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Mysterious Riddle of the Indus (Harappan) Script

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The Indus or Harappan script of the Indus valley civilization is one of the riddles yet to be solved. The script has still not been wholly translated or deciphered till date. 

It will be interesting to know the history, heritage and the deciphering attempts for the Indus or Harappan script.

Indus Seals Unicorns

Indus Seals Portraying Unicorns

The Bronze Age civilization of Indian Subcontinent called Indus civilization or the Harappan civilization flourished from about 2500 B.C to 1900 B.C. Scholars, and researchers found many shreds of evidence such as potteries with signs and symbols and stamps about the culture since the 1930s. 

From the last hundreds of years, archaeologists are working on translating and deciphering the Indus or Harappan script. However, the Indus script and the underlying language has been undeciphered and remains a mystery till today.

Let’s explore a bit.

What is the Indus script?

Indus script is a pictographic script that has many abstract signs and human and animal motifs in addition to a puzzling unicorn. Also known as Harappan script, it is a unique unknown system of writing. 

Scholars discovered four hundred signs until now, and they believe that the script gets written from right to left. Approximately 3500 specimens of this Indus script have been found in stamp seals carved in stones, in pottery, in inscribed objects, in moulded terracotta tablets and faience amulets and occasionally on metal. 

The Two Legends

Asko Parpola

Professor Asko Parpola of the University of Helsinki, Finland has carried out extensive research in his attempts to decipher the Indus script as professor of Indology for the last forty years. In his book, “Deciphering the Indus Script,” Asko Parpola confirms that the logo-syllabic Indus or Harappan script hails from the Dravidian family of languages.

Iravatham Mahadevan

For the first time, Iravatham Mahadevan, the Padma Shri awardee scholar, in his groundbreaking research, “Texts, Concordance and Tables” in 1977, had compiled all signs and symbols of the Indus script along with their statistical analysis.

A dictionary of the Indus script is available at Harappa, that compares the works of Asko Parpola and Iravatham Mahadevan.

When Indus Script was First Deciphered?

In 1932, Indus script decipherment was first proposed by the famous Egyptologist of his time, Flinders Petrie. Cracked based on similarities between the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the pictographic principles,  he suggested that the signs are in Dravidian from the Tamil language family of southern India.

Why is the Indus Script Still a Riddle?

During their research, scientists have got hundreds of seals from different areas near Afghanistan, Pakistan, Rajasthan, Punjab and Gujarat. A total of 420 signs have been found on these seals. Each seal contained a maximum of five symbols. 

The enigma is in deciphering what these signs mean and represent. Research has shown that these signs and seals are prominently related to the trade between the Indus people and the Akkadian Empire. 

Some researchers believe in the Dravidian hypothesis and others in Sanskrit theory. 

Indus Language

There are many hypotheses regarding the Indus language. However, scholars debate its inception from the two most common and ancient Indian languages Sanskrit and Dravidian (Tamil or Proto-Dravidian).

Sanskrit Hypothesis

Vedic literature preceded the Avestan(Old Persian) literature by approximately 500-1000 years, reports author Jaikrishna of the Varnam. 

Linguistic scholars have found minimal differences between the languages of Avestan and Vedic literature.

 The Indo-Aryan languages were spoken in the Indus community of the Indus civilization since at least 1000 BC and earlier. Indian linguistic scholars have interpreted Indus texts as the Sanskrit language. 

Pictorial Interpretation of the Indus signs

Indus signs are represented using pictograms and interpreted by comparing them with other pictographic scripts that have been already deciphered. 

Indus Script Inscription

Indus Script Inscription

Some Deciphered Signs 

The Ship

One of the most common symbols found on the seals and stamps, it probably denoted the days and distances covered during the trade in the Indus civilization as the mode of transport was rivers.

Fish and Stars

Symbol of fish was used for the meal. It is used together with other different symbols like number sign to denote the number of meals to be paid for. 

The Dravidian hypothesis suggests that “fish” word denotes “meen” which means some glittering or shiny object, so fish pictogram is interpreted for representing gods. 

The pictogram of a star is used as a symbol of divinity and also used to distinguish the deities of several kinds. 

Night Travels

The symbol of moon denotes night or night travelling. It represents lamps and might have been used by the traders travelling at night.

Weights

These symbols are common in the region and are similar to the new symbols that are used nowadays. They were used together with the units for weighing purpose.

Unicorn

It was the symbol of the deity. Indus people worshipped unicorn as the goddess.

Why Indus Script Couldn’t be Deciphered Till Date?

It has been challenging to interpret the Indus script as-

  • Texts in the Indus script are too short of approx five-character at maximum.
  • Underlying language is not known.
  • No information about the people, their spoken language, in that region at that time. 
  • Once civilization ended, discovering its tradition became difficult.
  • No evidence about the culture and any extended community found.

Latest Decipherments

Recent research at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai brings out that the signs in Indus script have similarity to spoken languages such as Sumerian from Mesopotamia and old Tamil from southern India.

The Bottom Line

Linguistics scientists carry out the interpretation of logosyllabic writings such as the Indus or the Harappan script by deciphering every object one by one. It is a daunting task. In the case of the Indus script, scholars have been toiling hard to interpret and translate it since decades. Though, many fruitful advancements have fructified yet the complete deciphering of the Indus script is still far away.

Vande Mataram

9 Comments:

  1. great research. may be u can also include on rakhigarhi latest findings

    • Thanks for appreciating
      Yes I’ve planned to include some more information in a follow up post that I couldn’t cover in this post.

  2. Wonderful write up .. Lot of research done… Congratulations

  3. Balaji Suryavanshi

    It seems there is so much to be revealed of Indus Civilization

  4. Shishpal singh

    Well written and knowledgeable

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