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The Indus Script - Analysis - varnamvarnam
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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?

Conclusion

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.

References:

  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)

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