Posts Tagged ‘Indus Seals’

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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“Prince Mikasa, an imperial Army Veteran who turned pacifist…died in Tokyo on Thursday. He was 100.” On October 27th I came across this obituary in the New York Times. Until then all I knew of Prince Takahito Mikasa was that he had once visited Pakistan to participate in an International Symposium on Moen jo Daro and that he was a brother of Emperor Hirohito of Japan. However, now I am curious to see what bought him to Moen jo Daro.

I looked at his picture printed with the obituary, attired and armed in the traditional way, he looked boyish. “Prince Mikasa around 1930” the year printed in the label confirmed my guess.  It also revealed that he was the first Japanese royal to become a professor, and to get a driver’s license. I quickly glanced through the news: born on December 2nd, 1915, he was the fifth in line to the throne and was the uncle of present emperor, Akihito. The obituary any way was short and even looked shorter considering the stature of the late Prince.  I searched more about him on the internet. As expected, many pictures appeared;  in one, the young prince was dancing with his wife Princess Yuriko at a party,  in another both were riding on elephants in Sri Lanka. Fast forward, the couple grew old, the first picture to draw my attention showed them sitting on a bench sharing an album; in another both were standing and viewing the imperial costumes at a Museum, and finally the one from the last years of Prince’s life- he seated in a wheel chair, she holding on to her walker.

Prince Mikasa, served as a junior officer in the imperial army during its notorious invasion of Nanking, but he came to be more known for his views against the war.  He was a strong critic of Japanese aggression in China and after the World War Two had asked his brother to abdicate the throne.  In his Asokan moment he even thought of giving up his own title to live an ordinary life. He did not succeed in achieving the status of a commoner but he had the freedom to immerse in the vast ocean of knowledge to understand human history. He was tempted to reach the remnants of ancient past  for a glimpse of the beginnings of the modern world.

In 1954, Prince Mikasa established the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan. He taught at the Tokyo University, learnt Hebrew and  translated “a handbook of biblical archaeology.” Prince Mikasa’s major interest was the East and  in 1968 he also  became an honorary visiting professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.  In one of his interviews he explained what attracted him to ancient  East, “The reason I studied Oriental archaeology was to seek out from the ruins of the Middle East and the Near East, the origin of mankind and civilization, the outlines of man and state, and to think over what man should be.”  He had found solace in history and antiquity and that is what had bought him to Moen jo Daro. I looked into the proceedings of the International Symposium on Moen jo Daro which were published as a book with the cover design printed with a collage of Indus seals. The Symposium was held on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the excavations of the site.  The year was 1973, I was still a novice in archaeology.But today as I am reading the address of Prince Mikasa on Moen jo Daro I find it very relevant and  must share his views in his own words. Below is an excerpt from his address:

“May I be permitted to tell you about my own impressions?  When I received the invitation from the Government of Pakistan last year, my heart was filled with joy. As a student of the ancient history of the Middle East, I never forget the name of Moenjodaro, the most ancient and most elaborately planned and constructed city in this world, which has reminded Sir Mortimer Wheeler of New York’s Broadway Street. After going around the sites of the city, I realized how poor and how superficial was the knowledge obtained from books and photographs. Each block of bricks, rectangular or triangular, laid vertically or horizontally, the wonderful system of drainage in straight or loosely curved lines made a vivid impression on me. The dyer’s shop and the metal-worker’s shop remind the daily life of the artisans of Moenjodaro.

The Government of Pakistan and UNESCO have already done a great job to save this ancient culture. We, the participants, will do our best to co-operate with the Government of Pakistan and UNESCO in the noble task of preserving this universal human heritage.”

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Last week, at the Ohio State University, Columbus, during a presentation on Moen jo Daro I was asked a question which I have always asked myself, what was the status of women in the Indus Civilization? I have already given part of the answer in my book on Moen jo Daro, but still there is a lot that we need to know about the role of women in those ancient times.

Archaeological evidence gives us a limited answer. The discovery of the well-known bronze female statuette, the Nautch Girl of Sir John Marshall, has led to the belief that dancing girls existed in Moen jo Daro; There are also hundreds of terracotta female figurines unearthed from the site and some of these are considered to be the images of mother goddesses; female images are also carved on a few seals. Most prominent of these is a narrative seal carved with a ritual scene wherein a female deity stands exalted in front of her seven women worshipers. We have to bear in mind that there is no textual evidence available to confirm the authenticity of the labels assigned to them. Our common sense also says that between the dancing girls and mother goddesses there must be women ranging from potters and dyers to brick makers and builders and even scribes who engraved the tiny steatite seals with strange symbols and signs. In the absence of any tangible evidence of such women I suggest to consider a secondary source, the folklore.

Luckily, some of the sufi poets of the Indus region, especially of Sindh and Punjab have not marginalized women in their poetry. In fact, Shah Abdul Latif, Sindh’s most revered Sufi saint and poet, had retrieved seven women characters from the past and presented them in his poetry as great heroes. Though most of them were born in ordinary homes but out of love they are called the seven queens. Sohini, was a potter’s daughter; Sassui, a washer man’s daughter; Noori a fisher-woman and Marvi a desert girl. Their stories are of unrequited love and they ended up as victims of fate, but there was something extraordinary in their beauty and their craft which attracted princes.

Shah Latif’s poems also reveals a few places associated with these women; Bhanbhore where one of them (Sassui) lived, Umarkot where another (Marvi) was imprisoned and in a strange structure in the middle of the lake Noori is buried, these landmarks in the stories of Sindhi queens are worth exploring. If Moen jo Daro, is a window to the pre-historic past these three shed light on the historic periods.

Bhanbhore is located about thirty miles east of Karachi, in the province of Sindh. According to Latif: “Dark was Bhanbhore; Punhoon arrived and brightened it” Punhoon was a prince of Ketch Makran, who bought with his caravan many exotic items. Archaeologists, on the other hand, identify Bhanbhore with Debal, the first city of the sub-continent conquered by the Arab Muslims in the early eighth century. Excavations have revealed Bhanbhore’s origins to the first century BCE and it had been home to the Buddhists, Hindus, Sassanids, Parthians and Scythians before the Arab occupation. Further excavations might reveal older cultural levels bringing it even closer to the Indus period. Even the name Bhanbhore, which has come to the posterity through the poetry of Latif, is much older than the recorded name Debal.

Umarkot, located in the Thar Desert, is said to be a twelfth century fort of Umar the Soomra prince where he imprisoned Marvi an abducted desert girl. A deeper research in the history of Umarkot reveals that the fort is much older and belongs to a pre-Islamic era as suggested by its original name Amarkot after the Rajput Rana Amar Singh.

The third structure built in the middle of Keenjhar or Kalri lake looks strange due to the circular shape bordered with a short wall whose roof seems to be blown off. It is considered to be the grave of Noori but it also reminds me of the circular wall of the stupa that crowned the site of Moen jo Daro. Could it be the shell of another Buddhist stupa? If these structures are older than what is traditionally thought it brings them closer to the Indus period and they might be holding some links which can be connected to the ancient past.

So a part of the answer about the position of women in Indus civilization can come from reexamining the folklore. It is true that Latif’s poetry belongs to the mid seventeenth century, but poets, as I always say, can be avatars of ancient storytellers, hence, it is very likely that the versions of Latif’s queens may have very well lived and died in the ancient Indus cities. The connection is elusive, but ironically, for a clearer picture of the past we have to probe the murky realms of folklore. This approach of understanding the ancient Indus society will require collaboration between the mainstream Indus archaeologists and the scholars of indigenous languages and culture. For now, those who would like to hear some samples of folk stories and songs please check the links below.

Sohini Mahival’s story by Ashiq Jatt (Punjabi)
Sassui song by Muhammad Ibrahim (Sindhi)
Umar Marvi song and the fort of Umarkot (Sindhi)
Noori’s grave

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My book “Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE)” is now published as an eBook and is available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, eSentral, Scribd and ePubDirect. It is an illustrated book with original pictures by Pakistan’s acclaimed photographer Amean J and artwork by Laila Shahzada ,the internationally renowned Pakistani artist. Below is a brief description of the book, enjoy the images and reading on your favorite device.

“Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE)” is a personal view book on the largest and the most elaborate city of the Indus Civilization, located in present day Pakistan. Beginning with the myths and legends surrounding the civilization, Moen jo Daro ends with an appeal for its 3-dimensional digital preservation in the modern age. In between it covers the accidental discovery of the city under the foundations of a Buddhist stupa, the life of its mysterious inhabitants, the unknown ideology they followed as well the strange symbols and script they left behind. The book is not a mere description of the architectural remains and the artifacts discovered in their ruins, it examines the theories of its rise and fall in the larger context of the Indus civilization. I have told the story of Moen jo Daro through conventional sources as well through the legends, folklore, and ancient words retained in the indigenous languages of the Indus region. Some of the interpretation comes from my understanding of the ancient signs and symbols I researched at the Cornell University, New York. Finally, the artwork and original photographs captured exclusively for this book, has infused life in the dead city (Moen jo Daro means the Mound of the Dead).

“Moen jo Daro : Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE)” is meant for general readers and the scholars and students, and is a must read for an international audience. Pakistan is on the center stage of global politics and the world is keen to know it beyond its typical day-to-day reporting.

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You can buy it from Amazon – click here.

The title is Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE). The text is interspersed with the original images specially photographed for this book by Pakistan’s well-known photographer Amean J. It is also enhanced by the artwork of internationally known artist Laila Shahzada. The book is reviewed by Dr. Subhash Kak, Regents Professor Oklahoma State University and Dr. Shoukat Shoro, the former Director of the Institute of Sindhology, Jamshoro Pakistan.

The idea of writing a book on Moen jo Daro for general readers was given to me by Dr. N.A. Baloch. At the same time he suggested that it should not be a handbook of the site but a work presenting Moen jo Daro in a wider historical and geographical context of the Indus region; it should inspire the future generations to seek clues in the languages, legends and folktales of Sindh, Balcohistan, Rajasthan, Kutch, Gujrat, Punjab and beyond. Later on he wrote the foreword of the book.

Indus civilization was spread over a vast area and archaeology allows crossing political boundaries; hence, I approached Dr. Vasant Shinde to write a second foreword of the book. Dr. Shinde is working on the Harappan sites discovered in the Indian Punjab and he is also the vice chancellor of the prestigious Deccan College deemed University. His foreword is most befitting as Moen jo Daro symbolizes the common heritage and history of Pakistan and India.
Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE) is now available on Amazon.com for purchase – Click here.

It is a personal view book and is divided in nine chapters, below is a brief description of these chapters.

The first chapter is about myths and legends thriving in the Indus region. Due to lack of direct references to Moen jo Daro legends can become one of the valuable sources of information. The chapter demonstrates how some of these can hold important clues for the understanding of Moen jo Daro and Indus Civilization.

The second chapter is about the Mound of Dead which is the English translation of Moen jo Daro. The Mound was crowned with the remains of a Buddhist stupa which led to the discovery of this ancient city. The chapter gives the history of the discovery of the stupa which was actually the major attraction for British officials. It also provides the background information on the Buddhist period and Buddhism in Sindh.

The third chapter describes the layout of the two parts of the city. It also lists the artifacts discovered from its ruins. Most of these are showcased at the site museum of Moen jo Daro and the National Museum, Karachi. With the exception of a few, the photographs of the architectural remains and the artifacts are by Amean J.

Chapter four describes the geographical extent of the Indus Civilization as well as its origins, its nature and its decline. Beginning from the Neolithic agrarian communities of Balochistan, it traces their socio-cultural evolution to a mature urban phase that bloomed in the Indus Valley. Moen jo Daro in this chapter is examined in the larger context of the Civilization.

Chapter five is an attempt to reconstruct the picture of the inhabitants and their life in Moen jo Daro and Indus Valley. It also refers to the views of various archaeologists and how their reconstructed pictures differ from each other according to their orientation and generation.

Chapter six describes the ideology of the ancient Indus society as reconstructed through a variety of evidence gathered from Moen jo Daro and a few other significant Indus sites. The chapter sheds some light on the possible links between the ancient Indus ideology and the later Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions. It also examines the status of women and the role of mother goddesses in those remote times.

Chapter seven deals with the most striking finds – the enigmatic signs and symbols engraved on tiny steatite seals. It gives a history of their decipherment and the hurdles in research. In this chapter I also share my research on the signs and symbols engraved on the seals.

Chapter eight explores the reasons of the ‘sudden collapse’ of the urban phase of Indus Civilization. Beginning with the Aryan invasion theory and its rejection, it highlights a few other sites to explain a gradual deterioration of the urban centers and an eastward migration to Gujarat.

Chapter nine gives the background of the international campaign of saving Moen jo Daro from the threats of water logging and salinity. It includes the preservation measures recommended by Pakistani officials and experts from UNESCO member countries. In this chapter I also appeal to the readers to join me in my campaign calling for the three-dimensional digital preservation of Moen jo Daro. You can also see a related blog here.

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