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Tag Archives | Indus Script

Is Tamil-Brahmi pre-Asokan?

(via Wikipedia)

The oldest known script in the Indian subcontinent is the undeciphered Harappan script. The oldest deciphered script is Brahmi, dating to around 4th century BCE. In South India, the oldest deciphered script is Tamil-Brahmi which is dated to two centuries after Brahmi. Inscriptions in rock shelters and caves near Madurai provide proof for this.

In an excavation at Kodumanal, near Erode more than 20 pot-sherds with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions were found. On the basis of this archaeological work, some scholars suggested an older date for Tamil-Brahmi which would put it in the same period as Brahmi. Now there is new evidence from Palani which suggests 400 BCE as the date for Tamil-Brahmi. This adds a new data point to the debate on if Tamil-Brahmi is pre or post-Asokan.

When K. Rajan, Professor, Department of History, Pondicherry University, excavated this megalithic grave, little did he realise that the paddy found in the four-legged jar would be instrumental in reviving the debate on the origin of the Tamil-Brahmi script. Accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating of the paddy done by Beta Analysis Inc., Miami, U.S.A, assigned the paddy to 490 BCE. “Since all the goods kept in the grave including the paddy and the ring-stands with the Tamil-Brahmi script are single-time deposits, the date given to the paddy is applicable to the Tamil-Brahmi script also,” said Dr. Rajan. So the date of evolution of Tamil-Brahmi could be pushed 200 years before Asoka, he argued.[Palani excavation triggers fresh debate via @amargov]

Read the article for it explains the controversies regarding this dating.


  1. Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 1st ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009).


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Indian History Carnival – 43: Sree Padmanabhaswamy, Vasco da Gama, Buddha, Indus Script

The Inscription on Vasco da Gama's tomb, Kochi (Photo by author)

  1. manasa-taramgini has an interesting post which goes into the question of illiteracy of Indo-Aryans. This TED talk will provide a good introduction to the subject.
  2. Indeed when one analyzes the early brAhmI inscriptions from megalithic sites in India and Lanka they routine co-occur with graffiti. The dravidianist Mahadevan claims that the use of these symbols especially in sites in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Lanka means that the Indus people were Dravidians – they continued to use the script after being pushed South by the Arya-s. What he seems to conveniently forget is that brAhmI, which is also found in these inscriptions to encode Tamil, is also used to encode Indo-Aryan languages and was primarily developed for the latter.

  3. Anuradha Goyal has a short book review of The Buddha and Dr Fuhrer by Charles Allen
  4. The book takes you through the excavations of stupas spread across the terai region on the border of India and Nepal towards the end of late 19th century. A stupa that lies in the estate that belonged to an English family is discovered by accident and then carefully excavated by the owner of the estate. All the finds of the excavation that included stone caskets with bone relics and a whole lot of items in precious metals, stones and gems are recorded and shared with the archeological authorities of that time. One of the caskets has an inscription on it that went around the world for an interpretation and is commonly believed to say that the bone relics belong to the Buddha himself, a part of the relics received by his kinsmen when they were divided into 8 parts.

  5. We are all familiar with Buddha’s biography. But did you know that there was a less familiar version in Ariyapariyesanā Sutta without the trappings of the melodramatic one? Jayarava has a post on this
  6. Another interesting thing about this passage is that his mother and father — mātāpita — are unwilling witnesses to his leaving. He doesn’t sneak out at night, there is no servant, no horse, none of the rich symbolism of later times. Notice in particular that his mother is present. The Buddha’s mother seems not to have died in childbirth in this account. The stories of her death were presumably part of some important legendary strand that is not unlike the sanctity attached to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Though early Buddhists rejected most notions of Brahmanical ritual purity this is not true of later Buddhists.

  7. Since the major news of the month is the discovery of staggering wealth in the underground cellars of Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, here is a backgrounder from offstumped.
  8. The first is the covenant from 1949 that was entered into by the states of Travancore and Cochin. In that covenant is clearly described the manner in which the Trust of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple will be managed.

    The second and perhaps most pertinent to the current debate is an extensive piece in the Chicago Tribune from May 1932 on Gold exports from India to Britain which specifically describes both the manner in which wealth was contributed to the Temple in Thiruvananthapuram as well as an estimate on both the annual value of the contributions and the total wealth in the vault.

  9. Sharat Sunder Rajeev explains how Marthandavarma (1706-1758), who is responsible for the present shape and structure of the temple, transported a large chunk of granite to the temple.
  10. Stone masons were employed to cut the large boulder into required size and the mathilakam records states that Nair and Ezhava labourers toiled for days to get the large boulder to the worksite near Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. A large cart with huge wooden wheels was made for the purpose of transportation and the stone was hauled by elephants. A new road was made by the labourers, connecting the granite quarry to the temple. The road running through Poojappura, Karamana, Aranoor, Chalai and connecting to Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple is still in use. A small guild of stone masons was located near the quarry and they were assigned the task of hewing granite blocks into required size for making the pillars and roof slabs. The descendants of these masons still live there.

  11. The Malayalam movie Urumi showed a fictional depiction of Vasco da Gama’s death. Maddy goes into what really might have happened
  12. Vasco was destined for Cochin, some eight weeks later, and was by then very sick. It became clear that he was dreadfully ill, and rumors swirled around the Portuguese bureaucracy. Questions like who would take over and what their responsibilities were going to be, bounced back and forth. The interesting question was what his ailment was all about. Some said it was malaria and some said nothing. But later studies point out that he had contracted anthrax.

If you find interesting blog posts on Indian history, please send it to varnam.blog @gmail or as a tweet to @varnam_blog. The next carnival will be up on Aug 15th.

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TED: Computing a Rosetta Stone for the Indus script

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Talk by J M Kenoyer on Harappan Civilization

In May, 2010, Prof. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer — who has been conducting archaeology in India and Pakistan since 1986 — gave a talk on the trade relations between the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. In the talk (watch video), he presented the latest scholarship regarding the Indus: on origins, on the script and on the cultural exchange between Indus and Mesopotamia. He also used the S-word, a taboo among eminent historians.

A quick summary:

  • The Indus civilization flourished around two rivers — Indus and Sarasvati. Yes, he mentions that Ghaggar-Hakra is that river of antiquity. (Additional Reading: The Lost River by Michel Danino).
  • Potter’s marks were found in pottery of the Ravi phase (from 3300 BCE) which is around the same time writing developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt. This writing evolved into the Indus Script, which he says is a writing system, which codifies multiple languages. It was used for trade, accounting and rituals. He is working with folks from TIFR on some theories about the Indus script.
  • One of the seals display a diety sitting on an elephant and grabbing two tigers. While many have suggested that this represents a scene from Gilgamesh, Prof. Kenoyer suggests that this independently evolved in India.
  • He showed one Mesopotamian seal, dated to between 3300 – 2900 BCE, made from a shell found near Karachi. This falls between the period of the Dhuwelia cotton and time of Sargon of Akkad. (Additional Reading: Trading Hubs of the Old World)
  • Wheeled carts were being developed around the same time they were developed in the steppes.
  • Water Buffalo (both motif and animal) went to Mesopotamia from India. Dr. Asko Parpola also made a similar point. (Additional Reading: The Indus Colony in Mesopotamia)
  • There is similarity between the head dress of women in Harappa and one region of Mesopotamia. Maybe the women went via marriage?
  • Swastika was painted in Indian caves about 10,000 years back and in the Samara culture. Swastikas were also found in the Indus Valley.
  • He could not find evidence of warfare and thinks that warfare was not used a mechanism for integration. No weapons were found. Even in the motifs, the fights are between humans and animals or between humans and supernatural beings; never between humans.
  • Yoga had its origins in Indus Valley.
  • There was intensive trade with Mesopotamia from 2600 BCE. He also mentions Queen Puabi. He also talks about the Meluhhan interpreter and Meluhhan villages. (Additional Reading: The Indus Colony in Mesopotamia).
  • There was a concept of a passport in Central Asian trade. They found seals with the Central Asian motif on one side and the Harappan motif on the other. No such seal exists for Mesopotamian trade.
  • Women who had wide bangles were burried separately. Similar wide bangles, crafted in the Indus, were found in Susa,Iran and he makes the argument that they were powerful nomadic traders.
  • There was a social hierarchy – land owners, elites, ritual specialists — and this was deduced from burial patterns.


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Lost Language Decipherment using Computers

The headline reads Software that automatically deciphers ancient language developed. The language thus deciphered was Ugaritic – used in Syria from the 14th through the 12th century BCE.  To find out if such a technique can be used to decipher the Indus script, we need to understand how Ugaritic was deciphered.

The language itself was deciphered manually decades earlier. What helped the manual decipherment was the fact that Ugaritic is similar to Hebrew and Aramaic. The first two Ugaritic letters were decoded by mapping them to Hebrew letters and then based on this information few other words were also deciphered. Then one word inscribed on an axe was guessed to be “axe”, which turned out to be a lucky guess.

There were two inputs to the computer program: corpus of the lost language and the lexicon of the related language. The output was the mapping between the alphabets of the known language and Ugaritic and also the traslation between Ugaritic and cognates in the known language. The program was able to map 29 of the 30 letters accurately. It also deduced the cognates in Hebrew for about 60% of the words.

But when it comes to the Indus script, both the script and language are unknown; there is no second input to the program. Still that has not prevented researchers from applying various techniques to gain insight into what the script represents. In the 60s the Soviets and Finns used mathematical models find order in the symbols. 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.

But that’s it. The current research is not in comparing Indus script with a known language, but in finding if the Indus script even encodes a language or not.


  1. Benjamin Snyder, Regina Barzilay, and Kevin Knight, A statistical model for lost language decipherment, in Proceedings of the 48th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics(Uppsala, Sweden: Association for Computational Linguistics, 2010), 1048-1057
  2. Subhash C. Kak, A FREQUENCY – ANALYSIS – OF – THE – INDUS – SCRIPT – PB – Taylor & Francis, Cryptologia12, no. 3 (1988): 129.
  3. Subhash C. Kak, INDUS – AND – BRAHMI – FURTHER – CONNECTIONS – PB – Taylor & Francis, Cryptologia 14, no. 2 (1990): 169.
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