Archive for December, 2012

In olden days people said storms were nature’s way of reminding man of his fragile existence. We heard similar expressions even in modern days. When Sandy hit a large part of the United States, many people felt it was there to change the tide of presidential elections and hence the fate of the country and the world.  However, there are only few who can sense the subtle warnings of an approaching storm. In Indian mythology a fish had sensed these. According to the Hindu belief it was actually Lord Vishnu in the guise of a fish who saved Manu (father of the human race) from a devastating deluge.

The fish appears as a savior in many ancient legends spread around the World.  The belief in its powers may have existed in the Indus Civilization (2600 to 1900 BCE) as indicated by the discovery of a large number of fish images from Moen jo Daro, Harappa and a few other ancient Indus towns. Total number of symbols/signs engraved on Indus seals is close to 400 and out of these 10% is of fish and its variants. Fish images are also generously painted on the Indus pottery.

The first Indus seal discovered from the site of Harappa was engraved with six signs – one of these was a fish. Its image was published in 1875 by Alexander Cunningham in his report in the Archaeological Survey of India. About half a century later when Sir John Marshall, the director general of the Archaeological Survey, published the first account of a number of seals discovered from Harappa and Moen jo Daro, fish was immediately spotted by Ernest Mackay. He was the Director of the Field Museum-Oxford University and was excavating Mesopotamian sites. Mackay drew Marshall’s attention to a fish sign engraved on a seal discovered from Kish, located in Persian Gulf. Fish symbol has been discovered in other civilizations East and West of Indus; from Japan to Mesoamerica. Fish Talisman’s, mostly depicting carp, continue to remain popular in today’s China and Japan.  Yuri Knorozov, the Russian scholar, who is more known for deciphering the Maya script, had suggested that the fish depicted on Indus seals is carp. Knorozov’s view that Indus script represented a proto-Dravidian language eventually lead the fish to a celestial status.

In 1950s Father Henry Heras, a Jesuit priest and a supporter of Knorozov’s idea suggested that fish actually represented star as in Dravidian language the word Minh is a homonym for fish and star. He used the signs engraved next to the fish for further proof. For instance the inverted letter V sign over the head of the fish was interpreted roof and represented the black star or Saturn. The fish sign appearing with six vertical strokes depicted six stars and represented constellation Pleiades.

Heras’ theory is further developed by Asko Parpola and Iravatham Mahadevan. However, there is an opposing view presented by S.R.Rao suggesting that Indus script represents an Indo-European language. As the two schools of thought Dravidian versus Sanskrit argue against each other, there are scholars who question whether Indus script is a script at all and whether the fish sign is a fish. Walter Fairservice argued that the eye of the fish is missing. Also, fish is not represented in an upright position in later Indus folk art, could it be just a loop or a letter? One of the recent researchers feel that fish may have been used for weights in the Indus cities. Furthermore, what appears as a roof to Heras appears as a crown and a mountain to others.

Speculations can multiply and the argument can go on for another century. It is about time to seek clues in diverse and scattered sources such as the mythology, etymology, ancient texts and indigenous folklore. Below are just few thoughts.

There may be a reminder to the old myth of fish power in a Sindhi saying ‘Jeko chawundo Jhule Lal Tehnija Theenda Bera Paar’ meaning whoever says Jhule Lal (swing Lal) his/her ship will reach the shores (safely). The story behind the saying is that River saint Udero Lal as a child, rested in a jhula (swinging crib) that kept on swinging on its own. In iconography, however, he is depicted riding a fish that swings with the waves of Indus waters. Fish in fact is a vehicle that takes Lal through the storms of life, hence the slogan Jhule Lal.

Some of the fish images engraved on Indus seals are depicted with horns. If these could be interpreted as numerals, vowels, diacritical marks or rays. They can also be interpreted as a symbol of superiority and authority. A deity engraved on Indus seals and labeled as proto-Shiva too is wearing horns. The tradition continued in historic times and even Alexander the Great is depicted with horns on a few images. The last name Singh adopted by martial communities of Rajputs and Sikhs, literally means horns. Above all the exalted fish in Manu’s story is said to have horns around which Manu fastened the rope that dragged his ship to the shores.

The missing eye of the fish so far can be found in Mahabharata where Arjun, the ace-archer shoots the eye of a fish statuette and wins the competition. The story is used for moral lesson; while going through the vicissitudes of life remain focused on the target; Arjun won Draupadi as during the competition he did not bother to see what others were seeing-the sky, the clouds and the trees.

As for the upright position perhaps ancients discovered one fish in Indus that swam against the current. The palla fish of Sindh, perhaps the upright position is to illustrate the resolve of a struggling fish. Knorozov had already compared images of Indus fish with carp, another fish that is known to swim against the current and which is still considered a symbol of courage and resilience in Japanese and Chinese cultures.

And on this day of Christmas let’s not forget the Biblical references to fish. Merry Christmas.

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“What’s in a name?” Take the case of Sindhu the original name of River Indus. Different people and different platforms discuss it in different ways. The mere fact that they still discuss the name that has been anglicized since centuries is important.

Last month I had been directly involved in two discussions on the subject. First was on the facebook of Central Trading Zone launched by Saleem Aziz. It was about how the name was changed. The second was a serious conversation with Dial Gidwani, founding president of the American Institute of Sindhulogy, who is also developing video games on non-vioence theme. The conversation revolved around the question why do we still use the name Indus and not Sindhu?

To begin from the very beginnings will answer the first question. It takes us to the times when ancient rishis watched “The Rivers come forward triply, seven and seven and Sindhu in might surpassed all the streams that flowed.” This is just one line from a hymn in the tenth book of Rig Veda, the sacred Sanskrit text that mentions river Sindhu for the first time. According to Max Muller, the German translator, Veda was compiled around 1500 BCE, probably on the very banks of Indus. The spectacular scenery and the might of Indus had inspired the composition of hymns on Sindhu. The River, considered sacred, is further described as the lord and leader of the moving floods, active as a dappled mare, mighty as a bellowing bull, kind as a mother to her calves, rich in gold, rich in ample wealth for whom Varuṇa, the water god, cut the channels for its forward course.

Certainly, river was primary, the country around had no name, and was identified only by the river, hence the Indus region was known as Sapta Sindhu, the land of seven rivers. According to some experts it is a referral to Indus’ delta, ridged with its ever shifting branches rushing to the Arabian Sea. Sindhis call it Lar, the slope, the name also used for lower Sindh. Sapta Sindhu is also identified with Punjab, which is now left with five rivers but is still called by the numbers of its rivers, Punj, five and aab, water.

The process of Sindhu’s name change began with the arrival of Achaemenids when they conquered the land, converted it to a Persian satrapy and recorded it as Hapta Hindu. This is when letter ‘s’ was changed to ‘h.’ However, soon after Alexander’s conquest of Darius’ satrapy, Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, recorded the region as Indos ( Indus) by dropping the initial ‘h’ and ending it with ‘s.’ Ending place names with ‘s’ was a common practice of Greek chroniclers and hence we come across Indus kingdoms such as Musikanus, Oxykanus, Portikanus, to mention a few. The suffix kanus is also spelt as kanas and the only remnant in Sindh of these versions is Larkana (without s). From Greek chronicles the name Indus crept into Latin and then to Old English and French which resulted in their own versions of Ind and Ynde.

With the passage of time Persian version Hindu extended beyond the land of Sindhu to Bharat Varsha, the old name of India. Hence Hindu came to be applied to Hindustan (the country), Hinduism(religion) Hindi (language) Hindukush (mountains), Hindu (person), Hindura (a piece of furniture, the Sindhi swing) but it was never applied to the river which is known to the world by its Greek version Indus. And then came the Arabs. They counted Sindh and Hind as two different countries. They also referred to the river as Aab-e-Sin, The water of Sin (or Sindh) the name is shortened to Abasin. Mehran is yet another name for Indus and the only other example of suffix ‘ran’ for river name is Puran, an abandoned tributary of Indus in lower Sindh. Ironically an ordinary Sindhi calls Indus simply a darya, river.

As to the question why we call Sindhu Indus? Here are some of my thoughts. If water worship ever existed in Indus Civilization then Darya Panthies, a Hindu sect of River worshippers in Sindh, deserve the credit for valiantly preserving the practice in some form until mid-twentieth century. It’s logical that not much of this sect is known after the Partition. Sindhi Hindus, in general suffered the worst under Partition as they had to say farewell not only to their ancestral homes but also to their beloved river. They must have drawn some solace from the fact that Sindhu continued to remain in the Indian national anthem. They have also reconciled to fulfill their urge of embracing Indus at its course that traverses through Ladakh district. Sindhu Darshan festival is now celebrated annually at Leh in India to highlight the River as an example of communal harmony and peace.

As far as the present inhabitants of the Indus region are concerned they may not have any memories of the long lost water cults performed in the Great Bath complex of Moen jo Daro, but Pakistani Sindhi Hindus and Muslims alike revere Udero Lal, the river related saint also known as Darya Shah, River King. Lal’s origins are lost in the murky past, he is considered to be a mythical figure but he is also confused with Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. He may not be an eqvivalent of ancient Varuna, but he is considered to be an avatar of the immortal Khwaja Khizr, the sage of Islamic tradition. Khizr guides the mortals through the labyrinth of life. He too is an elusive character appearing in different time zones and different stories throughout the Islamic World. Lal’s identification with Khizr has led to his other title Zinda Pir, the Living Pir. And like Khizr he too rides a fish, the image that abounds on Indus seals and in Islamic iconography depicting Khizr.

Fish symbol will require another blog; suffice it to say here that Udero Lal’s fish is identified with palla, which is more known for being the queen of Sindhi cuisine and less for its heroic struggle of swimming against the current. Whereas in Japan, carp, another fish that swims upstream against the current stands for courage and determination. Legend has it that Khizr too swam against the current and finally reached the island in upper Sindh where he rests in peace.

According to Islamic tradition, Khizr is the one who had guided Zulqarnain (another name of Alexander the Great) to Aab-e- Hayat, the Water of Life. Various locations are cited for the source of Aab-e-Hayat, Indus, is considered to be the most likely source.

Did Alexander seek immortality? “When Alexander sought he did not find what Khizr found unsought.” Nizami says so profoundly what history tells us coldly of an ironic end; Alexander died young in his early thirties.

Names get mingled through the mists of time, but the truth behind them does not change. Their power is not lost, call it magic, call it mystique. Thousands of years ago the might of Sindhu had given birth to the largest and most non-violent civilization of the ancient world. It may sound surreal to say that in this day and age when a handful of Mullas on one side and Hindu fundamentalists on the other side are flaring up hatred between innocent Hindus and Muslims non-violence can prove to be the most effective weapon against their monstrous mission.
The doctrine that holds all forms of life sacred and avoids any form of violence against fellow human beings, animals, insects and even plants is rooted in Indus Civilization. It runs in the blood of Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sufi philosophies. It is also the the common heritage that Indians and Pakistanis possess in a divided land so let’s give non-violence a chance. Call it Ahimsa or whatever; Ahimsa by any other name won’t hurt.

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