The National Museum is New Delhi is probably best known for its Harappan Gallery. The wonderful collections here grew out of the discoveries of pioneering excavations made during early 20th century, and later after the India’s independence 1947.
The Harappan civilization developed along the mighty Indus river, and for that reason it is also known as the Indus Valley Civilization. Most of the exhibits in this gallery come from important centers of the Harappan Civilization, ancient towns such as Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, Nal (now in present-day Pakistan), Lothal, Dholavira, Kalibangan and Rakhigarhi.
The Harappan civilization is one of the oldest world civilizations in the world, together with Egypt and Mesopotamia. This information board in the gallery compares their respective timelines, which is a useful point of reference to reinforce just how ancient (and incredibly important) the artifacts are in this gallery.
This blog post will not be a deep dive into the Indus Valley Civilization, I will save that for a time when I have visited some of the sites in India. I had started making such plans for early 2021, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that due to the current pandemic situation I’m likely to be spending a winter holed up in the UK, a prospect I am really not looking forward to !
So this blog post will showcase some of the artifacts on display in the Harappan Gallery, broadly grouped together in categories for which I will add a little context. The lighting in this gallery was incredibly dim which was a challenge for photographing the artifacts, so apologies in advance for the quality of the images.
As always, click on any of the images to view them in a larger format.
The existence of archaeological mounds at Harappa was first formally recorded by Charles Masson in 1842, in his Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afganistan and the Punjab. Here he noted that locals in the area talked of an ancient city extending “thirteen crosses” (approximately 25 miles), but little archaeological interest was attached to the site at the time.
Harappa was subsequently visited by General Alexander Cunningham in 1856, but he also failed to recognise or understand the true antiquity of the site. He revisited Harappa again in 1872 and discovered the first Harappan seal, which he incorrectly identified as having Brahmi script. Although the site continued to be visited for the next 40 years by numerous archaeologists, none of them were able to make sense of any of the discoveries, and the site was largely deemed as unimportant and not worthy of further exploration.
Further discoveries of the enigmatic Harappan seals were reported in 1912 by J.Fleet, which reignited interest in the site and resulted in Sir John Marshall performing larger scale excavations in 1921-22. His findings in conjunction with discoveries at Harappa by Shri Daya Ram Sahani in 1920, and at Mohenjo-daro by Shri Rakhal Das Banerjee in 1921, culminated in the official announcement of a new civilization having been discovered in south Asia in 1924.
Having touched, albeit briefly, on the history of the Indus Valley Civilization discovery, it’s time to focus on the artifacts of material culture from these sites which are housed in the National Museum.
The Indus Valley Civilization left us no written scriptures, and the archaeological excavations have yet to yield any solid evidence of a single temple. In their absence we only have imagery to fall back to regarding Indus religion, which in part comes from figurines and sculpture.
The earliest ceramic figurines discovered thus far come from Mehrgarh (now in present-day Pakistan), and date from 7000 B.C. Almost all of these depict the female form. Their exact purpose, be it religious or merely toys, remains an enigma. The context in which they were discovered does perhaps provide us with clues. Although they are frequently unearthed from rubbish deposits, these deposits are invariably within a household, and could suggest a more cult significance.
Perhaps the greatest evidence to suggest a more religious significance is their form, the female figurines are shown with broad hips, full breasts, prominent hairstyles or headdress, wearing jewelry, and often with a child in their arms. So perhaps these images are associated with fertility, a Mother Goddess ? Many of these figurines have smoke stains on them, which suggests they were worshipped in homes as cult objects.
One thing I find quite curious about these figurines is the crudeness of their modelling. Clearly this civilization was more than capable of producing finer works in ceramics, and yet all these figurines appear to have been put together in a hurry. As an archaeologist, this suggests to me that they were not “in use” for any significant period of time. Perhaps the rituals involved them being periodically removed from their place of worship, symbolically discarded, and replaced (or renewed) by another figurine.
Whilst the stone and ceramic figurines may be considered crude in nature, there are plenty of artifacts from the Indus Valley Civilization that demonstrate their creativity and technical skill. The most famous of these has to be a remarkable tiny bronze sculpture of a woman, known to the world as the ‘Dancing Girl’.
Dated to 2300-1750 B.C and standing at just 10.5cm tall, she was found by the British archaeologist Ernest Mackay at Mohenjo-daro during his 1926-27 excavations.
This bronze was made using the “lost wax” technique. She is depicted as naked, wearing a number of bangles and a necklace, and is shown in a natural standing position with one hand on her hip. She wears 25 bangles on her left arm and 4 bangles on her right arm, and some object was held in her left hand which has been lost. Her necklace has three large pendants, and her long hair is styled in a big bun that is resting on her shoulder. One intriguing stylistic element to this bronze is how both arms are unusually long.
In 1973, the British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler described artifact as his favourite statuette:
“She’s about fifteen years old I should think, not more, but she stands there with bangles all the way up her arm and nothing else on. A girl perfectly, for the moment, perfectly confident of herself and the world. There’s nothing like her, I think, in the world.”
Another famous sculpture is a red jasper torso of a male, which was discovered near a granary at Harappa by Shri Vats during his 1928-29 excavations.
Dated to 2200-1900 B.C. and standing at just 9.5cm tall, both legs, arms and the head are now missing, and even the genitals have been defaced. On each shoulder there is a tube drill, the function of which remains unknown but may have been for the fixing of garments or ornaments to the sculpture. The carving has an incredibly naturalistic feel to it, the muscle definition and flesh has been expertly fashioned. I have to confess that this piece looks like it has been distinctly influenced by Greek art, which was common in north-west India in the centuries after Alexander. I do wonder if this artifact was recovered from an archaeologically secure context.
To conclude the human figurine section is a mask, and a couple of wonderful figurines depicting yogic postures.
Many excavations at Indus Valley Civilization sites have yielded partly cylindrical or conical shapes of various sizes, fashioned out of sandstone, shell, alabaster, paste or ceramics. Although their specific use remains uncertain, most scholars agree that they symbolise the phallus (lingam) and represent a proto-shiva concept.
In addition to the human figurines, excavations have also unearthed a vast array of ceramic animal representations. These include bull, buffalo, elephant, dog, deer, monkey and birds. None of these representations are very naturalistic or artistic, so would again appear to be symbolic in nature.
Thousands of seals have been found so far from excavations at many different Indus Valley Civilization sites. It is thought they played an important role as the mode for transactions, highlighting a vibrant local and long distance trading network.
The seals are predominantly 2.5cm square, although cylindrical, rectangular and round-shaped seals also exist in the archaeological record. The fabrics are mostly steatite, but seals made from schist, limestone, wood, bone, ivory, metal and terracotta were also produced.
Usually the seals depict standing animals as the main motif, with about 60% showing what appears to be a unicorn. Other animals depicted include humped bulls, buffalo, antelopes, rhinoceros, tigers, elephants, and human figures with horns.
It is on these seals that we find the enigmatic Indus script, which has yet to be successfully deciphered. Many scholars have claimed to successfully crack the script, starting as early as 1925 when it was proposed to be based on the Sumerian language. But with about 5,000 examples of Indus text existing from recovered artifacts and the decades of research directed towards deciphering them, nobody has thus far come up with a compelling and accepted solution.
The Harappa and Mohenjo-daro sites account for 85% of Indus script discovered thus far. Of that sample, 60% are from seals, but frustratingly 40% of these are duplicate inscriptions. So the number and variety of Indus scripts are in fact quite limited, and deciphering is further hindered by the length of these scripts. Many consist of just a single character, the average length is less than four characters, and the longest has only 26 characters.
As is often the case at archaeological sites, pottery is the most tangible evidence of human occupation, and the Harappan settlements are no exception. The higher quality pottery is wheel-made, fine and sturdy, having a surface treatment of slip and often decorated in black.
The storage jars are big and heavy vessels, often decorated, and most likely used for the storage of grains and liquids such as oil.
Above Left – Burial Jar from cemetery H at Harappa, circa 2000 B.C. Note the use of the “Master of Animals” imagery again.
Above Right – Large storage jar from Chanhudaro, circa 2700 – 2000 B.C.
Some of the pottery has lovely geometric designs applied in black to the exterior (known as polychrome). Other examples incorporate the use of colour, with red/orange and yellow being the most commonly applied pigments (known as polychrome)
The Harappan pottery collection within the gallery also includes some perforated jars. These are long cylindrical vessels, pierced from the outside and slightly tapering towards a slightly out-curved rim. They were probably used as filters, with three or four jars placed inside one another with a large outer storage jar at the bottom. The perforated jars would have been filled with charcoal, sand or pebbles to filter the liquid a number of times before being collected in the storage jar at the bottom.
Toys and Games
The Harappan Gallery has a very small collection of artifacts that have been identified as toys. In particular is one figurine from Kalibangan, where an animal is shown with a moveable head, fixed to the body by a thread.
Other toys include miniature representations of carts and possibly ploughs, showing how perfuse trade and potentially agriculture was in the community. If anyone was to excavate my parents back garden in 4000 years time I’m sure they would unearth toy cars, busses, diggers and so forth. The survival of these ceramic toys is invaluable in giving us an insight into such activities, as their full-size counterparts are largely missing from the archaeological record.
There is also much evidence of games from the Indus Valley Sites. A large number of small carved stone objects have been identified as gamesmen, with evidence of gaming boards made on bricks or fired clay, and even dice. It’s highly likely some of these gamesmen were used in an early form of chess, which was perhaps a favourite pastime.
A wonderful example of bronze work comes from Daimabad, the southern-most archaeological site of the Indus Valley Civilization. It lies on the left bank of River Pravara, a tributary of Godavari River, in Maharashtra. The site was discovered by B. P. Bopardikar in 1958, and later excavated by teams of the Archaeological Survey of India. The site reveals that late Harappan civilization extended to Deccan plateau.
The most interesting discovery from this site was not from the archaeologists at all, but was made by the members of the Bhil community. They found four bronze artifacts; ‘Diamabad man’ (a sculpture of a chariot, pulled by two ox’s, driven by a man), a water buffalo, an elephant, and a rhinoceros.
The Diamabad man is one of the most interesting and intriguing objects ever found in the excavations of Indus Valley Civilization sites.
Jewellery, Weights and Measures
Bead-making was clearly a craft the Indus Valley Civilization excelled at. The variety of raw materials, techniques and styles used were unparalleled. The beads would have required a small cylindrical stone drill in order to perforate the semi-precious stones. Beads made from steatite, agate, carnelian, chalcedony, lapis lazuli, terracotta, shell, copper, silver and gold have been discovered.
Bead making factories have been found at Lothal and Chanudaro, with in-situ tools, furnaces, and beads in different stages of production.
The discovery of many cubical weights made from chert suggests a sophisticated economy, perhaps used for weighing precious stones, metals, perfumes and other highly valuable items. Recent excavations at Harappa discovered a very high concentration of weights just inside the city gateway, which may suggest that this was where goods coming into the city were weighed and taxed.
That concludes my short virtual tour of the impressive and sometimes enigmatic artifacts housed within the Harappan Gallery at the National Museum in Delhi.
By 2002, over 1,000 Mature Harappan cities and settlements had been reported across India and Pakistan, of which only a hundred have been excavated. I believe our understanding of this civilization is very much in its infancy, and as time progresses and archaeological techniques improve we will come to learn much more about the significance of these sites on a global stage.
I’m very much looking forward to a time when I can once again board a plane destined for India, and have the opportunity to explore these sites for myself.
If you are interested in what else the National Museum has to offer, please see my other blog posts on :
If you are planning on visiting this museum, I would suggest at least a full day is set aside and that you arrive early.
The National Museum opening times are usually :
Tue – Fri (10:00 AM to 6:00 PM)
Sat & Sun (10:00 AM to 8:00 PM)
(Closed on Mondays and National Holidays)
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