Indus script decipherment - Part 1

s. kalyanaraman s._kalyanaraman at
Fri Feb 10 09:26:28 UTC 1995


Mr. Mahadevan has interpreted the cult-object which appears on a number of seals
of the Indus valley civilization, very often in front of the so-called 'unicorn'
symbol. His interpretation is that this is a 'filter' in the soma-vedic 

Mahadevan's interpretation, inter alia, is premised on the graphical variants of
the cult-object symbol in a number of seals. In some vivid seals, the object is 
clearly composed of a top part which has wavy lines connoting 'flow' according 
to Mahadevan and a sharp-edged-bottom connoting the culmination of the flow into
a filter. Other graphic depictions include what appear to be splashes of  drops 
of  liquid.

Using the same graphic components clearly identified by Mahadevan, an 
alternative interpretation is possible. I would call this a drill-bit of a 
lathe. The wavy signs may be seen to connote 'churning' action. The 
sharp-edged-bottom may connote the drill-bit. What appear to be splashes of 
drops of liquid may connote the splinters or dust which fly off from the 
churning lathe-action.  

Based on my work, An Etymological Dictionary of South Asian Languages, (a 
hard-copy is available in the CP Ramaswami Indological Research Institute, 
Madras) it is possible to assign word-values to the cult-object, graphically 
interpreted as a lathe. There is a word in Gujarati language which is sangaaDi 
which can be assigned to this symbol. This phoneme has two meanings: (1) lathe; 
and (2) a military guard who carries government treasury from one place to 
another (jangaDi) or treasure-guard. 

[cf. Semantic congnates evoked by the graphics: sanghaTTana rubbing together, 
friction (Kannada); Sanku the point of an iron nail (Gujarati); kaTTaaNi pin or 
screw for fastening a woman's ear-ring (Tamil); sagaDi, saghaDi, SaghaDi a pan 
to hold live coal or embers; a portable iron grate (Gujarati); cf. semantics of 
homonyms: sanghavi the leader of a body of pilgrims (Gujarati); sangam society 
(Old Tamil); kangaaNi, kaNkaaNi supervisor, inspector of crops (Tamil).]

The most frequently-occurring sign in the corpus of Indus inscriptions is the 
so-called 'jar'. This jar sign has vividly depicted rim or handles. This sign is
also superimposed on what appears to be a 'water-carrier' sign (based on 
Mahadevan's corpus of variants of this sign). If the water-carrier sign is 
deemed to be a phonetic determinative for the 'jar' sign, it is possible to 
interpret both the signs with one word: bhogika.  The -ka is a dimunitive which 
may connote 'handle'. The word bhogika (bhoyi) means, in south Asian linguistic 
tradition a 'water-carrier'. Bhoga, moga means a jar.  [boghalum, bogharaNum, 
boghaNaNum a small metallic pot, generally or brass or copper, serving many 
culinary purposes (Gujarati).] It is possible, therefore, to interpret the 'jar'
sign as bhogika. Bhoga also means coil of rings; a vivid Indus pictorial occurs 
in a number of  Indus sealings in bas-relief depicting a coiled set of rings. 
bhojalum an ape, a monkey (Gujarati); this pictorial appears on an Indus seal, 
in the field normally used to depict the cult-object.

The phoneme, bhog- is of fundamental importance in the south Asian cultural, 
socio-economic and epigraphical traditions. bhog means 'allotment, lot' 
(Gujarati). A glimpse into D.C. Sircar's Indian Epigraphical Glossary and 
thousands of epigraphs of the historical periods of almost all the regions of 
south Asia attest to the importance of this phoneme, bhog- in the context of 
transfer or assignment of titles or rights to property. In the Sanskrit 
tradition, ashTa-bhogam gets elaborated as eight types of enjoyments of 
property-rights, in particular, landed-property rights including limited rights 
such as enjoyment of usufructs, or enjoyment of cultivation rights. Bhogi 
festival connotes the transition of the sun from the zodiacal sign of capricorn 
to cancer and is of great importance in the solar-calendrical tradition as 
symbolizing renewal. Variant cultural phenomena are noticeable in kaama-dahana 
festivities in many regions of south Asia. In Tamil,  for e.g. renDu-bhoga-nilam
connotes land which yields two crops in a solar-calendar year; in Gujarati, 
bhog-paDavum means 'to be the property of'.  pokkaNam means purse, wallet 
(Tamil). If the ancient, cultural traditions of bhogi linked to the apparent 
celestial shift in the sun's motion celebrated in Punjab (called loDi involving 
bon-fires and social gatherings] and Tamilnadu are analysed, it is likely that 
this festivity should have included allotments or assignment of property rights 
to members of a samgha or sangam.

It would, therefore, be possible to interpret, in an inter-locking framework of 
words and meanings in the South Asian language and socio-economic traditions, 
the two dominant symbols (cult-object and jar) of the Indus script as related to
the CONVEYANCE OF PROPERTY RIGHTS  to the holder of the Indus seals. The holder 
of the Indus seal could have been a treasure-guard conveying property; he could 
also have been a recipient of property rights assigned in the socio-cultural 
traditions of antiquity.

This decipherment is premised on a fundamental assumption of the continuity of 
the Indus valley socio-economic, language and cultural traditions in South Asia.
Given this substantively economic-framework which explains the functions of the 
seals (analogous to the functions served by copper-plate grants of historical 
periods), it may be possible to interpret other signs and symbols of Indus 
script using the simple organizing principle for decipherment: identify the 
logo-graphs and tag the homonyms to decipher the substantive meanings to be 
assigned to logo-graphs.

15 December 1994

S. Kalyanaraman, Ph.D. Asian Development Bank, P.O.Box 789, Manila, Philippines
Tel. 632-818-0359 (Home); 632-632-4558 (Work); 632-741-7961 (Fax); 
s._kalyanaraman at (e-mail) [Upto 28 February 1995].
20/7 Warren Road, Mylapore, Madras 600004, India; Tel. 91-44-493-6288; Fax. 
91-44-439-6380 [After 1 March 1995]


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