A society still silent and secreted beneath the earth of the Himalayas, the earliest civilization associated with Hindu/Indian art history is the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC). This society is dated approximately to 2600-1900 BC, and the sites of importance were Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Scholars have determined that the IVC did have a form of writing, but it is undecipherable—not unlike the Linear A script of the Minoans in modern day Crete. Therefore, much of what is known of this culture comes from archaeological investigations and historical examinations of their art.
Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, Sindh province, Pakistan, showing the Great Bath in the foreground. ( CC BY SA 1.0 )
Cultural Themes Found in the Art
Based on the finds of the region, common themes and iconography have been identified. Human figures are often depicted in yoga positions or dance, both associated with the religion of the period (a form of Hinduism) as well as leisure and spiritual health. It was also highly uncommon to find works of art without any jewelry adorning them; jewelry contributed highly to the IVC views of beauty. Naturalism is not yet a prominent feature of art; women are often depicted with slender bodies, large breasts, and elongated limbs, while men are either shown in a similar fashion (minus the large breasts) or with a swollen belly to emphasize the “breath of life”. Further, women are most often nude, while men wear a loincloth.
Indus Valley Architecture
Architecture during this period was predominately made out of fired brick (and occasionally mud brick). Some of the best surviving structures are the large public baths, made with corbelled vaults (wherein the stones are stacked inward to form a point) and fitted with drain pipes made from terracotta. It is uncertain if these baths were used for hygienic purposes or religious rituals.
Piece of red pottery from IVC. Harappa. Fragment of large vessel. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Art on Indus Valley Civilization Pottery
Pottery from this period was likely made on the wheel, and was painted like the pottery in ancient Greece. Much of the decoration was made of geometric shapes with a preference for vegetal and animal images, likely due to the high fertility of the region. (The IVC often flooded due to its location at the bottom of the Himalayas.) The pottery was red with black paint—however, they were not “black-figure”—and there was no empty space on the items. From the designs depicted on the pieces, it is believed that there was some form of afterlife worshipped by the people of the IVC. Further, much of the pottery was discovered buried, reiterating the idea of an afterlife by the implication that these pieces would be needed in another life.
Storage jar. C. 2700-2000 BC. Chanhudaro. Pakistan. Indus Civilization. National Museum, New Delhi ( Public Domain )
Unique Individual Stamp Seals Make Intriguing Art
Stamp seals are one of the most prominent works that survive. Another similarity between the ancient Minoans and the IVC are these seals, as it is believed they were used in lieu of a signature on official documents. No two seals are alike, and it is believed that the Minoan ones depict religious events. The ones at IVC are similarly believed to depict the ancient religion of the culture.
Indus valley seals with Bull, Elephant, and Rhinoceros, 2500–1900 BC. By MrABlair23. ( Public Domain )
One of particularly interesting examples depicts a “yogi” (a yoga master), seated with tigers, rhinoceroses, and elephants surrounding him. As the man has antlers on his head, bangles on his arms, and a necklace, scholars have ascertained this man is likely a god and thus that this seal indicates the ancient, supernatural roots of yoga. According to research by art historians, the people of this culture did not believe beauty existed if a person was not appropriately adorned.
Seal discovered during excavation of the Mohenjodaro archaeological site in the Indus Valley has drawn attention as a possible representation of a “yogi”. ( Public Domain )