Myths of Indus script

The world of scholars was totally ignorant about the culture known as Indus Valley Civilization or Harappa Culture till the early twenties of this century. The excavations at Mohenjodaro in Sind and at Harappa in Panjab (now in Pakistan) in 1922-23 and later and the discovery of numerous steatite seals in these excavations pushed back, at one stroke, the history of Indian Civilization including writing to the third millennium before Christ. After partition of India in 1947 when Mohenjodaro and Harappa went to Pakistan, similar sites in Eastern Panjab, Western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat were discovered. Of these Ka#liban#gan in Rajasthan and Lothal in Gujarat are important ones which have also yielded seals (and sealings) and have contributed much in establishing the chronological sequence of early and late phases of Harappan Culture. During the last fifty years and more, different views have been expressed by scholars about the authors of this great and highly developed culture which is comparable to that of Sumer, Babylon, Egypt and Assyria. And the key to the understanding of it lies in the decipherment of the writing on the seals and sealings. But unfortunately, the decipherment of this writing has defied the attempts of several scholars during the past fifty years and more. While some scholars think that this writing is of indigenous origin, others feel that it is of foreign origin. Even amongst those who think of indigenous origin, one set of scholars propound the theory of Dravidian origin while the other set put forth the theory of Aryan origin. These different views may be briefly mentioned here.

As stated above, the Indus script appears on a large number of steatite seals which are beautifully prepared. From Lothal in Gujarat some sealings are also found. From these sealings, which are found in association with packing material:; such as cloth, matting and twisted cords, it has been suggested that the sealings were used as labels and affixed to the packages of goods were thus of commercial or merchandise value10.

Waddel was one of the earliest scholars to attempt the decipherment of the Indus script. He thought that the writing represents the Sumerian script and, based on the identity of Sumerians with Aryans, he read the names of Vedic and Epic persons11 . Pran Nath assigned alphabetic values to the script and suggested their connection with the later Bra#hmi# script12. Sankaranand and Barua also thought that the script was alphabetic. Sudhansu Kumar Ray also held a similar view. Hrozny tried to connect the script with the Hittite language. But Heras suggested that the script is picto-phonographic and connected it with Dravidian languages reading old Tamil on the seals. Hevesy sought to establish similarity between the Indus script and the script of the Eastern Islands in the Pacific ocean. Hunter felt that the Indus script is derived -partly from Egyptian script and partly from Mesopotamian script. Flinders Petrie also connected the Indus script with the Egyptian hieroglyphs and thought that the seals contained only the titles and not the names of the officials. He also assumed that the symbols were ideographs while Meriggi thought that while symbols were ideograms, others were phonemes so that the writing was of ideo-phonographic system. Amongst other early scholars who have attempted to read the Indus script may be mentioned Gadd, Sydney Smith and Langdon13 . David Diringer remarks "it seems obvious that the Indus Valley script which is rather schematic and linear on the extant inscriptions, was originally pictographic but it is impossible to decide whether it was truly indigenous or imported"14.

The above discussion would show how scholars are holding different views regarding the Indus script and how difficult the problem of decipherment of this script has been during the last several years. It is possible to decipher an unknown language in a known script or a known language in an unknown script. But in regard to Indus script, it is a case of deciphering an unknown language in an unknown script and hence it has baffled and defied the attempts of many a well-known scriptologist. For the success of such an attempt certain points of contact are necessary15. For example, the script of the Egyptian hieroglyphs remained undeciphered for a very long period until the discovery of the famous 'Rosetta Stone' inscription in 1799 by the French engineer Bouchard at the time of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt. This sensational discovery proved to be a turning point in understanding the nature of the hieroglyphic script, because the Rosetta Stone contained inscriptions in three different kinds of script, viz., hieroglyphic, demotic (or local script) and Greek. With the help of the Greek text attempts to decipher the other two scripts were made by pioneers like the French orientalist Silvestre de Sacy and the Swedish diplomat Akerblad. And it was left to the fortune and credit of Sacy's pupil and French scholar J. Fr. Champollion to finally and conclusively decipher the inscriptions of the Rosetta Stone in 1821-2216. Again, the decipherment of the Cretan Linear B inscription, whose language was unknown and for which no bilingual text was available, was made possible for Ventris and Chadwick by the existence of, similar scripts n Cypriot and in Greek mainland written in Greek language17. Similarly some points of contact are necessary to find a satisfactory solution to the problem of the decipherment of the Indus script like the biscriptal or bilingual inscriptions.We shall now review the recent attempts made by Indian and foreign scholars about the decipherment of the Indus or Harappan script. Amongst the foreign scholars, the Russian team consisting of Knorozov, Volcok and Gurov may be mentioned. They are credited to have taken the help of the computer machines. They assign word value to the signs and suggest that the script belonged to the Dravidian family of languages18. The Finnish team of scholars led by Asko Parpola also believed the language of the Indus script to be Dravidian. Amongst the Indian scholars I. Mahadevan and S.R. Rao have made a detailed study of the problem19. While the former is inclined to attribute the script to be Dravidian, the latter thinks it to be pre-Vedic. Mahadevan has also made use of the computer facilities and has attempted to achieve 'word-division' in the script assuming the language to be Dravidian. S.R. Rao claims that his approach is without any presumption and has tried to show that there has been a change in the script from its earlier phase to the later phase in that the number of signs which were more in the earlier period were reduced considerably in the later phase. He compares the signs of this later phase with the symbols of the North Semetic script of a comparative date and by showing similarity between them gives the same phonetic value to the Harappan script that is found in the Semetic script, other words, S.R. Rao suggests that there was evolution of the Indus script from an earlier period or mature peri9d (2500 B.C. to 1500 B.C.) and that the early syllabic-cum-alphabetic writing was disciplined into an alphabetic system by 1500 B.C. He also suggests that the Indus people spoke an Indo-European language which shows close affinity to Indo-Aryan in vocabulary, semantics and phonology. The names of the rulers and chiefs and of countries, sacrifices and divinities, as read by him, would suggest that the Harappans were the progenitors of the Vedic Aryans.

B.B. Lal has pointed out the difficulties in accepting the views of both I. Mahadevan and S.R. Rao20. Mahadevan himself has changed his views and methods of approach on more than one occasion and we have yet to wait and see what his final views in the matter of decipherment of the Harappan script are. In one of his latest papers entitled 'Study of the Indus Script : A Bilingual Approach'21 he has suggested that the problem should be studied from the point of view of interpreting the ideograms in the light of the Indian historical tradition which has come down to us in two main streams, viz., Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. This theory still remains to be tested by scholars before expressing any opinion.

As regards S.R. Rao's approach, viz., assigning the phonetic values of the Semitic script to the late Harappan script and reading it as pre-Vedic Sanskrit is also not decisive and final. As pointed out by Lal, Rao compares the symbols of the late Harappan with those of the Semitic ones and this material is not enough to arrive at any conclusion. Regarding the vowel sign Rao compares it not with any Semitic sign, since Semitic has no vowel signs, but with Sumerian sign for a following Waddel. And for some signs, Rao suggests different sources, viz., Akkadian and Ugaritic. This will be a difficult proposition. Moreover, while the late Harappan script, as suggested by Rao, has many vowel marks, the- Semitic script is completely devoid of any vowel marks. In justification of his approach, Rao says that he is proceeding from the known script (Semitic) to the unknown script (Harappan). But he is silent about the known origins of both these scripts which are different. While the Harappan is descended from the early Indus script according to Rao himself, the origin of the Semitic script is suggested to be Egyptian. So Rao has to explain at what stage the Semitic script acquired the phonetic values of the Indus script if his theory is to be supported. He has not attempted to answer these questions but has only instituted some comparison between the two scripts and has tried to establish some kind of phonetic relationship. Another defect in Rao's findings is that while he has given his reading as pre-Vedic or Indo-European, he has quoted not a single authority of Indo-European Linguistics or even an authority of Vedic language that the readings given by him can be accepted. In view of what is said above, it is not possible to accept Rao's claim that he has deciphered the Indus script. Of course, every scholar who makes an attempt at decipherment of a new script does claim that he has deciphered, but a new script can be taken as deciphered only when the world of scholars accept his views without any doubt22. So we can say, without any fear of contradiction, that the Indus script has defied the attempt of all scholars so far and has not yet been deciphered just as the Asokan Bra#hmhi# script has been deciphered. The discovery of longer record in the script or a bilingual or biscriptal writing or some definite contact point would help us in finding a satisfactory solution to this unknown script in an unknown language.
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  1. Nice blog. You should partition your post into smaller posts for better viewing.

  2. I have a question here. If the vedic era is older than harappan civilization, the people of Harappa and other ancient cities must have spoken or written only in sanskrit right? Why did they opt for a different style of writing?

  3. Three Points here
    1. Language and script are two different things.
    Today So many languages in Europe use the same script.
    Today Kashmiri, Sindhi, Konkani are written in more than two scripts
    2. Rig Veda is oral and script came later.
    3. Had you ever heard of something called evolution. Scripts evolving. You have assumed that as soon as people start talking, they started writing in advanced scripts.

    1. Moda ji; You are absolutely right in what you are saying. But very earlyy we see words like Grantha, etc in Indian texts, that perhaps indicates of writing system.


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