Decoding the Indus Script

Epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan talks about research on Dravidian proof of the Indus script, to SUGANTHY KRISHNAMACHARI.

Updated - March 07, 2017 10:00 am IST

Published - August 13, 2015 04:10 pm IST

Iravatham Mahadevan. Photo: KV. Poornachandra Kumar

Iravatham Mahadevan. Photo: KV. Poornachandra Kumar

Iravatham Mahadevan has had an almost lifetime engagement with the Indus Valley Civilisation. He argues that any common feature between the Vedic language and old Tamil must have a common origin, and that this common origin is the Indus culture.

He has taken for analysis a frequent four sign sequence ABCD (Figure 1) from the Indus script. ABCD constitutes a ‘phrase.’ Pictographic scripts used the rebus technique, which means that a sign can be read with another meaning suggested by the same sound. So if we have a picture of an eye, and the language is English, then the picture of an ‘eye’ can be read as ‘I.’

Mahadevan analyses ABCD, and using rebus, arrives at the intended meaning. Sign A shows an animal with its back turned, with a protuberance over one ear. Mahadevan identifies the animal as a wolf, and the protuberance as braided or knotted hair.

In sign A, it is the posture of the animal, the way it sits with ‘exchange of front and back,’ which conveys the meaning. The literal meaning in Dravidian languages, is to turn back (maRi in Tamil), or ‘to become changed (mARu in Tamil and Telugu) or to hide (maRai inTamil). But the intended meaning is ‘mARu’ - exchange as in exchange of goods. So A means barter or barterer.

For Sign B, the literal meaning is clasp or hook (koliki in Telugu, koLuttu in tamil). But the intended meaning is to receive (koL in Tamil, konu in Telugu).

‘C’ is interpreted as crossroads. PAdi in Tamil, for example, means town or settlement. Here intended meaning and literal meaning are the same- town or city, or one who resides in a settlement. Vazhi is another word for path. VAzhi means prosperity. Vazhi is the literal meaning. VAzhi- prosperity- is the intended meaning. D is a masculine suffix.

So interpretation of ABCD is:

A- barterer

B- receiver

C- resident

D- ‘he’ or ‘he of the_’

In short, ABCD means ‘merchant of the city.’

Mahadevan says Indus Dravidian languages influenced the earliest Southern Dravidian languages, especially old Tamil, and that in old Tamil, the Indus phrase ABCD became a collection of titles of the Pandiyan dynasty.

Take Sign ‘A’ - ‘barter.’ Although the verb form ‘mARu’ for barter is common in Tamil, a noun form ‘mARan’ for barterer is not to be found. However, ‘mARan’ was a dynastic name of the Pandiyas. The protuberance over one ear of the wolf in Sign A has been identified as knotted hair. Knotted hair was the hairstyle adopted by the Pandiyas, and by the Medieval period, the Pandiyas came to be known as Cataiyan, from the Sanskrit root jata - knotted or braided hair.

Coming to Sign B-hook. ‘Cedil’ in Tamil literally means hook machine, and cedi means light or splendour. In old Tamil, ‘d’ used to alternate with ‘zh. So from cedi came cezhi, and hence Cezhian, which is again a Pandiyan dynastic name. Also, the Pandiyan insignia has a hook like weapon called cendu, very much like the B sign. (see picture).

As for sign C- pAdi, this gets nasalised to Pandi, and hence Pandiyan. Sign C-vazhi (literal meaning- path) or vAzhi (intended meaning -prosperity), becomes vazhuti, again a Pandiyan dynastic name.

So we get the following dynastic names of the Pandiyas:

MARan (barterer)

Cezhiyan (he of the thunderbolt)

Vazhuti (prosperous one)

Pandiyan (he of the pAdi or city).

Thus, Mahadevan says that the remote ancestors of the Pandiyas were prosperous city dwelling merchants of the Indus civilisation.

Analysing survival of the Indus phrase ABCD in the Rg Veda, the Padma Sri awardee says it is a collection of epithets which define qualities of the Rg Vedic deity, PUshan. Interestingly, Mahadevan says that evidence of a Dravidian origin of Vedic expressions can be inferred from incorrect loan translations, which result in meaningless expressions, sought to be explained by equally bizarre mythological stories.

PUshan is called ‘Pathaspati’- lord of the paths, and this comes from an unintended loan translation of C from Indus (Dravidian) as path. Etymologically, however, PUshan comes from the Sanskrit root ‘puSh’ -to cause to thrive. And the Rg Veda describes PUshan as being prosperous and talks of his golden ships. So what is the connection between the lord of the paths and prosperity? Sign C is not only vazhi (path) but also vAzhi, vAzhvu- signifying prosperity. So PUshan as the prosperous deity came from a loan translation of the intended meaning – vAzhi.

PUshan is said to be karambhAd- an eater of gruel. Why would a prosperous one eat gruel? Later literature says he is toothless, but this seems to have been thought up to justify his consumption of gruel. For an answer to how karambhAd came about, we have to look at sign F (Figure 2). Sign F indicates assembly, or member of an assembly, and the word for assembly in Tamil is ambalam. But ambali in Tamil means porridge and the meaning of porridge was taken instead of the meaning of assembly, and PUshan, a member of an assembly became PUshan the eater of gruel. But PUshan is also referred to in the Rg Veda as vidathya- member of the assembly. So while karambhAd is a loan translation from an unintended meaning, vidathya is a loan translation from the intended meaning of sign F.

PUshan is also Aghrni- the glowing one. Now the B sign (koLLi) receiver (intended meaning) also means burning firewood (unintended meaning). PUshan as the glowing one is a loan translation of the unintended meaning.

PUshan is ajAsva- the one whose horses are goats. For Sign A one literal meaning is maRi to turn back. The intended meaning, of course, is barter. But maRi can also mean ‘goat.’ And so if this second literal meaning is taken and then translated, we get the goat reference with regard to PUshan.

PUshan is agOhya- the one from whom nothing is concealed. Here again we have to look at Sign A. The wolf’s face is concealed, and in Tamil maRai also means to conceal. So the idea of concealment in the context of PUshan must have come from a loan translation of the unintended meaning of maRai- as concealment, except that it has been given a positive spin in the case of PUshan. He is not one who conceals, but helps find that which is hidden! A similar positive spin can be seen in the case of Vignesa, whose name literally means the Lord of obstacles, but he has become the Lord who removes obstacles! In classical Sanskrit, the root ‘gup’ means the same as ‘guh’. Both mean to conceal. And ‘gupta’ in classical Sanskrit is a suffix used for the Vaisya caste. As in the case of the later Vaisya-Gupta link, there was an earlier PUshan- agOhya link.

PUshan is kapardin, one who has knotted hair. Here the origin is quite straightforward- the idea coming from sign A. This gets further buttressed by the fact that Indus seal motifs show men wearing their hair in knots at the back of their heads.

So the ‘merchant of the city’ as the Indus phrase ABCD is interpreted, survived in the Rg Vedic period as PUshan, the prosperous one with braided hair. PUshan, according to Mahadevan, is a Vaisya god. Mahadevan refers to his latest research as “the Dravidian proof of the Indus script via the Rg Veda.”

He points to the Indus Dravidian title of ‘poray’- meaning ‘sustainer’, surviving as ‘Porai’ a Chera dynastic name, and as Bharata in Sanskrit. Bharata is the name of a people in the Rg Veda, and also Mahabharata. It was the Bharatas who gave our country the name Bharata. Mahadevan has thus interpreted the Indus script through bilingual parallels, to uncover Indus influences in Indo Aryan and Dravidian languages.

But how did the Indus civilisation come to influence the Rg Veda and Southern Dravidian languages? When the Aryan migrants came into India, the Indus civilisation was already in decline, and so the Aryans were able to gain the upper hand. Those who were unwilling to be absorbed into the new culture moved out. A Southern migration of Agastya is attested to in both Indo Aryan and Dravidian sources, and this migration led to Indus Dravidian language influencing old Tamil. Mu. Raghava Iyengar documented the Southern migration of the ancestors of the Velir clan led by Agastya, and Mahadevan has extrapolated this theory back in time to link the Indus civilisation and Southern Dravidian cultures. According to Mahadevan, Agasti is not a proper noun, but indicates a title of office (agatti- lord of the fort). And as for those who did not migrate, but stayed back, they switched over to the Aryan speech. But vestiges of the Indus culture survived in the Vedic equivalents of Indus names and titles. The Rg Veda, thus, was the product of a composite culture. Mahadevan’s research has made him come to the conclusion that the Indus heritage has been inherited linguistically by the Dravidians and culturally by the Aryans, exemplifying the spirit of India- ‘Unity in diversity.’

(This article is based on Mahadevan’s research paper titled ‘Dravidian proof of the Indus script via the Rg Veda- A Case study’. The entire research paper is available at

The Researcher

Iravatham Mahadevan, a retired IAS officer, developed an interest in Indian epigraphy while in service. Upon the suggestion of historian Nilakanta Sastri, Mahadevan began to study cave inscriptions of Tamil Nadu, and took the world of epigraphy by storm, when he published his work on Chera inscriptions of Pugalur, in 1965. His research on Tamil Brahmi culminated in his book ‘Early Tamil Epigraphy.’ .

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