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Updated: May 8, 2012 13:32 IST

Parpola and the Indus script

Iravatham Mahadevan
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Professor Parpola and other Dravidian researchers consider Old Tamil to be a possible route to get at the language of the Indus inscriptions. Photo: Shaju John
Professor Parpola and other Dravidian researchers consider Old Tamil to be a possible route to get at the language of the Indus inscriptions. Photo: Shaju John

He richly deserves the honour of being the first recipient of the Classical Tamil Award instituted by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister.

In the recent interview with Asko Parpola published in The Hindu (April 15, 2010), readers were made aware of the lasting contributions by Professor Parpola to Indological studies, especially in the field of the Indus Civilisation and its script. Having known him personally for four decades and having closely watched his great contribution to the study of the Indus script, I am in a position to amplify the information provided in the interview.

Professor Parpola's contributions to Harappan studies are truly monumental, and these are not confined merely to the study of the Indus script. He has published a long series of brilliant papers to establish the fact of Aryan immigration into South Asia after the decline of the Indus Civilisation. As a Vedic scholar-turned-Dravidianist, he has the best academic credentials to prove that the Indus Civilisation was pre-Aryan and that its writing encoded a Dravidian language. In addition to his linguistic skills and deep scholarship of Vedic Sanskrit and the Dravidian languages, he has harnessed the computer in one of the earliest scientific attempts to study the structure of the Indus texts through computational linguistic procedures. Professor Parpola has produced the first truly scientific concordance to the Indus inscriptions. His concordance is accurate and exhaustive and has become an indispensable tool for researchers in the field.

Equally impressive, and again truly monumental, are the publications inspired and co-authored by Professor Parpola, of two volumes of the Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions. These volumes reproduce in amazing clarity and detail all the Indus seals (and their newly-made impressions) and other inscriptions. I happen to know personally the enormous difficulties Professor Parpola faced in publishing these volumes, nudging and goading the slow-moving bureaucracy in India and Pakistan to make available the originals, most of which were photographed again by the expert whom Professor Parpola sent from Finland for the purpose.

He published his magnum opus in 1994, Deciphering the Indus Script. The book contains the best exposition of the Dravidian hypothesis relating to the Indus Civilisation and its writing. Even though the Indus script remains undeciphered, as Professor Parpola readily admits, his theoretical groundwork on the Dravidian character of the Indus Civilisation and the script, and the fact of Aryan immigration into India after the decline of the Indus Civilisation, have been accepted by most scholars in the world.

Most of the Early Dravidian speakers of North and Central India switched over to the dominant Indo-Aryan languages in Post-Harappan times. Speakers of Aryan languages have indistinguishably merged with speakers of Dravidian and Munda languages millennia ago, creating a composite Indian society containing elements inherited from every source. It is thus likely that the Indus art, religious motifs and craft editions survived and can be traced in Sanskrit literature from the days of the Rigveda, and also in Old Tamil traditions recorded in the Sangam poems. Professor Parpola is aware of the Harappan heritage of both Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages, the former culturally and the latter linguistically. His profound scholarship in both families of languages enables him to mine the Indian cultural heritage holistically in his search for clues to solve the mysteries of the Indus script.

It may be asked: What has Tamil to do with the Indus script that Professor Parpola should be honoured with the inaugural Classical Tamil Award? Tamil happens to be the oldest and the best-documented Dravidian language. It is mainly for this reason that the Dravidian Etymological Dictionary of Burrow and Emeneau accords the head position to Tamil entries in the dictionary. That this distinction is well-deserved is also proved by the fact that Old Tamil contains the most archaic features of Dravidian phonology and morphology, like for example, the retention of the character aytam and the sound zh. Dravidian linguists have also established that most proto-Dravidian reconstructions are in close accord with words in Old Tamil. The earliest Tamil inscriptions date from the Mauryan Era. The earliest Tamil literature, the Sangam works, are from the early centuries of the Common Era, but record oral traditions from a much earlier time. It is for this reason that Professor Parpola and other Dravidian researchers consider Old Tamil to be a possible route to get at the language of the Indus inscriptions.

Professor Parpola speaks for himself in the following excerpt from his message of acceptance of the Classical Tamil Award. He says: “When the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu's award is given to me for a Dravidian solution of the Indus enigma, this award will inevitably be interpreted by many people as politically motivated. Nevertheless, I am ready to fight for the truth, and in my opinion, the Tamils are entitled to some pride for having preserved so well the linguistic heritage of the Indus Civilisation. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that though their language has shifted in the course of millennia, people of North India too are to a large extent descended from the Harappan people, and have also preserved cultural heritage of the same civilisation.”

Professor Parpola's work on the Indus script will prove to be as important and as long-lasting as U.Ve. Swaminathaiyar's resurrection of the Tamil Classics from decaying palm leaves. He richly deserves the honour of being the first recipient of the Classical Tamil Award instituted by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister.

(Iravatham Mahadevan is a noted epigraphist and Tamil scholar.)

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To see a new decipherment of Harappan script, go to:

This work was done in May and June of 2010, it is in complete disagreement with all previous attempts, except that part of Iravatham Mahadevan's phonetic values have been accepted.

from:  S. M. Sullivan
Posted on: Jul 26, 2010 at 02:28 IST

@ Koti Sreekrishna -

The answer to your question lies in Paropola's research. The Indus scripts were Logo Syllabic pictograms unlike the present day alphabets. Humans have always abondonded archaic tools with the advent of a new and better technology. Scripts are nothing but tools used for Communication and when imported technology is available that is path breaking, it is only common that speakers of particular language adopted a particular script. Remember scripts and languages are not two sides of the same coin.

If you take the example of Sanskrit, during the Ashokan era we have had the Brahmi scripts and then Devanagri was used to write it only North of the Vindyas. Grantha was the script of choice for Sanskrit south of the Vindhyas. Again all European languages share the same script. Hindustani is a single language, when written with Devenagri it is called Hindi whereas when written with Perso-Arabic script it is called Urdu even though the dialects are different.

from:  Rajasekaran Elangovan
Posted on: Jul 15, 2010 at 02:43 IST

I was raised to regard Sanskrit and Tamil (Vaishnavite) scriptures on equal footing. My personal preference is certainly for Sanskrit language, followed by Kannada (another Dravidian language) and English! It is funny to see why the Tamils feel that they have to belittle other languages, especially Sanskrit, for Tamil to look better? Can't Tamil stand on its own? I have met Dr. Parpola in his office, some 14 years ago. Whatever he is proposing is just a theory. Nobody knows for sure. All the scripts used in India today are attributed to be of Phoenician origin, supposedly brought to Indian sub-continent by the Dravidian merchants who tarded with Central Asia. If Dravidians had their own script as proposed with Indus script, why did that script did not make its presence to any Indian script? Did the Dravidians feel that their script was not good enough and they had to import from Phonecia. Or is it their magnanimity to embrace an alien script over their own? That is something we need to ponder!

from:  Koti Sreekrishna
Posted on: Jun 28, 2010 at 22:12 IST

Dear Mr.Gouthaman,

Firstly, Professor Parpola's contribution has been in the area of Indus Scipts and not in Tamil Language.

Then, he being awarded by a political party or a particular government (even if it is policially motivated) does not in any way undermine the merits of his research. His Magnum Opus, for which he is being awarded, was published in 1994, and has not been awarded by anybody for 16 years.

Lastly, if not the Tamil Nadu government, which other entity do you think is competant enough to give an award for Prof.Parpola for his contributions? Tamilians have always intuitively known about the antiquity of Tamil. The award is for Prof.Parpola's research confirming that.

The discord in agreeing on the Indus Script is rooted in the Brahmin/non-Brahmin conflict in Tamil Nadu. All Brahmins who boasted themselves as 'Aryans' now disagree on the 'Aryan invasion' theory, fearing isolation and discrimination. Non-Brahmin Tamil were silent for centuries when Sanksrit was given a one-up status on Tamil, even without any evidence. But now Tamils are giving due credit for the antiquity of their language that is evident from archealogical findings.

from:  Ramesh
Posted on: Jun 27, 2010 at 15:14 IST

When an award is given for the Tamil langauge cause, it will be connected to dravidian movement. But when the northerners or central government porpagates Hindi or gives awards, it will be nationalism or patriotic. Let it be to be connected to dravidian movement because only they can do this for the dravidian cause. Professor Parpola's thoery is not new but it already learnt in books long ago. The Professor came with more evidence.

from:  kumar naidu
Posted on: Jun 27, 2010 at 00:04 IST

Problem in Professor Asko Parpola accepting the award

Professor Asko Parpola has accepted the award given by Government of Tamilnadu for his contribution to Tamil language. But there is one problem in professor accepting such award. It is true professor has contributed a lot to Indus research. But what makes Government of Tamilnadu a competent award giving body for Indus research? Government of Tamilnadu think professor has contributed to Tamil language with his hypothesis of linking Indus script to Dravidian group of languages.

But Indus script decipherment is far from settled. There other competing hypotheses by distingused scholars and amateurs alike linking Indus script to languages like Sanskrit, Chinese etc. Professor Steve Farmer has in addition has thrown a spanner by proposing that the Indus symbols may not encode a language script.

Just as Government of Tamilnadu with its origin in Dravidian movement - this was the movement which wanted people they had identified as Aryans to go back to Europe through Kyber pass!- finds it suitable to award professor Asko Parpola, organization and governments favouring Sanskrit will do the same for scholars proposing Sanskrit as language of Indus.

In future, further research linguistic and non-linguistic could favour one of the competing hypothesis. Even Professor Parpola may be unwilling to defend his hypothesis based on evidence available. Will he be then declared traitor of Tamil cause? Or has the professor decided Indus script debate has been settled?

Governments or award giving bodies with their own agenda are free to give awards, but scholars especially those claiming to do scientific research have to be careful while accepting the same.

from:  G.Gouthaman
Posted on: Jun 25, 2010 at 12:58 IST

Thanks to the professor for establishing the truth about Tamil. We were made to believe that sanskrit was the oldest language and Indus valley civilization owed its legacy to Rig veda, what a fabrication of truth? A language which came from a foreign land and which took most of the tamil literature and translated it back, was designated as the oldest language!! let the truth win!

from:  Srinivasan Kuppusamy
Posted on: Jun 25, 2010 at 11:35 IST

Indus valley civilization is definitely pre aryan . no doubt about this whther it is proto Dravidian or proto tamil has to be clarified any how the Indus valley people had strong all India presnce , has been established by findings in Tamil and other places scripts and objects [like the sembian kandiyur ] make it probable either they were spread thro out India or had close ties with the southern part of Indian subcontinent

from:  durai ilamurugu
Posted on: Jun 25, 2010 at 07:09 IST

Dear Mr Sagar, it is ironical that we as a society draw pre-determined notions and colored opinions. All of us as a flock reject / select a book just judging just by looking at its cover. Dr Parpola's observations in his book are exhaustive, well-researched. He not only hypothesise but also provides emperical data to substantiate his claims. Believe me, they are not radical; Indus Valley Civilization people could really have spoken a Dravidian Language that predates Indo-Aryan language and it is defenitely not a crime for those people to have done so. It is sad that the Scholastic achievements got a political hue because the award is being given by a Dravidian Government. But as you rightly pointed out truth can NEVER be suppressed and defnitely not because of a majority of Indian polity thinks Dravidian is an inferior language and can never have been spoken by a flourishing ancient Civilization rightly named Mel-agam ( from Sumerian scripts - Meluha meaning Supreme Counrty in Old Tamil )

from:  Rajasekaran Elangovan
Posted on: Jun 24, 2010 at 01:24 IST

Recent advances in archaelogy, lingustics and other fields have brought newer understanding of Indus Civlization - on whether it was actually Aryan or not. This award has been given to Parpola, as he rightly says, for establishing the line of Dravidian parties. However, truth cannot be established and sealed by giving State Awards. There are many questions which have been left conveniently unanswered in labelling the Indus Civilization as having a Dravidian link - and in assigning Dravidian connections to Indus scripts - which have not been proved at all. Such awards at best, only seek to further the misleading propaganda of certain Dravidian parties - but truth can NEVER be suppressed.

from:  Sagar
Posted on: Jun 18, 2010 at 10:43 IST

Asko Parpola deserves this recognition, and ultimately he is being honored for the excellent work done on Indus civilization and Indus culture. His contribution to study on Indus culture is immense and Shri. Iravatham Mahadevan has brought out the facts in his article in well reasoned way. I wish all the best for Mr. Asko Parpola in his academic career as well as life.

from:  Jeyakumar ramasami
Posted on: Jun 17, 2010 at 09:44 IST
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