A continuity of Harappan-era religious and cultural beliefs



Much of what we know about history has come down to us through literature. Ancient Sumerian clay tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics became the main sources of information, once the script was deciphered. The literature left by empires, monarchs and common people has given us an understanding of how people lived in the past. We know the type of food they ate and the clothes they wore. Details became vivid in the late Middle Ages when printing became popular and the number of books increased dramatically.

But the story is complicated. We don’t always have the luxury of learning about the past by reading clay tablets or skimming through hieroglyphics. The case of the Sindhu Sarasvati Civilization (SSC) is one such complicated chapter in history. Discovered almost a hundred years ago, the SSC culture has yet to be fully understood by archaeologists and historians. The reason we know so little about the culture is due to the lack of any written records. Although there are seals, pottery and copper plates, which have symbols of the SSC script, it has not yet been deciphered. There are no bilingual texts to read and decipher. The cryptic texts discovered so far are too short to draw meaningful conclusions.

In the absence of significant texts or literature, historians examine circumstantial evidence to understand the story. In the case of SSC, circumstantial evidence comes in the form of seals and pottery. Painted pots, cups, jars and terracotta figurines from the Harappan period tell us a story, which needs to be heard and understood. Although the National Museum has a wonderful collection in its Harappan Gallery, most of the exhibits lack a proper introduction or narration.

In an effort to tell you the stories of Harappa jars and figurines, I interacted with Dr. Arvind Rautela, a research fellow at the National Museum in Delhi. In a free-wheeling conversation, Dr. Rautela reveals that many of the pots and figurines that have survived are actually toys. Very few people know this, but once informed, the Harappan Gallery miniature pots puzzle makes perfect sense. The little jars and lids we see on display are actually part of toy sets. Museum curators attempted to put together a complete kitchen set, including a hearth. Featured in the gallery, the hearth is a small cuboidal structure, which even has black soot marks on its interior walls. Perhaps an indicator that this was a functional kitchen set, used by children to cook mini meals.

Dr. Rautela points to the miniature mask (representing a human face) in the gallery as the next toy set. He explains that the small size (5 cm x 3 cm) of the mask clearly indicates its use as a toy. It was probably used by children to play with or as a prop in a puppet show. Besides masks with human faces, other masks depicting a combination of animal features have also been discovered. The set of holes on either side of the masks were for strings to attach to a puppet or other toy figures.

One of the most interesting figurine sets in the gallery is of women in different acts and poses. These figurines are depicted wearing headgear, ornate jewelry, such as a pregnant woman, infants, playing with a child, and bathing a child. These female figurines have been identified as the Mother Goddess by some historians. Dr. Rautela, however, has another guess. He believes that apart from their identification as Mother Goddess, these figurines could also have been works of art, representing the various acts that women engaged in at that time. This is a plausible hypothesis, especially since even today human terracotta figurines are made representing both men and women engaged in routine activities such as weaving, cooking, carrying water, etc. These figures may well have been a 5,000 year old version of the modern Barbie, engaged in various daily activities that she goes through.

In addition to cooking games and female figurines, the Harappan gallery also presents mechanical toys. These include working toy carts with miniature bulls, animals with moving heads attached to strings, and animals on wheels for kids to pull. All of this points to a highly evolved society, which had both the intention and the resources to engage in leisure activities and the development of crafts for recreation.

Besides the toy pots, functional pottery from Harappa also finds a large place in the gallery. Perforated jars, bowls, dining plates, stockpots and cooking pots have beautiful geometric designs painted in natural pigment. Some pots have floral designs while others have animals and human figures painted on them. Among the many pots on display, one of the most interesting displays is that of a funeral urn. Besides the beautiful animal figures painted on the pot, it is the interpretation of the painting that is important.

Dr Rautela believes the painting is a representation of the Hindu belief of the soul’s journey after death. The painting depicts a pair of swans taking flight, indicating the departure of the soul from the body. The next scene is of humans flanked on either side by two horned animals (probably cattle) with a ferocious dog attacking one of the animals. The pot scene is strikingly similar to the Hindu belief that upon death the soul must cross the Vaitarini (the mythical river between the land of the living and the land of the dead) to enter the underworld. For the crossing, the soul needs cattle. Once the soul has passed through, Sharvara, one of the watchdogs at Yama’s gates, attacks the soul. Yama then judges the deeds performed by the soul and assigns it a place in the cycle of rebirths.

Besides Dr. Rautela’s hypothesis on the link between Harappan internment practices and the Hindu belief system, an article by Dr. Amarendra Nath, former director of ASI, also attests to the link. In his article, Dr. Nath draws many parallels between Harappan burial practices and burial guidelines in various Vedic sources.

Although there is little information about Harappan culture, Harappa potties and toys have a story to tell. They tell us about the artistic spirit of the Harappans and their efforts to ensure that the children had enough toys. The burial urns show a very clear thread of continuous religious and cultural beliefs from Harappan times, down to modern times.

The writer is a business consultant by profession and a history buff by passion. He published a book on the history of ancient India called “Essays on Indic History”. The opinions expressed are personal.

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