21 • Five Holy Harlots from the Indus Valley

Mehrgarh, circa 3000 –2500 BC
Size: 13 cm; 13.2 cm; 14.2 cm; 13.5 cm; 12.5 cm
Terracotta, with pigments

Andrew Robinson writes in his survey of the Indus Valley civilization (The Indus, London, 2015): ‘Many of the female and male figurines appear to have been fertility figurines, judging from their nudity.’ The term ‘fertility figurine’ is one that seems to make sense, but relies on a series of suppositions that add up to very little. Why does an overt show of sexuality not represent exactly that? The same tendency is responsible for the ubiquitous labelling of objects as ‘ritual’, simply because their function is unknown. Nobody has described this better than Charles Moore: ‘Telephone boxes … are lovely things. But the question now, in the era of the mobile phone, is “What are they for?” You hardly ever see anyone inside them. Future historians, puzzling over these objects, may conclude that they were wayside religious shrines in which people stuck pictures of naked fertility goddesses to bring them luck.’ (The Spectator, 21 April 2007).

The answer to the question, ‘How do you know they are temple prostitutes?’ is: who else would go around looking like that? The practice exists discreetly to this day in India, but it has a long and distinguished history. In ancient times it was thoroughly regulated, and according to Herodotus, writing disapprovingly in the 5th century bc: every woman in Babylon was obliged to serve for one day at the temple of Mylitta (Aphrodite). The good-looking ones were able to fulfil their obligation rapidly, while those not blessed with beauty sometimes sat waiting for years. In Hammurabi’s code of laws, the rights and good name of female sacred prostitutes were protected; the same legislation that protected married women from slander applied to them, and their children. The emperor Constantine had a policy of closing down the temples of Venus, much to the delight of the priggish early Christian theologians. Modern scholars, particularly female ones, have tried to pass the whole concept off as a 19th-century fantasy, but I think this quintet of bejewelled and busty beauties gives a lie to such puritanical pretensions. If the Church of England reinstated the practice, our churches would be full, society would be less stressed, and religion would be fun again, even beyond what the happiest of clappies can provide.

The problem with this theory of temple prostitution, some might say, is that the excavations at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa have not revealed temple structures such as those of Mesopotamia, which has much puzzled the archaeologists. Nevertheless, religion has been practised without cult buildings in many parts of the world, at least until it became part of a political system. And, therefore, it is quite possible that religious sex in the Indus Valley was a sort of cottage industry, with the advantage of providing a cosy intimacy impossible within the draughty colonnades of temples.