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Cover Story

Earliest jigsaw

Sep 30, 2009 | From the print edition

85 years after it was discovered, few of the critical questions about the Indus Valley civilization are answered. The script they used is yet to be cracked—in fact, certain scholars say it is not a script at all

-- In 1946, a team of India's archaeological survey was at one of its favourite digs when it stumbled upon 37 skeletons. Two lay on the steps of a well with visible marks of head injury. Five were on the steps of another well room. A few others were hastily buried as if the times were so bad the dead could not be taken to the cemetery. "Men, women and children seemed to have been massacred in the streets and left dying or, at best, crudely covered without any last rite," wrote Mortimer Wheeler, who led the expedition.

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Mortimer Wheeler  

The archaeologists were at a site on the west bank of the river Indus in what is now Pakistan's Sindh province. For veterans of this dig, the area's local name seemed apt. The Sindhi people of the area called it Mohenjo Daro, meaning mound of the dead. But for the University of London-educated Wheeler, it was time to revisit history textbooks. As an undergraduate, he had learnt by rote a sentence in the Cambridge History of India "The history of India is, in large measure, a struggle between newcomers and earlier inhabitants."


More than 1,500 sites of the Indus Valley civilization have been discovered since 1924 when Mohenjo Daro and Harappa were first excavated. Archaeologists believe the area is roughly the quarter of Europe. Dholavira in Gujarat is the last major site discovered. It was excavated in the 1990s.

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Wheeler also recollected his mentor at the archaeological survey, John Marshall, often said "the ancient people on the banks of the Indus were Dravidians." In 1924 Marshall led an expedition to Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, some 500 km away, and announced "a civilization as ancient as Mesopotamia and as grand as Egypt." The excavation doubled the recorded age of civilization in the Indian subcontinent--shifting it to about 2500 BC from inscriptions of Ashoka in 250 BC.

Marshall could never forcefully claim the Dravidian affiliation of the Indus Valley people. For Wheeler, the 37 skeletons vindicated his mentor. "It may be no conjecture... Aryans slaughtered aborigine men, women and children," he announced in a 1947 article in the Bulletin of the Archaeological Survey.

Those were tumultuous times. The Indian subcontinent was split into two nations and buffeted by the violence of partition. Initial reactions to Wheeler's announcement were muted. But the English archaeologist had stirred up a hornets' nest. The Aryan invasion theory was more than 70 years old then. But several Indian nationalists and historians never accepted it. Indologist P V Kane fired the first salvo.

Hindu nationalists were never at ease with the Aryan Invasion theory. It struck at the root of their belief that the earliest Indians were Aryans
In 1950, he denounced Wheeler and Marshall as typical Englishmen "who find invaders everywhere." Kane argued Mohenjo Daro was a large city and had there been an invasion Wheeler should have found more than 37 skeletons. "If Dr
Marshall and Dr Wheeler had not been so blinkered they would have seen the Indus people for what they were," he said.

He was referring to a seal dug out by Marshall. On it was inscribed a horned person seated on a stool, its arms covered with bangles, and it was flanked by small figures of tigers and elephants. For Kane, this was the Vedic deity Pasupati, precursor
to Shiva. It was proof that Indus Valley people were Aryans. But in a later article he
counselled caution the resolution to the Indus Valley mystery lay in its seals.

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Inscribed on soft stones
In 1856, laying a railway line connecting Karachi and Lahore British engineers John and William Brunton found a city full of hard well-burnt bricks. The city, near Harappa, south of modern day Lahore, was reduced to ballast. Agitated at the destruction, the then director of the Archaeological Survey of India, Alexander Cunningham, moved into Harappa for a salvaging operation. In 1873, he reported a "few odd little seals"--proof of writing in the ancient Indus Valley.

In the next 40 years, archaeologists discovered a few seals near Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. But the Archaeological Survey of India was more interested in uncovering Alexander's lost victory towers at the two sites. In 1922, Rakhal Das Banerji, an archaeologist looking for the victory towers, reported a large cache of seals. Cut out of steatite, a soft stone easy to smoothe and carve, most seals carried a figure of an animal and a row of symbols. Banerji's reports were a rage with his superiors at the archaeological survey. Marshall set out for Mohenjo Daro. Another team was dispatched to Harappa.

In April 1924, Marshall wrote, "It looks we are on the threshold of a discovery in the plains of the Indus Valley." By September that year, he concluded Mohenjo Daro "is the largest Bronze Age city in the world." The archaeologist was delighted to walk down its streets well defined by the high walls of homes, climb the stairways, peer down ancient wells and stand in bathing rooms used over 4,000 years ago. His protege, Wheeler, in contrast wasn't very impressed with the town planning. He began digging at the Indus Valley in the late 1930s and, for a while, was not excited with the regimented planning of Mohenjo Daro.

The 37 skeletons broke the monotony. Wheeler, who often read Max Mueller's commentaries on the Rig Veda, was intrigued by the German Indologist's description of the Aryan chief Indra wreaking havoc on citadels, puras. "Where are-- or were--these citadels," Wheeler wondered. He seemed to have found an answer at Mohenjo Daro.

Hindu nationalists, who believed Aryans were the original inhabitants of the country, were never comfortable with theories about Aryans sacking ancient cities. The social reformer Vivekananda, for example, asked in a fit of rage "In what Veda do you find the Aryans came from a foreign land? Where do you get the idea they slaughtered aborigines?"

Shiva v Indra
Wheeler's theories provided an archaeological prop against such tirade. "On circumstantial evidence, Indra stands accused," he wrote before retiring as the head of Pakistan's Archaeological Survey. Back in the UK, he hosted TV shows to popularize archaeo logy.

In one of the shows, he recollected the Mohenjo Daro carnage site "Indra might have won the battle, but Shiva won the war." The English archaeologist was getting back at P V Kane. "The brutish Aryans imbibed many ideas from the people of the ravished Indus cities, one of them being Shiva worship."

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In early Dravidian languages the word for fish sounds like that for star. What was it in

Wheeler's second question
Wheeler was also given to doubts "Who knows what the residents of Mohenjo Daro called their city?" he once asked. A Spanish Jesuit was hard at work finding answers. Henry Heras made Bombay, now Mumbai, his home in the 1920s and turned his attention to the Indus Valley script in the 1930s. These were exciting times for those studying the Indus Valley people. In 1929, an Oxford PhD candidate G R Hunter submitted his thesis, an analysis of 750 inscribed objects from Mohenjo Daro and Harappa--everything that had been excavated up to 1927. Hunter listed all the signs in the inscriptions,

Symbols of fish and jar were common, Hunter wrote in a 1934 work, The Script of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. Heras worked on Hunter's compendium for nearly two decades, also mastering languages of the Dravidian family. He put the knowledge to good use in analyzing the fish sign. Heras suggested the sign ought to be read as min, the most commonly used word for fish in Dravidian languages. But his knowledge of Dravidian languages told him the sign was not a straightforward indicator. It did not mean fish. In the proto-Dravidian language the word for fish sounds almost like the word for star--min or fish, and min or star are homophonic. "So min could also mean star," wrote the priest who liked to call himself a Spanish Dravidian. He also took cue from Marshall and other Indus Valley archaeologists. They had noticed some people in Mohenjo Daro speaking Bruhui, a language of the Dravidian family. About two million nomadic people in Pakistan's Baluchistan province still speak Bruhui. By 1946, Wheeler's theories were further reason to seek Dravidian affiliation.

Rest in peace Indra
A Spanish Jesuit and a colonial government archaeologist holding forth on origins of civilization in the Indian subcontinent wasn't good for the pride of nationalist historians. In 1953, A D Pusalker, president of the Indian History Congress, joined the debate. "The enemies of Aryans were of dark complexion, indistinct speech, lovers of darkness as contrasted with Aryans who loved light. Can these epithets be applied to city dwellers of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro?" he asked.

By that time archaeologists had revealed nearly 1,000 Indus Valley sites, covering an area almost a quarter Europe. They had dug out pottery depicting foliage, sometimes a strutting peacock, or a horned deer turned towards a stylized tree. Some terracotta figurines had a childlike air about them, others were remarkably vivid in spite of their small size. There was a bronze statue of a slender limbed girl, which historians call the 'Dancing Girl of Mohenjo Daro'.

But the hornets' nest stirred by Wheeler had not been put to rest. In 1964, American archaeologist George F Dales reopened the case. The 37 skeletons dug out by Wheeler belonged to different periods. "Decades, even centuries separated the deaths. Some skeletons did bear cut marks. But the injuries had healed," Dales wrote.

This was a nice salve for nationalist historians smarting under the charge that Aryans had laid ancient cities to waste. Dales' discovery had exonerated Indra of Wheeler's charge. Many saw the American archaeologist's findings as proof of Aryans being indigenous to the Indian subcontinent.

But Dales, who died in 1992, never supported these theories. He believed more digs might yield clues to "the elusive Indus script". In 1986, he set up the Harappan Archaeological Project--an effort of archaeologists, linguists and historians to understand the people of Harappa. He would sometimes wonder if the people of the Indus Valley could be straitjacketed into Aryans or Dravidians. When he succumbed to cancer at 64, Dales was justifiably proud of his contribution.

But a New York Times obituary noted the American archaeologist had a feeling of failure in his last days Mortimer Wheeler's second question still had no answers.A student's tribute
Wheeler's student B B Lal pursued the case with a zeal that would have made his guru proud. But Lal's tribute to his guru hasn't taken the form of affirmation. "If the Aryans pushed the Harappans all the way to South India, how come there are no Harappan sites in South India?" Lal wrote in 1967. Lal has made a case for Aryans being native to India, often indicating they might have authored the Indus civilization.

Lal, who retired as the director of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1972, often refers to the Indus site of Dholavira to substantiate his position. "The word pur occurs frequently in the Rig Veda and conveys the sense of a fortified town. Sometimes it is stated to have had even a hundred walls, the word hundred evidently standing for a large number--as found, for example, at Dholavira," he wrote in 1997.

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B B Lal believes the authors of the Indus Valley
civilization were Aryans

About 4,000 years ago, a huge billboard looked down on a stone metropolis. The city now called Dholavira sat on an island in a salt marsh in what is today Gujarat. Three walls enclosed it, and its gates opened onto broad plazas, busy workshops and spacious stadiums.

Archaeologists believe the nine-foot (2.7m) wide wooden sign, remnants of which were found in the early 1990s, may have hung on a central tower, where its 15-inch (0.4m) white gypsum letters would have proclaimed to literate citizens and visitors. What did it say? The picture blurs here. R S Bisht, who led the excavations in the 1990s, said it's futile to draw on languages of the Dravidian family to read the billboard. Dholavira was planned according to Rig Veda's trimeshthin system. This system divides a city into three areas upper, middle and lower.

Asko Parpola, scholar of Vedic Sanskrit in Finland, sees no reason in going back to the Vedas to read the board. He has spent four decades to understand the tongue of the Indus Valley people. "There are many language families in South Asia, the biggest being Indo-European and Dravidian. The Dravidian family has loaned words to the Indo-European family," he said.

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B B Lal believes the authors of the Indus Valley civilization were Aryans  

An Indian civil servant
Parpola has a supporter in a former Indian civil servant. In 1981, Iravatham Mahadevan took premature retirement from the Indian Administrative Service to follow an old passion the Indus Valley script. The first time he came across specimens of the Indus script was by accident. He had taken a book out of the library of the Central Secretariat in Delhi. "It was G R Hunter's book on the Indus Valley seals. Hunter had gone to Harappa and Mohenjo Daro when the excavations were on and copied all the freshly excavated material. When I went through Hunter, I realized that it was an interesting problem in Indian epigraphy," he wrote.

In the late 1980s, battlelines in the Indus Valley controversy became more sharply drawn. There was a fraud attempt to prove an Aryan association

Mahadevan, like Heras before him, is also a scholar of several Dravidian languages. "We can say the Indus language is most likely to have been a form of Dravidian. The script is written from right to left, like Arabic for example, unlike the Sanskrit script, though there are the occasional cases of left to right," he wrote in 1982. Mahadevan described in a paper in 1982 the jar symbol--first noted by Hunter as the most frequent of all Indus signs--as a sacrificial vessel used in priestly ritual by the Harappans. "In Vedic times," Mahadevan wrote, "the jar symbolism was associated with the priestly class and gave rise to the myth of the miraculous birth from a jar. This could be an influence from Harappan times."

But Mahadevan is also alive to theories about Indus Valley people being Aryans. "You could say from my reading the Indus civilization is Aryan and the Dravidian hypothesis is wrong. That would be wrong. Aryans used horses. We do not have horses and wheeled chariot in the Indus civilization," he wrote.

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Iravatham Mahadevan has listed 500 signs of the Indus script. He believes it has a Dravidian lineage

Enter the horse
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the controversy over the Indus Valley civilization acquired sharper political overtones. The Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu nationalist groups launched a campaign against a 16th century mosque in Uttar Pradesh's Faizababd district. They wanted the mosque to go it was the work of an invader, the Mughal ruler Babur who destroyed a temple at the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. The old controversies about who were original inhabitants of the country were raked up. Historians now no longer subscribe to the Aryan Invasion theory, but they hold Aryans migrated from outside.

Horses and chariots were needed to stretch the antiquity of Aryans in India. On July 11, 1999, the United News of India reported "historians N S Rajaram and Natwar Jha had deciphered messages on more than 2,000 Harappan seals." After months of media hype, Rajaram and Jha's The Deciphered Indus Script made it to print in early 2000. They claimed the Indus civilization was awash with horses, horse keepers, and horse rustlers. To support his claims about horses, Rajaram pointed to a blurry image of a "horse seal"--the first pictorial evidence ever claimed of Harappan horses.

Rajaram took credit for most of the discoveries. An engineering professor in the US in the 1980s, he re-invented himself in the 1990s as a "revisionist historian". By the mid-1990s, he could claim a following in India and in migrant circles in the US. Websites run by Hindu nationalist groups presented him as a "world-renowned expert on Vedic mathematics".

Mahadevan and Parpola followed the pre-press publicity for Rajaram's and Jha's book with a mix of curiosity and scepticism. After the book hit the market, their initial scepticism turned to howls of disbelief--followed by charges of fraud. They showed Rajaram and Jha's methods were so flexible that virtually any desired message could be read into the texts.

Two American Indologists demonstrated Rajaram and Jha's horse seal was a fraud, created from a computer distortion of a broken unicorn bull seal excavated from Harappa.

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In 1997 two historians created a fraud horse seal by a computer distortion of a broken unicorn bull seal dug out in Harappa in 1946

Was it a script at all?
The two Indologists Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer collaborated in a paper in 2004. The paper's title The collapse of the Indus script thesis, the myth of a literate Harappan civilization, was a dead give-away. Witzel, professor of Indology at Harvard, and Farmer, an independent scholar, were joined by University of Illinois linguist Richard Sproat in arguing that it was futile to decode the Indus script. The inscriptions did not encode detailed messages because they were too short--on average only five signs long. "We do not find evidence of randomlooking sign repetition expected in contemporary phonetic scripts like the Egyptian hieroglyphs," Farmer, Witzel and Sproat wrote.

Parpola responded by showing that sign repetitions do occur in the inscriptions. Mahadevan had another counter "Seal-texts tend to be short universally. The Indus script appears to consist mostly of word-signs. Such scripts have a lesser number of characters and repetitions than a script where characters represent syllables-- Egyptian hieroglyphs for instance."

Mahadevan has collaborated with computer analysts at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai to compile a list of 500 Indus epigraphs. The repository depicts the number of times each sign occurs. The list was used recently in a computer analysis by a team led by a University of Washington computer scientist, Rajesh Rao.

The team compared the pattern of symbols in the Indus artifacts to words in contemporary English, ancient Sanskrit and old Tamil. They then repeated the calculations for samples of symbols that are not spoken languages such as DNA sequences from the human genome.

Down to Earth

Indus inscriptions a script or mere pictorial signs?

Linguists believe in some information systems a sequence of symbols appears random, while in others, such as pictograms that represent concepts, a strict hierarchy influences the order in which symbols appear. Spoken languages tend to fall somewhere between these extremes, incorporating order as well as flexibility. The pattern of the Indus symbols was akin to the spoken languages, Rao explained.

Parpola believes only a tenth of Mohenjo Daro has been excavated. "The number of single occurrence signs would surely be reduced with more digs," the Finnish Indologist wrote in 2005.

Assuming excavations continue there is real possibility of at least a partial decipherment of the Indus script.


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