The Magic in the Image: Women in Clay at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa



Do the many female figurines at Indus sites justify the belief that the worship of a "mother Goddess" was prevalent then? One of India's most distinguished archaeologists offers a contrary viewpoint in this deeply informed, multi-faceted analysis of these figurines. She starts by noting that they are not nearly as prevalent as people may assume, but rather "as the exclusive–or near-exclusive–product of the activities of just two cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro" (p. 19). She also considers the important point made by Sharri R. Clark in her recent book The Social Lives of Figurines – Recontextualizing the Third–Millennium–BC Terracotta Figurines from Harappa that there is no solid evidence –other than preconceptions– that Indus female figurines are thought of as "Mother Goddesses," and picks up the thread of others who have also suggested more prosaic uses for these figurines. Ratnagar regards this labelling of objects as "cultic" objects [e.g. "Mother Goddesses"] as "a simplistic solution to the complex task of archaeological interpretation" (p. 9).

Ratnagar makes her arguments methodically, and this is part of what is so engaging about her process. She examines instances of the "Mother Goddess" interpretation of female figurines in other contexts and civilizations, pays attention to the woeful lack of figurines from securely dated archaeological contexts, Indus and otherwise, from which to draw such conclusions. She brings the work of numerous other scholars, like Alexandra Ardelanu-Jansen, whom she greatly respects, to bear. Her own early study of Mesopotamian civilization is helpful here as there are many overlaps in "reading" figurines from similar times across two civilizations. Ratnagar spends an entire chapter taking apart John Marshall's quick simplifications and "Great Mother Goddess" thesis. She demolishes his Pashupati seal interpretation by showing how it is based on a faulty reading of previous work – the famous seal from Mohenjo-daro cannot show Pashupati for he is the herdsman of domestic animals, e.g. livestock, not the elephant, rhinoceros, and tiger for example found on that seal. She then turns to popular religion and figurines and their imagery - magic, shamanism, cults – and in a sense sets the stage for what she ultimately thinks might have been the use of these figurines, which could have been their real use in "private rituals using clay models of women in the home." (p. 73).

A brief chapter looks at Egyptian religion and its use of figurines in this manner, before launching into the heart of her argument with a section on the attributes of the female figurines that shows them to be distinct from deities and the way and care with which these are are usually represented. She looks carefully at the way things like hair and girdles are formed on the figurines, the lack of articulation in hands and feet, their "slapdash nature" if one may call it that. She aligns with Ardelanu-Jansen's work which suggested that some of the figurines may have been based on actual women, if not brides, to suggest in general that these could have been forms used for specific ritual functions or events as opposed to worship. They seem to have very individualistic features. "I think it was a real person, with the cares of the world, in her home, most of her body bare because she was being treated or healed as a whole, who was portrayed. Or else she was a shaman who had to be ritually undressed, or else a remembered woman ancestor" (p. 109).

Ratnagar also examines what we know about find spots of the figurines in Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. In the case of the former she uses data from early excavations like Vats' tabulations through Sharri Clark's summaries of Harappa finds. While much location data is missing, she does "assert with some confidence that hoards with prestige objects (carnelian or lapis ornaments, seals or inscribed tablets, cubical weights, shell ladles, faience figurines and miniature jars) on the whole lacked associated representations in baked clay. It appears to be garbage pits instead" (p. 115). From Clark's work on later Harappa excavations, she concludes that "the clay figurines occurred 'almost exclusively' in non-primary contexts such as refuse tips and fill, being discarded together with pots, bones, broken toys and other utilities" (p. 119). Again, not where one would expect to find deities. In Mohenjo-daro the evidence is even clearer: most of the female figurines were discovered, Ratnagar writes, "in the innermost rooms of the houses of DK-G and HR-B areas. This is a pointer–albeit weak–to their role or function having been a private one, a family matter perhaps" (p. 122).

Ratnagar next turns to looking at how the figurines could have been made, in line with a growing practice in Indus archaeology to examine the manufacturing processes to see what clues they may offer to ancient practices and the organization of craft production. Her conclusions are mixed: the figurines could have been modeled by people not regularly performing this craft for a living, but the firing at the right temperature seems to have been the difficult part, leading her to wonder whether the unfired figurines were what were used in rituals, after which they were thrown into a hearth, which might explain their uneven burning (her team was unable to bake a large and solid figurine). As always, the real world offers surprises but none that undermine her larger point. One may also consider whether the people who needed the figurines could not have simply had someone more skilled model and/or fire them, either in a household or among a relatives household; there would have been plenty of such people in such the terracotta based Indus culture.

The final chapter, Figurines, Magic and Cult in a Changing World brings out again what has always seemed to be the real strength of Ratnagar's work, her ability to deal with many variables at once, reaching for the bigger picture while drawing on specific archaeological evidence. "We need to open our minds to what possible social adjustment would be necessary for people to live under a state formed de novo [formed anew]" (p. 154). Clearly, as other recent scholars are making clear (see for example , the formation or early states or city-states like Harappa and Mohenjo-daro would have meant a radical reorientation of people and beliefs, the need to deal with new challenges like disease and living in close proximity to others in new social orders. What was the role of women in such a polity? Not to mention warfare, evident in all other early civilizations (Ratnagar is no fan of the Indus as 'peaceful realm' hypothesis for which there is little evidence other than hopeful conjecture). She offers an intriguing speculation around male figurines that may have depicted prisoners of war, but certainly is on solid ground when she speculates that the probable deployment of men for warfare or other tasks would have put some pressure on women in urban environments. "In recorded history," she writes " it has been observed that a new social organization or settlement milieu was fertile ground for the emergence of new cults that established new rituals and thereby some kind of social and emotional assurance to residents facing hardship or fear" (p. 161). She calls this the "theoretical base" for her interpretation that the figurines may have been part of some sort of cult, magic ritual or shamanistic performance to relieve pressure on specific women from specific types of situations in urban households in the two larger urban Indus metropolises. "The individuality of the women's hair styles and adornment, the absence of total nudity, and the very uneven distribution of women figurines, where recorded, all appear to indicate a secret ritual to which either a woman ancestor was invoked, or else at which a woman with shamanic powers officiated" (p. 163). The ultimate proof may be missing until we know much more about ancient Indus life, but the argument and reasoning is solid and engaging and draws on many reasonable sources across the human situation at the time for support.

The final and largest portion of the book (over 200 pages) is a catalogue of female figurines from Harappa, Mohenjo-daro (and Chanhu-daro) in Indian museums like the CVMVS in Mumbai or National Museum in Delhi, many which have not been shown in color from a variety of angles before. They were all re-photographed under Ratnagar's supervision, and offer the reader and scholar the right to peruse and make up their own mind about these enigmatic figurines that present themselves so directly and shamelessly as part of the archaeological record. It is to Ratnagar's credit that she has taken up the challenge with intelligence and conviction, without fudging the evidence and always making her assumptions clear.

Available from Manohar Publishers and Distributors, Daryaganj, Delhi 110006.