This little statuette is the best known work of art from the Indus Valley civilization, which was, with Egypt and Mesopotamia, one of the great seminal civilizations of the fourth to second millennia BC. The antecedents of the Indus valley culture go back to about 7000 BC. The high civilization began around 3300 BC, and reached its height during the period of 2500 to 1700 BC. Mohenjo-daro, one of the two great cities of the Indus Valley, was destroyed in an invasion circa 1500 BC, but vestiges lingered perhaps as late as 600 BC. Mohenjo-daro is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Of the three contemporary river valley civilizations; Egypt (Nile Valley), Mesopotamia (Tigris – Euphrates Valleys), and the Indus Valley, the Indus had the greatest geographical extent. It was also the last to be known to modern historians, having been discovered in 1921 near Harappa, Pakistan. It became apparent that the ancient Indus Valley people were masters of technical skills such as city planning, construction, and drainage. They are believed to have spoken a Dravidian language, and may have had a religion similar to Jainism. They had a system of writing, but we are not able to read it. It is peculiar that there was a form of writing on Easter Island that used characters very similar to some of the Indus characters. Easter Island is near the antipode, the farthest point on earth, from Pakistan.
The Dancing Girl figurine was found in the ruins of a house in Moheno-daro by archaeologist Ernest MacKay in 1926. It is estimated that it was made circa 2300 – 1750 BC. We don’t know if she was really a dancer, but her long limbs and graceful pose seem to indicate a dancer or acrobat. There is a reason that many of the best gymnasts and dancers are young girls. Females have narrower shoulders and wider hips than males. This gives them a lower center of gravity, and therefore better balance than males. Young girls, before their breasts are fully developed, have better balance than women with larger breasts.
The bronze figure is 4.1 inches tall now that the feet have been broken off and lost. It was cast by the lost wax method. The Indus Valley art that survives consists mostly of terra cotta figurines and carved stone seals. Dancing Girl is noted for the serene, perhaps arrogant facial expression. Her right arm is bent, and her left hand rests on her leg. She appears to be resting after a performance. The posture is like that of a figure on a pottery fragment from Bhirrana, in the Indus Valley region of India, dated to about 4000 to 3000 BC. Originally, something was held in Dancing Girl ‘s left hand. My guess would be that it was a stick with a ribbon like those used in rhythmic gymnastic performances.
Dancing Girl has been said to resemble the modern Baluchi people of Pakistan. One archaeologist wrote that her face resembles an African. Why more bracelets on one arm than other? There are twenty-four bracelets on the left arm, and four on right. People have speculated about whether her dance was for a religious ceremony or merely for entertainment, but we have no way of knowing.
When Dancing Girl was discovered in 1926, India, Pakistan, and several other countries in the area were part of Britain’s Indian Empire. The statuette is now on display in the National Museum in New Delhi, India. Pakistan claims ownership, and has asked for it to be returned.
Thank you very much for your interesting and well researched comment, Patricia! I’m glad that you like the post.
I have found some interesting analyzes concerning this work of art.
In his monumental monograph “Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilization” (1931) John Hubert Marshall, the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, included a following description of this statuette in a broader context of the history of dresses in Mohenjo-daro: “In a city as cosmopolitan as Mohenjo-daro, with elements in its population drawn from at least four different races, the dress of the people was probably as varied as their personal appearance, but unfortunately our evidence on the subject is at present very scanty. (…) The two statues (…) show us a male figure wearing a long shawl, which was drawn over the left shoulder and under the right, so as to leave the right arm free, and, in the latter case at any rate, was ample enough to cover the seated figure down to its feet. Whether a tunic of any sort or a loin-cloth was worn beneath this shawl, there is as yet no evidence to show. Some of the terra-cotta figurines also represent males who are completely nude save for their head-dresses and ornaments (…); but it would not, I think, be safe to infer from them that it was customary for men of the poor or any other class to go nude ; for it is not unlikely that these particular terra-cottas may represent male deities, and in that case they may be perpetuating a practice of some bygone age, which had long since been discarded. The same observation applies, and still more forcibly, to the female figurines of clay, which, with the exception of such genre subjects (…), and of the ex-votos of pregnant women (…) are undoubtedly representations of the Mother Goddess, and wear nothing more in the way of apparel than a band about the loins — a band which, we may suppose, was generally made of cotton (…), but sometimes of wool and was sometimes not unlike the Sumerian kaunakes. The bronze figure of a nude girl (…) is in a different category; for here we clearly have a dancer or nautch girl of aboriginal Stock represented, and we may reasonably infer that girls of this class were accustomed to wear nothing more than their ornaments when dancing, though it would be rash to suppose that they ordinarily went naked.”
Contemporary British archaeologist Dr. Sharri Clark in her paper “Representing the Indus Body: Sex, Gender, Sexuality, and the Anthropomorphic Terracotta Figurines from Harappa” (Asian Perspectives, Vol. 42, No. 2, 2003, pp. 304-328) writes: “At Harappa, the physiological attributes that distinguish female figurines are conical breasts(without distinct nipples), although not all figurines that may represent females have breasts. At least 94 percent of the female figurines from Harappa have breasts. Genitalia are rarely depicted in representations of females in Indus art, with the bronze “dancing girl” from Mohenjo-daro providing a rare exception. Most Indus female figurines wear a belt or a short skirt that covers the pubic area.”
Finally, German indologist Dr. Georg Feuerstein in his book “Sacred Sexuality: The Erotic Spirit in the World’s Great Religions” (2003) noticed: “Prostitution in India dates back to the time of the Indus civilization. A well-known bronze statuette known as Dancing Girl seems to represent a prostitute. She is naked, with her vagina clearly visible, and stands provocatively with one hand resting on her hip. It is almost certain that prostitutes were associated with the great temples in the cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, here the Goddess was worshiped.”
Indeed, the nakedness of the girl contrasted with the generally clothed figurines of the same period might indicate her profession. In many cultures dancers usually performed wearing next to nothing, like in ancient Egypt (see also https://pigtailsinpaint.org/2018/12/girls-in-the-art-of-egypts-new-kingdom/). But even in that case, the sculptures did not show the genitals explicitly. In case of the girl of Mohenjo-daro not only the full nudity is evident, but also her vulva is shown in an explicit way, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination. Nobody can be sure, but also Feuerstein’s interpretation is plausible. In these times underage prostitution was not considered a crime, while the sacred prostitution was quite common. Again, it is only a supposition.
It would be wrong to describe the dancing girl as a prostitute. There is a long standing tradition on the sub-continent of the Devadasi, or servant of god (or Devidasi, servant of the goddess). These girls would participate in the rituals of local temples, which, prior to the rule of the patriarchal Indo-European migration, included sex as a form of worship. The devadasi also performed temple dances and the modern, highly sanitised classical dance tradition of Bharatanatyam stems from these dances. Prior to the Muslim era, Indians wore very little and this is in evidence in the many frescoes and statues from the era. The most common form of covering was a single piece of cloth arranged in a variety of ways.
I agree with you that you cannot look at the Dancing Girl with contemporary eyes. I have absolutely no idea why you even highlighted that, saying “Prior to the Muslim era…”; it is so obvious. But you also should remember, that the first known mention of a Devadasi (which is a Sanskrit word) refers to Hindu society during the time of the Buddha, so around 5th century BCE. The artifact, however, dates back to 2300–1750 BCE; it was created at least 1200 years before the custom began. Mohenjo-daro was a city of Indus Valley civilization, which had little to do with the Hindu society of the times of Buddha. This Bronze Age civilization had different customs, a different religious system and perhaps a different language. There is absolutely no proof that the Dancing Girl can be regarded as a Devadasi/Devidasi. There is no proof that she was a prostitute as well, but we cannot absolutely exclude that. The only way to interpret this work of art is to compare it to contemporary figurines, as the researchers whom I cited did. For example, Dr. Clark noted that “Genitalia are rarely depicted in representations of females in Indus art, with the bronze “dancing girl” from Mohenjo-daro providing a rare exception.” I guess it tells us something fundamental, even considering that in general the people of this civilization wore very little.