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    Indus Valley Iconography

    Map Academy

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    A vast body of pictographic signs, abstract and geometric symbols and figural depictions found on material artifacts, such as seals, seal impressions, tablets and pottery associated with the Indus Valley Civilization. The iconography, applied on these artefacts using techniques such as engraving and appliqué, broadly represented aspects of the natural environment, mostly fauna, human or human-like figures, mythic creatures, social scenes and narratives and the associated, and yet-undeciphered, Indus script. In the absence of a clear understanding of the script, this visual vocabulary has served as the principal source of information on the practises, demographics, material cultures and belief systems that existed in the Indus Valley.

    The animal figures, featured abundantly in the iconography, have a significant representation of bovine or bovine-like forms. Depictions of long-horned bulls, short-horned gaurs or wild ox, goats, humped zebus and water buffalos — all of which, apart from the goats, have similarities with the iconography of other Asian cultures of the time — hint at the prevalence of agricultural practices, domestication and animal husbandry, that are generally essential to the building of settlements and civilisations. Other animals commonly depicted include rhinoceroses, elephants, gharials, monkeys and wild or domesticated dogs. There are also representations of fantastical and composite creatures — multi-headed beasts and human–animal chimeras, such as the one depicted in the Goddess in the Tree seal. The animal and zoomorphic figures have typically been depicted alone, but have sometimes also formed parts of larger composite scenes.

    Human or human-like figures are not a central element in Indus iconography, however, one of the most recognisable examples of such a depiction can be found in the Pashupati seal, which depicts a figure seated cross-legged and wearing an elaborate headdress. The images of wild and domestic animals being controlled by a human figure (usually male but in some cases female) can be interpreted as a sign of influence from contemporaneous Mesopotamian cultures, whose iconography was often similar and with whom the Indus Valley cities were known to trade. Scholars also see such deified human figures as prototypes for later Hindu deities like Shiva and Durga. Other human depictions include those of a horned man and of worshippers, the latter of which usually formed part of a larger narrative composition or scene, often along with animals, flora and tools or symbolic objects. The pictographic representation of a stick figure, which occurs frequently among the symbols of the Indus script, has also been considered by archaeologists to represent a human.

    Other depictions feature prominently in a variety of forms and settings, such as narrative scenes, which appear on many Indus Valley stamp seals and tablets. The focal figure — usually an animal — is accompanied by ritual, utilitarian or totemic objects such as baskets, fountains or the processional sacred tree. Of all the depictions constituting the Indus Valley iconography, the recurring motif of an incense burner or ritual stand is the most repeated.

    The last of the categories that make up the iconographic corpus is the Indus Valley script consists of a number of pictographic and abstract signs and icons that are yet to be convincingly deciphered. Some of these — interpreted as representing fish, humans, trees, crosses and arrows — occur more frequently than others. The most commonly found motif on stamp seals is a fish, often accompanied by grouped vertical strokes — that may also be found separately along the edges — that denote a numerical system similar to that of Roman numerals. Although information provided by the script itself is meagre, the wealth of other available pictorial and representational material have provided us with significant insight into the social, cultural and religious aspects of Indus Valley cultures.


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