Deciphering the Indus Script

Dr. Jai Maharaj jai at
Wed Jun 18 05:02:39 UTC 1997

Deciphering the Indus script

By K. V. Raman
The Hindu
June 10, 1997

Courtesy of the Hindu Vivek Kendra

The Indus Age - The writing system: Gregory L. Possehl: Oxford and IBH
Publishing Co. Pvt.  Ltd., 66, Janpath, New Delhi.  Rs. 750.

Professor Gregory Possehl is one of the leading authorities on the Indus Civilisation, and he has spent long years in the exploration of the Indus settlements both in India and Pakistan and authored several significant works like Indus Civilization in Saurashtra and Ancient Cities of the Indus(Edited). This volume is the first of the four books written by him on the Indus Age, the other three being on "The beginnings" the "Mature Harappan" and the "Transformation". Taken together they will form a comprehensive overview of the ancient cities of the Indus from the village forming communities through the transformation and eclipse of the civilisation.

This book is not another attempt at decipherment of the elusive writing
system which was in use for 600 years (2500-1900 B.C.) It is an in-depth
survey of the nature of Indus writing and a critical review of the most
prominent decipherment efforts. He frankly states that all attempts made
so far are "to be judged as failure at least in so far as can be proved by
independent tests." This may be seen as a counterpoint to the claims of
decipherment but there are many positive sections in the book to locate
where there is a consensus and what might be done to move forward for a
full decipherment.

The first chapter provides an introduction to the Indus civilisation and
its writing system. Based on the latest excavation and carbon-datings, he
defines six phases or stages in its rise and fall starting from the
farming communities and pastoral camps as seen in sites like Kili Ghul
Mohammed (7000-5000 B.C.); stage two, developed village communities
(4300-3200 B.C.); stage three marks the early Harappan (3200- 2600 B.C.):
stage four, the early-mature Harappan transition (2600-2500 B.C.); stage
five, mature Harappan (2500-2000 B.C.): stage six, late and post-Harappan,
ranging in date from 2000 to 130011000 B.C. He describes the
socio-cultural components, technology of the stages.

One of the interesting observations, Possehl makes is the absence of any
monumental religious architecture with the possible exception of the Great
bath at Mohenjodaro. The pyramids of dynastic Egypt and the ziggurats of
Mesopotamia have no parallel in the Indus valley. Also conspicuous by
absence is the palace indicating the absence of a king or a
self-aggrandizing institution and Individuals. However, he cites evidence
to observe that the Harappans were deeply involved in worship and ritual
but their religion was expressed in ways different from the Egyptian or
Mesopotamian civilisation.  "This is an important contrast to the
socio-cultural system of the archaic states and the Harappan civilisation
may not fail within that form of organisation."

In the second chapter he gives an excellent description of the various
materials on which the Indus inscriptions are to be found like seals of
different categories like stamp, cylinder, round, bar and the seal
impression, sealings and pottery.  He cautions that each class has its own
place and message and must be seen as a functional part of its context.
These glyptic materials should not be mixed as it would blur and distort
the content.

He next discusses the characteristic features of the Indus script like the
total number of signs, sign frequency, pictographs, direction of writing
and the language family of the Indus system. He agrees with Iravatham
Mahadevan that the normal direction of the script was from right to left
(forming 83.23 per cent of the total inscription). The presence of
hundreds of signs suggests that the writing system was based "on syllables
or something akin to them and is neither alphabetic or logographic."

Regarding the origin of the script. he examines the various findings and
states it has to be traced only to the mature Harappan phase though the
possibilities of the presence of the prototypes in the transitional period
from the early to the mature Harappa can be recognised (e.g. Amri).  This
short period of development contrasts with the long history of the
development of writing in Mesopotamia. Another intriguing feature is that
no scholar has detected any change or development in the writing system
over 500 years of the mature Harappan indicating "that once codified it
remained frozen in forms."

A very significant part of this book is the detailed critique of all the
most important efforts (about 3 5) made by various scholars for the
decipherment of the Indus script.  It has a long history right from the
pioneers like Stephen Langdon, L. A. Waddel, G. R. Hunter, Father Heras to
the recent computer-based decipherments like those of the Soviet team
(1965) and the Finnish team headed by S. Parpola and P. Alto and scholars
like I. Mahadevan (1972), S. R. Rao (1982), Waiter A. Fairservis Jr.
(1989). Some of them are serious and scientific in their approach.  Many
are based on "faith, revelation, guesses and unexplained methods."

The various theories regarding the script that have emerged are that it is
close to Sumerian; Sumer-Elam; Etruscan; close to Easter Island script;
proto-Elamite, proto-Dravidian, Indo-European, Aryan or proto-Vedic,
progenitor of the Brahmi script.  There are also theories that the Indus
writings are all numerical signs and that they are tantric codes and are
simply records of properties or receipts. Possehl gives a chronological
sequence of these decipherments, their methodologies (or lack of them) and
his own valuable comments and critical assessment of each one of them.  He
also gives the reviews of these readings made by other scholars like K. V
Zvelebil's review of the decipherment of the Soviet and Finnish teams and
I. Mahadevan's review of S. R. Rao's readings.  All these make the volume
very interesting and thought-provoking study, which would be extremely
useful for students and researchers in the disciplines of archaeology,
palaeography and linguistics.

Equally valuable is the last chapter, where he outlines some common
ground, shared conclusions and the emerging patterns from all decipherment
efforts.  Following Kamil Zvelebil, he states, "The script is to be read
from right to left with occasional instances of left to right: use of
extensive suffixes but no prefixes or infixes: it is a logo syllable
writing, not alphabetic: it is not closely related to other writing
systems of second and third millennium B.C. although some convergence
might be found with proto-Elamite: it is not-related to any later Indian
script like Brahmi or Kharoshti; it is not likely to have been a written
form of an Indo-European language since it lacks prefixes and infectional
endings; not likely to be written of a West Asiatic language except a
poorly understood relationship to Elamite and last but not least none of
the proposed decipherments can he proved to be true."

He lists some problems that need attention like intensive study of certain
working hypotheses, for instance, its relationship to proto-
Elamo-Dravidian family or proto-North Dravidian family: the rebus
principle as a tool. the structural analytical approach. All these
hypotheses "need to be confirmed by independent work" on a more sustained
scientific basis. Among the drawbacks in the present stage of research,
according to him, are the lack of agreement on the number of signs in the
Indus script.  Now, just about anything is fair game and the claims are
mostly nothing but guesses.  He stresses the need for sign list and the
need to study the writing system in its various cultural contexts (e.g. B.
M. Pande's analysis of copper tablets and Frank-Vogt's analysis of bangle

What is the test for the correctness of a claim of decipherment?  His
answer is the appearance of an exemplar with a substantial bilingual
inscription, one in Indus script, the other in a writing system that could
be read would settle this.  "In the absence of this, the test is
ultimately going to rely on meaningful and consistent patterns and
concepts that unfortunately elude precise definition.  The hard and sad
reality is that except for the concordances, we are nowhere nearer
decipherment than G. R. Hunter was in 1929."

Courtesy of the Hindu Vivek Kendra

Jai Maharaj
Om Shanti

Copyright (C) 1997 Mantra Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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