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3,500 Year Old Indus Script Found in Tamil Nadu

Hindu 1 May 2006

Neolithic polished stone celt (hand-held axe) with the Indus valley script found at Sembian-Kandiyur village, near Mayiladuthurai in Tamil Nadu

A Neolithic stone celt with the Indus Valley script has been discovered by a school teacher, V. Shanmuganathan, in a village called Sembian-Kandiyur near Mayiladuthurai in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu. The celt, a polished hand-held stone axe, has four Indus Valley signs on it. The artefact with the script can be as old as 1500 B.C., that is, 3,500 years old. The four signs were identified by epigraphists of the Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology, according to its Special Commissioner, T. S. Sridhar.

Iravatham Mahadevan, one of the world's foremost experts on the Indus script, called the find "the greatest archaeological discovery of a century in Tamil Nadu." The discovery proved that the Indus script had reached Tamil Nadu. He estimated the date of the artefact with the script to be around 1500 B.C. "I have cautiously and conservatively put it between 2000 B.C. and 1500 B.C.," Mr. Mahadevan said. It was in the classical Indus script. He ruled out the possibility of the celt coming from North India because "the material of this stone is clearly of peninsular origin."

Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, where hundreds of seals with the Indus script were discovered, are in present-day Pakistan. Neolithic means New Stone Age and it is datable in India between 2000 B.C. and 1000 B.C.

According to Mr. Mahadevan, the first sign on the celt depicted a skeletal body with ribs. The figure is seated on his haunches, body bent and contracted, with lower limbs folded and knees drawn up. The second sign showed a jar. Hundreds of this pair have been found on seals and sealings at Harappa. Mr Mahadevan read the first sign as "muruku" and the second sign as "an." In other words, it is "Murukan." The earliest references in Old Tamil poetry portrayed him as a "wrathful killer," indicating his prowess as a war god and hunter. The third sign looked like a trident and the fourth like a crescent with a loop in the middle.

Mr. Mahadevan commented that the latest discovery was very strong evidence that the Neolithic people of Tamil Nadu and the Indus Valley people "shared the same language, which can only be Dravidian and not Indo-Aryan." He added that before this discovery, the southernmost occurrence of the Indus script was at Daimabad, Maharashtra on the Pravara River in the Godavari Valley

Significance of Mayiladuthurai find
(Courtesy Hindu )

Links between Harappa and Neolithic Tamil Nadu

The discovery of a Neolithic stone celt, a hand-held axe, with the Indus script on it at Sembian-Kandiyur in Tamil Nadu is, according to Iravatham Mahadevan, "a major discovery because for the first time a text in the Indus script has been found in the State on a datable artefact, which is a polished neolithic celt." He added: "This confirms that the Neolithic people of Tamil Nadu shared the same language family of the Harappan group, which can only be Dravidian. The discovery provides the first evidence that the Neolithic people of the Tamil country spoke a Dravidian language." Mr. Mahadevan, an eminent expert on the subject, estimated the date of the artefact with the Indus script between 2000 B.C. and 1500 B.C.

It was in February 2006, when V. Shanmuganathan, a school teacher living in Sembian-Kandiyur, near Mayiladuthurai in Nagapattinam district, dug a pit in the backyard of his house to plant banana and coconut saplings, that he encountered two stone celts. The teacher, who is interested in archaeology, rang up his friend G. Muthusamy, Curator of the Danish Fort Museum at Tranquebar, which belongs to the Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology. Mr. Muthusamy, who also belongs to the same village, took charge of the two celts from his friend and handed them over to T.S. Sridhar, Special Commissioner, State Department of Archaeology.

When Mr. Sridhar examined one of the two stones, he found some engravings on it. So he asked the epigraphists of his Department to study the particular celt. To their absolute delight, they found fours signs on it - and all four of them corresponded with the characters in the Indus script. When the celt with the Indus script was shown to Mr. Mahadevan, he confirmed that they were in the Indus script. The celt with the script measures 6.5 cm by 2.5 cm by 3.6 cm by 4 cm. It weighs 125 grams. The other celt has no engravings on it.

Mr. Mahadevan, one of the world's foremost scholars on the Indus and the Tamil-Brahmi scripts, is the author of the seminal work, The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables. It was published by the Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi in 1977.

First Indus sign

The first Indus sign on the celt showed a skeletal body with ribs, seated on his haunches, body bent, lower limbs folded and knees drawn up. The second sign shows a jar with a handle. The first sign stood for "muruku" and the second for "an." Together, they read as "Murukan." They formed a very frequent combination on the Indus seals and sealings, especially from Harappa. The first "muruku" sign corresponded with the sign number 48, the second with the number 342, the third, which looks like a trident, corresponded with the sign number 367, and the fourth with 301.

These numbers are found in the sign list published by Mr. Mahadevan.

He said: "`Muruku' and 'an' are shown hundreds of times in the Indus script found at Harappa. This is the importance of the find at Sembiyan-Kandiyur. Not only do the Neolithic people of Tamil Nadu and the Harappans share the same script but the same language." In Tamil Nadu, the muruku symbol was first identified from a pottery graffiti at Sanur, near Tindivanam. B.B. Lal, former Director-General of ASI, correctly identified this symbol with sign 47 of the Indus script. In recent years, the muruku symbol turned up among the pottery graffiti found at Mangudi, near Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, and at Muciri, Kerala. But this was the first time that a complete, classical Indus script had been found on a polished Neolithic stone celt, Mr. Mahadevan pointed out. He emphasised that the importance of the discovery was independent of the tentative decipherment of the two signs proposed by him.

Towards a scientific study of the Indus Script

Iravatham Mahadevan
4 February 2007, Hindu

(This article by one of the world's leading scholars on the Indus Valley Script is based on his address at the inaugural function of the Indus Research Centre at the Roja Muthiah Research Library, Chennai, on January 25, 2007. Rani Siromoney has gifted her late husband Gift Siromoney's research material on the Indus Script to the centre; and the author said he was "only following her noble example" in gifting his own research materials on the subject to the IRC.)

Future research should deal both with structural analysis of the Indus texts aided by the computer and also with archaeological and linguistic evidence to find answers to the riddle of the Indus Script.

I HAVE been a researcher in this field for the last four decades. After completing the first phase of my studies of the Tamil-Brahmi script in 1968, I turned my attention towards the Indus Script, having been attracted by the pioneering work of the Russian scholars led by Yuri V. Knorozov and the Finnish scholars led by Asko Parpola. What I found especially appealing in their brilliant work is that, unlike all previous attempts to decipher the Indus Script, the computer was employed to carry out sophisticated cryptanalytical procedures on a scientific basis. I felt that similar work should be undertaken in India also.

In 1970, I was awarded a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship for this project. In 1970-71, a photographic card catalogue of the Harappan inscribed objects was assembled. The Indus texts and their background data were coded in a numerical format suitable for computer analysis. An experimental concordance was prepared in collaboration with K. Visvanathan with the help of an IBM 1620 computer at the Fundamental Engineering Research Establishment in the College of Engineering, Guindy, Chennai. Publication of this paper brought me an offer of collaboration from leading computer scientists at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai. Mythili Rangarao designed the computer programmes. Professor R. Narasimhan, the doyen of computer scientists in India, guided our work at TIFR.

Interdisciplinary collaboration

This interdisciplinary collaboration resulted in the publication in 1977 of my book, The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables, published by the Archaeological Survey of India. As the title indicates, the book provides the basic source material in an organised manner for further research, but does not put forward any particular theory of linguistic decipherment. In retrospect, this has turned out to be a very salutary precaution, as the Concordance is now used world over by all researchers, whatever be their own views on the language of the Indus Script.

In 1977, a computerised Input Data File was compiled at TIFR; it was updated in 1980. This is the master file from which the pictorial version of the Indus Texts and the Concordance (published in my 1977 book) were created through brilliant and innovative computer programmes at TIFR. To appreciate this achievement, one must remember that the computers of the early 1970s were much less powerful than computers of today. We had to use punched cards to put in the data and also to obtain the output. There were no monitors for visual check. The pictorial version of the Indus texts has been widely acclaimed as aesthetically appealing and close to the originals, providing research scholars without access to the originals with reliable texts to pursue their own lines of research.

Professor Gift Siromoney and his colleague, Professor Abdul Huq, carried out further work on the Indus Script with the help of the computer in the 1980s at the Madras Christian College. Their collaboration resulted in the publication of a series of brilliant research papers (and a doctoral thesis by Abdul Huq), which explored the structural properties of the Indus texts like frequent combinations of signs, segmentation of texts into words, and phrases, etc. What is especially noteworthy about their work is its scientific character without any pre-supposition on the linguistic affinities of the Harappan people and the Indus Script.

Use of computers

The potentialities of the computerised Input Data File have not been exhausted by my 1977 book or even by the further researches by Professor Siromoney and his colleagues. For one thing, much of the data compiled in the file, including details on the locus and stratigraphy of inscribed objects, are yet to be published and remain open to further research. For another, new data are becoming available both from the earlier sites like Mohenjodaro and Harappa and from newer sites like Dholavira. Stratigraphic data from sites like Lothal and Kalibangan are still unpublished.

The format of the Input Data File now stored at the Indus Research Centre (IRC) will permit all such additions, enlarging the corpus of texts and their background data for further research. I have faith that the availability of this material in an accessible computerised form will attract younger scholars from university departments of mathematics, statistics, and linguistics. They can join together in inter-disciplinary research teams to explore further the structure of the Indus Script and ultimately its linguistic character. Fortunately, the Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL) is well equipped with the latest computer facilities and well staffed with experts to lend strong support to the research activities of the IRC.

The IRC proposes to conduct regular workshops and colloquia on different aspects of the Indus Civilisation, including especially the Indus Script. The centre will also arrange occasional seminars inviting scholars in India and visiting scholars from abroad to present their research findings. In due course, I hope it will publish regular bulletins on the work done at the centre or by contributing scholars elsewhere. May I take this opportunity to appeal to scholars and research institutions engaged in similar work to let us have copies of their books, monographs, research papers, and other publications to enable the IRC to build up an exhaustive library on all aspects of the Harappan civilisation and the Indus Script?

No ideological bias

I should like to lay particular emphasis on the fact that the IRC is a forum for scientific investigations without any ideological bias. This does not of course mean that the centre will not undertake research into the linguistic aspects of the Indus Script. After all, linguistic decipherment of the Indus Script is the ultimate objective of research. What we mean when we say there should be no ideological bias is that we should not start with preconceived notions or presuppositions and tailor our research to fit into ideology-driven linguistic models.

Let me illustrate this statement with a couple of examples:

Analysis of the Indus texts has now conclusively established that the writing of the Indus Script was from right to left (with some minor exceptions). Yet we find some scholars claiming that the Indus Script should be read from left to right because that is how Sanskrit (or Tamil) scripts are written. It is clear that all attempts to read the Indus texts generally from the left are ab initio invalid.

Computer analysis has shown that the Indus texts possess only suffixes, not prefixes or infixes. This indicates that the Harappan language was of the suffixing type (like Dravidian), not of the prefixing type (like Indo-Aryan).

Archaelogical context

It is also necessary for well-rounded research to look beyond the inscriptions and take the archaeological context into account. Let me again illustrate this with some well-known examples:

The Indus civilisation was urban in character. The Vedic civilisation was rural and pastoral. There is hardly any description of city life in the Rig Veda.

The Indus seals depict many animals but not the horse. The chariot with spoked wheels is also not depicted in the Indus art. On the contrary, these are among the main features of the society depicted in the Rig Veda.

The Harappan religion, as far as we can make out from pictorial representations, included the worship of buffalo-horned male gods, mother goddesses, the pipal tree, serpents, and probably also phallic worship. Such modes of worship seem alien to the religion of the Rig Veda.
These examples (among many others) make it very improbable that the Harappan city dwellers were the same as the people of the Vedic culture.

Substantial evidence

Ruling out the Aryan authorship of the Indus civilisation does not of course automatically make it Dravidian. However there is substantial evidence favouring that supposition. I mention the most important aspects of the evidence without going into details:

The survival of Dravidian languages like Brahui in North India.

The presence of Dravidian loan words in the Rig Veda.

The substratum influence of Dravidian languages on the Prakrit dialects of North India.
The evidence indicates that Dravidian languages were once spoken widely in North India and one or more of Dravidian dialects could well be the language of the Indus texts.

Let me state with all the emphasis I can command that `Aryan' and `Dravidian' are names of languages and not of races. Speakers of one language can, and frequently did, switch over from one language to another. We should not allow research into the Indus civilisation and language to be vitiated by false notions of racial or ethnic identities.

Speakers of the Aryan languages indistinguishably merged with speakers of Dravidian and Munda languages millennia ago - creating a composite Indian society, culture, and religious traditions containing elements inherited from every source. It is thus more than likely that Indus artistic and religious motifs and craft traditions have survived and can be traced in the Sanskrit literature from the days of the Rig Veda, and also in the old Tamil traditions recorded in the Sangam poetry. This is the basic assumption that underlies my own work on the interpretation of the Indus Script through bilingual parallels drawn from Sanskrit and Old Tamil works.

Quite recently, Steve Farmer and Michael Witzel proposed that the Indus Script was not a writing system at all but merely a collection of picture signs conveying messages visually but not linguistically. It is difficult to take this new theory seriously because concordances of the Indus texts compiled by different authors (G. R. Hunter, Parpola, and Mahadevan) are in essential agreement and bring out obvious linguistic features like the existence of regular sign combinations suggesting words and phrases and grammatical elements like suffixes. Scholars like Knorozov and Gift Siromoney working independently have also confirmed these linguistic features. The theory that the Indus Script is no writing at all appears to me to be defeatist, born out of frustration reflecting the lack of success of the decipherment efforts.

Solving the riddle

Lastly, let me also refer to the view that the Indus Script can never be deciphered owing to the limited material, their repetitive nature, and the absence of bilingual records. I am optimistic that sooner or later the riddle of the Indus Script will be solved.

My optimism is based on the following considerations. Additional material with Indus inscriptions are being continually unearthed from the older sites as well as from newly discovered sites. It is quite likely that we may reach a critical mass of inscriptions necessary for a successful decipherment. The criticism that there has been little or no progress towards decipherment is also not based on facts.

While it is true that linguistic decipherment has not yet been achieved, much preliminary work like determination of the direction of writing, segmentation of texts into words and phrases, and isolation of grammatical features like suffixes has been completed. In these matters a large measure of agreement has emerged from independent work by different scholars; this gives us the hope that we are progressing in the right direction towards decipherment of the Indus Script.

I hope that future research in the IRC would deal both with structural analysis of the Indus texts aided by the computer and also with the archaeological and linguistic evidence such as the ones I have mentioned above to find acceptable answers to the riddle of the Indus Script.

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