Ideology and Religion

Wednesday, 09 July 2003

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An in-depth description, discussion and eventual synthesis of the Harappan Tradition.


Religion has for millennia been the excuse for ethnic differentiation and much violence. Second only to language, the religious activities of the Harappan Civilization have been the focus of much speculation. Did the Harappans have a single belief system or multiple religions? As in modern South Asia, was there an amalgam of religious beliefs? Did the religion of the Harappans spread to the other populations of the area? Were Harappan religious beliefs related to any modern religions? This final question primarily focuses on Vedic Hinduism.

Figurines were a popular artistic form of The female nude figurines so familiar from Harappan sites also seem to have originated at Mehrgarth. A large number of female figurines have been uncovered from all over the Female - nearly all- fan shaped headdress- narrow applied loincloth- breasts- no attempt at naturalism- larger than later nude goddess figurines- linking of doves is unwarranted- not doves- most with single necklace. Male terra-cotta figurines are all completely nude (Gordon and Gordon, 1940).

Figurines were not discovered in any recognizable ritualistic or specialized contexts (Dales, 1991). They were not found in the burials of any site (Dales, 1991). Female figurines were made as two vertical halves, each complete then joined (Dales, 1991). The arms applied later (Dales, 1991). This was the case only at Harappa, a single example was discovered at Mohenjodaro by Mackay (Dales, 1991).

An entity referred to variously as the Horned or Tree Deity has been recognizably represented in numerous and diverse contexts. It is typified by regalia consisting of a garment composed of leaves, pelts, hides, fleece or camouflage and a bovine mask (During Caspers, 1989; Srinivasan, 1984). The mask was horned with foliage between. Similar miters which signified the divine status of the wearer were represented in Akkadian art (Srinivasan, 1984). In some contexts, the Horned God is seen to be carrying a bow and arrow (During Caspers, 1989).

One type of representation was in the form of clay masks. They were human faced with bull ears and horns. The masks were made from molds and had two small holes on each side. Their small size, between four and seven and a half centimeters suggests a personal use. It is possible they were attached to clothing or as ornamentation. If they were utilized in large organized ritual contexts they would likely be used en masse. To this time, large numbers have not been uncovered.

The Horned God is represented in several mediums. Images have been discovered engraved on several small copper plates found at Harappa and Mohenjodaro (Marshall, 1931; McKay, 1937-38). (Marshall, 1931, III, Pl. CXVII, No. 16; Mckay, 1938, II, Pl. XCIII, No. 14) The motif is most well known from representations on steatite seals. It is further represented on faience and terra cotta sealing amulets (During Caspers, 1989). (Mackay, 1938, Pl. XCIV, 420, C, F; Mackay, 1938, Pl. LXXXVII, 222; and Makay, 1938, Pl. LXXXVII, 235). This representation is often thought to be an early version of the Lord Siva. This Proto-Siva often shown surrounded by animals. As a result, many scholars have compared the Horned Deity representation with Siva as (Pirassvita) or Lord of Beasts. The Pirassvita is a Hindu deity which protects domestic animals. At first look, the two representations seem similar but the Horned Deity, when animals are present, is depicted with wild beasts, the intellectual and emotional opposites of domesticate animals.

Some daises legs have hooves and two have fetlocks (During Caspers, 1989). Representations of the Horned God which do not have the headdress are assigned due to their similarity in posture and circumstance to several that wearing the horned miter. Two carvings have been discovered which may represent the Horned God. The first dates from the Mature Harappan Period and was discovered in the northern urban center of Kalibangan. It is a terra-cotta cake with the head and torso of a man with curved horn extending from its head (Possehl, 1999).

The second was etched on the surface of a flat irregular stone slab (48x27cm) discovered Phase 1b level (c. 2125 B.C.E. ) of Burzahom (Pande, 1971, Agrawal and Kusumgar, 1965). It is a representation of a man, woman, and a dog hunting a stag under a double sun. It was discovered as part of a rectangular structure in which the stone seems to have been reutilized with the inscribed surface facing the interior of the structure.

Several explanations have been made for these representations. realistic representation of hunt as sympathetic magic

Northwestern Neolithic Culture- hunter/gatherers

These representations may a non-Harappan minority group from northern fringes

perhaps sympathetic hunt magic- dance instead of yogic position

man headed animals- bearded- short stubby horns- many with holes drilled near base (Gordon and Gordon, 1940)




Funerary Practices

The use of shell bangles first appears at Neolithic Mehrgarh (Kenoyer, 1992). Shell bangles have been reported in nearly all localities of the Harappan Civilization. Bangles were manufactured from many different materials including: faience, terra cotta, bone, copper, and shell. Only bangles manufactured from shell are found in mortuary contexts (Kenoyer, 1992). They were placed almost exclusively on the left arms of middle aged women (33 to 55 years of age) (Kenoyer, 1992). Today in South Asia, objects of magical significance are not passed on to others (Kenoyer, 1998). bangles and jewelry in general represent the reproductive status of women and a change in bangles coincides with a change in status (Kenoyer, 1992).

The unicorn motif found on sealings and stamps. Its obvious male member and single horn has been interpreted as a phallic symbol of fertility (Dhavalikar and Atre, 1989). It has been variously identified as a bull or possibly a composite animal consisting of deer, antelope, goat, and cattle morphology (Dhavalikar and Atre, 1989). The unicorn is usually accompanied by an object of possible cultic significance. This cult object has been variously described as a fire alter, an incense burner, an ethnic standard or a strainer to purify Rig Vedic Soma (Marshall, 1931; Dhavalikar and Atre, 1989).

fire temple- Mohenjodaro- HR area, structure XXIII

Marshall 1931: III, Pl. XXXIX

Lothal- say fire alters in permanent form

Rao 1979: 11


Lal 1984

Some scholars feel that the unusual physical positions represented evidence for the practice of a yoga. A minimum of 16 such representations exist and appear to represent the same position (Possehl, 2002). All representations have been recovered from either Mohenjodaro or Harappa (2002). The question is can one validly posit such a ‘pose or ritual discipline’ and the necessary associate theory from such limited evidence. This ‘pose’ may be nothing more than an artistic stylization.

Some religious concepts have been posited which lack any supporting evidence. First is Shaktism which is a late concept of sexual dualism. It may be that this principle did exist, however, there is no artifactual evidence to support such a complex conclusion.

The ‘fire alter’ recovery and identification is an obsession of those who wish to see a direct decent of the Harappan Civilization as Aryan Vedic and thus of modern India as its ideological descendant.


The most significant similarity and nearly universal observation is that there is little coherent evidence of religion, in any form.

Possehl suggests a kind of ideological integration period, despite the diversity represented by the Harappan Civilization (2002). This would be a reasonable suggestion when both Old and New World examples are considered.



One of the most desperate needs of Harappan studies is the long term research project of a team of art historians.




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