The Indus Script – Introduction

(Lothal, according to the ASI)

4000 year back, in Lothal, Gujarat, a merchant walked from his home in the lower town towards the wharf. As he walked past the bead factory, he saw the artisans already at work there; some of these beads were in demand in lands as far away as Mesopotamia. Crossing the public drain and the acropolis he reached the wharf. There were quite a few ships waiting to carry goods to Dilmun, Ur, and Lagash.
He glanced to his left, in the direction of the worker’s barracks, located at the far end of the wharf and quickly walked to the opposite end – towards the warehouse. All the goods were bundled and tied as expected. As he walked to the first bundle, one of his workers put some wet clay on the rope. He took a rectangular seal from the folds of his dress and pressed it hard on the clay. Satisfied with the impression, he moved on to the next bundle. When the recipient got the shipment, he would know exactly what is contained.
There are good reasons to believe that such a scenario could have happened. One probable use of Indus seals was  in economic activity; the seals found in Lothal had impressions of a coarse cloth on their reverse and sometimes several seals were used to mark the goods. Besides this, there is enough evidence of trade relations between the Harappans and Mesopotamia going far back to the time of Sargon of Akkad (2270 – 2215 B.C.E) and even before that to 4000 B.C.E with the find of Baluchistan cotton in Jordan.
In 1875, Major-General Clark, who was the Commissioner of Awadh, discovered the first seal which had the engraving of a hump-less bull and six signs above it in Harappa[3]. 134 years later we don’t know what is written on those seals; there are many decipherments, but no consensus. While papers are coming out, applying various statistical methods to find out if the Indus seals encode a linguistic system, there is another debate over if these small palm size steatite seals with random looking inscriptions represent Indo-European, proto-Dravidian, Munda or some other language.
Why is decoding the Indus script and language so hard when Egyptian hieroglyphics, Linear B and cuneiform have been deciphered? In the case of Egyptian hieroglyphics and cuneiform there was bi-lingual encoding, like the Rosetta stone, which helped. When it comes to the Indus, which is an unknown script representing an unknown language, we don’t have that luxury. Linear B was deciphered without bi-lingual text which gives hope, but then Indus seals are short. The average length of a seal is 5; the longest single sided inscription has seventeen signs. With such data, deciphering the seal is a hard task.
When it comes to the Indus seals we want answers to these questions:

  • What is the script?
  • What is the language?
  • What is the subject matter?
  • Were the Harappans Vedic people or Dravidians?

Before mozying along with various techniques, what can the archaeology tell us? We know that the seals come in various shapes — square, rectangle, circle, cylinder — but, square was the most common shape. The signs were found not just on seals, but also on engraved copper wafers, ceramic vessels, pot sherds, bangles, beads, and ivory rods. From the various seals found at Kalibangan, Lothal and Mohenjo-daro, it is evident that they were used to make impressions on wet clay for sealing shipments. Sometimes several seals were needed for one impression; one inscription in Kalibangan was made from four seal impression[1]

If the seals were used in economic activity, it could list trade goods, trading partners, and destinations. It could also indicate quantities of goods and clan names of the traders. But if they were not trade related, it could be invocation to gods, or identification sewn to clothes containing name, title, status and lineage[1].

(Seal Impression)

While seals have been found from all the major Harappan sites, there are few noticeable differences. For example single occurrence signs occur more in Mohenjo-daro than Harappa, Lothal and other sites. Certain signs which occur on bas relief tablets are found more in Harappa because there are more bas relief tablets in Harappa. While we tend to think of the Indus Civilization as homogeneous with same style of town planning and same set of weights and measures, these differences might be evidence of difference in regional dialect.
The next step is to classify the script based on the number of signs. Since Indus has around 400 signs, it can be classified as logo-syllabic similar to Sumerian cuneiform. Even ancient scripts like Sumerian, Linear B, Mayan, and Egyptian are logo-syllabic, but they don’t have identical structures which we can use to decipher the Indus[1]. This also implies that the script is an indigenous development[4].
Another important question is about the direction of writing. Most of the seals were written from right to left; there is a crowding of letters in the left when the writer ran out of space or wide space when the scribe did not have enough to write[1]. In fact 83% of the seals are written from right to left and only 7% were found which indicate a left to right writing[8]. There are also some samples which are  boustrophedonic (left to right followed by right to left)[1]. One theory suggests that texts which were written for the local population, like the sign board found in Dholavira, were written from left to right, while trade seals were written  from right to left to be in sync with the writing in Sumer and Akkad[8].

Last month, for the International Conference on Classical Tamil which was held in Chennai, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi unveiled a logo which had seven signs from the Indus Valley civilization. The Chief Minister is one of the many who believe that Indus Valley culture was Dravidian and these Dravidians were then forced down south by the invading/migrating Indo-Aryans. You can’t blame Karunanidhi for saying it; he is simply repeating what Rev. Stevenson wrote in 1848 and 1851 and B. H. Hodgson in 1848[2].

Deciphering the Indus script is important not just for those who argue for a Dravidian Harappa, but for those who argue that Harappans were Vedic people as well. The composers of Rg Veda knew Saraswati as a mighty river which is believed to be the Ghaggar-Hakra. Around 1900 B.C.E Ghaggar-Hakra dried up and this triggered a migration to Gujarat and the Gangetic plains. Now if it turns out that the language of Harappa was not Indo-Aryan, then it would prove beyond doubt that the Harappans were not the Vedic people or at least the urban Harappans were not.
(To be continued)

In Part 2, we will look at different attempts at decoding the signs. Part 3 will analyze various possibilities and debunk some fantasy tales.

  1. Bryan. Wells, “An introduction to Indus writing /–by Bryan Wells.” (Ann Arbor, Mich. :UMI,, 2001), ScientificCommons.
  2. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  3. Kamil V. Zvelebil, “Decipherments of the Indus Script,” in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R. Trautmann (Oxford University Press, USA), 254 – 271.
  4. Jane Mcintosh, A Peaceful Realm : The Rise And Fall of the Indus Civilization (Basic Books, 2001).
  5. Michel Danino, “A Dravido-Harappan Connection? The issue of Methodology.,” Indus Civilization and Tamil Language (2009): 70 – 81.
  6. Subhash C. Kak, “A FREQUENCY – ANALYSIS – OF – THE – INDUS – SCRIPT,” Cryptologia 12, no. 3 (1988): 129.
  7. Subhash C. Kak, “INDUS – AND – BRAHMI – FURTHER – CONNECTIONS” Cryptologia 14, no. 2 (1990): 169.
  8. Subhash C. Kak, “AN – INDUS-SARASVATI SIGNBOARD,” Cryptologia 20, no. 3 (1996): 275.

(Images via Wikipedia)

10 thoughts on “The Indus Script – Introduction

  1. Now if it turns out that the language of Harappa was not Indo-Aryan, then it would prove beyond doubt that the Harappans were not the Vedic people or at least the urban Harappans were not.
    Why is there a implied assumption in this statement that IVC was a indo aryan ? This is the state of research in India …:-(

  2. Rajan: Atleast in academic circles, it is quite the opposite. There is an implied assumption that IVC is Dravidian (or atleast Non-Aryan). Anyone who claims that the IVC may have been a Vedic culture is often branded as a Hindu nationalist fanatic.
    I’m not familiar with the research in the area to pass comments on the plausibility of any of the theories. However, I’m not sure if the conventional wisdom (which claims that the IVC is non-Aryan and preceded the vedic civilization) meets a common-sense standard. I find it a little difficult to believe that a sophisticated indigenous urban civilization could vanish altogether and be replaced by a new alien culture that was supposedly pastoral and had nothing in common with the IVC.
    I believe that the philological evidence must reconcile with the archeological evidence for any theory to pass muster. There is a great deal of archeological evidence on the IVC. However, there is no literary evidence on the same. It is difficult to believe that such a sophisticated urban culture did not have a literary tradition of any kind(be it in the form of hymns/poems/legends). In contrast, the Vedic civilization is rich in terms of a literary tradition (though a lot of it wasn’t written down), but poor in terms of archeological artefacts.
    Suppose the IVC was partly Vedic, this puzzle can be resolved. The Vedic literature could well be the literary complement to the rich archeological evidence we have on the IVC.
    However, for this theory to hold true, the Vedas must be dated around 2500 BC. But most historians date them circa 1500 BC 😐

    1. Srikanth,
      One of the possibilities mentioned in Edwin Bryant’s book is what you mentioned – co-existence. According to this model, the Vedic people who lived in a non-urban setting could have lived outside the major cities of Indus Valley. Then again it has to reconcile with linguistic and archaeological evidence. That is an ongoing work with lot of noise.
      The Dravidian argument for IVC is not fool proof, even though most decipherments of Indus script favours a Dravidian script. I will deal with them in Part 3 which should be out on Thu/Fri.

  3. I have read some where that there is one to one correlation of indus script and Easter island script. How good is that statement ? will that knowledge help in deciphering indus script ?

    1. Sankar, Both the Indus and Easter Island scripts are undeciphered. During my recent reading for these posts, I did not see any mention of this correlation.
      But then there are more than 50 decipherments out there and so this could be one of them.

  4. Interesting discussion is taking place among the scholars concerned (mentioned above here) about the decipherment of IVC pictograms, signs and symbols and other issues.
    Interested may visit, join and offer your critical comments!

  5. The piczo site linked above is gone, so persons interested in the Indus Sign List it featured may visit the ‘Indus Script Dictionary’ site at Facebook.

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