Posts Tagged ‘hieroglyphs’

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.

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Sir Alexander Cunningham, the first director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, has contributed a lot to the Indian archaeology. His work on epigraphy and Buddhist monuments are noteworthy. Although Moen jo Daro was not discovered during his lifetime, but his observations on Buddhist history and the history of the Indian writing are of great value for the understanding of the Harappan or the Indus Civilization.

Cunningham had identified many common features between Buddhism, Brahmanism and the ancient western traditions of the Druids and he believed in a more ancient Buddhism which prevailed not only in India but in several other parts of the world. His book “Bhilsa Topes or Buddhist Monuments of Central India” published in 1854 is not only an account of Buddhist monastic complexes but it is a history of Buddhism. Years after writing the book when he arrived in the land of the Yusafzai tribals near Peshawar, he identified Shahbazgarhi with Po-Lu-Sha, recorded by Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang), the Chinese pilgrim who in mid seventh century had visited India and listed hundreds of Buddhist places.

Northwest of India, which is now Pakistan, had been a land of Buddhism. Shahbazgarhi is still marked with a rock engraved with the edicts of the Buddhist King Asoka Maurya (273-232 BCE). In Cunningham’s words, “The great inscription of Asoka is engraved on a large shapeless mass of trap rock, lying about 80 feet up the slope of the hill, with its western face looking downwards towards the village of Shahbaz-garhi.” The edicts, preaching the principles of Asoka’s Dhamma policy, were engraved on rocks and pillars throughout his empire. Asoka declared that he has got them written on the rocks so that they endure longer and the future generations can see them. Also, they are written in the vernacular dialects of their location so that the ordinary people can understand them.

Asoka’s edicts give a good insight in the social and moral code that the good king gave to his people but they are also valuable specimens of the earliest known scripts of the Indian subcontinent. Hence, Cunningham’s book on the inscriptions of Asoka is very important for the understanding of the history of Indian writing. While referring to the Shahbazgarhi inscriptions he writes, “The inscriptions of Asoka are engraved in two distinct characters, one reading from right to left, which is confined to the Shahbazgarhi …and the other reading from left to right.” Later, the Shahbazgarhi script was labeled Kharoshti and the script used for Asoka’s edicts elsewhere came to be recognized as Brahmi. In 1896, Georg Buhler while identifying the four varieties of Kharoshti, considered the Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra rock edicts (also in Pakistan) inscribed with the oldest variety of Kharoshti. Structurally Kharoshti and Brahmi are similar but Brahmi, originally used for Buddhist scriptures, became more widespread as it came to be used for a variety of Prakrits or the vernacular dialects.

Cunningham had rejected any influence of the hieroglyphs and the cuneiform system of the west on the Indian writing and was inquisitive about the origins of this indigenous script. He was aware that the ancient sites were not thoroughly explored and the older specimens were yet to be recovered, the only evidence of an earlier version of Shahbazgarhi writing he could think of was engraved on a tiny steatite seal “…I have , however, come across one monument which I believe to be a specimen of the archaic alphabetical writing. Its age is, of course, quite uncertain, but I do not think its date can be later than 500-400 B.C. This monument is a seal of smooth black stone, which was found by major Clark in the ruins of Harapa in the Panjab.” This was the only Indus seal unearthed during Cunningham’s times and yet his observation, based on a single seal, has turned out to be most logical. His idea that the Harappa seal script was a predecessor of the earliest known script of India is not fully lost. Though Kharoshti is sidelined and most of the research after him is focused on the more known Brahmi and its links with the Indus script.

It is ironic that half a century later when many more seals were discovered, clues to decipher their symbols were being sought in distant lands and cultures, first in Sumer and then in South India. These have been unnecessary detours in the journey of Indus seal research. Dr.N.A Baloch while taking note of the attempts made to relate Indus script with remote languages states “In order to resolve this problem on a rather firm rational ground, a third hypothesis can be presented basing 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.”

The largest number of seals, about 1200, were unearthed from the ruins of Moen jo Daro. Most of these had the format of the Harappa seal- a row of signs engraved above the image of an animal facing an unidentified object. The signs are considered to be an ancient script and like Shahbazgarhi inscriptions these too run from right to left. Some of the seals are also engraved with the symbols of Buddha. Towards the end of the urban phase, narrative seals were made, they seem to represent events and can very well be the precursors of Jatakas, which are engraved with stories of Buddha’s birth. Marshall’s observation of a narrative seal from Moen jo Daro, depicting seven female devotees facing a deity standing in the ‘pipal tree’ is revealing. According to him “This is the tree of knowledge (Bodhi or bo-tree) under which Buddha gained enlightenment.” Another seal depicting a ‘proto-Shiva’ image with two deer images under his ‘throne’ reminded Marshall of the deer motif in Buddhist imagery symbolizing the Deer Park where Buddha gave his first sermon. He also saw semblance between the floor pattern of the Pillared Hall and the Buddhist monasteries where the monks seated themselves on low benches. The Priest King, draped in a shawl with his right shoulder exposed, may have even reminded him of the Buddhist monks attired in the same fashion. There is more of this scattered in John Marhall’s three volumes of “Mohenjo Daro and the Indus Civilization.” These pieces of evidence would have been enough for Cunningham to trace the roots of his ‘ancient Buddhism’ in the Indus Civilization, but this is not what the new generation of archaeologists thought.

Moen jo Daro’s ruins are still crowned with a fragment of the stupa wall but this symbolism has always been ignored. Twenty first century, however, has begun with some hope as Giovanni Verardi of Naples University, Italy has casted doubts on the dating of the ‘so called stupa.’ Cunningham, through Buddhist scriptures had already surmised that stupas were existing before the advent of Buddha and people revered them, in fact, Buddha considered the ancient sages as his immediate predecessors. Buddha came to be represented in human image during the Kushan period, prior to that he was represented by symbols and the stupa image was one of the symbols.

Kirthar mountain ranges between Sindh and Balochistan are engraved significantly with the images of stupas and several other auspicious Buddhist symbols. This is yet another evidence suggesting the existence of an early Buddhism in the Indus region, therefore, it is very likely that Moen jo Daro stupa is a relic of a much earlier period. Michael Jansen of the the University of Aachen, Germany feels that it may not be of Kushan origin but might be Harappan.

We have to bear in mind though, that we cannot expect Buddhism to appear in its conventional sense in the Indus civilization but We can safely assume a peaceful way of life prevalent in the Indus Civilization. To label this non-violent characteristic of ancient Indus a philosophy, an ideology or a religion will be inappropriate because the civilization at that moment of socio-cultural evolution was at a stage where philosophy, ideology and religion were all rolled together. It was only in later times that the nonviolent traits of the region came to be defined with different labels-Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Gandhism and Sufism.

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