The Eternal Harappan Script Tease

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New findings raise an old question: Do South Indians belong to the Indus Valley Civilisation?
Around two kilometres away from the famous Vittala Temple in Hampi, Karnataka, through a dirt road that few individuals use, one reaches an abandoned area with banana plantations on one side and hills dotted with oversized boulders on the other. Locals tend to leave the caves on these hills alone since it isn’t uncommon to find sloth bears and cheetahs in them. Around 10 years ago, KM Metry, a Kannada University professor of Tribal Studies who was researching instances of human-bear conflict in the area and visiting sites in search of stone tools used by tribals of the olden days, was walking alone on this dirt road when he saw what he thought was a light scribble on a rock in the distance.

Professor Metry climbed the hill on which the rock stood and started splashing it with water to get a clearer look at what he had spotted. It turned out to be nothing like he had seen before. It was an ancient rock painting, drawn, he says, with some form of vegetable oil, and containing as many as 22 symbols. He continued to discover similar rock paintings with different symbols around Hampi after that.

In the following years, his research on Gondi culture and visits to tribal areas in Chhattisgarh convinced him that the rock paintings he had encountered in Hampi were Gondi symbols. This led him to believe what quite a few other scholars also claim—that all speakers of Dravidian languages, and by extension the people who live in South India, owe their ancestry to the Gond tribe. Some years ago, he chanced upon a book by a Gond scholar who argued that the yet- undeciphered script of the Indus Valley Civilisation is a combination of Gondi symbols. After several years of persuasion, last month, Metry was able to convince the author of the book, Motiravan Kangale, to visit the spot where he had discovered the rock paintings. Of the 22 characters, Kangale was able to identify and interpret the meaning of five that occur both in Gond culture and the Indus Valley Civilisation. The other characters, Kangale says, were not clear enough to identify easily.

“This is a major find,” Metry says. “Not only does it show that the Indus script is connected to Gondi language and culture, it proves that the modern-day Gond [Tribals] and South Indians are people of the Indus Valley Civilisation. The Harappans migrated from the Indus Valley to South India.”

The Indus Valley Civilisation has puzzled archaeologists and researchers ever since it was first discovered in the early twentieth century. Who were these ancient people who lived along the Indus River between 3,300 and 1,300 BCE? What could have happened to the builders of perhaps one of the greatest ancient civilisations? Could they have been wiped out by a flood or a superior military force, as some researchers argue? Or did they abandon the northwest part of the subcontinent because the river they depended upon dried up, or changed course, to migrate to other parts like South India, as Metry suggests?

Most researchers have turned to the tiny symbols and inscriptions on the seals and tablets found at Indus Valley sites for answers to these questions. And therein lies the perplexity. So far, despite several attempts to study the 417 identified Indus Valley symbols that have been found on over 4,000 objects, no one has come close to deciphering the script. Objects bearing it have been found all over, from the Indus Valley sites of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa to far-off places in West Asia. Each object typically has five or six symbols, and these occur in various sequences. Some researchers have even claimed that the symbols do not represent a language at all, and are merely pictograms of political or religious icons.

The likes of Metry and Kangale claim that the ability to decipher the script has proven elusive because no one has attempted to study the script using Gondi symbols and language. They point out how many of the symbols in the script resemble those found in Ghotuls, the traditional learning centres for unmarried Gond youngsters found in some of their villages. They claim that the famous Pashupati seal with the figure of a man with horns echoes the old Gondi practice of wearing a crown of horns for religious occasions. “When you start looking at the script keeping in mind Gondi symbols, then everything becomes clear,” Kangale says. “It shows that the Harappans travelled via central India to the south, with some of them settling in Central India and a majority of them in the South.”

One of the most interesting projects on the Indus script is being undertaken at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). In league with researchers from the University of Washington, and using mathematics and computer science, TIFR researchers have been able to establish that Indus symbols constitute a language. The researchers analysed the statistical pattern of the script, calculating the degree of randomness in successive symbols of a sequence, and compared them to non-linguistic systems such as human DNA, protein sequences and also four linguistic scripts—English, Old Tamil, Rig Vedic Sanskrit and Sumerian. They also compared the Indus script to Fortran, a computer programming language. The results, published in the journal Science in 2009, showed that the Indus inscriptions are indeed linguistic in nature, display- ing the same level of randomness and patterns as the languages used for comparison, and differing from Fortran and other non-linguistic systems.

According to Mayank Vahia, an astrophysicist at TIFR and one of the researchers studying the script, the theory of Indus Valley people having migrated to South India has very little basis in scientific evidence, and artefacts being found in the South are unremarkable in themselves. “Since the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation were in contact with people from as far as Mesopotamia, exchanges with people from South India are likely,” he says.

In support of their argument, those who propose the migration theory point to the discovery in Tamil Nadu eight years ago of a ‘celt’—a hand-held axe of the Indus Valley Civilisation. A school teacher from Sembian-Kandiyur, near Mayiladuthurai in Tamil Nadu’s Nagapattinam district, had dug up two ‘celts’ in his backyard. One of them was inscribed with four symbols from the Indus script. But, as Vahia says, “An axe with Indus inscriptions on it has never been [found at] the Indus sites, but even if it were to be genuine, the axe is a movable object and it very likely could have travelled there.”

What is often missed in these arguments is that script and language are distinct from each other. Seals with Indus symbols, in sequences that are different from the Indus Valley’s, have been found in modern-day Iraq and Bahrain, suggesting that the Indus script was being used as part of a different language or information system in those parts (with which there is evidence of ancient trade links). If an Indus script discovered in South India somehow bears resemblance to a Dravidian language or culture, it does not necessarily mean that speakers of Dravidian languages are descendants of Indus Valley people. The historian Michel Danino rubbishes the theory of the latter’s southward migration in a paper he presented at the International Symposium on Indus Civilisation and Tamil Language in 2007. He wrote: ‘There is no archaeological evidence of a southward migration through the Deccan after the end of the urban phase of the Indus- Sarasvati civilization… The only actual evidence of movements at that period is of Late Harappans migrating towards the Ganges plains and towards Gujarat... Migration apart, there is a complete absence of Harappan artefacts and features south of the Vindhyas: no Harappan designs on pottery, no Harappan seals, crafts and ornaments, no trace of Harappan urbanism… Cultural continuity from Harappan to historical times has been increasingly documented in North India, but not in the South… This means, in effect, that the south-bound Late Harappans would have reverted from an advanced urban bronze-age culture to a Neolithic one! Their migration to South would thus constitute a double “archaeological miracle”: apart from being undetectable on the ground, it implies that the migrants experienced a total break with all their traditions. Such a phenomenon is unheard of.’

Nisha Yadav, who has been researching the Indus script with Vahia, points out that even if the rock paintings with the alleged Indus script are ancient, someone could well have imitated the script. “The Indus script has always been small, and found on tablets or seals. The length of the average inscription is five signs and the longest so far found is 17 signs long. But the size of the symbols in Hampi is large and is 22 characters long. Also, no one has ever found the Indus script as rock paintings.”

The claim of the Indus Valley Civilisation being proto-Dravidian—or even linked to the Vedic age, as some have claimed in the past—has implications for a long-running political debate over the subcontinent’s original inhabitants. The migration theory, for example, gels with the theory that Indo- Iranians, or Aryans, came from the Caspian Sea area with their Vedic culture and drove the Indus Valley’s Dravidian inhabitants to the southern parts of the peninsula. Up against this is the assertion that Indus Valley was part of a Vedic culture of early Hinduism, an alternate theory that bolsters the claim that Vedic beliefs had their origin in the sub- continent and there had never been an Aryan invasion of north India.

After the discovery of the celt, the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was reported to have said at an election rally, in the presence of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that archaeological findings reveal that Tamils belong to a race of Dravidians who lived in the Indus Valley, and how he himself was a descendant of theirs.

According to Vahia, the Harappans were neither connected to the Vedic age, nor proto-Dravidians who moved to South India. One of the chief inconsistencies of the Indus-as-Vedic theory is the complete absence of references to horses in Indus Valley artefacts, while horses were integral to most Rig Vedic rituals and customs. Vahia says, “The Harappans belonged to the ancient Homo sapiens who migrated from Africa as early as 60,000 years ago. A part of this group travelled to the Mediterranean and another travelled along the coast of the Arabian Sea, and some of them settled in the Indus Valley region. At the end of the Ice Ages, the group that went to the Mediterranean moved east and enter- ed India, where they met the earlier migrants who had come along the seas, sometime around 2,500 years BCE. The new entrants, Indo-Iranians, composed the Vedas and later included the learning of the Harappans.”

Writes Vahia writes in an academic paper: ‘It seems logical that post 2000 BC, the Harappans merged with the migrants of Central Asia and then drifted farther east into the Gangetic planes… It is therefore more logical to assume that the Harappan people and the Vedic people merged into a single human group.’

Another novel research study is currently being conducted to understand who the Harappans were and if their descendants could be living among us. In collaboration with researchers of Seoul National University College in Korea and the Archaeological Survey of India, researchers from Pune’s Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute (DCPRI) are trying to excavate burial mounds in Rakhigarhi, an Indus Valley site in Haryana, to find parasite eggs that might have once existed in the stomachs of Indus Valley people. “If these parasite eggs are found, it could lead to something remarkable. We could be able to isolate the DNA of their host,” says Vasant Shinde, a senior archaeologist and vice chancellor at DCPRI.

An earlier attempt to undertake DNA and genome sequencing of skeletons found in Farmana, another Indus site in Haryana, had proved unsuccessful since the wet acidic soil of the region had destroyed all DNA in the remains of the dead. However, earlier this year, the researchers were able to locate a cattle bone whose marrow appeared fit enough for study. According to Shinde, the bone appears to be intact, although they can’t identify what exact animal it belonged to or what part of the skeleton it is. “So far, the bone looks good enough,” he says. “We can’t say what exactly this bone will reveal, but we hope it will be able to tell us something about the connection between the animal and its master.”

While the Indus script still remains shrouded in mystery, and we are as still nowhere close to understanding who the Indus Valley people were or what happened to them, there has been some remarkable progress of late.

Earlier this year, the team led by Shinde discovered two new mounds in addition to the seven already discovered in Rakhigarhi, taking the total area of the site to around 350 hectares. This is much larger than Mohenjo-daro, which was once considered the largest Harappan settlement. “Much of Rakhigarhi is still under a present-day village with around 5,000 inhabitants. So in actuality, it is larger than anyone has ever imagined,” Shinde says.

Rakhigarhi, along with other Harappan sites, had been discovered way back in the 1960s. It had always been thought that the ancient civilisation had its origin in Sind, where Mohenjo-daro and Harappa are located, and later spread to distant sites in modern day Haryana. But archaeologists are now considering the possibility that it was here that the Indus Valley Civilisation first flourished. “The excavations in Haryana are throwing up really early dates, where the early Harappan phase could go back to even 5000 BCE. We still need to confirm that, but Rakhigarhi looks like the place where the civilisation began.”

The TIFR group under Vahia has also discovered two structures used for astronomy in the Indus Valley, proving for the first time that the civilisation was far from primitive in this field of exploration. The two circular structures, located exactly on the Tropic of Cancer, at Dholavira in Gujarat’s Kutch district, were initially thought to be servant’s quarters. “It is implausible that an advanced civilisation like the Indus Valley did not have any knowledge of astronomy,” Vahia says, seated in his office at TIFR, surrounded by shelves packed with books on the subject. “Yet, no one had ever discovered any evidence of it. These structures we discovered were probably useful to understand the time of the day and night, seasons, years, and perhaps even longer periods.”

Since having established that the Indus script is neither random nor dis- orderly, TIFR researchers have also been working on uncovering the subtleties of the script’s structure. They have identified specific signs that begin and end the texts. They have found that the script displays a remarkable uniformity across vast stretches of terrain. They have also found the sequence of Indus symbols used in inscriptions found in West Asia—with whom the Harappans are believed to have had trade links—to be different from those found in Indus Valley; the same script, in effect, being used to represent a different language.

Since there exist frequently-occurring sign combinations that tend to appear at specific locations in the texts, the researchers have also been able to predict illegible or incomplete text found on broken or damaged objects with about 75 per cent accuracy.

One issue that has posed an obstacle to researchers is the presence of what appear to be composite symbols, or symbols that look like an amalgamation of two or more other symbols. Had the Indus Valley people devised shorthand, or do these composites convey meaning combinations of their constituent symbols? TIFR researchers, using computational methods, have been able to compare the ‘environment’ (the signs that precede or follow an inscription sequence) of given constituent and composite symbols, and shown that the Indus people did not write in abbreviations, and that since the environments of composite and constituent symbols are different, the meaning of a composite symbol is not the simple addition of two constituent symbols.

Tapping her fingers on a glass table with images of the Indus script, Yadav says, “Gradually, we are learning to understand the structure of the Indus script. We don’t know what it means. We probably will never know what the symbols are telling us until we discover something like the Rosetta Stone [the stone with a decree inscribed in three scripts, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script, and ancient Greek, the discovery of which helped researchers translate Egyptian hieroglyphs]. But we are learning its structure, its patterns and sequences. We hope to, with our work, be able to help future attempts to interpret the language.”

At this point, Vahia joins in, pointing at Yadav, who is seated across another table. “The two of us will soon be able to write to each other in flawless Harappan. But we won’t understand a word or letter of what we are writing.”