Indus script or symbols so far have posed a problem before the scholars because, though, labourously various approaches have been taken to decipher it, still, so far, there is no success. In absence of the Rosetta stone, a bilingual inscription, Indus script could not be read conclusively to help understand the language of the people of those times and who were they. Aryan Invasion or Migration theory had led to some scholars to think the script could belong to the Dravidian speaking people and hence the language of the script could be of Dravid origin. Asko Parpola has devoted his life in the decipherment of the script on this basis. 1 Many Sanskritist scholars rather think the language of Indus script is Vedic Sanskrit and they too have claimed to have deciphered it. 2 However these claims have been refuted outright or even have been called fraudulent. The scholars like Farmer et al have claimed that the signs appearing on the seals are not meant to encode speech but are non-linguistic symbols to serve key religious, political and social functions or serving as formal memory aids. 3 There have been attempts to find origins or similarities of the script with other extant deciphered scripts of the contemporary civilizations, however, those attempts, too, have been failed for there simply is no similar script has ever been located. Decipherment through the computer programs has not yet been successful, the students of TIFR have been able to conclude from the sign combinations appearing on every seal may be meaningful and the writing is highly ordered. 4
Nonetheless, the fact, so far, remains that the Indus script or non-linguist symbols remain as an enigma. However, we need to discuss on the following points, if at all they can help, to take a new approach to solve this riddle.
1. LANGUAGE ISSUE: Aryan invasion theory led some scholars like Parpola to think the displaced population of the Indus Valley was Dravidian. Naturally, he thought that the language spoken in NW area could be none other than Dravidian before invading Aryans subjugated and forced Dravidians out. Some so-called Dravidian in Rig Veda, considered to be loan words, too became one of the foundations of his theory. This is why he made every effort to read Dravidian in every symbol and tried to connect with that language. 5 NS Rajaram and N Jha had also claimed to have deciphered Indus script and its language being Sanskrit. 6 However both the claims so far have not been well received by the scholars. Rather Rajaram’s attempt to forge an Indus seal to prove horse presence in Indus Valley has been a blot on Indian scholarship.
However, it is a fact that the Indus script must be conveying some speech. A speech that was in daily use that only could have been inscribed on the seals and other objects in form of the script. The images appearing on the Indus seals and the scriptural symbols stand apart in design and order. Rather images are far beautiful over the scriptural symbols. Still, almost every seal carries one or more symbol to denote something, which we do not know at the present what it is conveying.
However, let us deal first with the preconceived notions about the immigrant Aryans entering in the subcontinent to enforce their languages. It is not at all a proven fact. Vedic religion came to India through its handful of the preachers but the Rig Vedic language was modified later based on the local Prakrits. Since there is no proof that there ever was any invasion or migration to India hence the displacement of the Dravidians from Indus regions can be outright rejected. There are proofs that there has been an interaction between the people of the Indian subcontinent from ancient times despite their independent linguistic groups. But the major influence would be of the local tongues, those naturally would reflect in the encoded speech, except for the terms for the goods imported from those regions.
The presence of the Sanskrit becomes far more doubtful because there is no proof it existed before first century AD. There is not even a single specimen inscription available that would indicate the existence of even Vedic language prior to third century BC. Vedic language presence in ancient times is moreover a myth based on the hypothetical ideas of language evolutions. The existence of Vedic language prior to Prakrits is merely a hypothesis, presented by PIE migration theorists, to substantiate their theories of origin, but they do not present any physical proof of its existence in support. Moreover, Indus civilization possesses no Vedic cultural element. There are attempts, though, to connect somehow Vedics with the IVC, but they remain only speculative but put forth vehemently!
So, wishful thinking that the Dravidian or Sanskrit language is encoded ion Indus script and attempting to decipher the ancient script on that basis wouldn’t be correct. The failed attempts speak for themselves.
2. There have been attempts to decipher some certain signs, such as fish, arrow and terminal signs. Parpola thinks fish sign actually denotes “min” (for fish) which actually represents the ‘star’ or ‘planet’ in Dravidian languages. The jar sign is most frequently appearing sign in the Indus script. BB Lal thinks the jar sign is quite similar with the various jars found at Kalibangan whereas Parpola thinks it represents the front side of the bull or cow. Frequently occurring at the end are arrow or lance signs which is supposed to be the suffix. 7 There are examples (funny sometimes they might appear) the readers of Indus script have read Hammurabi as Ravan in the script!
However, we can see, this does not help. The Indus people might not have intended from the fish sign the actual “fish” or any cognate for fish or stars in their language. Attempting to derive astrological or mythological elements from the signs too is equally incorrect. One must bear in the mind the purpose of the seals. Unless that is understood properly signs on the seals will remain an insoluble problem forever.
3. Most of the script, single or few more signs, appears on the seals and tablets. Also, we can find that there is a certain chronological evolution in the seal making and even in the script signs, but natural in course of the time. Brahmi and Kharosti, the ancient known scripts of India, too, show the gradual progression in style. Indus script spans from its early Ravi phase (3300 BC) till 1800 BC. Hence the changes in the style come as no surprise.
There is a variety of the seals, from square to button like seals. Some are not intended to be seals, as the inscriptions are not in mirror image, but they could have been used to provide individual identity and rank. Some scholars think they, especially button-seals, could have been used as passports or used as identity cards by the royal officers.
Other inscriptions found so far are on pottery and copper objects. The total signs found in IVC are about 417. Average signs on the seal are 5. It is said that this is not the pictorial script because the Chinese pictorial script has as many as 4000 signs. Because of the brevity of the Indus signs, maximum being 17 of Dholavira signboard and average on the seals being 5, the reading has become almost impossible. Over 5000 short Indus texts are available today waiting for a breakthrough. So far it only is understood that the writing system was right to the left, nothing else. There is a probability that the script was used for other writing as well, such as Royal communication, land records and internal correspondence, but no such specimen has been surfaced so far. Indian writing almost had been on the perishable palm leafs or wooden plates, hence in all probabilities, its finding is almost impossible; if at all it was used for such purposes.
4. Instead of looking for mythological representations from the symbols those occur in the script; let us take another direction to find a way to decipher them.
a. Purpose: The main Purpose of the seals, which appears from the available proofs, was to mark packaged goods, meant for export or inland trade. Also, it is suggested that some seals could have been used to stamp mark of the authority. 8 However, we must distinguish the seals accordingly to find their purpose.
Mostly square seals have been used to make impression on clay or resin-like soft material on the packaged goods. Now there is proof available that the jute bags, besides wooden boxes, were in use to pack the materials. The seals bear, besides script, single animal like unicorn, bull, elephant, tiger and sometimes abstract logo. We can assume that these animal/logo seals could have been representing the identity of the group/city/province or trading guild, just like modern corporate logos.
In India, during Mahajanpada era, the punch marked coins bearing unique symbols, representing their territories along with the different symbols representing the identities of the issuers of the coins and its location of origin was in circulation. The similar practice must have been in vogue in Indus times. The animal or other logos appearing on the seals must have been serving the similar purpose to denote the origin of the supplier (or trading guild) of the packaged goods. So, the animals, even mythical like unicorns, appearing on the seals are not arbitrary but have a specific purpose.
Naturally, then, it would be obvious, apart from the identity of the supplier, to write what good were packed inside of the bags or boxes, for not only knowledge of the transporter but buyer as well. Many of the Indus seals have been found in Mesopotamia, Indus people traded with. The purpose of such square seals, except cylindrical seals, cannot be attributed to just signify elite status or to manifest power and prestige but to represent the identities of the seller’s from the unique symbols and identity of the goods and quantity from the script.
Now, if we now think on the script appearing over the seals, what could it, most possibly, convey?
In all probabilities, the script would denote the goods that were packed in the sealed bags or boxes. The seals were manufactured not to use just once but to make repetitive marks. It also would indicate the volume that could have been traded from IVC. the numeric marks over the seals speak of it, though we so far are unable to understand what the numeric signs would have represented,
Iconography would indicate the origin of the goods and script would inform what was packed. Most probably the quantity also was mentioned. Some seals appear to be having simple numeric marks, though we do not know as yet the figures numeric signs did represent. Some seals appear to have only scriptural signs but no iconography, indicating miscellaneous goods or suppliers. Alternatively, the general produces like cotton and timber; there was no necessity to mark the origin, but the just name of the product and quantity. Such signs, as under, could have been used for general purposes.
Since the purpose of the seals was to mark the merchandise, it would not bear any personal names or any religious or other political information. Rather the seals were made of soft stones and other materials including gold, with the boss at the back to help make the right impression and for repetitive use. This would mean that for the repetitively traded/exported goods such permanent or durable arrangement was necessary. The art of seal making is a wonder in itself.
From above, we only can deduce that the script over the seals must be conveying about the name of the good and quantity packed. The brevity of the script over the seals has only this explanation. Its purpose was limited and it served well with just mentioning names of the goods and its quantity and the literate people of those times could make sense out of it. Trying to find mythological or historical meaning out of the seals becomes thus baseless.
What were most traded goods from Indus Civilization?
Indus people grew cotton extensively, forming a major part of their exports including cloth. Besides copper implements, beads and bead necklaces, crafts, shell bangles etc. too were exported originating from different locations. The beads were made of various semi-precious stones like Carnelian, agates, chalcedonies etc. sourced from the interior of the India as well as from Afghanistan or from further Central Asian regions. Timber, such as Teak and Deodar, also was a major export material to Mesopotamia. Gold, Silver and Tin too formed a part of the export. 9
The Indus people had established their colonies in Mesopotamia and probably in Afghanistan too to establish trade network. The Indus seals have been found in Mesopotamia. So the seals found in Mesopotamia may have been mentioning the imported goods. However, there is no conclusive proof to inform us what Indus people could have been importing from Mesopotamia or its nearby regions. 10 Also, there are indicative proofs that the Mesopotamian traders too would have settled in Indus regions, the way Indus people made independent settlements there, under the common name “Meluha”.
IGC (Indus-Ghaggar Civilization) was spread in the vast region, as large as 12.50 lakh sq. kilometers. The seals have been found almost in the all excavated Indus sites, representing various periods. We know from excavated sites that what material was mainly manufactured or produced from different zones. The flint quarries too have been found to explain the source of the raw materials that were in making many useful items.
If we desire to really decode the script of IVC, we first have to limit our efforts to the seals those were meant for trade. The trading communities always limit their writing to the purpose and not religious discourses. The motifs on the seals may even exhibit the religious beliefs, but they certainly are intended and conveyed likewise.
We need to carefully classify the manufacturing centers according to the products and regional agricultural produces. We know for sure many of the raw materials were sourced from the subcontinent as well as from distant locations. What IVC people were experts in to convert the raw material to fine objects! They had qualities of the artistic manufacture where contemporary civilizations lacked in. So though the sources of the procurement may be different, after manufacturing to make inland or overseas trade marking the merchandise was essential. Though, the excavations at all the Indus sites and detailed analysis of the finds, it won’t be impossible too to have a generalized idea as at the least we know what was exported from Indus valley.
The hypothesis is, if the seals were used to stamp the packed goods or bundles for the identification of the goods and its supplier/manufacturer or the trading guild, the script over the seals only would inform the limited information of the name of the goods and, if necessary, its quantity. We have discussed that the animal motifs appearing on the seals must have been representing identity of the supplier source. We do not know for sure what Trading system IVC followed those times, but for the sake of unified foreign and inland trade, some mechanism must have been present, without which massive trade couldn’t have been possible.
To focus on the script, its brevity does speak that it only contained the name of the goods and quantity. They could not have been meant to express anything other than that. They also were not just formal memory aids as Steve Farmer et al claims. 11 Since the purpose of the information was limited, there was no need to add irrelevant details. The packed good-tags of the modern day too are very brief and objective.
However, we confront here with a most debated problem and that is in what language the names of the goods could have been expressed? Was it Dravidian or Sanskrit? Or was it entirely different language such as Munda or Austric?
At the least, we can be assured that the purpose of the seal was not at all religious, though some of the motifs exhibit the religious faiths of the people of those times. The elephant, unicorn and other animals and trees could be representing totemic symbols of the trading families those were meant to represent their identities most symbolically. Trying to read any mythology from those symbols wouldn’t be wise. The purpose of the Indus people was not to extend their religious beliefs to the other trading communities, within India or elsewhere, but simply meant to trade their merchandise.
Hence we only can see the commercial information on the seals. There couldn’t be any relation between the motif and the message that script conveyed because wherever we find similar motifs, the script-signs appearing on the seals are different many a times. This means that the motifs inscribed on the seals meant to convey the origin of the supply/manufacture and the script the name of the goods.
Now let us focus on the language issue.
As stated above, underlying language of the Indus script is hotly debated issue. Initially, Aryan Invasion/Migration theories were in vogue and collapse of the Indus civilization was normally attributed to the nomadic Aryans hoards. Also, it used to be claimed that the Dravidians were part and parcel of the Indus valley, those, later on, were displaced and forced out to the south. Some hypothetical loan words those were thought to be of Dravidian origin had boosted this claim. Naturally, the serious attempts had begun to decipher the script thinking the language of IVC was Dravidian. Asko Parpola has done immense work to decipher the language based on this hypothesis.
Later, troubled with the Invasion/Migration theories, Indigenous Aryan School emerged to claim the authorship of the IVC and thus tried to find the Vedic Sanskrit in Indus script. SR Rao, NS Rajaram, N Jha etc. attempted in this direction, even made huge claims to have deciphered the script.
However, both the claims, in the lack of the solid linguistic foundation, remained so far disputed though hotly they still are debated. Paul D. LeBlanc in his thesis states, “The Dravidian and Āryan camps oppose each other in all of the analytical perspectives surrounding the Indus script’s underlying language. Each side argues in favour of identifying their own culture or language to that of the ancient Indus Valley inhabitants.” 12 In short, the issue of Aryan v/s Dravidians, in new forms was flared up to cause socio-cultural unrest between north and south.
Indigenous Aryan theorists, to counter European supremacist approaches started claiming Indus valley being the original homeland of the Vedic Aryans and that the IE languages and culture did spread to the west from northwest India. Once upon a time, the same Indigenous Scholars used the same theory to prove their foreign origin.
However, it has been agreed upon by the scholars and archaeologists that there has been no major invasion in India after +7000 BC. Also, the present author has proved Geography of the Rigveda being Southern Afghanistan and not India. Also there are enough proofs to indicate that the Vedic preachers came to India to spread their religion when IVC was already disintegrated and was flourishing in new forms in Gangetic plains. So there is no any probable relationship between Vedic culture and IVC. So reading Vedic language in 2600 BC old Indus script cannot yield any positive result.
There, similarly, is no question of Dravidians being displaced from IVC, hence finding Dravidian in the Indus script is equally wrong.
Now in absence of both the possibilities we need to relook into the matter again and try to solve this riddle.
First of all, we must not forget here that the myth that the migrations of the PIE speakers and spread of the so-called Indo-European languages are a carefully nourished myth by the European linguists and scholars. Whatever were their motives, but it has resulted in unnecessarily complicating the language issue and so the cultural issues across south Asia and Europe. The present author has seriously challenged the migration theories those are claimed to be instrumental in spreading PIE languages and cultures. Rather the present author 13 has shown that to cause the net of the languages, migrations are not necessary and also there are no archaeological proofs of such migration at the least from +7000 BC onwards in India. 14
Hence, we are left with no choice but to accept the fact that the Indus people (and from the rest of the parts of India) were settled in their respective regions since last 10,000 years. Naturally the language they would have been speaking was the ancestor language of the present languages those are still spoken in the IVC regions and elsewhere in India. Regional variances in the languages too would be but natural.
Looking at the map we can identify the modern Prakrit languages being spoken in these regions, including Panjabi, Sindhi, Rajashtani and Gujrathi. Culturally speaking, most of the Indus cultural traits are preserved even by the modern residents of these regions. For example it has been observed that the bangles and pendants women wear in Gujrath are similar to the Indus varieties. The bullock-carts, boats, utensils and the farmland furrowing practices are as similar as they were in Indus times. The tradition has been well preserved in folk culture. Hence, it won’t be a surprise the languages too, must have been spoken in this region in their archaic form of the present regional languages.
We need to remove the myth from the mind that it was Vedic or Sanskrit language from which the Prakrits had evolved. There is no material proof to prove this assumption. Rather Vedic language has evolved from the Prakrits including Sanskrit. The Prakrit net of the languages was extant from Maharashtra to Gandhar, as evidenced by the epigraphical as well as textual history. Hence, assuming that the regional Early-Prakrits, ancestors of medieval Prakrits, were being spoken in Indus era will not be incorrect or any kind of exaggeration. The Prakrit substratum in Vedic language has been well detected and we cannot date Rig Veda prior to 1500 BC although the Vedicist scholars want to date it back to pre-Harappan era for their motives.
However, it would seem my hypothesis is more logical for it is in line with the archaeological, linguistic and anthropological history of India. Hence, instead of attempting to find Dravidian or Sanskrit languages in Indus script, trying to locate proto-Prakrits in it would be more logical.
Now, we will have to focus on the seals those were meant to stamp the packaged material. In the following chronology, we may be able to reach to the solution to the Indus script.
1. Classify the regions and the sites so far excavated.
2. Segregate the manufactured items meant to be traded/exported from particular regions.
3. Segregate the seals as per their locations. (Dr. Iravathan Mahadevan has done monumental work in this regards.)
4. Classify the regional languages and try to reconstruct them for at the least the names of the concerned goods.
5. We have regional Prakrit specimens from the epigraphs and other Prakrit literature from at the least 3rd Century BC onwards. We need to reconstruct these Prakrits to understand what could be their earliest forms during 2600 BC and onwards.
6. The names of the merchandise, in its proto or early forms, when satisfactorily understood we can undertake the further job to attempt to relate them with the texts appearing on the seals.
7. The number of words denoting to certain goods and number of the signs can be compared. The numeric signs too would come to be understood to what quantity it could have denoted.
I strongly believe this is the only way to decode the Indus script. Let us not forget here that the site names traditionally bear the same information that could have been transmitted in those times. For the site “Kalibangan” means black bangles and truly the Kalibangan site was a manufacturing center of bangles in Indus times too. So the word “Kali” for black and “Bangan” for bangles still carry the same information. The site name must be similar to this in Indus times.
There is no meaning in the attempts to decipher the Indus script based on the Dravidian or Sanskrit for these languages were absent from the Indus region. Also attempting to extract mythological information from the seals, as Parpola and SR Rao has done, such forcible identifications too, so far, has misled the scholars. The Indus script remained un-deciphered for over hundred years because the unscientific approaches were taken by the scholars.
The reconstruction of the Prakrit names for the traded goods and its comparison with the seals only could help to solve the riddle of the Indus script. We do not need “cultural element finder” but a commercial element finder. There are no Vedas or Vedic mythology, there is no Dravidian or their mythology, simply what the Indus script conveys is our commercial abilities.
We need to focus on Indus script to decipher in this direction!
1. A Dravidian Solution to the Indus Script Problem, by Asko Parpola, 2010.
2. The Deciphered Indus Script : Methodology, Readings, Interpretations, by Natwar Jha, Navaratna Srinivasa Rajaram, Aditya Prakashan, 2000.
3. The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis:The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization’ (Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel, 2004). Available online at http://www.safarmer.com/fsw2.pdf
5. A Dravidian Solution to the Indus Script Problem, by Asko Parpola, 2010.
6. The Deciphered Indus Script : Methodology, Readings, Interpretations, by Natwar Jha, Navaratna Srinivasa Rajaram, Aditya Prakashan, 2000.
8. The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives, By Jane McIntosh, p. 72.
9. Indus Epigraphic Perspectives: Exploring Past Decipherment Attempts & Possible New Approaches, by Paul D. Le Blanc, University of Ottawa.
10. The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives, By Jane McIntosh, p. 118.
11. The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization (Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel, 2004). Available online at http://www.safarmer.com/fsw2.pdf
12. Indus Epigraphic Perspectives: Exploring Past Decipherment Attempts & Possible New Approaches, by Paul D. Le Blanc, University of Ottawa.
13. Origins of the Vedic Religion and Indus-Ghaggar Civilisation, by Sanjay Sonawani, Prajakt Prakashan, 2015.