The Deciphered Indus Script :
Methodology, Readings, Interpretations

By N. Jha & N. S. Rajaram(Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi, 2000 269 pp., bibl., index, Rs. 950/-)

This book review by Michel Danino was published in The Organiser of 12 November 2000


One of the most unyielding riddles of Indian prehistory has been the one presented by the Indus script—the mysterious symbols delicately engraved on thousands of small steatite seals found in ancient cities of the Indus or Harappan civilization. Those cities—the best-known of them Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Lothal, Dholavira—date back nearly 4500 years, which makes the Indus script one of the oldest in the world, contemporary with Mesopotamian cuneiform scripts or Egyptian hieroglyphics, for instance. Most of those other ancient scripts, also the Maya, the Linear B of ancient Crete, have been unravelled by decades of scholarly labour, debate, even controversy, often also by strokes of genius. Yet the Indus script has proved a hard nut to crack and has resisted generations of savants of all kinds since it came to light in the 1920s. So much so that whoever finally succeeds is assured of going down to posterity ! So far, more than a hundred solutions have been proposed by Western and Indian archaeologists, epigraphists and other experts : some (such as Father Heras or Asko Parpola) have read a Dravidian language, others (such as the well-known archaeologist Dr. S. R. Rao) have found a type of Sanskrit, yet others numeric codes or various symbol systems. But the fact remains that no interpretation has met with general or even widespread acceptance, and some scholars have even despaired of the script being ever understood. As a result, any new claim of a solution—and they keep coming up regularly—is met with scepticism, if not weariness, rather than excitement.

There are good reasons for this pessimism. First, the lack of agreement on the type of language underlying the script, as the cultural background of the Harappan civilization remains itself a matter of debate. Second, none of the inscribed seals, pieces of pottery etc. found so far bears a bilingual text : were a text, however short, to be found written in another script alongside the Indus (as was the case with the famous Rosetta stone which gave Champollion the clue to the hieroglyphics), we would get some definite clues. Third, most of the inscriptions found so far are strikingly short, usually under ten or fifteen characters, leaving much room to conjecture and not enough to independent verification. Fourth, scholars from different schools of thought have tended to work in isolation rather than in collaboration, and that of course has done nothing to hasten towards a solution.

One decipherment that has received some publicity in recent years is that of N. Jha, an epigraphist and Vedic scholar, first proposed in his brief book, Vedic Glossary on Indus Seals published in 1996. Soon afterwards, N. S. Rajaram, a multifaceted scholar with several books on ancient India to his credit, endorsed Jha’s work, and joined him in further research on the script. Together they have published the book under review, which offers a more thorough exposition of Jha’s methodology and findings. The very fact that the book includes readings for nearly 600 Indus inscriptions—something very few other proposed decipherments have provided—should be enough to arrest the attention of any objective student of the Indus civilization.

The book’s first chapters offers a background to the Indus Valley civilization and the whole problem of a supposed Aryan invasion of India at or just after the end of that civilization. Although the “Aryan Invasion theory,” the child of nineteenth-century European Indologists, continues to figure in Indian history textbooks, most archaeologists—whether Indian or Western—have now rejected it, for the simple reason that there is not a shred of evidence for it on the ground, and it is inconceivable that such a massive disruption in the history of the subcontinent would have left no physical trace of any sort. On the contrary, the one fact that emerges from recent archaeological investigations is the striking continuity of the Indian civilization from pre- to post-Harappan times, and in the absence of any sign of warfare or man-made destruction in the Indus cities, large-scale natural calamities remain the best explanation for the slow disintegration of the Harappan urban structure. Rajaram, the author of most of the book’s writing, is forthright in his conviction that with the Aryan invasion now out of the way, we need look no farther than the Indus cities to find the Vedic Aryans : “The vast body of primary literature from the Vedic period has been completely divorced from Harappan archaeology. This has meant that this great literature and its creators have no archaeological existence. In our view, the correct approach to breaking this deadlock is by a combination of likes—a study of primary data from archaeology alongside the primary literature from ancient periods.”

There lies in fact the originality of Jha’s approach to the Indus script. Struck by a verse in the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva, 342.73) which records Yaska’s effort to compile ancient Vedic glossaries “lost buried in the depths”, Jha wondered if there could be a connection between Yaska’s Nighantu and the seals. That insight led him to develop his method, and many of the words he reads on the seals are indeed listed in the Nighantu. That in itself would prove nothing, since many before Jha have read on the seals just what they were expecting to find, but the elaborate consonantal system described in the core of the book certainly presents at first sight a consistent picture. According to Jha, the Indus script contained almost no vowels, a feature too of several other scripts, such as ancient Hebrew. Most of the signs are therefore consonants or composite consonants. One notable exception is the famous U-shaped letter which has caused so much ink to flow in the scholarly world : Jha sees in it a “generic vowel” used to denote words beginning with any vowel. As regards the large number of distinct signs used in the Indus script (well over 400), many are accounted for as composite signs, some of them showing an embryonic vowel stroke system, and the rest as variants, not an unreasonable hypothesis as the Indus script covered a very wide geographical area and at least a millennium. A number of tables expound the values for the signs, and even a layman can note that Jha and Rajaram do not depart from the attributed values.

In addition, Jha links the mysterious unicorn and the three-headed creature often depicted on the seals to passages in the Mahabharata describing just such symbols. This is a novel observation which, script apart, deserves the attention of archaeologists.

So then, what do the seals tell us according to the authors ? They yield Sanskrit words written in the pithy Sutra style. Some inscriptions do contain names of gods, as was to be expected, for example “Indra” next to the representation of a bull, a symbol often associated with this god in the Rig-Veda. Agni, Rudra, Rama and Sita and other deities also find mention.

The inscription on the famous Pasupati seal, reads isadyatta mara, which is listed in the Nighantu (2.22) and means “evil forces subdued by Isha,” Isha being another name of Shiva. But apart from such divine invocations, more mundane messages are engraved, from “a kitchen” or “mosquito” to “people are working by fire at night to stop the flow of flooding waters.” If the readings are accepted, they provide a surprisingly vivid picture of Harappan society.

Well-produced, wide in scope, written in a lucid and racy style, the book is however not free of defects. The text tends to be repetitive, especially in the first chapters, at times going round in circles. The reproductions of the seals are generally poor, especially the one supposed to represent a horse, which looks more like a line-drawing ; in view of its importance (conventional archaeology asserts that the true horse is never represented on the seals), the reader is left wishing for a good photograph. Also, the pictorial motifs found on the seals are sometimes questionably described (for instance those on the seal called “Seven goddesses”). In fact, the interpretation of such motifs often seems rather forced. Finally, the parallels with the geometrical formulas found in the Sulba-Sutras are not sufficiently worked out to be convincing.

All those limitations, however, are incidental, for the central question is whether the script has finally been cracked or not. One legitimate objection would be that the almost total absence of vowel signs allows too much freedom of interpretation ; only a fuller publication covering all known 3,500 seals, or else the discovery of a longer text, could remove such a doubt. Expectedly, Jha’s decipherment has been fiercely attacked by a few conventional scholars, who will not bear to hear anything in the shape of a Harappan-Vedic equation—an equation which yet makes a lot of sense from archaeological and cultural standpoints. Expectedly too, none of those detractors has so far bothered to offer a reasoned and detailed critique of Jha’s methodology and its technical aspects—perhaps even to study them at all. What is needed is an objective scrutiny by experts in an open-minded scientific spirit, something rarer in the scholarly world than one would expect. We may have to wait for a few years for the dust to settle and a sober verdict to emerge.

If Jha’s and Rajaram’s work fails to stand the test of time, it will only go to swell the long list of ingenious but discarded hypotheses on the most ancient script of the subcontinent. If, on the other hand, it has finally solved the riddle—or even taken a few real steps towards doing so—then we shall hear about it again, and the consequences for our understanding of the roots of Indian civilization will be momentous.