The sign board at Dholavira

While various techniques are being applied to decipher the Indus script, there is an even more fundamental debate on if the Indus people were literate or not. The average length of a seal is five symbols; the longest single-sided inscription has seventeen signs.

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. Thus the seals meant something to the sender and receiver though we are not quite sure what. But did those seals have meaning only to the trading community? The sign board at Dholavira says no.

This signboard — accidently discovered and painstakingly excavated — is large. The board is 3m long and each of the ten signs is “35 cm to 37 cm tall and 25 cm to 27 cm broad.” The width of the board to the specific length was intentional: it fit the northern gate of the citadel. The signs were made of baked gypsum so that it could be seen from the distance.

Since this board was placed in a public place, big enough to be seen by people in the middle and lower town, it is sure that it had some meaning. According to R. S. Bisht, who discovered the board in 1991, “The inscription could stand for the name of the city, the king or the ruling family,”

He also adds

Bisht opined that the Harappans were a literate people. The commanding height at which the 10-sign board had been erected showed that it was meant to be read by all people.

Besides, seals with Indus signs were found everywhere in the city – in the citadel, middle town, lower town, annexe, and so on. It meant a large majority of the people knew how to read and write. The Indus script had been found on pottery as well. Even children wrote on potsherds.

Bisht said: “The argument that literacy was confined to a few people is not correct. You find inscriptions on pottery, bangles and even copper tools. This is not graffiti, which is child’s play. The finest things were available even to the lowest sections of society. The same seals, beads and pottery were found everywhere in the castle, bailey, the middle town and the lower town of the settlement at Dholavira, as if the entire population had wealth. [Inscriptions on stone and wood]

See Also: Stone inscription with Indus signs

Stone inscription with Indus signs


(Indus Signs from a earlier find in Dholavira)

An inscription on stone, with three big Indus signs and possibly a fourth, has been found on the Harappan site of Dholavira in Gujarat.
The discovery is significant because this is the first time that the Indus script has been found engraved on a natural stone in the Indus Valley. The Indus script has so far been found on seals made of steatite, terracotta tablets, ceramics and so on. Dholavira also enjoys the distinction of yielding a spectacularly large Indus script with 10 big signs on wood. This inscription was three-metre long. [Stone inscription with Indus signs found in Gujarat]

Dholavira, located on the island of Khadir in the Rann of Kutch, is among the top five Harappan cities in terms of size. Previously an inscription with ten large size signs of Indus script was found here. This sign board was hung on a wooden plank in front of a large stadium.
It is usually mentioned that if the Indus script indeed did represent something, it must have been for the elite. The sign board at Dholavira refuted that claim. It has also been mentioned quite often that the Harappans never wrote anything on stone. This discovery refutes that claim too.
This new find — the stone with three or four inscriptions — is not really a new find. It was discovered in 1999 and was even mentioned in the 2007 ASI report. Finally in 2010, someone decided to take a look which makes you wonder how many such Indus script pieces must be lying in the basement of various Government institutions.

Pictish writing?

Like the ancestors of Indians, the ancestors of Scots also left a sequence of symbols. For example, “One symbol looks like a dog’s head, for example, while others look like horses, trumpets, mirrors, combs, stags, weapons and crosses.” Like the Harappan symbols these ancient Scottish symbols — known as Pictish — has not be deciphered. The questions are the same? Do they even encode a language? If they don’t encode a language what were they trying to convey?
To analyze the script, the researchers applied Shannon entropy “to study the order, direction, randomness and other characteristics of each engraving.”

The resulting data was compared with that for numerous written languages, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese texts and written Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Ancient Irish, Old Irish and Old Welsh. While the Pictish Stone engravings did not match any of these, they displayed characteristics of writing based on a spoken language.
Although Lee and his team have not yet deciphered the Pictish language, some of the symbols provide intriguing clues. [New Written Language of Ancient Scotland Discovered]

Now does having order, direction and non-randomness indicate that it is a language? Last year there was a paper which calculated the conditional entropy of the Indus script

The new study compared a well-known compilation of Indus texts with linguistic and nonlinguistic samples. The researchers performed calculations on present-day texts of English; texts of the Sumerian language spoken in Mesopotamia during the time of the Indus civilization; texts in Old Tamil, a Dravidian language originating in southern India that some scholars have hypothesized is related to the Indus script; and ancient Sanskrit, one of the earliest members of the Indo-European language family. In each case the authors calculated the conditional entropy, or randomness, of the symbols’ order.
They then repeated the calculations for samples of symbols that are not spoken languages: one in which the placement of symbols was completely random; another in which the placement of symbols followed a strict hierarchy; DNA sequences from the human genome; bacterial protein sequences; and an artificially created linguistic system, the computer programming language Fortran.
Results showed that the Indus inscriptions fell in the middle of the spoken languages and differed from any of the nonlinguistic systems[Indus Script Encodes Language, Reveals New Study Of Ancient Symbols]

Statistical analysis can only show that the symbols had an order. But can this be assumed to be a spoken language? This methodology has been questioned.

The trouble with this form of argument is that it’s heavily dependent on the particular combination of statistical measure and comparison sets that we choose. And the argument becomes especially unconvincing when there’s an obvious alternative choice of comparison set — generated by a simple random process — that would fall squarely on the side of the line that allegedly identifies “written language”. [Pictish writing?]

It could represent a language or a set of ordered symbols to represent a personal seal or something to mark the goods. Since it was created by humans it probably meant something to the person who created it and the person who saw it. While we know the Indus seals were used in an economic context in some cases, it is not clear what the Pictish seals convey.

In Pragati:The Indus colony in Mesopotamia

Someone recently asked why sea voyages were prohibited in India. The answer is simple: sea voyages were not prohibited in India. How else do you explain the Indian Ocean Trading system where merchants — Gujarati vaniyas, Tamil and Telugu chettis, Malabar Mappilas, Saraswats, Navayats — traded in ports from Meleka to Aden? The June 2009 issue of Pragati had an article by Manmadhan Ullatil on this trading network.
But the history of sea voyages is much older; around 2000 B.C.E, there was a Meluhhan (identified as people from Indus region) colony in Mesopotamia. There was also a person who could read Meluhhan and Sumerian or Akkadian which could help in deciphering the Indus script. Read all about it in the latest issue of Pragati. The references can be found here.

The Harappan Volumetric System

One of the functions of ancient scribes was to record economic activity, which would mean keeping count of various trade items; for example, 5 cows, 17 bangles. Hence one of the obvious things to look for in Indus seals are signs which represent numbers.
According to one study based on statistical analysis, “U” is the symbol for 5. The number 6 was written either as “UI” or with six vertical strokes; ten was “UU”. What is interesting is that in Nagari, the sign for 5 is “U” with a tail added to it; “U” in Brahmi denotes pa, the first syllable of panca[1]. The fish symbol, it is proposed, represents a higher number – 10 – and the trident sign, a multiplicative higher number[2].
That was a decade back. Now, based on an analysis of inscriptions on bas-relief tablets, incised tablet texts, and ceramics (pic), there are new proposals.

… indicating that the sign ‘V’ stood for a measure, a long linear stroke equalled 10, two long strokes stood for 20 and a short stroke represented one, according to Bryan Wells, who has been researching the Indus script for more than 20 years.Dr. Wells has proposed that “these sign sequences [sign ‘V’ plus numerals] are various values in the Indus volumetric system. The bas-relief tablets might have been used as ration chits or a form of pseudo-money with the repetitive use of ‘V’ paired with ||, |||, |||| relating to various values in the Indus volumetric system. The larger the ceramic vessel, the more strokes it has. This postulation can be tested by detailed measurements of whole ceramic vessels with clear inscriptions.” [Indus civilisation reveals its volumetric system]

So what is the basic measure here represented by “V” ?

When he measured their volumes, Dr. Wells found that the pot with three long strokes had an estimated volume of 27.30 litres, the vessel with six long strokes 55.56 litres and the one with seven 65.89 litres. Thus, the calculated value of one long stroke was 9.24 or approximately 10 litres.[Indus civilisation reveals its volumetric system]

This means that “V” stands for a specific volume and  one though n long strokes are used to specify the exact values. The most common combinations are VII, VIII and VIIII making it a three tiered system, like the Tall, Grande and Venti at Starbucks. One theory is that this was a measure of grain paid as wages from the granary.
Besides this volumetric system, there is a unit of counting as well. When one long stroke is combined with seven short strokes, it represents 17 (10 + 7) as in 17 bangles. There is a rake sign which is read as 100 and a double rake as 200. Another important point is that, this system is used only in Harappa; bas-relief tablets are common in Harappa than other locations.
Since there are clues that some Indus seals were used in economic activity —  seals found in Lothal warehouse had impressions of a coarse cloth on their reverse  — this find that the tablets were used as ration chits or pseudo-money is not surprising. It would be interesting if this discovery is a key which can unlock other secrets held in the seals and tablets.
References:

  1. Subhash C. Kak, “A FREQUENCY – ANALYSIS – OF – THE – INDUS – SCRIPT – PB – Taylor & Francis,” Cryptologia 12, no. 3 (1988): 129.
  2. Subhash C. Kak, “INDUS – AND – BRAHMI – FURTHER – CONNECTIONS – PB – Taylor & Francis,” Cryptologia 14, no. 2 (1990): 169.

The Indus Colony in Mesopotamia – Part 2

(Ziggurat at Ur)

Read Part 1
Even though direct trade declined, a large number of foreigners stayed back, adopted local customs, and played an important role in Sumerian economy. These foreigners stayed in a village — a Meluhhan village — from 2062 B.C.E; we have documents from this period. This village was located in an area called Lagash in southwestern Mesopotamia which had cities like Girsu, Nina, and a port city and area called Guabba which had the temple of Nin-mar[5]. The Meluhhan village in Guabba and was associated with this temple.
Guabba was probably a harbor town under the jurisdiction of the Girsu/Lagas but by the time of Ur III, it was not near the sea,  but could only be reached by inland waterways.A large number of granaries existed in Guabba where the temple was located. The granaries had to deliver barley and the Meluhhan village granary was one of them[10][11].
Thanks to the meticulous record keeping by the Sumerians we get a good picture of what these Meluhhans did. In 2062 B.C.E, a scribe of the builders received barley from the Meluhhan village. In 2057 B.C.E, there is account of grain delivery, the details of which is mentioned against a tablet of one Ur-Lama, son of Meluhha; the inventory of barley deposits in 2047 B.C.E mentions the quantity from the Meluhhan village. By 2046 B.C.E, there is a debt note:Ur-Lama, son of Meluhha has to recompense some wool. In 2045 B.C.E, the list of grain rations mentions the son of Meluhha, who was the serf of the Nanse temple from the delta[10][11].
During the Akkadian times, the Meluhhans were considered as foreigners, but by Ur III period they became part of society – paying tax and distributing grain — like other Sumerian villages. Compared to other towns and villages, the amount of grain delivered by the Meluhhan village was quite high. Between 1981-1973 BC, Ur was ruled by Amar-Sin and between 1972-1964 BC by his brother Shu-Sin. During the sixth year of the former and eighth year of the latter, barley was delivered only by the Meluhhan granary. Maybe the Meluhhan granaries were bigger or there was a third millennium jaziya[11].
Besides the granary, few people of Guabba — 4272 women and 1800 children — worked in the weaving sector. The Indus region was famous for cotton since 4000 B.C.E: one of the earliest evidence for exports from the subcontinent is Baluchistan cotton which was found in Jordan. So probably the residents of Guabba were skilled weavers from the Indus region[11].
Besides weavers, the village also had shepherds; the Ur III texts also mention a Meluhhan goat. The temple of Ninmar had two gardens out of which one was Meluhhan. This was probably a garden planted with fruit trees from Meluhha and provided fruits for the goddess. Also by the Ur III period, the Meluhhans had adopted Sumerian names. It seems the overseer of the Nanshe temple was a Meluhhan and there was a Meluhhan worker in the temple. Thus instead of following their religious traditions, the Meluhhans adopted the Sumerian ones[11].
Even though we have a better idea of the Meluhhans in Mesopotamia, these texts don’t help us in identifying Meluhha; We don’t know how far it was from Ur. Also no where in the texts the Meluhhans are mentioned in being in touch with their homeland. There is a mention of a Meluhhan skipper, but he was involved in domestic trade.
The Language Turner

(Cuneiform letter to King of Lagash)

Few years back, Gregory L. Possehl, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, was reading Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, when he discovered a reference to a personal seal of a Meluhhan translator — Shu-ilishu — who lived in Mesopotamia. Possehl tracked down a photograph of the seal as well as got a fresh impression from the original seal (pic). The seal was dated from Late Akkadian (2200 – 2113 B.C.E) to Ur III (2113–2004 B.C.E)[3].
Think about this: Around 4000 years back, there was a man in Mesopotamia who could speak Meluhhan as well as Sumerian or Akkadian. He could read those Indus tablets. This is not surprising since the Meluhhan merchants would have handled the imports from Meluhha and exported Mesopotamian goods to their homeland. Since the translator worked with Meluhhans and Mesopotamians, he would need to speak multiple languages.
This suggests that there is probably a bi-lingual tablet somewhere in the region where Shu-ilishu lived. If such a tablet is found, it could be the Rosetta stone which would solve a 134 year old mystery forever. We will know if the Indus people were literate or illiterate, spoke some variant of Indo-Aryan or proto-Dravidian or Klingon. This find could end the dispute over the indentity of the Harappans.
While no bi-lingual seal has been found so far, various Indus seals have been found in Mesopotamia. G.R. Hunter, who in 1934 concluded that Brahmi was derived from Indus script, observed that square Indus seals could be in Indus language while the circular ones, though in Indus script, could be encoding a non-Indus language. He has a reason for suggesting this: there is one particular circular Mesopotamian seal which has five Indus signs in a sequence not seen before; a square seal found in Kish was similar to the Indus ones[10].
That has not helped in decipherment. The number of Indus seals found in Mesopotamia are not too many. About thirty seals have been found of which only ten can be dated with certanity. With trade relations lasting centuries this is a disappointing count. So our hope of finding a bi-lingual tablet depends on finding a Sumerian cuneiform tablet.
Another clue could come from the translations of Ur III texts. Mesopotamians were prolific writers: We know what Sargon of Akkad wrote; we can read the seal of Queen Puabi; there are numerous texts which describe in detail how much tax was paid, debt was kept and who broke whose tooth. Due to this meticulous record keeping we can reconstruct the history of people from the Indian subcontinent in Mesopotamia during the period when Khufu was building the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The news about the Meluhhan village came in a paper published in 1977 based on ten Ur III texts from Lagash/Girsu[10]. Last year there was another update based on the translations of 44 texts which has 48 references to Meluhha. The text which connects the Meluhhan village with Guabba is located in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and was first published in 1912; no one noticed the connection till recently. Hopefully with revived interest in this topic, scholars will keep an eye for such clues which will help us solve this puzzle.
Notes:

  1. The place Ur is important in the Abrahamic religions since it is  the birth place of Abraham. According to tradition Abraham lived from 1812 B.C.E to 1637 B.C.E. Since there is evidence for the granary delivering grain between 1981-1973 B.C.E and also between 1972-1964 B.C.E, it is possible that Meluhhans were around during Abraham’s time as well. That is if Abraham is a real historical character. According to Bible’s Buried Secrets — a historical analysis of the Hebrew Bible — the Babylonians exiled the Caananites in 586 B.C.E. It was while living in Babylon, near Ur, that a scribe, named “P” created the Abraham story to enforce the concept of the covenant.
  2. Many thanks to Hari and Ranjith P for their help in this research.
  3. Images from Wikipedia.

References:

  1. Iraq’s ancient past at University of Pennysylvania
  2. The Middle Asian Interaction Sphere by Gregory L. Possehl
  3. Shu-ilishu’s Cylinder Seal by Gregory L. Possehl
  4. Dionisius A. Agius, Classic ships of Islam(BRILL, 2008).
  5. Charles Keith Maisels, The emergence of civilization (Taylor & Francis, 1990).
  6. Hammurabi (King of Babylonia.), (University of Chicago Press, 1904).
  7. Asko Parpola, The Horse and the Language of the Indus Civilization,in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R. Trautmann (Oxford University Press, USA), 234-236.
  8. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  9. Michael Roaf, The Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East (Facts on File, 1990).
  10. Simo Parpola, Asko Parpola, and Robert H. Brunswig, “The Meluḫḫa Village: Evidence of Acculturation of Harappan Traders in Late Third Millennium Mesopotamia?,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 20, no. 2 (May 1977): 129-165.
  11. P.S Vermaak, “Guabba, the Meluhhan village in Mesopotamia,” Journal for Semitics 17, no. 2 (2008): 553 – 570.

The Indus Colony in Mesopotamia – Part 1

(Mesopotamia in 2300 B.C.E)

After World War 1, the British Museum and the Penn Museum decided to excavate in Iraq. Since Iraq was under the British mandate, the sites were easily accessible; the only issue was to find the best place to dig. The approval had to come from Britain’s colonial office headed by one Winston Churchill and  Assistant Secretary and Advisor on Arab Affairs, T.E.Lawrence. For the excavation, they picked  Charles Leonard Woolley as the director; Lawrence had worked with Woolley during an excavation in Carchemish, Syria before he ran through Arabia like an Energizer bunny who had drowned a few Red Bulls. One of Woolley’s assistants during the third season of excavations was Max Mallowan, who met his future wife in Mesopotamia –  Agatha Christie[1].
The expedition started work in 1922 and one of their major discoveries was the Royal Cemetery of Ur which belonged to the First Dynasty. Sir Leonard Woolley excavated more than a thousand graves dating between 2600 – 2400 B.C.E out of which seventeen were royal tombs and in one he  found a forty year old, five foot tall woman who was given an elaborate burial. We know this woman as Queen Puabi from one of the three cylinder seals found on her body. She was accompanied in her death by handmaidens and warriors, who were put to death, not by poisoning, but by driving a pike into their heads.
An interesting item from Queen Puabi’s tomb was a cloak of beads, made from carnelian beads (pic), which comes from the Indus region[2]. Thus a queen who lived in Southern Iraq, 4500 years back, was able to obtain beads from the Indus Valley region through the trading hubs of the ancient world.
But there are questions:

  • Who bought these beads to Ur?
  • What do we know about these traders? Were they Harappans or middle men from Bahrain/Qatar/Iran?
  • Can these traders help us in deciphering the Indus script?

Off to Mesopotamia
To put the Indus influence in Mesopotamia in context, we first need to understand the difference between Sumer, Akkad, Ur, Puabi, Sargon, Gudea, and Guabba. A good starting point is 2900 B.C.E when there were many city-states ruled by individual kings who were wealthy enough to import luxury goods and powerful  enough to give offers to their employees which they could not refuse (remember the pike).
Then at some point, the region became divided into Sumer and Akkad, which were not political entities, but collections of city-states speaking two different languages. Out of these two, Sumerian is unrelated to any other language while Akkadian is the ancestor of languages like Assyrian and is related to Hebrew and Arabic. The Akkadians and Sumerians remained in close contact, borrowing words from each other. The Akkadians also adopted the Sumerian script: Sometimes with short inscriptions it is hard to tell if the language is Akkadian or Sumerian. In 2270 B.C.E Sargon combined the region to create the Akkadian Empire[9].
Sargon’s birth story is an interesting one, especially to Indians. His mother, a priestess, conceived him in secret with an unknown father. She then set him adrift in a basket sealed with bitumen in the Euphrates. The river then took him to Akki the gardener who bought him up as his own son. Sounds familiar?

(Copper head from Sargonic Period)

We don’t know how Sargon looked like, but we have a life size copper head of what is most likely his grand son, created using the Lost-Wax method. But it is in Sargon’s time that we hear about Meluhhans, identified as people from the Indus region, for the first time. He boasted about ships from Dilmun, Magan and Meluhha docking in the quay of Akkad[4]. There is also a tablet dating to 2200 B.C.E which mentions an Akkadian who was the holder of Meluhhan ships: large boats that were transporting precious metals and gem stones[10].
There is also a text dating to this period which mentions that Lu-Sunzida, a man of Meluhha, paid 10 shekels of silver to Urur, son of Amar-luku as a payment for a broken tooth. This law seems to be an earlier version of the code of Hammurabi (1792 – 1750 B.C.E), which states that “if one knocks out the tooth of a freeman, he shall pay one-third mana of silver[6].”
When the name Lu-Sunzida is translated into Sumerian it means ‘man of just buffalo-cow’ which is meaningless; the Sumerians don’t have any cultural context for using the buffalo. But the people of India definitely had: the water buffalo is an important concept in Rg Veda (1.164: 41-42)

41 Forming the water-floods, the buffalo hath lowed, one-footed or two-footed or four-footed, she, Who hath become eight-footed or hath got nine feet, the thousand-syllabled in the sublimest heaven. 42 From her descend in streams the seas of water; thereby the world’s four regions have their being, Thence flows the imperishable flood and thence the universe hath life.[HYMN CLXIV. Vi]

This link between Lu-Sunzida and the earliest layers of Rg Veda was noted by Asko Parpola, who suggested that the name could have been a direct translation from Indus to Sumerian[10]. Does this mean that the Vedic people were contemporaries of the Akkadians violating the lakshmana rekha of 1500 B.C.E?
Not so fast. Listen to the explanation for this which is similar to the one which works around the problem of the discovery of real horse bones in Surkotada. According to this explanation, two Indo-Aryan groups — the Dasas and Panis — arrived around 2100 B.C.E from the steppes via Central Asia bringing horses with them. If the Indo-Aryans arrived earlier does this mean that the date of Rg Veda can be pushed to an earlier date than 1200 B.C.E? The theory says, the folks who came in 2100 B.C.E were not the composers of the Veda; they came in a second wave, a couple of centuries later[7][8]. So according to Parpola, the name Lu-Sunzida  could refer to the culture of those early arrivals — the Dasas, Vratyas, Mlecchas — who occupied the Indus region before the composers of Vedas. Thus Meluhha could be an adaptation of the Sanskrit word Mleccha[10].
Following the decline of the Akkadian dynasty founded by Sargon, city states like Lagash in the south gained independence and in 2144 B.C.E, Gudea became the town-king or governor. Direct sea trade, which had been active during Sargon’s time, 150 years back, between Meluhha and Mesopotamia was happening at this time too: Meluhhans came from their country to supply wood and raw materials for the construction of the main temple of Gudea’s capital as well as red stones and luxury goods.
Following the Akkadian period (2300 – 2150 B.C.E), there was a Sumerian renaissance resulting in the Third Dynasty of Ur, usually mentioned as Ur III Empire.  It was during the Ur III period that one of the most famous landmarks in Iraq — the Ziggurat of Ur — was built. The Sumerian King Ur-Nammu who built the ziggurat, which stood in the temple complex of the moon god Nanna, appointed his daughter as the high priestess. This was a practice started by Sargon and it continued till the 6th century B.C.E.
Various city states like Gudea’s Lagash ended with the emergence of Ur III state, but these political changes did not affect trade, which continued as usual with one difference.The direct trade by Meluhhans on Meluhhan ships reduced — there is a decline in Indus artifacts in Mesopotamia —-  instead goods were bought by the middlemen in Dilmun. One reason is that by the time of Ur III the de-urbanization of Harappa was happening. While trade from Harappa declined, trade from ports in Gujarat boomed via the middlemen bringing in various kinds of Meluhhan wood, some of which were used to make special thrones with ivory inlays.
In Part 2, we will look at what these Meluhhans did following the decline of direct trade.
Notes:

  1. This post is based mostly on two papers, [10] Simo Parpola, Asko Parpola, and Robert H. Brunswig, “The Meluḫḫa Village: Evidence of Acculturation of Harappan Traders in Late Third Millennium Mesopotamia?,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 20, no. 2 (May 1977): 129-165 and [11] P.S Vermaak, “Guabba, the Meluhhan village in Mesopotamia,” Journal for Semitics 17, no. 2 (2008): 553 – 570.
  2. References will be published at the end of Part 2
  3. Images from Wikipedia

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.
Continue reading “The Indus Script – Analysis”

The Indus Script – Decipherments

(Asokan inscription in Brahmi)

Read Part 1
When say “deciphering the Indus script” there are two aspects to it. The first is the structural analysis which looks at the signs which are used the most, the relationship between the signs etc and the second is assigning various sounds to the symbols to attempt a reading.
Dravidian
In 1968, the Russian linguist Yuri  Knorozov who assisted in the Battle of Berlin and later decoded the Mayan script found internal structures in the Indus seals using software analysis. Based on that he read the text as proto-Dravidian. One of the signs in the Indus script is that of a man carrying a stick. This for Knorozov  represented the posture of Yama or Bhairava hence he thought it was one of the predecessors of one of such gods. He also read the script and one such reading is ‘[day of the [god] -guardian honored leader, lightning of the cloud worthy hero’. The criticism of Knorozov is that while his analysis was useful, the reading was pure guess work[1].
But how did Dravidians, who currently live in the four Southern states, end up in the Indus Valley? According to one version, Proto-Dravidian speakers moved into the Indus Valley from Iran some time between 6500 and 3000 B.C.E. These people, who derived Proto-Dravidian from Proto-Elamite-Dravidian, developed the Indus culture over a period of 2000 – 4000 years[1]. When the Indo-Aryans arrived, sometime after the collapse of the Indus Valley, Dravidian was the dominant language.
Continue reading “The Indus Script – Decipherments”

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.
Seals
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?

Continue reading “The Indus Script – Introduction”