The stone dancer of Harappa

New findings add intrigue to the impeccably crafted Indus Valley stone figurines found in excavations in Mohenjo Daro and Harrapa. Why were these stripped of their ornaments and what happened to their limbs?

Even though just a few statuettes have been found from the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, yet these statuettes are of exceptionally high quality. One of the greatest and most significant pieces of Harappan sculpture, the grey limestone torso of a dancer from Harappa is an admirable and a fascinating work of art.

Rai Bahadur Daya Ram Sahni, an archaeologist who supervised the excavation of the Indus valley at Harappa in 1921 and 1922, discovered a stone torso of a male dance figure that had been fractured. Curiously, this statuette does not appear in Sahni’s preliminary reports on the work carried out there, despite being an important example of Indus Valley art.

The Indian archaeologist and Sanskrit scholar, Pandit Madho Sarup Vats who served as the director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1950 to 1954, is renowned for his participation and supervision of the Mohenjo Daro excavations beginning in 1924. He noted that the artefact was discovered on Mound F in an Intermediate I stratum, which is the Great Granary area associated with Building IV on the central-aisle side of Harappa, around 150 metres north of where the red jasper torso was discovered. According to Vats, everything in this section of the site, may be securely attributed to the Mature Harappan.

This torso is 9.9 cm tall but the head, arms and legs are missing. Similar to the red jasper torso, there are openings for the arms and head, but the legs have been severed. As a dancer, his right leg is firmly planted, while his left leg is elevated in motion. The attractively twisted torso gives the impression of motion. There are holes at the back of the neck, which most likely served to secure hair, and also indicate that the face was almost directly facing the ground.

On closer inspection, the grey stone torso of the dancer lacks the authenticity of the red jasper torso, but it is still a believable depiction of a dancing figure. It should be considered as the pinnacle of Harappan art as it possesses life and motion. With the exception of the bronze dancing girl, it is more vibrant than anything from Mohenjo Daro.

Sir John Hubert Marshall, an English archaeologist who was the director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1928, supervised saw the excavations of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. While introducing the grey stone torso in his book (Mohenjo Daro and the Indus Valley Civilisation, I, 45-46) he comments as follows: “And now we come to two small statuettes which are more surprising even than the masterly engraving of the bull … When I first saw them I found it difficult to believe that they were prehistoric; they seemed to so completely upset all established ideas about early art. Modelling such as this was unknown in the ancient world up to the Hellenistic age of Greece … Now there was no stone obtainable at Harappa or anywhere near it. Whatever stone was needed there had to be brought great distances … Then, as to technique. In both statuettes, it will be observed, there are socket holes in the neck and shoulders for the attachment of head and arms, which were made in separate pieces; in both, moreover, the nipples of the breasts were made independently and fixed with cement. So far as I know, this technique is without parallel among sculptors of the historic period, whether of the Indo-Hellenistic or any other school. On the other hand it is also unexampled at Mohenjo Daro … It is the figure of a dancer standing on his right leg, with the body from the waist upwards bent well round to the left, both arms thrown out in the same direction, and the left leg raised high in front … Although its contours are soft and effeminate, the figure is that of a male, and it seems likely that it was ithyphallic, since the membrum virile was made in a separate piece. I infer, too, from the abnormal thickness of the neck, that the dancer was three-headed or at any rate three-faced, and I conjecture that he may represent the youthful S(h)iva Nataraja.”

Marshall’s reconstruction of the pose may not be too far off the mark, despite the lack of evidence for the position of the arms. Wheeler deemed the date of creation of this painting to be “controversial”, but he agreed with Marshall that there is an intriguing historical connection between it and the historical “Dancing Shiva” the youthful Shiva Nataraja.

Nataraja is a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva, known as the supreme cosmic dancer. His dance is known as the Tandava. The pose and artwork are described in a number of Hindu texts, including the Tevaram, Thiruvasagam in Tamil, and Anshumadbhed Agama and Uttarakamika Agama in Sanskrit and Grantha texts. The dance moorti [statue] is a well-known sculptural symbol in India and is commonly used as a symbol of Indian culture, in particular as one of the finest examples of Hindu art.

In this fascinating male dancing figure in which the head has been independently affixed with metal pegs, the arms and legs created as multiple pieces tied together, and the nipples are inlaid with some form of plaster. Additionally, the sandstone torso, initially featured inlaid nipples, shoulder discs, and a head attached separately. The sculpture’s technique differs from previously discovered red jasper male torsos from the same site.

The dancer exhibits subtle facets and striations lacking from the smoothly rounded torso outlines. It is doubtful that the same person created them.

Archaeologically, the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the two items are not entirely satisfying due to the absence of competent observation during the excavations. But it may look to other places for comparable evidence. Mohenjo Daro, the southernmost capital of the Harappan Empire, produced several stone sculptures in plausible archaeological contexts, the most famous of which is the Bearded Man. Here is an art tradition that is more hieratic, and more formal than the naturalism of the Harappan torso, but the use of inlay and metal must be noted. The trefoils on the robe, the bare right arm and the sockets for a metal (probably gold) collar can be seen at the base of the hair on each side behind the ears.

In a wonderful piece of steatite sculpture from the same site, a bull, metal ears, horns, and inlaid eyes are again plainly evident. This ornamentation of stone carving with inlay and metalwork is common in prehistoric Western Asia but not in early historic Indian sculpture. It, therefore, leans toward accepting the two Harappan statues as genuine examples of prehistoric Indian art from the first or second millennium BC.

The additional data supports this position. From Mohenjo Daro emerges a magnificent bronze figure of a girl, the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo Daro, whose body and limbs are modelled with similar sensitivity as Harappa sculptures. This bronze was discovered in an unremarkable archaeological context. Recent comparative research has demonstrated that it represents, in all details of hair-dressing and adornment, a sophisticated version of a female type known in numerous roughly schematised pottery figurines from prehistoric sites in Balochistan, where trade contacts with the Harappan civilisation are evident.

In addition to the naturalistic animal representations so brilliantly exemplified in the art of the seal, engravers are well represented. The available evidence suggests that around 2000 BCE, Punjab produced a naturalistic human sculpture that even anticipates certain later Indian modes.

In its sculpture, as in many other aspects, the distinctly Indian character of the Harappan culture, virtually undisturbed by contemporary Iran or Sumer, is evident. It is important to note a peculiar occurrence in the discovery of the two Harappan statuettes. The passageways of similar two-roomed cottages that made up the ‘coolie-lines’ of the day were located adjacent to large grain stores and indications of organised flour manufacturing in the city’s poorest section. A large trove of gold and gems was also discovered in the courtyard of one of the workers’ cottages in this neighbourhood. This appears to be loot from a burglary in the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods, or else how can the statuettes stripped of their metal ornaments, broken and discarded, be explained?

Even if the archaeology of early historic India is in its infancy, the archaeological technique can rescue at least one set of minor works of art from the domain of ludicrous speculations.

Colonel D. H. Gordon, a well-known soldier and a working archaeologist for many years in colonial India, collected, excavated and was published widely especially The Prehistoric Background of Indian Culture, 1960. His work has demonstrated that except for a prehistoric series belonging to or contemporaneous with the Harappan culture, the majority of human figurines of baked clay prevalent in Northern India and of such varying artistic merit, can be dated to the third century BC to the first two or three centuries AD. Also the extravagant claims for an Aryan origin for some figurines are wholly unfounded.

This new dating is based on the archaeological evidence of stratified sites such as Taxila. Once the major types in the stylistic series have been established, dating should proceed along logical lines.

Arshad Awan is a Lahore based educationist, brand strategist, historian and journalist. He can be reached at: All facts and information are the sole responsibility of the writer

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