Unsealing The Indus Script (Anatomy of its Decipherment)

Unsealing The Indus Script (Anatomy of its Decipherment)

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Item Code: NAE629
Author: Malati J. Shendge
Publisher: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2010
ISBN: 9788126913350
Pages: 426 (Throughout B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 10.0 inch x 6.5 inch
Weight 830 gm
About the Book

The Book presents a decoding of the script of proto-historic civilization of the Indus valley which flourished in the north and west of the Indian subcontinent between 3000-1850 B.C. This decoding comes after several failed attempts.

According to this book, the script belongs to the earliest type of writing invented and used by man to keep accounts. It is classified a logo graphic which means it is oriented to meaning rather than to sound or language. The other contemporaneous scripts in Egypt and Sumer were also of the same and Sumer were also of the same type. The Tie-up between language and a set of symbols was not yet conceptualized. Consequently, the inscriptions found on the seals of the Indus civilization only enlists things and their quantities transacted. The contents are thus totally mundane and secular.

The author related the script to the earlier and later scripts and unravels the system of the script as well as the making of signs individually. Thus, when related to the iconic original, every sign yields its authentic meaning. The method and argument take the decoding to its logical end viz. to unravel the economic system of the Harappans.

The approach is altogether innovative, objective innovative, objective and professional. The meanings of signs-the most crucial element in the decoding-are supported by tracing the scientific traits in the icons and usage confirmed in archaeological data. With this methodology, this probably is the final decoding.

About the Author

Malati J. Shendge is an established Indologist. She is a prolific writer and has devoted several books to the understanding of the Indus understanding of the Indus civilization. Amongst the books she has published are: The civilized Demons: The Harappans in the Rigveda(1977); The songs and the Ruins: Rigveda the Harappan setting (1955); The aryas, Facts without Fancy and fiction (1996); The Language of the Harappans: from akkadian to Sanskrit (1997) and Rigveda: The original Meaning and its recovery (1989). Besides, she has to her credit over seventy-five research papers published in scholarly journals of reputs.

She has truly situated the Indus civilization as the beginning of India’s History and culture. The Rigveda, Sanskrit language, and India’s culture, according to her, have descended from the Indus civilization

Shendge is a multidisciplinarian. She has worked on Buddhist Tantrism, the Science tradition of India, the origin of writing, etc. Presently, she director, RDV Centre for the Study of Indian Tradition in Pune.


The story goes back to 1959 when soon after my master’s degree, I was looking for a career. One day, sitting in the bai Jerbai Library of Fergusson College, Pune, the word “research” flashed in my mind. When I met my teacher Professor R.D. Vadekar, I tolk him about my ‘discovery’ and immediately came his reply: “I tell you what you should do. You work on the Indus script.” I was taken aback but I managed to say: “No, I want to work on Buddhism.” After that he never mentioned it, nor did I think of it!. But in 1999 I took up the project on the Indus script and the memories of 1959 brief exchange came alive. Gone are the days when teachers dreamt for their students!

Now in 2009 I am realizing that dream of Professor Vadekar! I dedicate this book to him for the forethought! He exerted, though unintentionally, so great an influence on his students that though sixteen years have passed since he left this world, they are unable to forget him. He is still a fountainhead of inspiration.

One more person, an Archaeological Survey of India’s Officer, Late Sheetal Babu Banerjee had also expressed confidence in me and exhorted me to work on the Indus script saying, “ you alone are capable of doing it!

These are uncanny insights. Today I am happy that I am living up to dreams of these two well-wishers. It would have delighted them, had they been around.

From 1999-2003 it was a dreary journey. The confidence was shaken and shattered every time a method failed! It was difficult to sustain enthusiasm when the methods tried led nowhere! But then I decided to try other things and lo and behold, the track changed and the train started running at top speed!

Much doubt is expressed by ‘onlookers’ about the decipherability of a script without a bilingual, though such an effort leading to a successful decipherment has been made by Michael Ventris in the decipherment of Linear B.

This skepticism and fear born of it about the correctness of a decipherment seems to have been propagated with vested interests. This is a highly harmful exercise to far as the professional proficiency and courage are concerned. This will prevent or discourage scholars from accepting challenge to tackle problems which are longstanding and need some thought.

But there are other more discernible scholars who have the indomitable spirit or rather, greater confidence in systematic thinking and methodology. For example, Florian Coulmas cites several names of scholars-Marcel Cohen, I.J. Gelb (Who deciphered the Hitting script), A Nakanishi, Nina Catch, Hartmut Gunther, Peter Daniels, W. Bright and A.K. Gaur- who are linguists and “recognize as writing graphic systems, that in addition to being codes learned by instruction, embody the principles of their learn ability.” This means that all the writing systems have in-built principles which need to be rediscovered in case they are forgotten, as frequently happens to the ancient scripts. Columns go on to say:”By Virtue of their graphic composition [i.e. writing graphic systems] they reveal the procedures on the basis of which they must be used. In this sense writing is auto-indexical. Every written document not only embodies the message ‘I am meant to be read’ but also instructions, however indirect, as to how this can be done. In other words the systematic make-up of writing contains a key to its own decipherment. The procedure for their interpretation can be recovered “By inspecting the writing alone……..”

An when I began the work or even long before that, I aspired to discover the system behind the signs of the script. Unfortunately, during the first four years of the project, I depended on the suggestions collected through writings of others and all my efforts came to naught! Only when I did what now seems to be the most obvious that I succeeded, and I discovered the system.

Some of the books became available to me only during my visit to University of Chicago. Large parts of the monograph were writing before that. Thus, many of my observation during the work, found confirmation in the works of others, which added to my confidence.


In this attempt to unravel the mystery of the Indus script, the script is treated as a product of the conceptualization and execution of the creators of the Indus civilization. As such it is deeply rooted in the archaeological data of the Indus civilization. A script is indeed the inventive abilities of a community that uses it, represents its manner of thinking and is the essence of its culture. With the development of a concept in communication over space and time, early civilizations had taken a big step toward mastering these two dimensions and became worthy of being called civilized.

It was not that the Harappans were inventing writing for the first time in history-the Egyptian hieroglyphic and the Sumerian pictographic scripts existed-the later was in its early stages, but the hieroglyphic, the first writing of the world had already existed for nearly a millennium. The Sumerian script, which later developed into the cuneiform, in its early stages in 3000 B.C. had not yet reached a stage where it would be understood easily by others.

But all the same the Indus script is India’s First Script with which the Indian Subcontinent became literate. The Indus civilization itself, discovered in 1919, is a highly advanced complex civilization, easily a peer of its contemporaries viz. the Egyptian and the Sumerian, and in fact precociously more developed than them, and yet does not display any relationship with them in any respect. The independence shown by the Harappans in creating a civilization of their own is also at the basis of their script, which has a system of its own, as will be seen in the following pages.

The decipherment of the Indus script (=IS) has been comparatively delayed –about ninety years or so from its first discovery, the cause according to the present author is the wrongly conceived hypothesis that the makers of this civilization were the proto-Dravidians, and that the script represents their language. This has hampered scientific thinking and proved to be a mental block for al decipherers, nearly 50+ of them. Similar is the case of another hypothesis assuming the script to be representing Sanskrit.

Besides this the script has hardly been looked at for its own sake or in its archaeological context. The assumption on language ( and that too reached on inadequate evidence) was almost read into the script.

The general hypothesis that runs through the study is that:

(1) The short ’text’ available on the seals are the accounts kept by the Indus civilization’s administrative authority./ They are through and through undine economic accounts, probably executed daily and are bereft of any literary / religious contents. The economy was of barter exchange type.

(2) Paleographical, the script is completely logographic without phonetic or syllabic values, and hence the graphs stand for worlds, they (i.e. the graphs) do not yield any phonetic values. However, it is possible to know their meaning.

(3) Linguistically no grammatically elements of language are represented. Only nouns and verbal nouns representing action can be located.

(4) Metro logically, the texts are very rich and a large number of graphs represent weights and measures. The script has a numerical system and there is provision for representing fractions.

(5) Historically the script displays knowledge of the contemporary systems of writing, viz. Egyptian hieroglyphic and Mesopotamian cuneiform. However, it is independently though out and executed without any concrete influence of either system. Although the date of beginning of Brahmi is unknown at the present state of knowledge (tentatively 8th c. B.C.), it is possible to trace the letters of Brahmi to the envisaged. Since the later numerical signs have parallels in the Indus graphs the possibility of the IS being know cannot be dismissed altogether.

(6) Individual are not named which means the rebus principle was either unknown at the time of the script invention or the mention of names was not essential for the accounting system envisaged.

(7) The objective of the script system was to maintain the accounts. The commodity sold and its barter price is noted.

The script was objective has given the structure to the script system. The script was invented with sole purpose of keeping accounts, and thus, it can be called ‘accountants’ script as were all the early scripts of the world. This objective was strictly adhered to and observed all through the life of the script.

(8) The origin of the script was perhaps in the context of the fish trade. Chronologically, and as a result of the archaic nature of the system, the script may belong to earlier centuries than can be imagined or proved now.

(9) The graphs, the raw material of the system, were created from iconic originals derived from the commodities used and transacted by the Indus people in life and trade.

(10) It is carefully thought out and implemented system. There is no noticeable evolution or changes in the system laid down at the time of the formulation, except increase or decrease in the number of the noun graphs and some clarity in graphs the system was first invented at Harappa in archaeological strata VII-V and introduced at Mohenjo-Daro)=MJD) during Mature Harappa levels . The writing system from the Early Harappa levels through the Mature Harappa is the same.

The methodology set up here is multidisciplinary and draws upon concepts and methods of disciplines like archaeology, linguistics, anthropology, paleography and so on. For example, the concept of stratigraphy so special to archaeology is applied to the script-graphs in order to trace their evolution, their number used during successive periods, etc. This has proved to be extremely useful.


List of IllustrationsXIV
Chapter IIntroduction1-9
1General Scepticism and Desperations about Decoding
Chapter IIThe Historico-cultural Background of the Indus Script10-13
Chapter IIIStratification of the Indus Seals and Graphs14-30
1The Stratigraphy of Seal
2Evolution of the Indus seal at harappa
3The Beginning of the Indus Script as observed in the stratigraphy of Harappa
4The Nature of the Indus Script as observed in the Stratigraphy of Harappa
5The Stratigraphy at MJD
6Basic Graphs
7The Creation of the Script
Chapter IVThe Invention of Writing and the Indus Script31-45
1The Early Beginning
2Recent Work on the Beginning of Writing
3The Indus Script's Beginning
4Absence of theories on or References to Writing in early Indian Literature
5Oral tradition
Chapter VThe Relation of the Indus Script with Other Scripts46-61
1The Egyptian Hieroglyphs
2The sumerian cuneiform
3A Model for the Indus Script
4The Indus Script and the Brahmi
5The Indus Script and the Asokan Brahmi: Some similarities
Chapter VITypology of the Indus Script62-69
2Decoing of Logographic Script
3The rules of Operation of the Indus Script
Chapter VIIThe Logic of Graphic Invention70-76
1Creation of a New Script
2The Inner Logic
3The Icons and the Proof for Relating them to the Graphs
4The Objective of the Writing system
Chapter VIIIGraphs, Their Iconic Originals and Parallels in Other Script77-114
1A New beginning
2Fishes in the Water of the Indus Script
3Aquatic Invertebrates in the Indus Script
4Cattle Representations
5Sheep and Goat Representations
6Wild and Domesticated quadrupeds
Chapter IXGraphs and Their Iconic Originals: Bird etc. Representations115-131
2The Bird etc. Representations
3Insect Representations
4Anthropoid or Humanoid representations
Chapter XGraphs, Their Iconic Originals etc. (continued)132-163
1Tools and Implements
3Wood and its Products
4Other Tools
chapter XIGraphs and Their Iconic Originals etc. (contd). Agricultural Products164-183
4Fibres and their Uses
5Geophysical and Architectural Representations
6Ornaments, Decorations, Cosmetics
Chapter XIIWeights and Measures184-205
1The Origin of the Indus people
2Capacity Measures
3Balance and Weights
4Liquid and Dry Measures
5Length Measures
6The Terminal graphs
Chapter XIVThe Structure of the Indus Script214-218
1The Indus Script, a conscious Creation
2The Nature of the Script
Chapter XVList of Graphs, Their Iconic Objects and Meaning219-246
Chapter XVIApplication to Texts247-286
2Application to the Seal Messages
Chapter XVIIScript Without Language287-290
Chapter XVIIIThe Profile of Possible Akkadian Readings of Graphs291-300
2List of Akkadian words
Chapter XIXThe Credibility of Unsealing301-311
Appendix IGraphs Appearing Only Once310-311
Appendix IIStratigraphy of the Seals of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro: A reappraisal312-341
Appendix IIIThe Decoding of the IS and the Indo-European Postulate342-344
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