The intriguing tale of the ‘Seven Women’ of Mohenjodaro

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December 2022 makes the centenary of the discovery of the famous Harappan site of Mohenjodaro. It was sometime in December 1922 that the noted Indian archaeologist Rakhal Das Banerji stumbled upon the remains of this great city which opened a new chapter in the history of India. But there are so many aspects of the Harappan civilization that are still a mystery to us. Among them is the ‘Indus Seal’ that depicts seven women and whose threads perhaps connect to the folk tales and legends that come down to us from thePuranic world. Here is an exclusive story by noted Pakistani archaeologist, Parveen Talpur, who was part of the team that cataloged the discoveries of the last excavation that ever took place at Mohenjodaro in the 1960s.

Parveen Talpur

It's an unusually warm December morning in Columbus, Ohio, which takes me back to Sindh, my home province in Pakistan, where winters are not as harsh. The coldest it gets there are days like this. I am thinking of one such day – a hundred years ago – when Rakhal Das Banerji (1885-1930), superintendent of the Western Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India, had reached a far corner of Sindh to evaluate the antiquity of the unusual waves of mounds in its flatland. The city they covered must have been so ancient that the local village folk, for many generations, had forgotten its name. They simply called it Mohen jo Daro, which means ‘Mound of the Dead’ in Sindhi.

Banerji’s report, posthumously published as late as 1984, mentions that in the winter of 1911-12, the previous superintendent, D R Bhandarkar, had visited the site and writtenthat “the place could not be more than two hundred years old. Banerji too had briefly visited the site in 1919, but according to him, “During the next three years, I visited a large number of ruins of ancient cities in different parts of Sindh and in December 1922 I came to the conclusion that Mohen-jo-Daro must be one of the oldest sites of India.”

By climbing the highest mound – about 70 to 80 feet high – Banerji had gone far deeper into the past. The mound was crowned with the remains of a Buddhist stupa built some time between the 1st and 3rd century CE, when the Kushanas ruled the region. And, yet, that was not Banerji’s actual victory. He kept digging until his spade hit the ‘shrines’, 2500 years older than the Kushan-era stupa. Banerji had discovered a historic site. He had discovered Mohen jo Daro, then thelargest city of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BCE). Indeed, it was the most significant archaeological discovery of British India.

Abode of the Seven Satis

Mohen jo Daro, as we all know, is divided into two parts: the stupa area, popularly known as the ‘citadel mound’, and the low-lying residential area. Between these two is an empty space that could have been the course of an old creek or even an abandoned bed of a small tributary of the Indus. Hence, Banerji observed that the citadel mound area could have been an island in the Indus, which as the water receded, became a part of the mainland.

He may have wondered if there was a tradition of building shrines on the islands, and he mentions two which were built in close proximity to Mohen jo Daro. The first, located near Rohri, was of Khizr, the immortal saint of the Islamic world who is known to show the right path to those who get lost in the labyrinth of life. It is said that he is the one who guided Alexander the Great to the fountain of eternal life. The second shrine, which is more relevant to the topic of this article, is Satiyan jo Astaan – the ‘abode of seven satis’. This, again, is no longer an island and the seven graves now stand on the mainland, Sukkur.

The name of the shrine associated with the satis (sati is a woman who commits suicide by burning herself on the funeral pyre of her husband) suggests their Hindu background. However, if you visit the site on social media today, or Google it, or ask the local residents, you will come across various versions of the chronology and even of the story. That makes Banerji’s archaeological report more precious as it has recorded the older version of the story. He also mentions a fire altar in an underground area of the graveyard, whose flame was kept alive by the womenfolk of the Muslim custodians of the shrine. This suggests the possibility of the existence of an atash kada – the symbol of ancient fire worship in pre-Islamic times.

How old is the legend of the seven women buried there, or what period of history or prehistory did they live in? Were they seven satis, seven sisters, or seven celibate women? Whatever their origins, Banerji had succeeded in confirming the idea that there was an ancient tradition of building shrines on the clusters of islands located on the Indus, and one of those shrines was of seven women.

Seven Women on the Indus Seal

Now, a century after Banerji’s observations, when more discoveries have been made in the ruins of Mohen jo Daro, one wonders if it had any links to Satiyan jo Astaan. The long-dead women buried in them may not have lived in a period contemporary with Mohen jo Daro but there might have been a story or a ritual involving seven women which was significant enough to be recorded by the scribes of Mohen jo Daro.

A small steatite seal discovered from the ruins of this ancient city is engraved with the images of seven women standing in a row and facing a deity who is standing in a tree. It is a narrative seal but we do not know what exactly it is narrating. Could it be an event or a ritual or something beyond our understanding? The seal is displayed in the Islamabad Museum.

Seven Divine Mothers in Ancient Temples

The grouping of seven women is an ancient theme and its rudiments are found in India's ancient, sacred texts such as the Rig Veda and the Puranas. In today’s India, it has survived in the cult of seven divine mothers called Sapta Matrika, whose images are sculpted and placed in different temples. In the Ellora caves, we see them flanked on both sides by Virabhaadhara playing the vina. Their versions are found in several other temples. A composite figure of seven mothers found in Nalanda suggests that the cult may have also been present in Buddhism.

Seven Women in Sufi Poetry

In the North-West of India, in Sindh, which is now in Pakistan, keepers of ancient lore were poets and saints. Shah Abdul Latif, the most revered saint and Sufi poet of Sindh (1670-1752 CE), had preserved the stories of seven women in his Shah Jo Risalo (Journal of Shah). They had obviously lived and died well before his time and he had retrieved their stories from older village folk and perhaps from the jogis with whom he had once embarked on a pilgrimage to Hinglaj Mata in Balochistan.

Unlike, the well-known Persian set of Haft Paikar (seven queens or seven beauties) written by Nizami of Ganj, Latif’s seven queens do not appear together in one story and not all are queens. However, due to their noble characters, they have come to be respected as queens. Latif had composed their stories in melodies. Hence, his stories were kept alive mostly by bards, who sang and performed his ballads at town fairs, on festive occasions, and at the shrines where large numbers of devotees gathered to pay homage to their saints.

Latif’s love stories may not be as widely known as Nizami’s Laila Majnoon and Shireen Farhad but they have been kept alive thanks to older folks and to the unlettered in rural Sindh. Even in this digital age, those stories are not lost, and credit for this goes to many Sindhis who are promoting and preserving the Sindhi language and culture to the Sindhi diaspora.

English translations of Risalo by Elsa Kazi, Amina Khamisani and Syed Mushtaq Shah have taken the Risalo to the English-speaking world. Currently, it is being translated into French by Syed Mushtaq Shah.

Seven Women in Folklore

Apart from Latif’s stories, many more stories are told during evening kutcheries (gatherings) in rural Sindh. I consider myself privileged to have grown up in a village where the last generation of bards lived to tell these ancient tales. Those were the stories passed orally from one generation to another. Some of those also had women grouped in seven, although they were no longer grouped together as mothers or goddesses but appeared as secular figures. They appeared mostly as members of royalty, as wives and sometimes as daughters of a king. However, bereft of their divine powers, some of them still possessed magical powers and appeared as fairies. Regardless, of their physical forms, their virtues were not lost and some were witty and intelligent enough to impress their kings.

The value of the rich Sindhi folklore was realised by Dr N A Baloch, a great scholar, historian and former Vice-Chancellor of Sindh University, who embarked on a mission to record and preserve oral folktales. In the 1950s, he presented his dream project formally to the Sindhi Adabi Board. Soon, the Board assigned the task of recording the folktales to teams of volunteers, who traveled to different districts in Sindh to collect these scattered stories. The collection was finally published in 1960 and is available online on the website of the Sindhi Adabi Board. There are a few folktales where seven women appear together but there is one story which matches the iconography of the Indus seal.

It is the story of a king named Gul Andaz, who as a young prince is assigned the duty of interpreting the dazzling dream of his father. The dream was about a tree with a silver trunk, golden branches and leaves studded with gems and fringed with rubies. Below the tree were four fairies plucking the rubies and weeping at the same time.

Gul Andaz leaves his palace in search of clues to interpret the dream. He experiences many adventures on his journey. During this odyssey, he marries a princess and in another adventure, he marries two sisters. Later in his adventures, when he finds the four fairies who promised to show him the dream of his father, his mission is accomplished and Gul Andaz returns home.

The King was happy to hear about the success of his son. Gul Andaz asked his father to hold a durbar so that everyone could see the dream. It was a big event. The durbar was staged in front of a spacious garden and the guests were entertained with music and dance. When the audience settled down to watch the dream, Gul Andaz entered dressed in white with his sword hidden behind his gown. He summoned the first fairy and when she bowed in front of him, he beheaded her. Everybody was taken aback but they suddenly saw the trunk of a tree grow in the garden – it was a silver trunk!

Then came the second fairy. Gul Andaz beheaded her and the tree grew gold branches. When the third fairy was beheaded, leaves studded with gems grew on the branches; and with the beheading of the fourth fairy, rubies hung around the leaves. After all that bloodshed, the scene changed and a gentle breeze began to blow and the tree looked beautiful. Most surprising to the audience was the reappearance of the four fairies around the tree. They were weeping and plucking the rubies at the same time.

The King was amazed to watch his dream come true and so was his audience. He told Gul Andaz that he would like to watch the dream again. Gul Andaz told his father that he could watch it any time because he had married the four fairies and they would be living in their palace along with Gul Andaz’s three previous wives. At this point, the story could have easily ended, leaving Gul Andaz with his seven wives to live happily ever after. But there is more in his story and hence more on the seal.

Gul Andaz embarks on a new journey as he remembers a sleeping fairy for whom he had left his finger ring. He leaves with the hope that she might have woken up. Meanwhile, the fairy did wake up and was surprised to see a ring next to her, inscribed with the name of Gul Andaz. She embarks on a journey to find the ring's owner and, finally, they find each other. Gul Andaz takes her to his kingdom and they get married. Hence, she becomes the eighth queen. The ancient Indus scribe added an eighth woman on the seal, detached from the row of seven – he makes her stand in a tree.

Eight Divine Mothers

We do not know how detached or attached Gul Andaz’s eighth wife was from his previous seven wives. But we do know through older iconography on the temples, of the existence of an eighth mother who was attached to the row of Sapta Matrikas.

Perhaps it was an older cult and, at some period in the past, the eighth matrika was discarded. The Seven Divine Mothers continue to remain sacred and popular because of their virtuous traits, and perhaps because the number seven is considered to be a lucky number. Seven has been a special number in many cultures and heptad (‘haft’ in Persian) has been a symbol of mysticism. At Sindhi wedding ceremonies, Sat Suhagan (seven married women) are called to perform certain rituals for the well-being of the bride and for her to live a happy married life.

Seven Women in Greek and Vedic Mythology

While piecing together the story of the women on the Indus seal, archaeologists have ascribed several different identities. Most popularly known is the version of noted Finnish historian Asko Parpola, who connects them to the cluster of seven stars, the well-known Pleiades. But, whereas in Greek mythology, the seven stars are seven sisters who, when chased by Orion, eventually changed into the stars, Parpola refers to the Vedic myth,"The Pleiades holds a prominent place as the mothers or wet nurses of the infant in one of the most ancient and central Hindu myths, that of the birth of the War God Rudra / Skanda, who represents, among other things, the victorious rising sun (and as the vernal sun the new year). The Pleiades are said to have been the wives of the seven sages, who are identified with the seven stars of the Great Bear."

The Pleiades in Hindi are known as Krittika, which means ‘cutter’. In Sindhi, it is known as ‘katiyoon’, which means ‘ones who have been cut’. Gul Andaz literally cuts the heads of the four fairies, and archaeologists have already spotted at least one human head on the seal. Just above the row of seven women and a little below the deity are two hazy images which have been described as a kneeling worshiper and a human head placed on a stand.

Dreams in the Ancient World

The story of Gul Andaz revolves around the interpretation of a dream. Back then, people believed that dreams were mirrors which showed the future. The interpretation of dreams was considered to be a sacred, higher knowledge, the most famous example being the Biblical and the Islamic story in which Joseph was blessed with the gift of interpreting dreams. It was his interpretation of the Pharaoh's dream that got him out of prison and helped him attain a high position in the Egyptian kingdom. An obsession with dreams is more ancient as the archaeological record shows that stories were embedded in dreams even during pre-Biblical times.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest piece of known literature which was written over a long period of time in Mesopotamia, talks about dreams. The epic was inscribed on a large number of clay tablets and most of these were discovered in the ruins of the library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal (669-632 BCE), who lived thousands of years after Gilgamesh but he too is known for his belief in the power of dreams.

The protagonist of the epic, Gilgamesh, is troubled by dreams when he is going with his friend Enkidu to cut the cedar forest. In the end, Gilgamesh’s fears are proven correct and Enkidu is killed by the gods. After the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh embarks on a new journey, to search for eternal life. Tablet number nine of the epic speaks of a ‘faraway’ land that Gilgamesh had reached and that land had “trees laden with jewels.”

When Samuel Noah Kramer, the well-known Assyriologist and an authority on Gilgamesh, came across a tablet describing Dilmun, a paradisiacal land in the east of Sumer, he identified it with the Indus region. He even visited Pakistan to test his hypothesis and later, in the ’60s, his student George Dales with his wife Barbara came to survey the Makran coast. Dales wrote an account titled In Search of Paradise: Survey of the Makran Coast.

“Trees laden with jewels” may be a fantasy but the fact that the Indus region was rich in trees, and that wood was highly valued in Mesopotamia, has been authenticated by archaeological and textual evidence. So the two civilizations were not only connected through trade and timber but they also lived under the common fears and joys of dreams.

What is the value of their dreams today? For me, Gul Andaz’s dream story helped understand at least three-quarters of a story engraved on one of the narrative seals discovered from Mohen jo Daro. As for the tangible value of Gilgamesh’s dream? Here’s the BBC story – Looted from the Baghdad Museum during the Gulf War of 1991 and returned to Iraq in 2021, Gilgamesh’s Dream Tablet has been valued at $1.7 million! Written in the Akkadian language in the cuneiform script, it records part of a dream that Gilgamesh narrates to his mother!

Parveen Talpur is a writer, historian and archaeologist, whose area of study is the Indus Civilization. She has extensively researched the decipherment of Indus signs and symbols, and has authored a book titled Indus Seals (2600-1900 BCE) Beyond Geometry (2017).

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