Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /nfs/c03/h07/mnt/56080/domains/varnam.nationalinterest.in/html/wp-content/themes/canvas/functions/admin-hooks.php on line 160
Tag Archives | Indus Script

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.

Continue Reading →

Comments { 2 }

In Pragati: Book Review of Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

Margalit Fox reveals the life and struggles of the people behind the decipherment of Linear B, an unknown language in an unknown script, similar to Indus-Saraswati writing. 

One of the most puzzling unsolved mysteries of the ancient world is the writing system of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation. There are over 4200 inscriptions, on seals, on tablets and on pottery; of the 400 signs, only 200 have been used more than five times. Decoding this writing would not only reveal details of life during that period, but also put an end to various debates over the identity of the residents of the Indus region. There has been no dearth of decipherments: many have read proto-Dravidian into the script and others Sanskrit. In The Lost River, Michel Danino writes that the only safe statement that can be made is that the seals played an important part in trade and permitted the identification of either traders or their goods.

Linear B Image

A sample of Linear B script

Decipherment of Indus writing is hard because it falls into the most difficult category in the relation between script and language. The easiest one is where a known language is written in a known script, like English written using Roman alphabets. A difficult case is where a known language is written in an unknown script like when Rongorongo is used to write Rapa Nui. Equally difficult is the case where a known script is used to write an unknown language like when Greek alphabets are used to write Etruscan. The most difficult one is when the language and script are unknown and there is no help for the decipherer. The Indus writing falls into this category.

Linear B, the writing found on the island of Crete, belonged to this category as well but was decoded half a century after it was discovered. The writing was used by Minoans who flourished during the Bronze age following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation. Found by an English digger named Arthur Evans, it was named Linear Script Class B. The decipherment story of Linear B might have turned into a dry academic discussion on the difference between proto-writing and writing or on if it was a memory aid for rituals or just meaningless visual art, but Margalit Fox makes it a fascinating tale as the decipherment is tied to the life of three unusual people: a glorified English tomb robber, a largely forgotten American classicist and a gifted English architect; it is the human element that adds depth to the mystery.

The three decipherers

The challenges that faced the decipherers looked insurmountable. When Evans found the tablets in 1900, there were no computers that could detect patterns or do statistical analysis. It looked as if we would never find out if the tablets would reveal a Western epic like the Iliad or just bland accounting records. Though there were no external clues from a Rosetta Stone, some information could be gleaned from the tablets. Evans, for example, figured out the direction of writing and the word breaks because they were separated by tick marks. He also figured out the numerical system used by the Cretan scribes. Some tablets, which had arrow signs on them, were found near a chest filled with arrows; the context gave an idea of what those tablets represented. Some of the tablets were found in the palace complex in boxes with pictograms representing the contents

Nothing beyond this was known when Alice Kober started work on the script in the United States of America. She was an assistant professor of classics at Brooklyn College, who taught introductory Latin and Classics during the day and worked on deciphering the secrets of the Cretans by night. In preparation for the work, Kober learned many fields such as archaeology, linguistics, statistics. Since she was not sure about the language of the Linear B writing, she spent fifteen years studying languages from Chinese to Akkadian to Sanskrit. Without seeing the tablets and by looking the two hundred inscriptions that were available, she worked on them methodically and came close to solving the mystery. Not much credit was given to her in other books about Linear B decipherment and the book tries to correct that by detailing her contributions.

She solved many mysteries, which Arthur Evans or other scholars could not solve; this included figuring out which signs depicted male and female animals as well the sign for boy and girl.  A major breakthrough for Kober was the discovery that Linear B was inflected, which meant that they depended on word endings like adding -ed to denote past tense and -s to indicate plural. With this discovery, she was able to eliminate many languages, which don’t use inflection and focus on languages, which did. She was also able to figure out what was known as a bridging character, which enabled her to figure out the relative relationship between the characters in the script.

The last person mentioned in the book is the one who finally deciphered it. Michael Ventris, is a person who would have been dismissed by modern scholars as a quack for he was not a linguist or a classicist or a scholar in any other field of humanities; he worked as an architect. Like Kober, he too was obsessed with Linear B, even publishing a paper when he was 19. Unlike Kober, Ventris had access to larger number of Linear B symbols. As he sorted the characters based on their frequency and position, he found certain characters appeared at the beginning of the words.

He made one major intuitive leap, which Alice Kober failed to do, and with that he was able to solve the mystery. There were codes, which differed only in the last character and they were found only in Knossos which meant that those characters represented the name of the place. Now it was time to figure out what the words actually meant. Since Kober had figured out that it was an inflected language, he discarded Etruscan and considered other options like Greek. According to the wisdom at that time, Greek speakers arrived much later and so this would have been unacceptable. Ventris, then performed a second leap. During the Iron Age, a writing system called the Cypriot script existed. While the language remained a mystery, the sounds of the symbols were known as the script was used to write Greek following the Hellenization of Cyprus. As those sound values were substituted, the words began to make sense. By the time he was 30, he had solved Linear B.

Lessons for the Indus Decipherers

ten indus glyphs

Ten Indus glyphs discovered near the northern gate of Dholavira 

The people who worked on the decipherment faced great challenges, but they had some qualities that helped them makes progress. They were intelligent, had great memory and were single mindedly focussed on the issue. Margalit Fox explains in detail the tremendous skills that are required to find success in an impossible task like decoding an unknown script of an unknown language. You need rigour of the mind, ferocity of determination, a deliberate way of working, along with a flair for languages. When you are stuck with such a problem, where no external help is available and the problem looks unsolvable, you have to look closely for sometimes the clues lie in the puzzle itself revealing itself to the careful observer.

There is a certain orthodoxy in the Indus politics, which prevents scholars from considering that an Indo-European language was spoken in the region. Solely based on linguistics, it has been argued that Indo-European speakers arrived in North-West India following the decline of the Indus civilisation and hence the language should not even be considered as a possibility. Thus most decipherments argue that the language spoken in Indus Valley was non Indo-Aryan. Similarly, for decoding Linear B, there was intense speculation on the language of the tablets, but Greek was ruled out because Greek speakers were known to have arrived later. Evans thought that the Minoan culture was different from the later Greek culture and there was no relation between the two. Alice Kober refused to play that game, refused to give sound values to the characters, and firmly said that the script had to be analysed based on the internal evidence devoid of the decipherer’s  prejudice. She was highly against starting with a preconceived idea and then trying to prove it.

Now even in Indus studies the data is pointing to interesting possibilities. A 2012 paper by Peter Bellwood, Professor of Archaeology at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology of the Australian National University suggests that Indo-European speakers may have been present in Northwest India much earlier, maybe even two millennia earlier than previously assumed.  According to Bellwood, the urban Harappan civilisation had a large number of Indo-European speakers alongside the speakers of other languages which may have included Dravidian.

In a 2010 paper, Professor Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, who has been excavating at Harappa for three decades wrote that even though the Indus script has not been deciphered, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan and Indo-Aryan co-existed in the region. Paul Heggarty, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a 2013 paper writes that Indo-European speakers may have reached Mehrgarh much earlier than 4000 BCE. With such information, there is a need to break away from the orthodoxy. (See “An earlier date for Indo-Europeans in Northwest India”)

Maybe there is a scholar or an amateur who is as meticulous as Kober or as gifted as Ventris to whom the secrets of the Indus would be revealed, but the  decipherment of Indus script is hard because of the brevity of the seals; the average is five symbols. To figure out anything from seals averaging just five signs is an impossible task. Another possibility that could help is the existence of  a bilingual inscription in one of the regions with which the Indus people traded. For example, there existed an Indus colony in ancient Mesopotamia. This village was located in an area called Lagash in southwestern Mesopotamia which had cities like Girsu, Nina, and a port city and area called Guabba. Scholars also found a  reference to a personal seal of a Meluhhan (assumed to be a person from the Indus region) translator — Shu-ilishu — who lived in Mesopotamia.

Thus 4000 years back, there was a man in Mesopotamia who could speak Meluhhan as well as Sumerian or Akkadian. He could read those Indus tablets. This is not surprising since the Meluhhan merchants would have handled the imports from Meluhha and exported Mesopotamian goods to their homeland. Since the translator worked with Meluhhans and Mesopotamians, he would need to speak multiple languages. This also suggests that there could exist a bi-lingual tablet somewhere in the region where Shu-ilishu lived. If such a tablet is found, it could be the Rosetta stone which would solve a 134 year old mystery forever.

Finally when it was decoded, the Linear B tablets did not reveal an epic like the Iliad or the Odyssey; they found a record of crops, goods, animals and gifts offered to gods. They revealed the working of the society, about the status of various holdings, and about the personnel who worked there. They revealed their food habits, religious habits and how they spent their time. It revealed the pyramidal structure of the Minoan society with elites at the top, craftsmen and herdsmen below them and slaves at the bottom. The tablets were predominantly economic and was concerned with keeping track of  the goods produced and exchanged.

Comments { 0 }

Decoding Proto-Elamite

Map showing Elam (via Wikipedia)

Map showing Elam (via Wikipedia)

In September 1924, an article titled First Light on a Long-forgotten civilization: New Discoveries of an Unknown Prehistoric Past in India by John Marshall was published in the Illustrated London News. The article contained news about the excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro along with a series of photographs. The magazine asked the readers to help in understanding the script and one of the responses came from an Assyriologist who wrote that the seals looked similar to the ones found at Susa, the capital of Elam. The proto-Elamite tablets were dated to the third millennium BCE and belonged to a civlization located in South-Western Iran.

Now, like the Harappan script, the proto-Elamite script too has not been deciphered, but there have been few articles which suggest that there could be a breakthrough soon.  They have new technology which helps them create reliable images.

The reflectance transformation imaging technology system designed by staff in the Archaeological Computing Research Group and Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton comprises a dome with 76 lights and a camera positioned at the top of the dome. The manuscript is placed in the centre of the dome, whereafter 76 photos are taken each with one of the 76 lights individually lit. In post-processing the 76 images are joined so that the researcher can move the light across the surface of the digital image and use the difference between light and shadow to highlight never-before-seen details.[Technology helping to crack oldest undeciphered writing system]

There are some ideas about the script and what they could have represented

Some features of the writing system are already known. The scribes had loaned – or potentially shared – some signs from/with Mesopotamia, such as the numerical signs and their systems and signs for objects like sheep, goats, cereals and some others. Nevertheless, 80-90% of the signs remain undeciphered.

The writing system died out after only a couple centuries. Dr Dahl said: ‘It was used in administration and for agricultural records but it was not used in schools – the lack of a scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made and the writing system may eventually have become useless as an administrative system. Eventually, the system was abandoned after some two hundred years.’

These images are now available for you to look and decode.


  1. The Lost River by Michel Danino
Comments { 0 }

Indus script designed with care

In his book, The Lost River, Michel Danino wrote the following about the Harappan civilization.

Altogether, the area covered by this civilization was about 800,000 km: roughly one-fourth of today’s India, or if we can make comparisons with contemporary civilizations, ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia put together. This vast expanse must have offered unique opportunities as well as posed peculiar challenges — opportunities in terms of a wider choice of sources for raw materials and a richer store of human skill and experience; challenges arising from a greater diversity of regional cultures which had to be integrated , or at least coordinated, and the sheer extent of communication networks required to keep it all together.

It turns out that the Harappans indeed took the challenge seriously and made sure that the script was uniform across this vast region.

“Writing is an important window to the intellectual creativity of a civilisation. Our analysis reveals that people who designed the Indus script were intellectually creative and considerable time and effort went into designing it. The manner in which the signs were modified shows that it was acceptable across all the sites of the civilisation and was not intended for a small group of people,” said Nisha Yadav from TIFR, the principal author of the study.

The Indus script is found on objects such as seals, copper tablets, ivory sticks, bronze implements and pottery from almost all sites of the civilisation. “The Indus civilisation was spread over an area of about a million square kilometres and yet, the sign list over the entire civilisation seems to be the same indicating that the signs, their meaning and their usage were agreed upon by people with large physical separation. A lot of thought, planning and utility issues must have been taken into consideration while designing these signs,” says the TIFR paper, published in the Korean journal, Scripta.

The paper also indicates that the script may have a connection with scripts from India or even China. The authors say that the signs of the Indus script seem to incorporate techniques in their design that were used in several ancient writing systems to make optimum use of a limited number of signs.[Indus script designed with care, say TIFR researchers (via IndiaArchaeology)]

Comments { 0 }

Harappans go bananas

When we talk about the Arabian Sea trading network, it usually is implied to mean the time from which the Europeans started sailing through the region. But as Manmadhan Ullatil pointed out in Hubs of the medieval trade, this trading network existed much before this period. In fact the ports along the coast of India and Africa were part of the trading network of the Old World. By studying the Prehistoric movement of plants and animals, we are able to reconstruct the trading patterns and speculate about the traders.

In such a study, something interesting has turned up. Researchers looking into the domestication of banana found that it may have been initially done in New Guinea; wild bananas are found in South Asian rainforests. By looking at the banana phytoliths, it is now believed that bananas reached the Harappan region around 2000 BCE, before the decline of the civilization started and apparently were not used for eating. So what else could they have been used for?

Given the distribution of wild Musaceae in South Asia, and the climate at that time (Asouti & Fuller 2008, Madella & Fuller 2006), it is unlikely that these could derive from the ancient presence of wild Musa or Ensete. The possibility that a species was cultivated as a garden ornamental or as a source of fiber and raw materials (e.g., for paper) cannot be ruled out. Indeed, one of these nonculinary uses of Musa/Ensete might be a more plausible explanation for these phytoliths than an early dispersal of edible cultivated bananas from Island Southeast Asia by the third millennium B.C.[Banana Cultivation in South Asia and East Asia: A review of the evidence from archaeology and linguistics( via Carlos Aromayo)]

The paper says that it is possible that the Indus people used the fiber for making paper. Now if they made paper you would think that the next step would be to assume writing. But claiming that Indus people were literate would violate a lakshmana rekha.

So the next line in this paper says that since few folks think that Indus people were illiterate, this could not have happened. Thus apparently, Indus people got bananas, did not eat them, made paper and threw them away. They could have done anything, except writing on it.

Comments { 1 }