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‘I do not believe in a full decipherment’ of the Indus script

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Asko Parpola: “I am convinced that some two dozen specific signs have already been deciphered, because in these cases there appears to be sufficient confirmation — it all makes good sense together.”
Asko Parpola: “I am convinced that some two dozen specific signs have already been deciphered, because in these cases there appears to be sufficient confirmation — it all makes good sense together.”

S. Theodore Baskaran

Eminent Finnish Indologist Asko Parpola on the status of research on the undeciphered script, the new Dholavira finds, whether the Indus script was a system of writing, the Dravidian-Aryan question, the present state of Sanskrit and Vedic studies in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and the Tirukkural.

Asko Parpola’s field of specialisation is Sanskrit, especially Vedic Sanskrit, and the Indus Valley Civilisation, particularly its script, on which he is one of the world’s leading authorities. This renowned Indologist from Finland has done significant research on the Sama Veda, having studied it under the guidance of a Namboothiri scholar of eminence from Panjal, Kerala. Dr. Parpola is Professor Emeritus of Indology and South Asian Studies at the University of Helsinki. About 4,000 seals have survived from the Indus Valley Civilisation, which flourished around 2600-1900 BC. The two volumes he co-edited, Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions (Helsinki, 1987 & 1991), are considered the standard work in the field. His study concludes that the Indus script encodes a Dravidian language. The Indus script is perhaps the most important among ancient systems of writing that are undeciphered. Excerpts from an interview with Dr. Parpola, who was in Chennai recently to deliver a lecture at the Indus Research Centre at the Roja Muthiah Research Library:

I learn that you have come to Chennai straight from Dholavira in Gujarat. Have the new finds in Dholavira, like the signboard, made any difference to our understanding of Indus script?

Yes... the Dholavira signboard is the first example of what we could call monumental inscriptions. Each sign is about 30 cm high. The usual sign on a seal is less than one cm, as you know. The board itself is three metres long. We have also got some new seals and artifacts. However, though these are important finds, they do not bring about any fundamental change in our understanding of the Indus script.

What is the present status of research on the Indus script?

We shall soon have all the material relating to the script in an easily accessible form, in good photographs, or as good as we can get, and also all sorts of indexes and concordances. Thus, good manuals will soon be at hand. As far as decipherment is concerned, we can run various computer programmes that can help in classifying the Indus signs into groups of functionally similar signs. But the real decipherment can only come from making detailed informed guesses and then testing them, seeing if they have enough support from different kinds of evidence. The main thing is that the hypotheses follow strict rules and agree with generally accepted knowledge: the history of writing, proven methods of decipherment, and linguistic and historical evidence.

You have stated in your book Deciphering the Indus Script (London, 1994) that the script cannot be fully deciphered in the present state of our knowledge. Are you hopeful of an eventual full decipherment of the Indus script?

I do not believe in a full decipherment. But I am convinced that some two dozen specific signs have already been deciphered, because in these cases there appears to be sufficient confirmation — it all makes good sense together. In principle, we have a real chance of decipherment only with those signs that we can clearly identify pictorially.

There is a recent controversy that the Indus script is not a system of writing at all. What are your comments on this?

In December 2004, Steve Farmer and his two colleagues published an article where they mention several reasons why the Indus script cannot be writing. In the paper I presented here in Chennai, I examined each one of their nine arguments, concluding that none holds water. For instance, they claim that there is no repetition of signs within a single Indus seal, emphasising this as the most important indicator. But I can quote many examples where such repetition is found.

Another claim was that no longer texts in other writing media like palm leaves have been found at Indus sites. We know from Greek sources that cotton cloth was used as writing material in 325 BC in the Indus Valley. But preserved Indian texts written on cotton cloth date from more than a thousand years later. We know for certain that the Indus people had cotton, but only microscopically small remains of cotton have been preserved in association with metal objects.

Farmer and his colleagues do not discuss the evidence supplied by the Indus sign sequences, which make it virtually certain that the Indus script is writing. How else can we explain that in hundreds of sequences, the signs are always written in the same definite order? If they were just non-linguistic symbols, why did they follow such rules, and did the Indus people keep long registers of sign orders in all the many dozens of sites?

How did you reach the conclusion that the Indus script is Dravidian?

We started with the premise that from the point of view of linguistic history, Dravidian is the most probable alternative. There are several language families in South Asia, the biggest being Indo-European and Dravidian. About a hundred years ago, some 25 per cent of people in South Asia spoke a Dravidian language. Numerically Dravidian is the most important among the non-Indo-European languages of the subcontinent. Brahui, a North Dravidian language, is still spoken in the Indus region. The Munda languages are mainly spoken in eastern India by rather few people and their linguistic relatives are in South-East Asia. The only non-Indo-European language family of South Asia from which there are widely accepted loan words in the Rig Veda is Dravidian. And when applied to the Indus script, Dravidian puns make sense.

Is there scope for further collaboration between Indian and western scholars in studying the Indus script?

I have discussed the possibilities of collaboration. Personally I would be very happy with such a development. Iravatham Mahadevan has been preparing the ground for further Indian research work in this field. India is one of the leading countries in information technology. You have a wealth of young IT experts, and some of them are eager to work on the Indus script. I cannot do this work myself, and would have to hire experts to update our concordances. But no formal decision of collaboration has yet been made. (The Indus Research Centre at Roja Muthiah Research Library Chennai has an ongoing collaborative project with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. A team of experts had a discussion with Dr. Parpola on this subject – Theodore Baskaran.)

You are a Sanskritist by training. What attracted you to study the Indus Civilisation?

I went to the university to study the classical languages of Europe, Latin and Greek. In those days we had to choose three subjects and Sanskrit sounded an interesting choice. It became my main field. The Indus Script attracted me when a friend offered to help with computers in any problem relating to my field. At that time, in the early 1960s, the Greek ‘Linear B’ script had recently been deciphered. It was a great sensation in those days. [Linear B is a script used for writing Mycenaen, an early form of Greek.] And India had its Indus script to be studied.

Do the archaeological data help in understanding the seals?

Definitely. Information like where and with what other material a particular seal was discovered can provide us some leads. Let’s say a seal comes from a room where other artifacts point to the practice of a particular craft, for instance bead-making. Then “bead-maker” might be mentioned in the seal. This is just one example of how we may get clues to proceed further.

You have learned the Sama Veda from a traditional guru in Kerala. What is your assessment of the present level of Vedic and Sanskrit studies in Tamil Nadu and Kerala?

I have studied Jaiminiya Sama Veda, which is one of the rare Vedic schools, surviving only in South India. In Kerala there are just a handful of scholars who can chant Jaiminiya Sama Veda and they are old, so the future of this particular tradition is rather bleak there.

In Tamil Nadu the prospect is much better, as there is a vigorous Jaiminiya Sama Veda pathasala near Tiruchi with a number of students and a dedicated teacher. In the case of other Vedic schools, the situation is less critical and there are some very good centres of Sanskrit studies in both Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Some Indian scholars claim that the Aryans never came from outside India and that the Indus Civilisation was Vedic. What is your stand on the Aryan-Dravidian debate?

The urban civilisation of the Indus Valley differs greatly from the predominantly nomadic culture described in the early Vedic texts. For one thing, the domestic horse, which occupies an important position in Vedic religion and culture, is not represented among the many animals depicted on Indus seals, nor is there any unambiguous bone evidence for the presence of the horse in South Asian before 2000 BC. The horse is not native to South Asia, and was introduced by outsiders in post-Harappan times.

I have always found it most unfortunate that the past is politicised and used for other than scholarly purposes. As far as the Aryan-Dravidian dichotomy is concerned, it must be remembered that ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ are linguistic and not racial terms. There is no pure race, and Aryan and Dravidian speakers have been in contact with each other in South Asia from the start of their encounter. Ever since the Aryan speakers came to India from Central Asia, this militarily powerful minority group would have mixed with the local population. Centuries of gradually increasing bilingualism eventually led to a large-scale language shift, making almost the whole population of North India Indo-Aryan speakers. Linguistic and religious fanatics inflame a wrong sort of nationalism, which has led to great ills both in South Asia and elsewhere. Ancient traditions of language must not be used to divide people.

You had said that lexicography is well advanced in Tamil and Malayalam. What are the reasons?

Tamil has a long literary tradition, especially after the discovery of the Sangam texts. S. Vaiyapuri Pillai did great work in compiling the Tamil Lexicon and after him Murray Rajam initiated further important lexicographic work. The Malayalam Lexicon of the University of Kerala is following this lead. I hope Tamil scholars will extend their work to the study of cognate languages, in particular small tribal languages with no native linguists, and thus enlarge the understanding of the common prehistoric background of all Dravidian languages. The study of the Indus script suffers greatly from inadequate knowledge of ancient compound words, which have not survived in Tamil or Malayalam, but [have] possibly [survived] elsewhere.

You recommended creation of linguistic archives. Could you elaborate this?

Not only linguistic but also folklore material should be collected and published. This is necessary for traditions that do not have a written tradition. Instead, tribal languages do have oral traditions of songs, legends, and stories. In Udupi, Professor U.P. Upadhyaya and his wife Susheela, along with their colleagues, have done exemplary work in collecting a rich database of folklore material and using this as the basis of a six-volume Tulu Lexicon. We badly need similar work on the remaining Dravidian languages, which are all the time losing their ancient vocabulary with the increasing influence of Indo-Aryan and English.

I learn you are translating Tirukkural into Finnish. How is the progress? What is your experience?

Fifteen years ago, I could recite by heart the first hundred stanzas of Tirukkural. I gave lectures at Helsinki University on this Tamil classic that I greatly admire, and translated into Finnish prose almost one half of the text. Unfortunately I have since then not found time and opportunity to finish the job, but I hope this will be possible in the future.

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