The Indus Fish Sign

The Indus Fish Sign

Q: Lets come to the specific signs. What do you believe may be some of the best interpretations offered of certain signs?

A: Like all Dravidian scholars, I too began with Father Heras. Father Heras was a Spanish Jesuit priest who worked in India and was a celebrated Professor of History in Bombay. It was his brilliant idea that the fish sign in the Indus script represented the word for fish in all the Dravidian languages, which is "meen," and he pointed out that the word "min" also represented a star or planet in all the Dravidian languages. He said that perhaps the Harappans used the fish sign to represent a star or a planet. This is really the starting point for decipherment for all the Dravidian scholars who followed him, the Russians, the Finnish and myself. Only Fairservis broke away from the tradition, but his identification of the fish sign as a loop or a knot in rope is very unconvincing.

I have seen far too many seals and sealings with realistic, life-like fish symbols, there is no doubt at all that the sign represents the fish.

But another and more valid objection is, why wouldn't they pictorialize the star as a star? Draw five or six lines and add an asterisk mark - that's how the Sumerians, the Akkadians and the Chinese represented a star. The theory behind pictorial writing is that you use pictures to represent the sound of objects that are difficult to draw. In an example given by Parpola himself, "can" in the noun form is a container, in the verb, I "can" do it - that cannot be written as a picture. But in the case of a star it is much easier and it occupies much less space to draw the picture of a star than a fish. Parpola has given a reply to this, not perhaps wholly convincing, but I still think that the fish-meen-star homophony is a good one, although I readily admit that it has not been proved. That could only come if the word "meen" was written elsewhere syllabically or if you have a bilingual inscription.

So, it has no more than the status of a very attractive theory or hypothesis in which I also believe, but at the same time I am very cautious in recognizing that it is no more than a hypothesis and yet to be convincingly proved. For example, we have proved the direction of writing of the Indus script. It is no longer open to debate and those who read the Indus script from the left, their work is condemned to failure right at the beginning. The fish hypothesis is not that conclusively proved. It’s still a very attractive one. That’s all one could say.

There are some corroborative details. The numbers three, six and seven before the fish correspond to the well known asterisms, three-fish in the warrior constellation, six-fish for Pleades, seven-fish the Great Bear and so on, but then when you come to the diacritical marks over the fish symbol which Parpola reads as the names of several planets, it is much more open to question. Diacritical marks are very tiny little tick marks and they are not inherently pictorial so any hypothesis about them is only arbitrary.