Parpola and the Indus script

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

June 17, 2010 02:11 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:45 pm IST



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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