.

The toy animal, with a moveable head from Mohenjodaro, belonging to the same period i.e. 2500 B.C., is one of the most interesting objects found during the excavation which shows how the children were kept amused and happy with toys that they could manipulate by moving their heads with the help of a string.


A large number of seals have been discovered in the excavations. They are made of steatite. terracotta and copper and are of various shapes and sizes. Generally they are rectangular, some are circular and few are cylindrical. Almost invariably they bear on them the representation of a human or an animal figure and have on top an inscription in pictographic script which has not been deciphered so far.

A fine example of an animal study shows a humped Brahmini bull of great strength and vigour. It is a great artistic achievement of that early date. The modelling of the fleshy part of the bull’s body is very realistically depicted.

There are small seals of intricate workmanship and of great artistic merit, astonishing examples of the artistic skill of the sculptors. Such exquisite works of art could not have come about overnight and clearly suggest a long previous tradition.

Seals were used to make a sealing, or positive imprint, like this modern resin one made from the original seal. Sealings were used in ancient times for trade. They would be made on ceramics or the clay tags used to seal the rope around bundles of goods.

Harrappan Pottery

The Harappan pottery is bright or dark red and uniformly sturdy and well baked. It consists chiefly of wheel made wares both plain and painted. The plain pottery is more common than the painted ware. The plain ware is usually of red clay with or without a fine red slip. The painted pottery is of red and black colours.

Several methods were used by people for the decoration of pottery. Geometrical patterns, circles, squares and triangles and figures of animals, birds, snakes or fish are frequent motifs found in Harappan pottery. Another favourite motive was tree pattern. Plants, trees and pipal leaves are found on pottery. A hunting scene showing two antelopes with the hunter is noticed on a pot shreds from the cemetery H.A jar found at Lothal depicts a scene in which two birds are seen perched on a tree each holding a fish in its beak.

Harappan people used different types of pottery such as glazed, polychrome, incised, perforated and knobbed. The glazed Harappan pottery is the earliest example of its kind in the ancient world. Polychrome pottery is rare and mainly comprised small vases decorated with geometric patterns mostly in red, black and green and less frequently in white and yellow. Incised ware is rare and the incised decoration was confined to the bases of the pans.

Perforated pottery has a large hole at the bottom and small holes all over the wall and was probably used for straining liquor. Knobbed pottery was ornamented on the outside with knobs. The Harappan pottery includes goblets, dishes, basins, flasks, narrow necked vases, cylindrical bottles, tumblers, corn measures, spouted vases and a special type of dish on a stand which was a offering stand or incense burner.

Harrappan Beads and Orbaments

The Harappans developed a very compact glassy faience that was produced in a variety of colors, ranging from white, to blue green, deep blue and even red-brown. The earliest beads were made from natural marine shells,bone and antler, and possibly ostrich egg shell. These date from the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods, from eight thousand to more than eleven thousand years ago. Stone beads are documented extensively throughout the subcontinent beginning’ in the Neolithic period (around 7000 B.C.E.) and continuing through later periods up to the present.

This collection of gold and agate ornaments includes objects found at both Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. At the top are fillets of hammered gold that would have been worn around the forehead. The other ornaments include bangles, chokers, long pendant necklaces, rings, earrings, conical hair ornaments, and broaches. Such ornaments were never buried with the dead, but were passed on from one generation to the next. These ornaments were hidden under the floors in the homes of wealthy merchants or goldsmiths.

Many of the terra cotta bangles were originally painted with black or red designs. Such ornaments are found in the thousands and may have been worn, broken and discarded much as glass bangles are used today throughout the subcontinent. Terracotta bangle fragments decorated with red trefoils outlined in white on a green ground from late Period 3C deposits. Fired steatite was an important material used in many different types of Indus jewelry. Steatite beads are found in all four necklaces in the center of this collection of jewelry from Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.

Ornaments including headbands, earrings, necklaces, pendants and bangles were made of various semiprecious stones, steatite, faience, shell, terracotta, copper and sometimes gold, showing technological sophistication in pyrotechnology and in metalworking. According to Professor J. M. Kenoyer, ornaments may have been visible symbols of status or rank indicated in part by the material used

The Harappans developed a very compact glassy faience that was produced in a variety of colors, ranging from white, to blue green, deep blue and even red-brown. On the left is a disc shaped ornament of blue green faience. Parallel ribbing of light blue green alternates with white paste in the bottom of each groove. This unique ornament may have been sewn onto cloth or inlaid onto a metal ornament. At the top center is a bead made of red-brown and white faience. This bead is possibly an imitation of the bleached carnelian eye beads. The fragments on the lower right are banded with dark blue and come from small jars, possibly used to hold perfume or medicines.

The small Late Harappan Period Pot yielded 133 beads and other decorative objects. Although left behind by a bead collector at almost 1700 BC, the wide variety of beads and other objects found inside the pot belong to all periods of Harappan occupation. In addition to carnelian and faience beads, which are the most numerous, the vessel contained a red-brown glass bead, the first of its kind from the subcontinent.

Long carnelian beads, sometimes more than 12 centimeters long, were a specialty of the Indus Civilization. These beads have been found as far away as the Arabian Gulf and Mesopotamia. Collections of beads were sometimes stored in small pots. One such collection of beads and other objects from several periods was found in a small pot inside a room at Harappa dating to circa 1800 B.C. This collection may represent the effort of someone to collect beads that had been lost in earlier periods or passed down by previous generations.

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