The Indus Script

The Indus Script

Harappan tablet
[Recently discovered token or tablet, Harappa]
Structural studies of the Indus inscriptions have been carried out by a number of scholars ever since the discovery of the Indus Civilization and its writing. The most outstanding work in the earlier period is that of Hunter who provided reliable eyecopies of the inscriptions, a manually arranged sign concordance and a detailed positional analysis.

The computer arrived on the scene in the mid-Sixties. A Soviet team led by Knorozov published a series of papers entitled Proto-Indica, in which they set out briefly the main results of their computer-aided investigations. The Soviet group has made outstanding contributions to formal analysis in areas like direction of writing, word-division and syntactical patterns. In particular they have demonstrated that the Indus inscriptions have a Dravidian-like word order. However the Soviet model of linguistic deciphemment of the Indus script has not won general acceptance mainly because of the implausibility of the proposed readings.

Almost simultaneously Asko Parpola and his Finnish colleagues began their independent computer-aided investigations of the Indus texts. The Finnish team also made use of computational linguistic techniques to deal with structural problems like word-division procedures and synctical analysis. However the earlier Finnish attempt at linguistic decipherment did not also meet with much success. Parpola himself now describes their earlier reports as "written in the first flush of enthusiasm" and "premature and incautious" (p.xv). With rare intellectual courage he has now abandoned the paradigm central to the earlier Finnish model of decipherment and has made a virtually fresh beginning.

The latest attempt to decipher the Indus script, prior to the publication of the present work, has been made by Walter Fairservis, the distinguished American archaeologist with long experience in Harappan excavations. He has manually arranged the Indus sign sequences in a 'grid' to bring out their functional characteristics and syntactical patterns. The analysis is sound; but his model of decipherment based on the Dravidian hypothesis (published in 1992 shortly before his death) has not been taken seriously because of his lack of familiarity with the Dravidian languages and linguistic techniques.

In his brief review of the earlier attempts at decipherment of the Indus script, Parpola takes no notice of the models based on the Indo-Aryan hypothesis, presumably because there is hardly anything in common between them and his own work. However Parpola leaves no one in doubt about what he thinks of the other approach. "Nationalistic bias makes it difficult for some North Indians to admit even the possibility of the Indus Civilization being pre-Aryan; they deny the very concept of Aryan immigration and insist that the Harappan and Vedic cultures are one and the same. So the language chosen has usually been Sanskrit" (p.58). I agree with Parpola about the existence of 'nationalistic bias', but would like to remind him that S.R. Rao and Krishna Rao, leading proponents of the Indo-Aryan theory, can hardly be called 'North Indian'!