Indus Valley Terracotta Animal Figurines
A subset of the figurines excavated from several sites associated with the Indus Valley Civilisation depicts a range of domesticated, wild and, in some cases, mythical animals. These figurines are understood to have been handmade using fine fired clay, or terracotta, mixed with sand, shell fragments, mica particles and vegetable material. The majority of them range in size from approximately 6 to 30 centimetres and have broadly similar compositional characteristics with some differences based on their period and region of origin. Although they are roughly the same size, the animal figures are distinct from the Indus Valley terracotta human figurines that have been excavated along with them.
Evidence suggests that some early Indus figurines, that were largely excavated from the Mehrgarh and Nausharo sites in the Balochistan province of present-day Pakistan, date as far back as 7000 BCE, prior to the Early Harappan Phase. However, the production of terracotta figurines was by far the most prominent during the Mature Harappan Phase. In contrast to the earlier excavations, the most significant number of figurines from this later phase were found in the Harappa and Mohenjo-daro sites in the Punjab and Sindh provinces. Although there is a broad compositional continuity between these depictions and those from earlier periods, the newer figurines exhibit distinct visual characteristics.
Nearly three-quarters of the animal figurines represent cattle, often humped bulls and buffaloes. These figurines are widely considered to be zebu cattle, which are represented with painted geometric designs, long abdomens and splayed legs in earlier depictions and supplemented with separately attached, and sometimes painted eyes during the Mature Harappan Phase. Depictions of other animals, both wild and domesticated, include dogs, rabbits, pigs, elephants, felines, deer, monkeys, rhinoceroses, elephants, turtles and birds. In some cases, birds are represented in cages; dogs, sheep and monkeys have collars; and cattle, specifically from later periods, are depicted as pulling carts with wheels — all of which suggests the practise of animal husbandry in Indus society.
Most animals are depicted as standing on their four limbs, with some represented in other postures. In addition, many early depictions feature pinched snouts and no mouths or nostrils, while those from the Mature Harappan Phase are depicted with cylindrical snouts and separately attached eyes and lips. In fact, multiple animal figurines exhibit stylised facial features such as beards and ears, which appear anthropomorphic in nature. Mythical figurines found in Harappa, Mohenjo-daro and other archeological sites are typically composed of a human face combined with animal elements, including movable limbs, a tail and genitalia. Unlike in representations of animals on Indus Valley stamp seals, terracotta figurines were almost never depicted with sexual or reproductive attributes.
Scholars believe that these animal figurines could have been made for ritual use, as toys for children or as amulets. This is suggested by a number of findings, including elephant figurines from Harappa with red and white stripes painted across their faces. It has been speculated that such forms of painting could reflect a custom of decorating domesticated elephants for ceremonial purposes, as well as the use of terracotta figurines, as opposed to live animals, for ritual sacrifices.
One of the most convincing cases for these figurines’ use as toys comes from the depiction of hollow birds, which are made with perforations — either near their tail or on their torso — that have been speculated to allow them to function as whistles. Animal figurines with tails and holes through the shoulders for attachable and movable arms are also suggested to have been used as toys or puppets. Some figurines also have perforations at their bases.
Much like with the human figurines excavated along with them since the 1920s, the terracotta animal figurines from this period provide us with a sense of the relationship between humans and animals during the Indus Valley Civilisation, as well as the broader symbolic and functional position of animals within Indus ideology.
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