Bahata’s tryst with the Indus Valley script
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Bahata Ansumali Mukhopadhyay, a software engineer who has for many years now been researching on Indus Valley script and symbols, believes that the inscribed stamp-seals were primarily used for enforcing certain rules involving taxation, trade or access control

February 16, 2024 09:00 am | Updated 04:47 pm IST - Bengaluru

A seal with animal motif discovered at the site Binjor – 4MSR, which is an archaeological site, near the international border between Punjab and Rajasthan. It is situated a couple of kilometers from Binjor village, along the Ghaggar river (Ghaggar - Hakra River) valley and excavated by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is widely considered as an Early Harappan and Mature Harappan site (Indus Valley Civilization).

A seal with animal motif discovered at the site Binjor – 4MSR, which is an archaeological site, near the international border between Punjab and Rajasthan. It is situated a couple of kilometers from Binjor village, along the Ghaggar river (Ghaggar - Hakra River) valley and excavated by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is widely considered as an Early Harappan and Mature Harappan site (Indus Valley Civilization). | Photo Credit: KRISHNAN VV

Bahata Ansumali Mukhopadhyay likens the internet to the Room of Requirements in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. “If you ask for something, it will give it to you. People underestimate the effect that social media and Google have on our knowledge systems,” says the software engineer and independent researcher, who has been working on decoding the script of the Indus Valley Civilisation since 2014. According to her, being a non-specialist, unencumbered by any preconceived ideas and notions, helped her approach the script with an open mind, reading widely about and around it, assisted by the internet. 

Bahata Ansumali Mukhopadhyay

Bahata Ansumali Mukhopadhyay | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRAGEMENT

Asking the right questions

She would often come up with a question, turn to Google for answers and discover books or papers that helped her on her journey, from tomes about ancient Mesopotamia to Egyptian documents and even Chanakya’s Arthashastra. “Whether the question took me to archaeology and zooarchaeology or ancient Iranian languages, I went with it,“ says Bahata, who recently released a paper titled  Semantic scope of Indus inscriptions comprising taxation, trade and craft licensing, commodity control and access control: archaeological and script-internal evidence, in HSSCOMMS (Humanities & Social Sciences Communications), a Nature Publishing Group journal. “I just asked the right questions,” she says.

This is her third paper published in this journal; all focused on various aspects of this lost Bronze Age society that flourished in South Asia’s north-western regions between 3300 and around 1900 BCE. While her first one, published in 2019, focused on the structural aspects of the Indus script, her second indicated that “a significant population of IVC spoke certain ancestral Dravidian languages.”

Building on her 2019 paper, which argues that the undeciphered inscriptions on Indus seals and tablets were semasiographic (communicating using symbols, for example, road signs) and/or logographic (when a symbol represents an entire word, like @ or % on your keyboard), this one, “analyses the combinatorial patterns of Indus script signs and the geographical distribution of the inscriptions, to establish that the inscriptions did not encode any proper noun.”

In the same paper, she also writes that “the inscribed stamp-seals were primarily used for enforcing certain rules involving taxation, trade/craft control, commodity control and access control,” going on to elucidate further the semantic scope of these inscriptions in the same paper. “The seal-iconographies, most of which were animal-centric, most possibly functioned as different seal-issuing organisations emblems, “she notes, pointing out that Indian clans, tribes and sects have been named after animals since antiquities. 

A seal with an animal motif discovered at the site, Binjor – 4MSR  is an archaeological site, near the international border between Punjab and Rajasthan.

A seal with an animal motif discovered at the site, Binjor – 4MSR is an archaeological site, near the international border between Punjab and Rajasthan. | Photo Credit: KRISHNAN VV

A chance encounter

Bahata’s interest in the Indus Script was first piqued back in 2009 when she heard about a paper written by a bunch of mathematicians who had tried to analyse the structure of this script mathematically. In 2014, at a dinner party, she met one of the mathematicians who were part of this study: Ronojoy Adhikari, today a professor of statistical physics at the University of Cambridge. She recalls approaching him and talking about it, only to learn that he was not researching it anymore since he had no one to help him. Though she had stumbled into the software industry, she had always been interested in science and analytical thinking, so she volunteered to assist him.  “I wanted a deep problem that I could contribute to by making some scientific analysis,” she admits. 

Their partnership didn’t quite pan out how she thought it would. He wanted to focus on building the Indus script’s corpus through computerised image recognition and machine learning, while she was more interested in semantic analysis, aka the process of drawing meaning from the text. So, they ended up parting three months later on cordial terms, leaving her with some resource material and a desire to know more about this cryptic script.

 “I was self-schooling myself and ended up reading a lot of junk,” she says. Then, she came across the book Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation by Margalit Fox, which delves into the life of the American classicist Alice Kober, best known for being instrumental in the decipherment of Linear B, a syllabic script developed by the Mycenaean Greeks around 1300-1400 BCE. “Like the Indus script, it was in the same unfortunate state. People didn’t know the language or understand the script,” she says of the script finally deciphered in 1952 by the British architect Michael Ventris, thanks to Kober’s research. “I thought we could use a similarly methodological approach for cracking the Indus Script,” she believes. 

She began by closely examining the Indus Valley script and found a lot of patterns, says Bahata, and became convinced that there was a structure to the script that was statistically provable. She took a year or so off from her day job, wanting to spend more time on the script, a decision that proved to be very fruitful, by her account. “That is when many of my breakthrough ideas came,” she says, listing them: that the script is not phonetic,  that the inscriptions could be encoding taxation-related information, how certain symbols could represent specific products or metrological units.

The warehouse at Lothal when it was being excavated by S. R. Rao and his team from 1955 to 1960. The warehouse was a pivotal facility where goods to be exported and those already imported were stored. They were taxed here too. The warehouse measures 49 metres long and 40 metres wide. It stood on a 3.5-metre-tall platform. The warehouse was built with sun-dried brick. it indicated a surplus economy.

The warehouse at Lothal when it was being excavated by S. R. Rao and his team from 1955 to 1960. The warehouse was a pivotal facility where goods to be exported and those already imported were stored. They were taxed here too. The warehouse measures 49 metres long and 40 metres wide. It stood on a 3.5-metre-tall platform. The warehouse was built with sun-dried brick. it indicated a surplus economy. | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

Other scripts too?

She also believes that this script may not have been the only writing system used by the people of the Indus. It is possible that they may have had other scripts, which were written on a more perishable material, like palm leaves or leather, and simply did not survive the years. “

She brings up the Linear B script as an example; the writing was found in a few Greek palaces where bookkeeping was done on clay tablets, which were only preserved because of an accidental fire. “If there were no such fire, we would not have found any instances of a very developed script of a great civilisation,” she says. “People thought the ancient Greeks had no script till they found the tablets.”

Like the Greeks, the IVC, too,  was a modern, highly evolved society with widespread trade networks and a complex economy.  “Not finding it (another writing system) does not mean it was not there,” says Bahata, who continues working ceaselessly to understand this society better. “I never thought that the Indus script would reveal itself to me. When it has revealed so much, I cannot stop without getting it properly documented  and published,” she says. 

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