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Did Harappans write in proto-Brahmi?

Asokan inscription in Brahmi

Asokan inscription in Brahmi

One of the biggest mysteries of ancient India is regarding the language spoken by the Harappans. This is a hard problem compared to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics and cuneiform because both the script and the language are unknown. This has not prevented researchers from making educated and sometimes politically motivated guesses. While most decipherments favor Dravidian or proto-Dravidian as the language, there have been few who have suggested that the language was Indo-European.

And now there is some exciting news

A palm leaf manuscript discovered from Harappan site in Afghanistan has strengthened the belief of existence of a proto Brahmi script, which was used by Indus Valley people. This discussion was raised by Dr DP Sharma, Harappan archaeologist and director, Bharat Kala Bhawan, Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in the International Conference on Harappan Archaeology held recently in Chandigarh.[Harappan people used an older form of Brahmi script: Expert]

This is not a new hypothesis; the relationship between the Harappan script and Brahmi has been suggested since 1934. Let me quote from one of my earlier posts

In 1934, G. R Hunter concluded that Brahmi was derived from Indus script. According to Hunter even scripts like Sabaean and Phonecian were derived from the Indus. John E Mitchiner looked at the one particular feature of the Indus script — the case endings — and concluded that it could not be Elamite or Dravidian, but only Indo-European[6].

Taking this further, Subhash Kak did a mathematical analysis of the Indus script and the oldest Indian script – Brahmi. When a table containing the ten most commonly occurring Sanskrit phonemes (from ten thousand words), was compared to the ten most commonly occurring Indus symbols and there was a convincing similarity, even though Brahmi was a millennium after the Indus script. Surprisingly some of the characters, like the fish, looked similar too[6].

There are three possibilities here: (a) the similarity is random (b) scribes who used Brahmi used Indus signs without knowing how they read and (c) Brahmi was derived consciously from the Indus script. But when the probability of this happening by chance was computed, it was found to be quite low. Also among the ten most common signs of Indus and Brahmi there is striking similarity between four of five signs[6][The Indus Script – Decipherments]

Another interesting aspect of the Harappan script is the direction in which it is written. What we have seen so far is this

Most of the seals were written from right to left; there is a crowding of letters in the left when the writer ran out of space or wide space when the scribe did not have enough to write[1]. In fact 83% of the seals are written from right to left and only 7% were found which indicate a left to right writing[8]. There are also some samples which are boustrophedonic (left to right followed by right to left)[1]. One theory suggests that texts which were written for the local population, like the sign board found in Dholavira, were written from left to right, while trade seals were written from right to left to be in sync with the writing in Sumer and Akkad[8] [The Indus Script – Introduction]

While earlier theories suggest that the direction of writing changed based on the destination, this article suggests that a century before the decline of the civilization, the direction changed permanently.

During the mature Harappan period (2700 BC to 2000 BC) the direction of Harappan writing system was right to left and later on around 2000 to 1500 BC they started their writing system from left to right. The existence of no long manuscript had posed the difficulty in deciphering the Harappan script, however, the manuscript on palm leaves may solve this problem”.[Harappan people used an older form of Brahmi script: Expert]

All this hypothesis is based on a manuscript written on palm leaves. The article does not mention the age of the manuscript and how it survived over 5000 years without destruction; a picture of the writing would be really helpful. Another issue with the Indus script is that they are very short, but the article claims that the manuscript has longer text. To folks who have been doing mathematical analysis on the script, the longer text would be valuable. I hope the ASI makes this information public.

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