Indus Valley

While the various relics of the Indus Valley cities and their untranslated script tell us nothing specific of the theatrical practices that must have been a part of daily life in such a developed and organized civilization, they do clearly indicate practices of imaginative representation in the experience of the people who fashioned them.

indus map

Fig. 1: Major sites of the Indus Valley

The term “Indus Valley Civilization” indicates a conglomerate of peoples and settlements that extended far from the Indus River Valley running  runs through what is now eastern Pakistan.  This civilization came into existence and faded away in overlapping layers over several millennia. Complex, organized economies had apparently formed in the northwest areas of the Indian subcontinent in the sixth and fifth millennia, BCE.

An “urban” phase of development among these related communities began in the third millennium, BCE, especially marked by innovations at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, two of the sites that are now central to Indus Valley studies. The first of these sites was the focus of intense archaeological research that began in the early twentieth century. Though not necessarily distinct for size and significance among other Indus Valley settlements, Harappa’s position as an archaeological starting point has made it important enough that the Indus Valley communities are sometimes referred to as “Harappan”. Mohenjo-daro, on the other hand, does distinguish itself from other communities with respect to size and significance, and has produced much of the most significant and intriguing archaeological material of the Indus Valley.

We should expect that, over the course of a couple thousand years during which the Indus Valley civilization flourished, Indus Valley art should exhibit a wide range of styles, and, in fact, it does.  The straightforward fact of stylistic diversity along the Indus River gives us some things to think about when we find ambiguous artifacts.

dancing girl

Fig. 2: "Dancing Girl" from Mohenjo-daro

Let’s compare a couple of the most important figures from the period.  First, the “Dancing Girl” bronze from Mahenjo-daro, c. 2000, BCE (Fig. 2).  The figure clearly comes from some artistic competence.  The unrealistic look of the figure indicates intentional stylization on the part of the artist, rather than from representational ineptitude.  Rather than a realistic portrait of an individual of the artist’s acquaintance, the figure gives us a creative amplification of humanity.

In contrast, consider the sandstone torso from Harappa, c. 2000, BCE (Fig. 3).  This object exhibits expert craft, and meticulous realism.  As impersonal as it might be, this piece indicates an artist’s realistic representation of human form from his or her own experience.  As examples of extremes, the “Dancing Girl” and the Harappan torso show us that artists in the Indus civilization both recreated what they actually saw in the world around them and also worked from their imaginations.

harappan torso

Fig. 3: Sandstone torso from Harappa

Among the theatrically interesting things that Harappa and Mohenjo-daro give us are a number of seals on which appear culturally important images. These seals are small, squared pieces of carved and polished steatite (a kind of soapstone), which their creators often hardened by firing. The seals seem to have been the possessions of the wealthy and empowered, and, thus, may have had an economic use or political significance. The shapes on the seals include bits of the un-deciphered Indus script along with the forms of people, animals, and plants, as well as combinations of the three.

One such image is Mohenjo-daro’s so-called “Proto-Shiva” seal (Fig 4), dating from between 2100 and 1700, BCE. One of several similar seals, this steatite block displays a human figure in a rather deliberate, seated posture, surrounded by various animals. Because of the resemblance of the person’s posture to later depictions of Shiva in yoga posture, some have speculated that this figure indicates an Indus Valley root of modern Hinduism.


Fig 4: Proto-Shiva Seal

More significant to a discussion of theatre is the figure’s apparel, which includes an elaborate headdress, some kind of upper-body costume, and either an artificial phallus or a real one. The facial features of the figure also seem to be highly stylized, indicating a mask, make-up, or an artist’s embellishment. Some scholars have even suggested that three faces are evident on the figure’s head: two in profile on either side of the figure’s central face.

The significance of the image of this Indus Valley yogi for Theatre studies depends on which of the two artistic styles represented by the Harappan torso and the “Dancing Girl” of Mohenjo-daro is at play here.  Did the maker of this seal give us a realistic representation of something that he or she had seen in the Indus environment?  Or did this artist give us an creative depiction of something only in his or her imagination?

If the former, then the proto-Shiva figure gives us a picture of an actual meditative or ritual practice, and some sense of how the costume for the practice looked.  The seal would, in this case, show us performative activity from the period that involves and intentional effort on the part of this performer to transform himself, representationally, by using a costume, a mask or make-up, and his own body, by putting it into an attitude of display.

We may see here the basic elements of theatrical performance that lend themselves towards effecting the transformation of something or someone into something else in the experience of an audience. Costume, setting, and action seem to be deliberately heightened, intensified, or stylized here so as to imbue the subject  with an identity he would not have, otherwise.

If the latter mode is in operation here, if the seal only shows us something that developed in an artist’s head, the seal doesn’t tell us much of anything, except, perhaps, since this figure recurs on several seals, that this figure played some role in the collective, Indus imagination.

Until the script on the seal is deciphered, we can only speculate as to the identity of this figure and/or its meaning. But the seal is relevant, nevertheless, to theatre for the transformative intent it indicates.

adoration seal

Fig. 5: "Divine Adoration" (source: Mark Kenoyer's

Similarly, the seal of “Divine Adoration” (Fig. 5), also recovered from Mohenjo-daro, gives us a rather dramatic scene of transformation. In the upper-left quarter we find two human-ish figures, one with arms lifted in an attitude of devotion with respect to the other, who stands within a floral form often identified with the pipal tree on account of the shape of its leaves. Along the bottom of the scene are seven human figures in line or procession.

If connected with anything in real-world practice, the scene represents a religious ceremony of some sort, perhaps even a sacrifice (note what seems to be a disembodied human head just to the left of the center of the scene). If this is a depiction of some activity the artist had actually seen, we can enumerate several theatrical elements that are explicit in this scene, including the the horned headdresses of the human-ish figures and their upper-body costumes, both of which resemble the Proto-Shiva’s transformative devices, the seemingly staged arrangement (and movement?) of the figures along the bottom of the scene, and the stylized postures that lend the scene its sense of ongoing action. For religious purposes or some other end, the scene suggests people who have gone to some lengths, some theatrical lengths, to make themselves into something else.

Given how much we don’t know about the Indus Valley people, we shouldn’t identify an absolute, genetic link between such seal images and later theatrical practices in South Asia (no more than with later religious practices). But theatrical devices and content comprise much of what we can recognize in these scenes.

mohenjo-daro mask

Fig. 6: Mohenjo-daro "Mask" (source: Mark Kenoyer's

Notable, also, are certain small, baked-clay icons that some scholars identify as masks. The Mohenjo-daro “mask” in Fig 6, although too small to be worn by a human performer (5.3 cm high), includes holes on either side to allow it to be worn as ornamentation, or, as some have suggested, to be used as attachments to puppets. A feline, terra cotta figurine from Harappa (Fig. 7) has a hole in its base into which a puppeteer could have fitted a stick.

Although conclusive evidence eludes us, we can hypothesize that theatre of some sort, or many sorts, occurred in Indus Valley communities. The images on seals and the apparent nature of figurines lend some credence to this hypothesis.

harappan puppet

Fig. 7: Harappan Puppet (source: Mark Kenoyer's


Further Reading

Susan L. Huntington and John C. Huntington, The Art of Ancient India. New York: Weatherhill, 1985.

Gregory L. Possehl, The Indus Civilization : A Contemporary Perspective. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2002.

Gregory L. Possehl, ed., Harappan Civilization: A Recent Perspective. New Delhi: Oxford, 1993.