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Objects: Past and Present

The Priest King

Stone bust from Mohenjo Daro, Sindh

Like the bronze 'Dancing Girl' , the 'Priest King' is an icon of the Indus Valley Civilisation and also the inspiration for this website's logo. Found in area DK of Mohenjo Daro in 1909, this steatite bust has a short. groomed beard and distinct trefoil robe which was probably decorated with red pigment. It has give us an insight into the hair and clothing styles of the Indus Valley peoples.

The distinct trefoil decorated robe, head and arm band and the possibility of earrings has lead to some speculation on the role of this figure in their society. He was dubbed the 'Priest King' in the early 1900s and this title has not changed since. Could he have been a deity, a mythical person, a priest or a king? In the end a lot has been lost but more remains to be discovered and until more research is done we can only speculate.


© Wikipedia, M. Mengal

Indus Valley Seals

Steatite seals with a mysterious script

These seals are iconic artefacts of the Indus Valley civilisation. Not only are they some of the earliest evidence of the beginnings of writing in South Asia but also of trade. They were carved out of steatite, commonly known as soapstone, and then fired to harden. Most are shaped into a square or rectangle, a couple centimetres in size and feature animals, real and mythic, as well as symbols thought to be the Indus Valley script. This script has also been found on pots and various other artefacts.

The symbols have yet to be fully understood or deciphered. Scholars also argue to what extent the collection of symbols can be called a language. Whether it is a language or a non structure symbol system (Farmer et. al.; 2004), it is true that they were used to communicate. It has been theorised that they were used in  trade deals as a form of accounting. The seals would have been pressed into soft clay and used as identifying tags on goods. Seals and evidence of trade thereof have been found as far as Mesopotamia and the Arab Peninsula. So far over 3500 seals have been found around this Bronze Age trade network, or are known to be found in any case.

Indus Valley Seals © Wikipedia, E. Mackay

real Dancing_girl.jpg

The Dancing Girl Statuette © Wikipedia, G. Todd

' The Dancing Girl'

Bronze Statuette from Mehrgarh, Balochistan

The so called ' Indus Valley Dancing Girl' is one of two known bronze statuettes from the Indus Valley site, Mohenjo Daro. The one pictured on the right is the better preserved and crafted of the two and was found by Ernest Mackay in 1926. It has been dated to c. 2500 BCE and was probably made using the 'lost wax' (cire perdue) method.

Standing at about 10.5 c,m tall, this female figure has her right arm cocked at her hip while the other is by her thigh perhaps holding a mystery object or clenched fist. Her hair has been styled back and she wears a pedant necklace, 2 large heavy bangles on the right arm while the left is entirely covered, from wrist to shoulder, with bangles. With the confident jut of her chin and her body poised for movement, many scholars suggest that she is about to break into dance. So not only does it suggest that by this time art and technology had advanced enough for more realistic forms and sophisticated metalwork but it was also evidence for dancing and even music.


Kanishka Reliquary© Copy from Briitish Museum Wikipedia, 2005 

Kanishka Reliquary

Gilded copper casket for the bones of the Buddha

This cylindrical, gilded copper casket was found around 1908-09 at the monumental stupa at Shah-ji-Dheri. This stupa had been identified by Foucher as the stupa of the Kushan King, Kanishka and has been dated roughly to around 127 CE, the year of his reign. This has mostly been surmised because of the kharosthi inscription on the side of the casket which refers to the maharaja Kanishka.

It is not the only reliquary found in Pakistan but it is one of the finer examples.A frieze of geese (hamsa), Iranian gods and images of  possibly Kanishka himself decorate the outside. The lid also supports upstanding images of the Buddha meditating on a lotus as well as Brahma and Indra by his side. The reliquary is said to have contained three bone fragments of the Buddha. These fragments were given to Burma by the British and remain there to this day while the casket itself is in Peshawar Museum.

The Fasting Buddha

Stone schist sculpture of emaciated Buddha

This sculpture was found by Colonel H. A. Dean at Sikri, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and has been roughly dated to the 2nd century CE. It has been called a Buddha by most but it would be more accurate to call it a sculpture of Siddhartha or bodhisattva. At this point in the story of the Buddha, the prince Siddhartha had been fasting for 49 days under the bodhi tree. Like the 'Fasting Buddha Shakyamuni' and 'Schist Head of the Fasting Buddha', the sculpture depicts the hardships endured by the soon to be Buddha on his path to enlightenment. The sight of his skeletal form is said to have brought tears to the eyes of his followers to this very day, making this sculpture significant beyond just Pakistan. 

The skeletal form of the Buddha is also of interest because of how anatomically accurate it is. This suggests that the artists of this time had significant knowledge of human anatomy leading to some interesting thoughts on their knowledge of science and medicine.

Currently it resides in Lahore Museum where it has been visited by Buddhist pilgrims from beyond Pakistan. Two fingers are missing on the right hand while a crack on the left arm has been widened by mistakes in the conservation effort.


The Fasting Buddha © A.Khan, 2013

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Katas Raj Shiva Lingam © A. Khan 2013

Shiva Lingam

Sanstone representation of Shiva from Katas Raj Temples

The Hindu heritage of Pakistan can be hard to find but ocassionally in some corners of the country you may find these phallic shaped pillars on circular, sometimes, rectangular plinths. Although many of those that remain are more commonly found in museum like settings, this example is one of the few that are still in their original setting. They are commonly made of stone and in this case sandstone.

The pillar is an aniconic representation of the Hindu god Shiva and the plinth is a representation of the Goddess Shakti. The two parts of the shrine have come to be known as male and female and thus mistakenly construed by those outside of the Hindu faith as having erotic connotations. It is more accurate to think of them as spiritual representations of the Shiva and Shakti and when merged together they represent the merging of the microcosmos and macrocosmos. As such these shrines are of great importance and it is doubly so when they are placed in places such as the the Katas Raj temples. Thanks to the redevelopments and conservation efforts at the temple over the last two decades, Hindu pilgrims have started to come back to the temples and give offerings and prayer at the shrine. However their ability to do so has sometimes been difficult in the current political climate.


The Lahore Shield 

Blued steel circular shield with gold overlay

Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), also called 'The Lion of Punjab', unified the Sikh misls (clans) and in 1799 created a capital for his Sikh Empire in Lahore. The Mughal imperial residences and armoury were then taken over and it was here that this shield was probably made.

The shield is made of blued steel with gold overlain into designs chiseled onto the surface. These depict animals, both real and mythical, on the outer rim. The Maharaja himself is depicted in the inner ring in his signature simple style as well as the nimbus (halo) around his head. Along with him is his son, Sher Singh, and two generals.  

The method of gold overlay (damascening) used for this shield is called koftgari, thought to come from the Persian word kuftan (to beat). A design is chiselled onto the surface of the metal which is then crosshatched. Gold or silver wire is then hammered onto the crosshatched surface and then heated. This method was commonly used in India for weapons and armoury from about the 16th c. onwards. This shield is just one of many examples of such work, though an exemplary one at that. It can now be found on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.



The Lahore Shield©Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 2020

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