The Dancing Girl And The Goddess

Her tininess took us a while to process. I had known she was small, but at 10.5 cm tall she was shockingly diminutive! Almost lost in her obscure glass covered niche. We were surprised as well by the lack of prominence to an exhibit of such value.

The ‘Dancing Girl’ of Mohenjodaro and the Priest King are two of the better known art objects of the handful unearthed from the Indus Valley site of Mohenjo-daro (now in Pakistan). The former got left behind when the Indian government countered the Pakistani claim to ownership by agreeing to return any one of the two.

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So I finally got to see the 4500 year old  bronze figurine that had captured my imagination for as long as I can remember. And despite her size, she seemed just as saucy and as impudent as I had imagined.  Nude. Hand on her hip. Head held haughtily high. Her very being exuding bold confidence.

No one knows who she was. The bangles up her elbow indicate she could have been married. A young bride? A queen perhaps ? British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler describes her better:

“She’s about fifteen years old I should think, not more, but she stands there with bangles all the way up her arm and nothing else on. A girl perfectly, for the moment, perfectly confident of herself and the world. There’s nothing like her, I think, in the world.” ~

The Dancing Girl was the prime focus of our quick visit to the National Museum in New Delhi. But on our way out, a special exhibit titled “The Return Of The Yogini” grabbed our attention. The entire space was dedicated to a single beautiful sculpture of a female figure sporting a buffalo head and seated on a goose.

The 10th century sandstone sculpture of the Yogini Vrishanana weighing nearly 400 kgs, was smuggled out of a temple in Lokhari in the Banda district of UP, and later acquired by Robert Schrimpf, an art collector in Paris. Upon his death his widow donated it to the museum and it was brought back with much fanfare in 2013.  It is the first plundered Indian heritage antique to be reclaimed.

But the fact that not one of the remaining 63 Yoginis from the ancient and unprotected temple in Banda survived intact, gives one pause for thought.

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A Yoginii or Dakini, is hard to describe.  She is a symbol of the divine feminine. A fierce, shape shifting Tantric incarnate of the Cosmic Mother, A primitive animistic divinity, later absorbed into the cult of Shakti and Devi,  Worshiped between the 6th and 10th centuries in circular, roofless Tantric temples in groups of 64. Each denoting the eight major forms of Devi along with their respective eight attendants.

The Yogini’s exaggerated physical traits symbolise sensuality and fertility. Her bare body: the naked truth. Locked – as an equal – in the dance of creation with the God of destruction, as Shiva and Shakti, she is said to embody energy, balance, the life force of existence,

The recent ban on ‘India’s Daughter’, Leslee Udwin’s controversial and deeply disturbing documentary on the infamous 2012 Delhi rape case, and the furious debate and disheartening opinions that ensued, left me desperately seeking the ‘incredible‘. I have caught myself wondering when and why the glorification of womanhood and her equal status implicit in the primitive Dancing Girl and the Tantric Goddess, morphed into objectification?

The remarkably composed father of the young victim of that heinous crime asks as much at the end of the documentary.

“What is the meaning of a woman? How is she looked upon by society today?”

Questions that demand urgent consideration, today more than ever.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

67 thoughts on “The Dancing Girl And The Goddess

  1. Beautiful post, thank you and timely indeed. Western women forget sometimes that there is much work to be done for feminism.

  2. I just read an article on the sex slave trade and was left asking the same question. An interesting post, Madhu.

  3. Oh, those images on Incredible India, Madhu!
    I like your jaunty youngster. I’m not familiar with the documentary you refer to but there are still many places where being female is a disadvantage. Thanks for sharing.

      1. Indeed it would! 🙂 Great post and photos nicely timed, Madhu. There’s still a lot to be done. Last week in Germany the government made a historic approach, like Norway they have a women’s quote now.

  4. How fortunate to see both figures while at the museum, Madhu. Such strong pieces and symbols of gender equality. International Women’s Day hasn’t even been mentioned in our media and yet there is so much to do worldwide. I wonder what progress the UN Millennium Goals have made in regards to empowerment of women in developing countries. Really like the shadow on the Dancing Girl and the lighting on the Goddess. Timely post and questions that need proper action. A moral obligation to women hood.

    1. I am sure the UN Millennium Goals have made good progress. But it never seems enough. Real change has to come from within. Through introspection and education. Appreciate your thoughtful comment Lynne.

  5. Let’s hope Islamic State doesn’t spread into Pakistan as they’d probably bulldoze the site like they did with those priceless artefacts from Iraq last week. Culture should be preserved for future generations to see how people lived in antiquity.

  6. I’ve herd of Yogini’s but not the dancing girl. No wonder you ‘ve always wanted to see her, she’s fascinating and beautiful. In 1895 there was a punitive raid on Nigeria, by the British, killing and plundering. They brought back many bronzes – the Benin Bronzes, now in the British Museum and other places and I believe they should go home.
    Wouldn’t it be great to have a peep back in time to the Tantric temples in their glory? A thought provoking piece Madhu, thank you.
    I also want to thank you for your kindness and loyalty visiting me, I really do appreciate it. It makes me smile when I see your name, your catch up visits when you seem to spend ages with me :-)x

    1. Most welcome Gilly 🙂

      The Tantric cult is beyond fascinating! A few Yogini temples still exist. I heard there is one in Tamilnadu. Would love to witness a ritual 🙂

  7. Such a powerful post to commemorate the International Women’s Day, Madhu! Millennia have gone by, in many societies today women certainly have enjoyed the same status as men. But unfortunately things remain the same, or even worse, in some other parts of the world. It’s everybody’s homework.

  8. Dancing girl was one of my favorites in senior school, where I learned about her for the first time. Nice post.

  9. The yogini is beautiful indeed. Wonder how long it will take for the rest of the stolen artefacts to return to us… As for the documentary, I didn’t watch it. Given what I have heard, I would have probably been devastated, with my blood boiling and causing me mental trouble instead. I only wonder why it was banned, though. If we are so concerned about our image getting tarnished, then the solution lies in trying to prevent violence against women, and bringing about a change in the mindsets of Indians. Every passing day, and I only wonder for how long I will still be proud to call myself an Indian… Sigh…

    1. Perhaps the remorseless monsters could have been given a bit less airtime, and their monologues broken up by logical interjections, but I didn’t think there was anything there that was untrue or warranted a ban. I think it is more Udwin’s depiction of cultural attitudes through those two despicable lawyers that might have been found embarrassing. But that is the key reason why everyone should have got to watch it. Now they just have out of context snippets to judge by.

      The sad part for me is that the ban managed to divide us down the middle. With the rabid Mr.Goswami leading the charge! 🙂

      Sigh indeed. Happy Women’s Day 🙂

  10. The dancing girl is so powerful. Gives you pause. I think I’d like to see that documentary, though you hinted that it’s biased in some way. ? I’m not familiar with the story.

    1. Isn’t she? Hubby didn’t quite get my fascination 🙂

      The video isn’t biased as disturbing. Not just to see the graphic details rehashed and the perpetrators remorselessly blame the victim, but to have to watch their lawyers spout misogynistic crap that sadly mirrors the views of very many conservative men (and women!). “India’s Daughter” was aired on BBC4. It is still available on Vimeo. Can’t see the purpose of a ban in today’s digital age….fewer people would have watched without! 🙂

  11. Happy Women’s Day to you, Madhu and thank you for another beautiful post. Some thought provoking questions indeed. Now, off to watch this doco everyone is on about. . . .

  12. A beautiful, fitting tribute to International Women’s Day. Sadly it passed with very little coverage here in Hong Kong – I had to get on social media to realise what it was all about. Sometimes I think the ancients had a much better understanding of gender quality, mutual respect, and a reverence for the world around them.

    1. Women’s day here was turned into a media circus thanks to that video James. I think we were much better off primitive.

  13. So much work yet to be done in this world for equality. Your beautiful photos and narrative help to bring this forward. Thank you.

  14. Brilliant post, Madhu. The contradictions implicit in India’s treatment of women now and over history, will stand in for the treatment of women over the whole world and its history. Goddesses to victims, the gamut is so wide —- with stops all along the way —- but contains so much viciousness, brutality, contempt, and disdain it’s almost more than one can bear.
    Enlightened periods and thinkers do exist — but are few and far between.

    1. Seems like there aren’t enough enlightened motivators today Judith. The silence of those in power at times like these is discouraging. Political expediency always wins over progress.

  15. Wonderful, Madhu. You have described the essence of womanhood reflected by both the figures so beautifully. How evolved the people of that time were. Delicate and diminutive the dancer might be but the confidence she exudes is simply amazing.

    1. Thank you Namita. We really need to hold up the mirror and introspect on what has gone wrong, before we go around extolling our glorious culture.

  16. Thank you, thank you for these posts and for sharing these sights and treasures with us. I (we) hadn’t seen you often on the blog if I’m not mistaken, so it’s a treat to see your photos and read your commentaries again.

  17. Your photos are beautifully made; I must go find this documentary and watch it. There is so much to work on, and every bit of information such as you have provided is important.

    1. That is a beautiful image Frizz. And I am a fan of your famous museum shot in any case 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

  18. The Dancing Girl, like the Mona Lisa … good things come in small packages. She does cut a beautiful, confident figure.

    Were the 63 Yoginis the victims of a cultural shift? I recall reading about many artifacts from Ancient Egypt that were destroyed by those who took over that country. They wanted no reminders of that culture or religious worship. It’s a shame that they are gone, given your description of what she represents.

    It is troubling that women are objectified in many cultures, including my own.

  19. Excellent captures and post Madhu and I think people should stop following society and listen to their own hearts. Women are not objects. ♥

  20. You should take photos for museum monographs and catalogues. It’s great how you managed to shoot her and present her as a sizable artifact whereas in reality she is smaller than one of my porcelain dolls. What happened to her left foot? (my comment regards the Dancing Girl of course)

  21. I can’t understand why it isn’t considered universally urgent that there should be respect and even reverence for all people, regardless of their sex, age, economic or social status, orientation, beliefs, or politics. Nearly every religion and political party I’ve ever read about or heard described claims to value human lives equally, yet most of them also have this dark side that ignores and even sometimes endorses policies and acts that contradict those claims horribly. Your post is a poignant reminder, and always timely.

    The post is also, in a less sorrowful vein, a surprising reminder to me of the happy time I spent in graduate school as the art department’s slide librarian, gradually putting that university’s image collection into a digital catalogue that some computer engineering students helped to build from my designs (very old-school! Many years ago—). This was the first time I had learned much about the Mohenjodaro culture and its art. Thankfully, one of our professors in the department had spent a lot of time visiting and documenting the era and its visual wealth so that we had access to a large number of beautiful images, something I have rarely known before or since. Thanks for the lovely memory!

    Kathryn

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