One of the most unyielding riddles of Indian prehistory
has been the one presented by the Indus scriptthe mysterious
symbols delicately engraved on thousands of small steatite
seals found in ancient cities of the Indus or Harappan civilization.
Those citiesthe best-known of them Mohenjo-daro, Harappa,
Lothal, Dholaviradate 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 solutionand they keep coming up regularlyis
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 Jhas 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 Jhas methodology and findings. The very
fact that the book includes readings for nearly 600 Indus
inscriptionssomething very few other proposed decipherments
have providedshould be enough to arrest the attention
of any objective student of the Indus civilization.
The books 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 archaeologistswhether
Indian or Westernhave 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 books 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
likesa study of primary data from archaeology alongside
the primary literature from ancient periods.
There lies in fact the originality of Jhas approach
to the Indus script. Struck by a verse in the Mahabharata
(Shanti Parva, 342.73) which records Yaskas effort to
compile ancient Vedic glossaries lost buried in the
depths, Jha wondered if there could be a connection
between Yaskas 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.
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, Jhas decipherment has been fiercely
attacked by a few conventional scholars, who will not bear
to hear anything in the shape of a Harappan-Vedic equationan
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 Jhas methodology and its technical aspectsperhaps
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 Jhas and Rajarams 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 riddleor even taken a few real steps towards doing
sothen we shall hear about it again, and the consequences
for our understanding of the roots of Indian civilization
will be momentous.