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In Pragati: Evidence for the continuity between Harappan Signs and Brahmi letters

(Original published link)

Instead of a complete termination of one civilisation and the beginning of a radically new one, there was a period of both continuity and change.


(Image used under Fair Use from The Art Newspaper)

One of the most puzzling unsolved mysteries of the ancient world is the writing system of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation.Though there are over 4200 inscriptions, on seals, tablets and pottery, the writing has not been decoded.  One of the problems is that the writing is too short mostly being four or five symbols long. The decipherment is also hard because the Indus writing falls into the most difficult category in the relation between script and language. While the easiest one is where the script and language are known, like English written using Roman alphabets, the most difficult one is where the script and language are unknown; the Indus writing falls into this category.

Now a 30 cm tall varaha found under the foundation of a home in Haryana is now providing an interesting clue into the later usage of the Indus-Saraswati script. This 2 kg, copper figure went on display for the first time in Brussels last year and will be exhibited at the National Museum in Delhi from March 6th for two months. According to the description which appeared in The Art Newspaper, “The figure has a cast relief on its chest of a unicorn-like animal, similar to motifs found on seals of the Harappa culture, which thrived until around 1900 BC.” But the most interesting part is the inscription above this creature; according to the curator  Naman Ahuja  the inscription represents “a combination of Harappan signs and Brahmi letters”, suggesting that it comes from “a period of overlap between the two cultures.” The inscription reads  “King/Ki Ma Jhi [name of king]/ Sha Da Ya[form of god]” and according to the curator, “looks unmistakably like the Hindu god Varaha”. The Uttar Pradesh archaeological department has accepted this as an antique piece and dates it to the second to the first millennium BCE.

(Indus valley seals showing unicorns)

(Indus valley seals showing unicorns)

Before going into the relation between Harappan signs and Brahmi letters, we need to pay attention to the unicon like figure on the varaha. In his book, The Wishing Tree: Presence and Promise of India, Subhash Kak writes about the importance of the unicorn in Sanskritic texts. The Puranas referred to Vishnu and Shiva as ekashringa or the one-horned-one. The Mahabharata describes the varaha as triple humped, as shown in the Harappan iconography. In some seals, the unicorn is shown with the horn coming from the side as mentioned in Sanskrit texts.

Michel Danino too writes about the unicorn, which has been found in three quarters of the seals found in the Indus region, in The Lost River: On the trail of the Sarasvati. For Danino, the clues come from the Rig Veda. The Harappans added horns for not just the unicorn, but for tigers, serpents and various composite animals; the Vedic deities too have horns, sometimes even as high as four. The horn is prevalent all over the text: in describing how Indra destroyed the enemy’s den,  to describe Soma, or while mentioning how the sun god spreads truth. Danino concludes that it cannot be proved that the carefully executed unicorn stood for Indra, but the affinity with Vedic concepts calls for attention.

Now to the writing. India’s first script which we can read is written in Brahmi; Asokan inscriptions were written in Brahmi and so was early Tamil. Many of the Asian scripts such as Burmese, Tibetan, Cham, Malayan, Javanese, Sumatran and the Tagalog were all derived from Brahmi. Even the so called Arab numerals, which are actually Indic numerals are derived from Brahmi. That said, there are different theories regarding the origins of Brahmi. One theory suggests that it was derived from an earlier Indian script while the other suggests it was derived from Phoenician or South Semitic scripts.

(A fragment of an inscription in the Asokan Brahmi script. The inscription records Asoka’s Sixth Edict dating to 238 BCE.)

(A fragment of an inscription in the Asokan Brahmi script. The inscription records Asoka’s Sixth Edict dating to 238 BCE.)

Indologist and scientist Subhash Kak wondered if there was a relation between Brahmi which has 48 letters and Indus script which has more than 300 signs and what he discovered was absolutely stunning. In his paper, On the decipherment of the Indus script –  a preliminary study of its connection with Brahmi, he noted that letters of Brahmi could be combined to produce modified symbols and tabulating all the common modifications, he found they totalled between 200 and 300. He also identified the primary characters of the Indus script — ones which account for more than 80 percent of the signs — and they totalled 39 which is close to the letters in Brahmi.  Also just looking at the Brahmi characters, he was able to identify many characters in Indus symbols which visually look similar. With this insight and by  assigning sounds to those characters, Kak was able to read the names of Vedic deities into some texts. His work did not conclusively prove that Brahmi and Indus are related, but showed that the probability was high.

Kak was not the first to discover this; R Hunter had suggested this as early as 1934. In another paper, A frequency analysis of the Indus script,  Kak did statistical analysis of the Indus signs and showed that the frequencies of the most common signs support the theory that Brahmi was derived from the Indus script. Based on case-ending (the suffix like ending which marks a word’s grammatical case), he suggested that the language of Indus could be Indo-Aryan and not Dravidian. Also, an analysis of the numeral signs of Indus and Brahmi revealed that the signs for five and ten may have been the same.

Now the inscriptions on the varaha with Indus and Brahmi signs show a continuity between the two writing systems as Hunter and Kak had suggested. It also shows that, there was probably no gap in the writing system between the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation and the appearance of Brahmi around Ashoka’s time. It also shows that Brahmi was influenced by the earlier Indus system and not an external source. One path for the decoding of the Indus signs would have been the discovery of a multilingual tablet, like the Rosetta stone, in one of the trading posts of the Indus people, but now with the reading of the Brahmi texts, there could be a new path for decipherment.

This continuity between the Indus writing and the later Brahmi script is not surprising at all; there are many other examples of cultural continuity which can be listed. For example, the iconography found on Indus seals, like the feeding rhinoceros and the bull with the “symbol of Taurus”  were found in later punch-marked coins from Northwest India. The swastika, which was incised on hundred of Harappan tablets were used on punch marked coins, Asokan edicts and several early historical sites. The Harappan symbol known as “endless knot” is a popular rangoli pattern even today. The motif of intersecting circles, found on Harappan pottery, was found at Bodh Gaya, two millennia later. Besides this, there are numerous other examples of continuity in urbanism and architecture, art and iconography, religious life, fire worship and funerary practices.

There has been intense debate on the difference between the Harappan culture and the Gangetic culture with scholars holding the view that these two civilisations were created by peoples with different language, technologies, culture and religion. According to some, there was a “Vedic Dark Age” and an immense gap between Harappan India and the later Indian civilisations. Also, in their opinion, the Harappan civilisation was not the direct origin of the Ganges civilisation which was created by the recent Aryan invaders. But what we actually see is not a complete termination of one civilisation and the beginning of a radically new one, but a period  during which there was both continuity and change. The inscriptions on the varaha is the latest proof of this.

Photos: Wikipedia

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2 Responses to In Pragati: Evidence for the continuity between Harappan Signs and Brahmi letters

  1. pp_chn (@pp_chn) February 19, 2014 at 9:18 am #

    Aside: any reason why the varaha went on display first in Brussels & not in Indian Govt’s gallery?

  2. desicontrarian April 4, 2015 at 9:03 am #

    I found this article on the connection between Yogic poses from Mohenjodaro and Buddha’s Mudras when he attained Nirvana interesting.

    There is esoteric meaning in the unicorn symbolism. For historians, the continuity of spiritual practices between Sindhu-Saraswati Civilization and the later “Indo-Aryan” may be interesting.

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