Posts Tagged ‘Indus symbols’

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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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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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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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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