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Deciphering the Indus script: challenges and some headway

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ASKO PARPOLA: ‘The Indus script encodes a Dravidian language.'
ASKO PARPOLA: ‘The Indus script encodes a Dravidian language.'

Interview withProfessor Asko Parpola.

Dr. Asko Parpola, the Indologist from Finland, is Professor Emeritus of Indology, Institute of World Cultures, University of Helsinki, and one of the leading authorities on the Indus Civilisation and its script. On the basis of sustained work on the Indus script, he has concluded that the script — which is yet to be deciphered — encodes a Dravidian language. As a Sanskritist, his fields of specialisation include the Sama Veda and Vedic rituals. Excerpts from replies that Professor Parpola gave over e-mail to a set of questions sent to him by T.S. Subramanian in the context of his being chosen for the Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award, 2009. The award, comprising Rs. 10 lakh and a citation, will be presented during the World Classical Tamil Conference to be held in Coimbatore from June 23 to 27, 2010. The award announcement said Professor Parpola was chosen for his work on the Dravidian hypothesis in interpreting the Indus script because the Dravidian, as described by him, was close to old Tamil. The award, administered by the Central Institute of Classical Tamil, Chennai, was instituted out of a donation of Rs. 1 crore made by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi:

You are a Vedic scholar. What brought you to the field of the Indus script?

As a university student of Sanskrit and ancient Greek in the early 1960s, I read John Chadwick's fascinating book on how the Mycenaean ‘Linear B' script of Bronze Age Greece was deciphered [ The Decipherment of Linear B, Cambridge University Press, 1958]. Michael Ventris succeeded in doing this without the aid of any bilingual texts, which in most cases have opened up forgotten scripts. Then my childhood friend Seppo Koskenniemi, who worked for IBM, offered his help if I wanted to use the computer for some task in my field. As statistics and various indexes have been important in successful decipherments, we took up this challenging problem of Indian antiquity.

There is some criticism that the Indus script is not a writing system.

I do not agree [with that]. All those features of the Indus script which have been mentioned as proof for its not being a writing system, characterise also the Egyptian hieroglyphic script during its first 600 years of existence. For detailed counterarguments, see my papers at the website www.harappa.com.

If it is a writing system, what reasons do you adduce for it?

The script is highly standardised; the signs are as a rule written in regular lines; there are hundreds of sign sequences which recur in the same order, often at many different sites; the preserved texts are mostly seal stones, and seals in other cultures usually have writing recording the name or title of the seal owner; and the Indus people were acquainted with cuneiform writing through their trade contacts with Mesopotamia.

Indus signs are generally available on seals and tablets. It was presumed that the seals and tablets had short Indus texts because they were meant for trade and commerce. However, a 3-metre long inscription on wood inlaid with stone crystals was found at Dholavira in Gujarat. It was also presumed that Indus inscriptions would not be available in stone. Again, in Dholavira, a large slab with three big Indus signs was found recently. The Archaeological Survey of India's website says the Dholavira site “enjoys the unique distinction of yielding an inscription made up of ten large-sized signs of the Indus script and, not less in importance, is the other find of a large slab engraved with three large signs.” What, in your assessment, is the significance of Indus signs engraved on a large stone slab?

These finds show that the Indus script was used in monumental inscriptions too. It is natural to expect writing to be used in such contexts as well.

What are the impediments to deciphering the Indus script? Is the short nature of the texts a big impediment? If we get a text with about 70 signs, will we able to decipher the script?

The main impediment is the absence of such a key as the Rosetta stone, which contained the same text in different scripts and languages. Nor is there any closely similar known script of the same origin which could give clues to the sound values of the Indus signs. And not only is the script unknown, there is much controversy also about its type (alphabetic, syllabic, logo-syllabic) and about the language underlying it. Apart from the likelihood that the Greater Indus Valley was probably called Meluhha in Sumerian, there is no historical information concerning the Indus Civilisation: it was the names and genealogies of the Persian kings (known from Greek historians and the Bible) which opened up the cuneiform script. The texts are so short that they hardly contain complete sentences, probably only noun phrases. But a text some 70 signs long would not lead to a dramatic decipherment of the script, although it can be expected to throw some new light on the structure of the underlying language.

Can you explain what you mean by the “Dravidian solution of the Indus enigma?”

I mean by it obtaining certainty that the language underlying the Indus script in South Asia belongs to the Dravidian language family. For this, it is not necessary to decipher the entire script (which in any case is impossible with the present materials) but we need a sufficient number of tightly cross-checked sign interpretations.

It is 16 years since you published Deciphering the Indus Script. What is the progress you have made since then in deciphering it?

Some progress has been made, and I shall talk about it at the Classical Tamil Conference in June. Progress is very difficult, however, also because our knowledge of Proto-Dravidian vocabulary and especially phraseology is so incomplete. This knowledge is critical for reliable readings, and here Old Tamil offers precious but unfortunately limited material.

Some Indian scholars feel that the Indus Civilisation is Aryan and connected with the Rig Veda. You are a Vedic scholar and you specialise in the Indus script too. So what is your reaction to this standpoint?

Rigvedic hymns often speak of horses and horse-drawn chariots, and the horse sacrifice, ashvamedha, is among the most prestigious Vedic rites. The only wild equid native to the Indian subcontinent is the wild ass, which is known from the bone finds of the Indus Civilisation and depicted (though rarely) in its art and script. The domesticated horse is absent from South Asia until the second millennium BCE. Finds from Pirak and Swat from 1600 BCE show it was introduced from Central Asia after the Indus Civilisation. The earliest archaeological finds of horse-drawn chariot come from graves dated to around 2000 BCE in the Eurasian steppes, the natural habitat of the horse. There are also ancient Aryan loanwords in Finno-Ugric languages spoken in northeastern Europe (for example, the word for ‘hundred' in my own language Finnish is sata). Some of these Aryan loanwords represent a more archaic stage of development (that is, are phonetically closer to the older Proto-Indo-European language) than Rigvedic Sanskrit. It is very likely that these words came to Finno-Ugric languages from Proto-Aryan spoken in the Volga steppes.

You have published two volumes of Indus Seals and Inscriptions along with J.P. Joshi. Will there be a third volume?

Shri J. P. Joshi was the co-editor of the first volume of the Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions, S. G. M. Shah of the second. Volume 3, Part 1 is in the press and will come out by June 2010.

Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions dating back to 1st century BCE to third century CE offer the fundamental evidence that Tamil is a classical language. Would you like to comment on the threat posed to these Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions in the hills in and around Madurai by the granite-quarrying lobby?

The Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions are important monuments, which should be adequately protected. The possibility of new finds must also not be forgotten. In my own country, Finland, the government has been much concerned about the damage caused to scenery by sand-quarrying and has passed restrictive laws.


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