The Indus Script – Analysis

(A letter in cuneiform sent to King of Lagash)

Read Part 1, Part 2.
There are two points the Dravidian camp and the Indo-Aryan camp agree on: the signs are mostly written from right to left and they are logo-syllabic. Bryan Wells was able to decipher the script as Dravidian and even read words from it. Subhash Kak has not deciphered the script, but has shown that it bears similarities to Brahmi script and the language could be an Indo-Aryan one like Prakrit. If we had lengthy sentences in Indus script, we could validate both these claims with confidence.
When it comes to the decipherments, the literature is overwhelmingly in favor of Dravidian, proto-Dravidian or early Kannada-Tamil.  This comes not just from Indian scholars, but also Soviet and Finnish groups which have worked on this problem.Compared to this the Indo-Aryan angle has very little support; most books don’t even mention this possibility.
But is the Dravidian case rock solid? Assume for a moment that Dravidian or proto-Dravidian was spoken by the Harappans, when they lived in the urban settings. Now if Indo-Aryans forced these people — people who lived in well planned cities —  to move to South India, what happened to their urbaneness.? There is not a single Harappan site in any of the South Indian states dating to that period or for that matter any later period. Thus if Dravidians did indeed move from Indus valley to South India, they would have moved from an advanced Bronze Age culture backwards to a Neolithic culture[2][5].  This parallels another explanation where the urban residents of BMAC became pastoral cattle breeders by the time they reached Indus Valley.

What about the Dravidian substratum in Indo-European? This concept has been challenged in the past two decades.  Initially it was thought that there were 500 such words, then it became 380, then 100 and according to one study, it is just one – mayura. There are others who think that there is not even a single loan word from Dravidian and others who think the loan words are from para-Munda[5].
Even if there are loan words, it is in later mandalas of Rg Veda and hence irrelevant to the debate[5]. Also some of the linguistic features which were supposed to have come from Dravidian were found in other Indo-European languages, which had no contact with Dravidian. The corollary is that it is the  Indo-Aryan language which influenced Dravidian. Even if there are similar features, they could come from two languages co-existing rather than one superimposing over the other[2].
Then there is the mystery of Brahui – a Dravidian language spoken in parts of Baluchistan. The assumption is that these were Dravidians who did not move to South India. But it turns out that Brahui was not present in the region during the Indus valley period, but arrived later, probably after the Islamic invasion of India.  Also look at the river names in the region: they all have Indo-Aryan names and not Dravidian ones. In fact there is evidence — from genetic studies and archaeobotany —which suggests a peninsular origin for Dravidians[5]. So how could the Indus Valley people be speaking Dravidian?
It is not just the Indus script which has not been undeciphered: no one knows to read Linear A, Etruscan, Phaistos disk and rongorongo. Also as many such decipherments are going on there is an even fundamental debate going on: do the signs encode a linguistic system?  Statistical analysis can show that the Indus signs have structure – a known fact. But can it prove anything beyond that?
What could put an end to the debate on the language of the Harappans would be the discovery few seals with longer text. But is there a possibility of finding such an object? Consider this: It is not as if the entire region of Harappa — which is much bigger than any of the ancient civilizations — has been excavated. There were some excavations from 1930 – 1940 and then from 1986 onwards. There is still a large area to be excavated.
Another discovery which could put an end to this debate is the discovery of a bi-lingual seal. Since Harappans were trading with the hubs of the ancient world and spoke a different language than the rest of the world, there is the possibility of finding such a seal. Such a Rosetta stone could be found not just in India but also in Iran or Iraq or Bahrain. There is a good chance of finding such a seal near Basra in Iraq; that story is for another post.

  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)

13 thoughts on “The Indus Script – Analysis

  1. Wonderful series of unusually objective posts.
    A few observations –
    – There is a widely held belief that even the “Dravidians” weren’t originally from the peninsular region but outsiders who migrated to India a a couple of millenia before the Indo Aryans. I don’t find this convincing enough. If they migrated down south after the Aryan incursions, how come they turned primitive again and lost all the knowledge gained over a period of two or three millenia. As far as I know, there is no evidence of urban culture down south prior to the Sangam period (post 200BC). Correct me if I’m wrong.
    What’s likelier is that the Dravidians were indeed indigenous tribes spread across the subcontinent. But with considerable disparity in the degree of civilization among the tribes in different regions.
    – Also, most scholars seem quite positive that the Rg-Veda is not older than 1500 BC. Despite the fact that traditional Indian sources like the Puranas(admittedly not reliable) date them further back in time.
    If the Vedas are indeed a millenia older than we think, then that makes a case for a syncretic IVC with an Indo-Aryan nobility and a largely indigenous population. Could you explain why scholars are so very sure about the dating of the Vedas?

    1. That date 1500 – 1200 BCE comes from various sources.
      – Originally the date of 1200 BCE came from Max Muller’s random statement. Muller actually based his calculations of Kathasaritsagara – a collection of 12th century stories by Somadeva. In fact later in his life, he retracted that date, but that memo never reached India.
      – The Atharva Veda and Satapatha Brahmana mention krsna ayas or iron. Iron appears in archaeological record only between 13th and 10th century BCE. The language of Rg Veda and Atharva Veda does not differ by too many centuries. This would put Rg Veda around 1900 BCE.
      – Remember the Indo-Aryan, not Indo-Iranian or Indo-European, gods mentioned in the Hittite-Mittani treaty which is dated to 16th century. So give a few centuries for migration to India from the Near East and you get to this date.
      – Horse is yet another reason.

  2. By the way, I just read your post on the subject of the Horse. It appears that remains of domesticated horses in the subcontinent have been dated back to the mature Harappan period (2000BC). Still, why do scholars contend that the arrival of the Horse does not precede IVC. Even the dating of the vedas at 1500 BC is unduly influenced by the “horse-factor” right?

  3. “and according to one study, it is just one – mayura”…
    Pray, what word would that be? Certainly not “mayil”, because there is another word that still closer (replace ‘l’ with ‘r’), and I know my tamizh is limited to a few curse words, but I am sure that mayura and the other word dont mean the same 🙂

  4. it doesnt mean the language spoken is dravidian necessarily means the people lived in indus cities were tamils or other south says that over all in india the language spoken at that time is dravidian not indo aryan. if people follow bible here in india they are not europeans or the same to muslims but the religion came from central asia.its the same in here also.the historians only arguing now that the language and religion are indo aryan and the people are the same indians now but they spoke dravidian then.dna analysis of the different castes also proves it as there are no separate dna structure between different caste or race to refer them aryan or dravidian.some people will have 60 to 40% and others will have 40 to 60% of aryan and dravidian please look at the issue separately the people here in the north like rajasthani or gujarathi or bhojpuri are not from central asia they are the aborigines now speaking a alien language from central asia.

  5. Please find my proposed complete solution for the so-called Aryan problem. Part one is a high level overview. Part two is much more interesting
    This is one of the longest research papers published in a peer-reviewed journal since independance.
    The AMT is correct. It just isn ‘ t detailed enough …The IVC is clearly pre-Vedic.!
    Can you please circulate for comments and feedback to the group.
    I have rejected both the Aryan and the Dravidian Harappa hypothesis.
    Please do this in the interest of national unity and send me their comments.
    part two is very important
    > Mirror:
    Links to the journal
    Part one
    Part Two

  6. Even if a small linguistic component is added – rebus principle or punning (Witzel Kyoto, 2009 or Sproat in his presentations) or acriphony is added, it qualifies for full literacy. I assume some ’sound coding’ would have been useful to them atleast on some occasions.. the longest seal is 17 characters non-analomous and 26 characters analomous. I have never said that what Farmer is saying is necessarily fully wrong, but even Parpola has been reading them mostly as logograms with a linguistic component. So how much of what Farmer is saying is new apart from the fact that he popularized the idea? These men have been saying almost the same thing and fighting with each other?Till 2900 BC Egypt and Mesopotamia were considered proto-literate even if their texts are shorter(not non-literate!!!!)- even if there is small difference between the 2 maybe the Indus system was more expressive than Egyptian proto-literate- because conditional entropy, order of signs, combinations probably did play a major role in meaning in the Indus script (Korvink). ????Terminologies pertaining to literacy cannot be changed unless all scholars agree – and any demands to change terminology must be met with suspicion, naturally. Only a very small portion of the IVC has been excavated, you know, 5% maybe! Even Farmer agrees “Judging from modern examples and research in the linguistic history of South Asia, the Indus Valley was probably intensely multi linguistic throughout its history. This may have provided the Indus emblem system with an advantage over ordinary writing as a means of providing the civilization with social cohesion. The fact that the majority of inscriptions rely on a surprisingly small core of symbols suggests that the meaning of Indus signs could have potentially been known by almost or all (ALL!!) of the population, resulting in a pervasive quasiliteracy far beyond that achieved in Mesopotamia or Egypt.” No other civlization mass produced writing or (”writing”!!). Where else did they have public signboards then apart from the Indus?
    I can instead cite Farmer and declare it the most literate civilization on erth. And he and I could be saying the same thing. I say such terms must be avoided. if they had learned how to use the rebus principle , they would have used it whenever the need arose. Seal writing is always short . Sproat’s smoking gun cannot be used to test the stability or the complexity of the system. It has weaknesses. It cannot also be used to prove that the Indus script didn’t have a linguistic component.
    Making fun of ancient people is absolutely disgraceful.
    I hope more Indians take up research. people are taking us for a ride.
    Sujay Rao Mandavilli

  7. The Harappans had the oldest “signboard” in the world, apparently. They mass produced writing (or “writing”) . According to Parpola, 1/10th of
    Mohendodaro (100 square metres) has yielded 2100 seals (with 9000 characters?). Or more than one character per person. I declare the Indus the most literate civilization on earth as every body could ‘read and write’ – Farmer.
    This makes the debate so shallow it is nearly ridiculous. After all what then is the difference beteween the Indus and civilizations which did not yield any trace of writing? History is a subject after all and is taught everywhere in the world. Don’t mislead people deliberately and try to deceive them! We hate those who misrepresent history.
    please find the article below. My comment is at the end.

  8. Please find the response by Steve farmer . He is happy that India is no longer represented in a new book. Then why do they have to be indologists? Let them resign. This is not an isolated instance. This happens with them all the time.
    re: [Indo-Eurasia] BOOKS: Visible Language
    This book is not actually out yet, but when it is, it will be available for sale
    as well as for download free of charge at:
    Some teasers from the exhibition installation are appearing on facebook at
    -Chuck Jones-
    —- Original message —-
    Steve Farmer wrote:
    > New book out from the Oriental Institute, passed on
    > from the Agade List.
    > Note how the so-called “Indus script” — which is
    > certainly not a “script” as linguists view that term — is
    > slowly but surely disappearing from the world of international
    > scholarship. About time, and I’m happy with Michael and Richard
    > to have started that process.
    > Steve

  9. The Aryan Dravidian question is connected with two scientific analyses:I) the concept of backward/forward integration and ii) the age old question of whether events or continuous or discreet. This is most relevant insofar as Hindu India is concerned since while North Indian commonfolk has a continuous unchanged without folklore and written culture for three thousand years the contrary is South with its vast maritime coastline has got discontinuous, written and folklore history which was wantonly omitted to be considered by historians. What the historians are doing in North Indian history is backward integration i.e., first of fix the date of Megasthenes through him understand the concept of Janapadas. Since we don’t have concept of janapadas in Hinduism identify from where they have come from fortunately we are having in Buddhist literature and from proceed to Jainism to Darius/Zend Avesta finally link with Rigveda and compare with it Hittite/Hurrites and other IndoEuropean groups. This is not correct. It has to be admitted that after Satapada Brahmana we don’t have any literature in Sanskrit up to Bhasa whose first drama was Prathigyana Yaugandharaya which relates to Jain king Udayana. Why was Sanskrit dormant for more than eight hundred years? The answer is simple. After Gurjara Prathiharas again the Sanskrit literature became dormant with Hindi taking its place from Nineteenth Century when British consolidated India. The growth of literature in North India is directly related to consolidation of power and raise of merchant class. Whatever language merchant class supported it became powerful. Up to Satavahana period the merchant class preferred Prakrit it ruled the day. From Rudradhaman and Kadamba kings onwards Sanskrit became lingua franca. Due to rise of Kadambas and close association with Gangas/Vakatakas/Gupta’s we find uniform practice of performing sacrifices/Hiranyagarbha/Tulabhara across Deccan and North India. But for Sungas no North Indian king had ever performed any Vedic rites. A curious fact from Sungas is that the concept of Brahma is hate it as gained ground across Eastern/Central/Southwest India who were dichotomic simultaneously encouraging Jainism/Buddhism and vedic rites.The concept of Brahmakshatriyas is well known in Middle East/Egypt/Greek and even Celts and the story of Parashurama is interwoven with other legends. There is curious similarity of Celts whose main weapon is Axe and who were priestly class worshipping trees and forefathers which resembles ancient Tulu land and its progenitor Shri Parasuraman. In Tamil literature Tululand is known to be occupied by Velirs(vel in Tamil means white/Prasurama hails from Brigu family one of the descendants being Sukrachariyar known as Venus and Velli in Tamil – Shukla in Sanskrit meaning white. The well known Velir king being Nannan the name Nannaraja is common across Deccan to Raipur. It is possible that Celts/Chaldeans would have arrived in west coast becoming Nannans and Brahmakshatriya kings from Kadambas/Gangas/Pallavas/Chalukyas and all other minor dynasties with Gothra names. Another curious point is that while Indus sites offers no remains of burial/burn urn chambers we find such chambers throughout west coast in central Maharashtra/Northern Karnataka/Palani hills/Madurai/Tirunelveli region while no such ancient sites were discovered in the entire Tamil region of Cauvery basin. The findings at Puducherry/Pallavaram is not surprising since the influence of Satavahana is already there. The homogeneity of western India from Central Maharashtra can well be noticed from the establishment of merchant guilds called Nagarams in Tamil and close connection between Pudukkottai region and Gokali of Karnataka. Thus the Southern India bearing Cholamandalam was a unified territory from time immemorial and devoid of Dravidian character more connected with maritime trade. The Indus region on the other hand is both agricultural and maritime in nature but in the absence of burial/burn urn chambers it cannot be related to South. Even now the North Indian business community is conspicuous in Kongu and Madurai regions which itself cannot be considered as proof of North Indian concept of Madurai for future historians. The history of Deccan cannot go beyond fifth century BC and connecting Indus and Deccan regions with vast difference in rituals of dead is only for sustaining Info Aryanism and not otherwise. The North Indian ordinary folk is stable continuous with regard to food/attire/culture but the elite North Indian is discreet the emergence of culture relating to growth and decay of mercantile power. On the other hand the culture of South is discontinuous with both elite and folklore changing with influence of maritime coastal trade with regard to literature and also folklore literature. Thus Indus seals will continue to be Indus seals only belonging neither to Indo European or Dravidian groups since both are discreet lacking continuity and backward integration should not be applied to ancient history. Finally the cultural influence among Indo Aryan or Dravidian groups arise out of commercial influence only and can be restricted to areas of mercantile activities and neither they were expansionist nor evangelistic.Any hypothesis on Indus seals is only academic only and let it be Indus language only.

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