The civilization of the Indus Valley (equating geographically to modern-day Pakistan and Northern India) thrived between 2600 and 1800 BC. This culture left behind thousands of seals with engraved motifs and a pictographic writing system that seems to have consisted of approximately 400 signs.
Seals found in the Indus Valley are typically square or rectangular tablets made of terracotta, stone, or copper. They were used for the purposes of trade, to stamp impressions into the mouths of ceramic pots or onto the clay badges used on the ropes which bound products and goods.
These Indus (or Harappan) seals, as they are sometimes called, were carved from stone and fired in a kiln to strengthen them for the rigors of daily commercial use. Most of the samples excavated from archaeological sites in the Indus Valley, such as Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, Kalibangan, and others, have images of people, objects, and animals (both factual and mythic) carved into them.
They also reveal a wealth of information about the culture at the time the seals were made. Manners of dress, ornamentation, hairstyles, relationships within commerce and trade, levels of craftsmanship, spiritual beliefs, and writing are all depicted in fascinating detail within the carvings found on over 1,700 individual seals excavated from the region.
Features of the Indus Valley Script
Engraved on many tablets are figures of recognizable animals such as buffalo, rhinoceros, elephants, tigers, zebus, and also certain mythical creatures such as unicorns or beings with multiple heads. For reasons unknown, there are no wild or domestic animals depicted that are known to the region, such as dairy cattle, camels, donkeys, peacocks, monkeys, or cobras. Until more conclusive data is acquired, it is impossible to conclude whether the artifacts were used to inventory animals, or why certain animals are accounted for while others are omitted.
One of Mohenjo-daro’s most well-known seals depicts a male figure – perhaps a deity – seated in a lotus position and wearing a set of water buffalo horns. He is surrounded by various animals, such as a tiger, an elephant, a rhinoceros, a water buffalo and a ram. It appears to have two faces and wraps its torso in a tiger skin. He seems to be a type of “lord of the beasts”, possessing a power that subdues nature. This image has been identified with Shiva and has led some to believe that the Indus culture introduced asceticism and yoga into the Vedic religion brought by the Aryans, who invaded India around 1200 BC.
Unfortunately, there exists no “Rosetta stone,” or parallel script by which Indus pictographs can be decoded. The script appears that it should be read from right to left. Scholars put the number of unique symbols from 50 to more than 500 depending on how they are identified, demonstrating that there is still some disagreement over the minor modifications or combinations of the basic symbols (or allographs). Currently, over 4,000 inscribed artifacts (including the seals) have been excavated.
Indus Script Remains a Mystery
Despite many attempts to decipher the pictographs found on the seals, they have not yet been successfully decoded. Scholars have been unable to connect this Indus script with any other known written language. The longest inscription found on these seals is 26 characters. Most inscriptions, however, are usually no longer than four or five.
Sir John Marshall, Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1928, oversaw excavations of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro and was the first to offer an explanation of the religion of the Indus Valley. He postulated that many features of later Hinduism already existed in the Indus religion. Marshall’s findings are debated in academic circles. In Hindu and yoga-friendly circles, however, his theses are generally accepted.
Any study into the Indus script is hindered by the fact the pictographs are unintelligible. Furthermore, it is difficult to assign religious or ritual significance to existing artifacts. Consequently, any carved figures can be interpreted as ritual objects, idols, or even toys. Likewise, whether a bath is used for ritual washing or for bathing publicly is unknown.
Obstacles of Decoding the Indus Script
The following three factors represent the greatest difficulties in decoding the Indus script:
- The average length of individual inscriptions is five characters or less.
- The lack of parallel or bilingual text by which the Indus script can be translated.
- There is no final segmentation of extant mini-texts that is accepted by all experts. Beyond speculation, the syntax and forms of this language remain a mystery.
- No consensus exists on an established number of signs that make up the script’s alphabet.
Numerous attempts have been made over the years to decipher the script of the Indus Valley (Professor Gregory Possehl speaks of more than 60 attempts, while the Indian author Iravatham Mahadevan mentions more than 100 attempts). None of these proposals have been greeted favorably by the scientific community.
The following is a list of some scholars who have sought understanding of the Indus script and have attempted decryption:
- In 1877, Alexander Cunningham believed the script to be the archetype of Brahmin writing used during the time of Emperor Ashoka
- S. R. Rao, in his 1982 book, The Decipherment of the Indus script, suggested that the substrate language must be an early form of Sanskrit, known as Vedic Sanskrit, an Indo-Iranian language used in Vedic texts. It is also his opinion that many of the signs are of a compound form and that there is a base set of simpler signs from which the compound forms originate.
- In 1932, Flinders Petrie postulated that the Indus script behaved like Egyptian hieroglyphics, although he did necessarily believe that the two language families were related.
- J. V. Kinnier Wilson, in his 1974 book Indo-Sumerian: A New Approach to the Problems of the Indus Script, suggested a link between Indus Valley culture and ancient Sumerian civilization. The author considered both cultures to be branches of the same ethnic stock, although, it has been confirmed that epigraphically there is no evidence of a connection between them. His theory was based on the comparison of the external forms of writing from both civilizations. This attempt to understand the script is similar to that of Guillaume de Hevesy, who saw a resemblance between the symbols of the Indus valley and the Rongorongo glyph system of Easter Island, claiming their common origin
- In 1992, Walter Fairservis Jr., in his book The Harappan Civilization and Its Writing: A Model for the Decipherment of the Indus Script, analyzed the forms of the signs and selected words from a Dravidian language to fit the chosen icon. In the end, the author determined the meaning of the particular symbol by reference to the Dravidian. Among the languages of the Dravidian family, ancient Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada can be mentioned.
- Yuri Knorozov, a Soviet linguist epigrapher particularly known for deciphering the Mayan glyphs (with his Russian colleagues) conducted a distributive analysis of the signs and found that the Indus structure indicated a language of a suffixing and agglutinative nature, such as Turkish or Japanese today. Thus, according to them, the most likely candidate in that context would be a language of the Dravidian stock.
- Other important researchers who have opted for Dravidian as a substrate language include Iravatham Mahadevan and Finnish professor Asko Parpola, who has edited the body of inscriptions in several volumes, believing that the symbols reflect a logo-syllabic script.
Some experts question whether the symbols found on the artifacts of the Indus valley represent a true language or whether they are merely pictograms without any relation to the language spoken by their creators.
It must also be stated that if the signs were exclusively pictographic or logos, they could possibly contain no information about the language spoken by the ancient Indus scribes, since these pictographs, in that case, would not be “writing” in the narrowest sense of the term.
In a paper entitled “The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization,” published in 2004, in “Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies,” American scholars Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel, have favored the idea that the Indus script was not associated with a definite oral language, based on comparative, structural and frequency analyses of signs.
Lacking phonetic values, the signs of the script would merely have a symbolic status, which would explain the extreme brevity of the extant engravings. According to them, the stamps appear to be mass-produced artifacts, intended for use in community rituals and would depict religious and sacrificial symbols.
From 2000 BC onwards, a gradual decline of the Indus civilization can be observed. The united culture with its close-knit trading network and writing system eventually fragmented into different regional cultures, which continued to be influenced to varying degrees by the Indus civilization. There were also migrations. Some people of the Indus culture seem to have migrated east, to the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Others migrated to the fertile plain of Gujarat (Western India) in the south. Many smaller Indus settlements were abandoned (but not destroyed), and new ones appeared in the southeast, smaller and more modest. When the Aryans entered the Indus valley (known as the “Aryan invasion”), the great cities had come to ruin and had ceased to exist.
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