In the absence of deciphered scripts, our understanding of the ideological aspects in prehistoric India, especially the Indus Civilisation in this context, solely depends on archaeological evidence. Different aspects of ideology of the Indus Civilisation can be found, though not directly, in the material culture of the civilisation, that is, funerary practices and iconographic representations in different media, such as stones, clay, and metals.

Evidence of the Neolithic period from Mehrgarh in central Balochistan (present-day Pakistan) amply exhibits that Neolithic people started building graves to bury the dead in and around their settlement. The dead were buried along with different kinds of grave goods, such as lithics, ornaments, baskets, sacrificed animals, etc, in the proximity of the living space. Among ornaments, raw materials such as turquoise and marine shells, which were brought from a distance, were used along with locally available ones; they are likely to represent prestige items, though no discrete patterns representing social hierarchy and specific ideology have been identified so far.

In the Chalcolithic period at Mehrgarh, evidence of iconographic representations became more prominent with painted pottery and terracotta figurines. While it is difficult to identify the meaning of painted motifs, a wide range of motifs including anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and geometric ones provide us with some glimpse of the ideology of the prehistoric people. It is clear that prehistoric people attempted to express their ideology through painting. Terracotta figurines, including anthropomorphic and zoomorphic, more concretely exhibit the prehistoric ideology.

Female figurines with numerous ornaments seem to represent mother goddesses or the symbol of fertility. Figurines of domesticated animals, including zebu and sheep, also likely depict the ideological conception and worship of fertility. In the early part of the Bronze Age period, generally called Pre-Harappan or Pre-urban Indus period dating to the early third-millennium bce, the use of terracotta figurines became widespread across the Indus Valley, suggesting that some ideological concepts and the worship towards fertility were widely shared in the formation process of urban society.

Another important phenomenon relating to the period just prior to the birth of the urban society during the early third millennium is the separation of cemetery between infants and adults. At the settlement of Mehrgarh Period VII, only infant burials have been found in the middle of the settlement, but very few adult graves have been attested in the settlement, indicating that adult graves were built away from the habitation area. This evidence may indicate the funerary ideology and practices were reorganised and complexed in the formation process of the urban society.

For the Mature Harappan or Urban Indus period (2600-1900 bce), the evidence of iconographic representations became more diverse with seals, painted pottery, and terracotta figurines. In contrast to the ones of the pre-urban period, which depict geometric motifs, the seals of the urban period have a wide variety of figurative motifs, including zoomorphic, anthropomorphic, and composite. Most of the seals are depicted with an animal in the side view; among the animals represented, the unicorn is dominant, followed by the bison, zebu, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, tiger, etc. While, the unicorn, an imaginary animal, may have been a symbol of the urban Indus society, the presence of a wide variety of animals, in which many animals with horns or tusks are included, is noteworthy.

While we do not know the meanings of these animals, or why they were selected as a motif for seals, it is likely that the people of the urban Indus society found auspicious power in these animals and that the ideology behind the animals was widely shared in the urban society to maintain sociocultural integration. It also seems that seals with specific iconography were used for demonstrating sociocultural identity.

A few seals depict an anthropomorph, which seems to represent some deity. They are crowned with horns and plants, which may have symbolised the auspicious power of the deity and is associated with animals. One seal has a narrative scene of animal sacrifice to a god. While it is likely that these anthropomorphs represent deities, the rarity of the seals with anthropomorphs makes it difficult to understand their nature and importance in the ideology of the Urban Indus society. It is interesting that the animals represented in seals are not depicted in painted pottery, in which peacocks and peepal trees are dominating. It appears that seals and painted pottery were different types of media, in which different sets of iconography were represented.

Anthropomorphic terracotta figurines have been discovered from Sindh and Punjab, but are conspicuously rare in other parts of the Indus region. In addition, animal figurines from Sindh and Punjab include a diverse range of animals, many of which are common to seals. It is likely to indicate that the ideology behind terracotta figurines was more diverse than the case of seals. Graves are another source of information for our understanding of the Indus ideology. Cemeteries have been found at several sites in the different parts of the Indus region. The graves in these cemeteries largely share the same funerary practice, consisting of a rectangular burial pit with an extended dead body and grave goods. Grave goods are dominated by pottery including pots, jars, goblets, dish-on-stands, etc. They may have been offered to the dead for their life after their death. Some examples of graves showed dead bodies with ornaments, though limited in number.

While there is a variation in the number of grave goods among graves, no outstanding difference can be found in the size and structure among them. It means that no social stratification is visible in the graves. Although we should be careful in interpreting this phenomenon, graves can be an important key for our understanding of the society and ideology of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Even after a hundred years of research on the Indus Valley Civilisation, we know little about the ideology of the urban Indus society based on hard evidence. However, different types of approaches to the material culture, such as stylistic, technological, scientific, multi-scale, qualitative, quantitative, etc, can provide us with various clues to better understand the ideology that sustained the urban society.

Excerpted with permission from “The Ideology of the Indus Civilization” by Akinori Uesugi, from The Indians: Histories of Civilization, edited by GN Devy, Tony Joseph, and Ravi Korisettar, Aleph Book Company.