The Dancing Girl Gets a Name

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The Dancing Girl Gets a Name

Forget history, Shiva, Parvati must coexist!                             

The Dancing Girl Gets a Name

By Meha Mathur

A 4,500-year-old youthful girl covering both her arms with bangles  and styling her hair quite ornately, but standing nude and provocatively, has mesmerized and puzzled historians and archaeologists for about a century now, almost like Mona Lisa’s smile has become a subject of countless guesses.

This is what historian John Keay has to say about her in his work India: A History:

Naked save for a chunky necklace and an assortment of bangles, this minuscule statuette is not of the usual sex symbol, full of breast and wide of hip, but of a slender nymphet happily flaunting her puberty with delightful insouciance…. Decidedly she wants to be admired; and she might be gratified to know that, four thousand years later, she still is.”

AL Basham, in his book The Wonder That Was India, writes: “Naked but for a necklace and a series of bangles almost covering one arm, her hair dressed in a complicated coiffure, standing in a provocative posture, with one arm on her hip and one lanky leg half bent, this young woman has an air of lively pertness, quite unlike anything in the work of ancient civilizations.”

The bronze figurine with rather long arms was found from a small house in Mohenjo-Daro during the 1926-27 excavations, informs historian Upinder Singh, head of the history department at the University of Delhi, in her book A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India. It’s 10.8 cm in height.

The technique used was lost wax method, wherein a wax model was made, covered with clay coating with a few holes, and then heated. Once the wax flowed out of the holes, molten bronze was poured in. Once the bronze had cooled, the clay coating was removed and final finishing given.

With her right hand resting on the hip and left arm on the thigh, was it a dance pose, as John Marshall supposed, when he gave her the famous title of “Dancing Girl”? Or was this just a casual pose of a young lady, a mocking one at that. Or was she just any other next-door girl?

With the Indian Council for Historical Research now keen to push the antiquity of Vedic culture, this nymph has got a new identity: Parvati, the consort of Shiva. In a paper titled Vedic Sabhyata Ka Puratatva (Archaeology of Vedic Civilisation) in the ICHR journal Itihaas, historian Thakur Prasad Verma has given the logic that if there is Shiva worship in the Indus culture, there must be the cult of Shakti too. In Hindu mythology, Parvati is also called Shakti.

The premise of Shiva worship rests on the discovery of a seal at Mohanjodaro in which a figure, sitting in a meditative posture, is surrounded by animals, and historians have called the figure “Shiva prototype”. In Hindu mythology, Shiva dwelled among wild animals. Then, there is the seal depicting a humped bull, which is considered the prototype of Nandi bull. And there is a torso of a male wearing a ribbon head band and donning a shawl with the pattern of trefoil leaves. The figure has a priest-like demeanour, and half-closed meditative eyes. To Verma, the trefoil pattern on his shawl suggests him being a follower of a Hindu God, as these leaves are offered to Shiva today.

Surely, it can’t be denied that the influences and beliefs of the Indus Valley culture would have persisted even after its decline. And whatever might have been the fate of the Indus Valley civilisation—attacks by outsiders, floods or a slow decline due to environmental degradation—the people who would have migrated eastwards or southwards into the subcontinent from the urban settlements would have carried their beliefs, culture, thoughts and skills with them. History, after all, is about movements, assimilation and continuum—be it absorption of technology, attire, food, art, culture and thought.

But to interpret a playful dancing figurine as a divinity without any shard of evidence is absurd. Why, for that matter, should we understand any other object in the context of religion, asks historian Wendy Doniger, in her work The Hindus: An Alternative History. She writes: “Works of arts such as the images on the seals and other artifacts provide abundant evidence of imaginative art, perhaps mythological but not necessarily ritual. They may have been purely decorative, or they may illustrate narratives of some sort or convey some sort of symbolic meaning…. But did they necessarily express the symbols of an organized religion?”

Indian scholars also question the need to interpret all figurines in the context of religion. Upinder Singh, describing this phenomenon, says that this is in part, “due to a tendency to look at ancient remains through the lens of later-day Hinduism, in which goddess worship had an important place.”

In the case of right-wing scholars, the effort is to trace Hinduism back to the Indus valley period. This is part of the project that seeks to establish that those who composed the Vedas were not Central Asian tribes who arrived in India around 1,500 BC; rather, they were people from the Indus valley themselves. This would show that the composers of Vedas were native to India.

In this effort, a host of archaeological evidence, as well as linguistic evidence (eg similarity of words like mother-mutter-matr-mata; star-stern-sitara; brother-bruder-bhrata) is ignored, and emphasis is laid on description of constellations as described in the Vedas. The logic given is that the dates of the star positions as described in the Vedas can be scientifically established.

But if the Vedic culture was a continuation of the Indus culture, the question arises, what happened to the advanced urban culture and the knowledge of town planning that the Indus valley inhabitants possessed, and which the composers of Vedas did not? The Rig Veda describes a pastoral society. The epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, describe the later Vedic society with an opulent princely life, but archaeological evidence doesn’t support those literary claims. The second urbanisation happened only around the 6th Century BC, the time of Buddha and Mahavira.