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Below is just an excerpt from my book Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BCE), for a detailed history and chronology of the seals you may refer to my book Indus Seals Beyond Geometry.

“Much before the discovery of Moen jo Daro, a seal depicting a humpless bull was unearthed and the story of the Indus seals typically begins with this discovery. The seal was rectangular in shape and engraved with a row of six signs or symbols above the image of the bull and ‘under its neck were two stars’ one of these is already faded. It was discovered in the last quarter of the nineteenth century from Harappa and its sketch and description was published by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1875. Alexander Cunningham the director general of the Survey while reporting the seal had also rejected it ‘They (symbols) are certainly not Indian letters; and as the bull which accompanies them is without a hump, I conclude that the seal is foreign to India.’ In 1877, however, he changed his opinion and suggested that the seal signs were possibly precursors of the Brahmi script inscribed on the pillars of King Asoka Maurya (304-232 BCE). This is yet another enthralling part of the seal story as it pushes the history of writing two thousand years beyond Brahmi, the oldest known script of India. The history of seals can even go beyond as occasionally seals keep appearing from fresh excavations, and some of these are dated to an earlier pre-Harappan phase. In fact, as early as in 1960s when Walter Fairservis scooped heaps of potsherds from Balochistan sites, he found among them a few button seals engraved with geometric patterns. Button seals are the earliest known seals in Indus civilization. A decade later more seals and some of them even older than Fairservis’ discovery were unearthed by Jean-Francois Jarrige from the site of Mehrgarh in Balochistan.”

 

Many writers have written on the moving theme of Partition but, “the most powerful were the writings of Saadat Hasan Manto in Urdu,” acknowledges Khushwant Singh, author of ‘Train to Pakistan.’ Manto’s short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’ is a masterpiece on the madness of Partition, but he can be even more precise. Below is his story I am choosing for today’s short blog, enjoy reading and here is an article where you can read more about him and his stories.

The Garland

The mob suddenly veered to the left, its wrath now directed at the statue of Sir Ganga Ram, the great philanthropist of Lahore. One man smeared the statue’s face with coal tar. Another strung together a garland of shoes and was about to place it around the great man’s neck when the police moved in, guns blazing. The man with the garland of shoes was shot, and taken to the nearby Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.

What can a fight between two little birds teach a mighty king and a warrior  who planned to conquer the world and who wished to live eternally.  An unforgettable character, Alexander the Great, whose story spans through a Persian epic is more known through the smaller stories rife in those eastern regions. One such story is of the two birds and Sikandar, as he is known in those regions. I first heard it from an old man in my village, many years later I read it in the English translation of Sikandarnama (The Book Of Sikandar) written in twelfth century by Shaikh Nizami, the great Persian poet.

This is how the old man began the story “When Sikandar Baadshah (king) was preparing for his great war to conquer the Persian empire,  he knew that victory is not going to be easy, as the battle  was against a mighty foe, Dara (known as Darius in the west), the baadshah of half the world”.

Nizami describes Dara’s response when he heard of Sikander’s intentions:

He laughed, and in that anger- laughter said:

“Ah, woe to the action of the lofty sky!

“Behold the sky, what tyranny it displays

“Since Sikandar entertains a design (of war) against Dara!”

There  was no way to forecast the result of the battle but Alexander foresaw his victory.  “One day when he was passing from a baazar,” continued the old man, “He saw a crowd watching the combat between two birds . Sikandar turned his steed closer to the crowd and watched the contest.”

Following are the excerpts of Nizami’s commentary of the bird battle and what Alexander learnt from it.

“From the fierceness with which the partridges grappled together,
They fled not at the sight of the king.” He was amazed at the resolve and could not help saying:—“How is this malice in the brain of birds!”

He named one bird Sikandar and another Dara

“The two bold birds in that contest
Made battle for awhile” and finally Sikandar defeated Dara.

Alexander considered this the proof of his victory in the forthcoming battle and he  watched the victorious bird fly. I will let Nizami continue and end the story.

(The triumphant bird) Flew towards the knoll of a mountain;
An eagle came and split his head.

When the mountain-partridge was overcome by that eagle,
The king grieved, but became not angry.

The fact of not being enraged is wisdom; for the end of all is to die

He knew that fortune would give assistance
Would give him success over Dárá.

But in that victorious time
His life would not be long lasting.

The famous battle of Arbela between Alexander and Darius 111  was fought in 331 BCE. Alexander died in 323 BCE soon after conquering the easternmost satrapy of Darius. Alexander’s story has reached posterity through various Greek chronicles and Persian accounts. Many books have been written on him and several movies made on his life. Here is a link to the first biopic produced in Bombay by Sohrab Modi, a Parsi film maker whose ancestors had migrated from Persia (Iran) to settle in India.

Shahnama (The Book of Kings) by Firdausi (934-1020 CE) is indeed a great piece of Persian literature. Written under the patronage of Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi (971-1030 CE) it contains 60,000 verses which cost Firdausi 30 years of labor. Eastern poets are known for flattery but Shahnama also displays fury, hence, where we read so many praises of the Sultan we also come across a few rebukes.

It is said Sultan Mahmud had promised to pay one gold coin for each verse that Firdausi composed. However, on the completion of Shahnama, he did not keep his promise and instead of 60,000 gold coins he paid silver coins. When the coins were delivered to the poet, he said, what a good alchemist Sultan is, he can change the gold into silver. Firdausi rejected the reward  and distributed it to his three attendants, he then stained the acclaim he wrote for the Sultan by adding a satire to it. Sultan responded by punishing him in a cruel way, by getting him crushed under the elephant’s feet. Firdausi had to run for his life leaving behind his satire in the Shahnama and his name in the list of great poets. Shahnama is translated in English by James Atkinson, below is an excerpt from the satire.

Fear thee? I fear not man, but God alone,

I only bow to His Almighty throne.

Inspired by Him my ready numbers flow;

Guarded by Him I dread no earthly foe.

Thus in the pride of song I pass my days,

Offering to Heaven my gratitude and praise.

From every trace of sense and feeling free,

When thou art dead, what will become of thee ?

If thou shouldst tear me limb from limb, and cast

My dust and ashes to the angry blast,

Firdausi still would live, since on thy name,

Mahmud, I did not rest my hopes of fame

In the bright page of my heroic song,

But on the God of Heaven, to whom belong

Boundless thanksgivings, and on Him whose love

Supports the Faithful in the realms above,

The mighty Prophet! none who e’er reposed

On Him existence without hope has closed.

And thou would’st hurl me underneath the tread

Of the wild elephant, till I were dead !

Dead! by that insult roused, I should become

An elephant in power, and seal thy doom –

Mahmud ! if fear of man hath never awed

Thy heart, at least fear thy Creator, God.

Full many a warrior of illustrious worth,

Full many of humble, of imperial birth,

Tur, Salim, Jamshid, Minuchihr the brave,

Have died; for nothing had the power to save

These mighty monarchs from the common doom;

They died, but blest in memory still they bloom.

Thus kings too perish – none on earth remain,

Since all things human seek the dust again.

O, had thy father graced a kingly throne,

Thy mother been for royal virtues known,

A different fate the poet then had shared,

Honours and wealth had been his just reward

But how remote from thee a glorious line!

No high, ennobling ancestry is thine;

From a vile stock thy bold career began,

A Blacksmith was thy sire of Isfahan.

Alas! from vice can goodness ever spring ?

Is mercy hoped for in a tyrant king ?

Can water wash the Ethiopian white?

Can we remove the darkness from the night?

The tree to which a bitter fruit is given,

Would still be bitter in the bowers of Heaven;

And a bad heart keeps on its vicious course;

Or if it changes, changes for the worse;

Whilst streams of milk, where Eden’s flowrets blow,

Acquire more honeyed sweetness as they flow.

The reckless king who grinds the poor like thee,

Must ever be consigned to infamy!

 

Jalal-ud-Din Mohammad Akbar was the grandson of Babar, the founder of the Mughal Empire, whose dynasty lasted for over three centuries in the Indian subcontinent. Out of all the descendants of Babar,  Akbar is considered to be the most successful emperor. There are many stories and legends about Akbar’s sense of justice which kept the multicultural Mughal Empire united during his reign which lasted for fifty long years (1556-1605). With the passage of time these stories must have changed and branched in several versions, this blog is just about one version of a story.

One day a group of Hindus came to the palace of Akbar with a complaint against a few Muslims.   They demanded justice as the Muslims had beaten up one of their masons. Akbar summoned the Muslim group and soon the Muslims and the Hindus stood in front of him in two separate groups.

Akbar ordered to begin the hearing. First to speak was a man from the Muslim group, he accused the Hindus of taking the bricks from his masjid to build their mandir. To this, a Hindu responded “My King, those were the leftover bricks of their newly built masjid, they were thrown aside so we took them with the permission of the mullah”.  Another man from the Muslim group interrupted, “My King, we cannot allow the bricks of our masjid to go in the building of a mandir”.  A third man from the Muslim group, who looked composed, stepped forward and asked him, “My brother, what difference does it make, they too were using the bricks for building the house of their God.” The first Muslim who had opened the dialogue could not bear all this and addressed the King, “My King, there is difference, we offer Namaz, they worship idols”. On this the Hindu responded, “My King, the masjid and the mandir both house God, we call him Rama, they call him Raheem”.

Akbar had been listening patiently to both the groups and finely gave his verdict. Looking at the Hindu man he began, “Young man, I will not betray your trust in my justice. I am proud you did not take law in your hands and those who do so deserve to be punished”.  He then turned towards the Muslim group and continued, “On the pretext of bricks I will not allow violence. In the name of religion I will not allow the fire of hatred to spread in my kingdom. The culprits will be duly punished”. Akbar concluded by repeating Babar’s advice to his descendants, “Love the masjids and respect the mandirs.”

In his later years Akbar allowed the Jesuit priests to build their churches in his empire. Today some of the mullahs refer to him as a non-believer and a heretic while history records him as Akbar the Great.

OWOS Talpur Cover

Ode to a Desert Woman

I remember, within the loose circle of a veil

A face-strong, striking, ancient and pale

Sphinx-like riddle its features bore

An expression so stoic, hard to explore

Chiseled sharply by piercing winds

Tanned copper by the blazing sun

It called for a scribe to write its story

To seek its history encrypted around

In the massive murky past, in the dunes that abound

In such enormity she stood; in distance she was lost

An eternal imprint on my memory she left

Aspiring life in the desert dead

A rare ore amidst the grains of sand

Unread, unnoticed, unnamed

How do I bring you toOzymandias’ fame?

A version of this Ode was first published inFootnotes,my  book of verse.  Later  it  appeared in the Purani Kahani, the ‘Old Story’ of the Desert Woman I published in A Pakistani Trilogy.

Ever since the publication of my book ‘Indus Seals (2600-1900 BCE)Beyond Geometry: A New Approach to Break an Old Code’ I am often asked about the nature of the hurdles in the Indus seal research and about what has been my approach to decipherment of the enigmatic signs and symbols engraved on these seals. The answer is long and I have attempted to cover it in my book, however, for those who want a shorter version please read this blog.

Most cited difficulties in deciphering the seals are the brevity of the inscriptions and the absence of a bilingual dictionary such as the Rosetta Stone which helped in deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs. An average Indus seal has only 5 signs while the longest Indus text is composed of 26 signs. However, we cannot wait for the discovery of large volumes of textual material. Bearing in mind that the brevity of text might be a unique feature which cannot be judged by the yardstick used for ancient writing systems discovered elsewhere, we must continue to reconstruct the other aspects of Indus civilization which will eventually provide a larger socio-cultural and ideological context to examine and understand the seals.

 

According to Asko Parpola, methodological weaknesses have been a cause of failure in deciphering the script. “The most common approach has been this: Indus signs are equated with similar-looking signs of other, readable ancient scripts and the phonetic values of the latter are transferred to the Indus signs. However, this method works only when the two scripts being compared are closely related … In contrast, the Indus script has no obvious genetic affinity with any other known script.”

N.A. Baloch classifies the method of decipherment used by the researchers into two groups. “The first method has been of concentration entirely on the internal structure of the Indus script which has reduced the entire corpus of the signs, marks, and pictorial representations into writing and enumerating so much so that each and every sign has an identification number now. The second method has directed the research towards proving some sort of relationship between the Indus script and other scripts and languages of the contemporary civilizations.”

Apart from these reasons, I strongly feel that there have been a few detours in the long journey of decipherment which has derailed the Indus seal research. These detours have proved futile as they have misled the scholars to seek clues in distant cultures and languages. Perhaps, for a better understanding of the Indus seals and their languages, I would like to draw the attention to the route suggested by Baloch. According to him, “For the language of the (Indus) script, the scholars will have to abandon their wild-goose chase of looking for the proto-type in Turan and South India and look for the evidence within the land where the seals were made and discovered… this lock of the Indus script had apparently been prepared by the great smiths of yore that is not likely to yield to such foreign-made keys so easily.” Baloch further suggests that, “In order to resolve this problem on a rather firm rational ground, a third hypothesis can be presented based on the assumption that the key to the decipherment of the Indus script may be found right in the land where it had been lost— Indus Valley. The decipherment could, perhaps, be worked out looking into the words and phrases of the language of the Indus Valley, the language of the land itself, Sindhi of the peasants, as it has remained unaffected throughout the centuries.”

And yet Sindhi is not the only language to be considered for Indus seal research. I have used the Sindhi model in my book because of my familiarity with that language and because it has retained a larger percentage of the ancient words. However, there are other languages spoken in the Indus region which can be explored for ancient words, adages and legends that can be identified on the seals. It must be emphasized that seals are not only engraved with rows of signs and symbols but they are also imbued with images of animals, humans, deities, trees and unidentifiable objects. Hence beyond the calligraphic, geometrical and linguistic facets of ancient writing , the Indus seals also depict an assortment of social, cultural and ideological content which requires a holistic approach for its interpretation. This approach will certainly extend the seal research and help in a better understanding of the Civilization in general.

Indus Civilization is recognized as the fourth ancient civilization of the World, the other three were discovered in China, Egypt and Iraq; the fifth was discovered in Central America after the discovery of Indus. Indus is also the largest ancient civilization but it remains to be the least understood.  It must be emphasized that the failure to decipher Indus symbols and signs has contributed a lot to this lack of understanding.