The Indus script and the wild ass – Asko Parpola

Parpola brings out meaning of Old Tamil ‘taaL leg’

“The Hindu” has come out immediately with the following brief, ignoring, the interactions that took place at Roja Muthaiah Library onn 28th evening, when he presented his paper on  “The Indus Script, Harappan Dravidian and  the Wild Ass” with ppt.

After discussion and answering to crucial questions, Asko parpola clearly accepted that he did not read all the seals and his decipherment was not final.

In fact, Iravatham Mahadevan accepted  that “multi-interpretations are possible”.

Asko Parpola at RM 28-06-2010

Asko Parpola at RM 28-06-2010

Noted Indologist Asko Parpola on Monday delivered the ‘Gift Siromoney Endowment Lecture Series”’organised by Roja Muthiah Research Library, trying to read the old Tamil ‘taaL leg’ in the context of the newly deciphered sign depicting “a hoofed animal hind leg.” He was talking on ‘The Indus Script, Harappan Dravidian and the Wild Ass.’

He said “Old Tamil ‘taaL leg’ had a Toda cognate meaning ‘thigh of animal’s hind leg’ and denotes a star in PuRam 395.” The ‘hind leg’ sign once precedes a sign that depicts the wild ass. Besides pointing to various physiological features of the animal, which lived in the desert and could survive even after losing 30 per cent of the water of its body, he narrated many stories associated with the wild ass.

Noted epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan said more young researchers should enter the field of epigraphy, continuing his work and that of Professor Parpola. He pointed out that he had already reached 81 and Parpola was only 10 years younger to him. Gift Siromoney was a professor at the Madras Christian College. Though a mathematics student, he had prepared many field reports, including the fauna of Tambaram area and Thirukkural written in different scripts of the last 2,000 years. Rani Siromoney, wife of Siromoney, also spoke.

The Indus script and the wild ass

Asko Parpola

[Thanks to The Hindu for the photo and article. As “The Hindu” generally does not encourage the other view of any issue, we have no other way but reproduce it and circulate for discussion and debate]

Image of a modern impression of the seal M-290 from Mohenjo-daro, where the sequence 'hind leg' + 'wild ass' (to be read from right to left) occurs. Courtesy: Asko Parpola

Image of a modern impression of the seal M-290 from Mohenjo-daro, where the sequence ‘hind leg’ + ‘wild ass’ (to be read from right to left) occurs. Courtesy: Asko Parpola

In a paper to be presented at the World Classical Tamil Conference, I am going to discuss recent developments in my study of the Indus script. In the book Deciphering the Indus Script (Cambridge 1994), I interpreted the ‘fish’ sign as Proto-Dravidian *miin ‘fish’ = *miin ‘star’, and its compounds with preceding signs as names of heavenly bodies attested in Old Tamil. One newly deciphered sign depicts “a hoofed animal’s hind leg.” It occurs once before the plain ‘fish’ sign. Old Tamil taaL ‘leg’ has a Toda cognate meaning “thigh of animal’s hind leg” and denotes a star in PuRam 395. The ‘hind leg’ sign once precedes a sign that depicts the wild ass. Is the reading taaL ‘(hind) leg’ meaningful in this context?

Just one Indus seal has the wild ass as its iconographic motif; it was excavated in 2009 at Kanmer in the Kutch, next to the only wild ass sanctuary in South Asia. Bones of wild ass come from Harappan sites in Baluchistan, the Indus Valley and Gujarat; the salt deserts of this very area have always been the habitat of the wild ass. Bones or depictions of the domestic horse and the donkey are not found in South Asia before 1600 BCE.

Tamil kaZutai or “donkey” has cognates in Malayalam, Kota, Toda, Kannada, Kodagu, Tulu, Telugu, Kolami, Naiki, Parji, Gondi and Kuwi. Bhadriraju Krishnamurti reconstructs *kaZ-ut-ay and asserts that Proto-Dravidian speakers knew of the donkey. More probably *kaZutay meant ‘wild ass’ in Harappan Dravidian, and the term was transferred to the similar-looking donkey when this newcomer came to South Asia from the west through the Indus Valley. Rigvedic gardabha – ‘donkey’ has no cognates in Iranian; it is a Dravidian loan word with the added Indo-Iranian animal name suffix –bha-. I explain *kaZutay as ‘kicker of the salt desert’, from *kaZ(i) / *kaLLar ‘saline soil’ and *utay ‘to kick’. The wild ass lives in the salt desert and is a vicious kicker.

There is a Hindu myth explicitly associated with the wild ass, the Dhenukavadha of Harivamsa 57. Krishna and Balarama came to a palmyra forest occupied by the fierce ass demon Dhenuka and its herd. Wanting to drink the juice of ripe palm fruits, Balarama shook the trees. Hearing the sound of falling fruits, the enraged ass demon rushed to the spot. Seeing Balarama beneath a wine palm, as if holding the tree as his banner, the wicked ass bit Balarama and started kicking him hard with its hind legs. Balarama seized the ass by those hind legs and flung it to the top of a palm. The ass fell down with its neck and back broken and died. Dhenuka’s retinue met with the same fate, and the ground became covered with dead asses and fallen palm fruits. The palm forest, horrible when terrorised by the asses, impossible for humans to live in, difficult to cross, and with a great extent and salty soil (iriNa), now became a lovely place.

The description of the palm forest as a salt desert confirms that wild asses are meant. The palm tree, Sanskrit taala from Proto-Dravidian *taaZ, is prominent in the myth and its earliest sculptural representations. The wine palm is associated with the wild ass, which inhabits the palm forest and finally falls down from the top of the palm like its ripe fruits. The wine palm is connected also with the ass’ killer (his successor as the god of its drink), Balarama, whose addiction to toddy is “an essential part of his character.”

The myth also refers to the palm emblem on Balarama’s banner (tâla-dhvaja). In the Rigveda, Indra is invited to drink Soma like a thirsty wild ass (gaura) drinks in a pond of salty soil (iriNa). In Kutch today, such ponds are called taalaab. This Persian word comes from Indo-Aryan taala ‘pond’, from Proto-Dravidian *taaZ ‘low place, depression.’ Like the camel, the wild ass can quickly drink an enormous amount of water, becoming through homophony the prototypal toddy-drinker. Further homophones of taaZ connect the wild ass with the ebb of tide and its mythical cause, the mare-faced demon of the netherworld who drinks the whole ocean.

Conclusion: taaL (from *taaZ, preserved in Old Kannada) ‘(hind) leg, stem of tree’ (whence taaZ ‘tree with a prominent stem’ > ‘wine palm’) is in many ways connected with the wild ass.

(The author, who will be the first recipient of the Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award, is Professor Emeritus of Indology, Institute of World Cultures, University of Helsinki.)

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9 Responses to “The Indus script and the wild ass – Asko Parpola”

  1. K. V. Ramakrishna Rao Says:

    The following has been my reply sent to “The Hindu”, but as usual, I do not think, they would publish it with any journalistic ethics or for academic dialogue, therefore, I am posting here for reference:

    I shall try to interpret the words taken by Asko Parpola strictly in the Sangam literature context where the purity of Tamil clould has been more. Parpola has been definitely confused with the Tamil words “தாள்” (புறம்.395.35) and “தாழ்” taking only one particular meaning according to his convenience.

    Actually, the word “தாள்” has more than a dozen meaning in the Sangam literature context itself – feet, effort, bottom portion of the tree, trunk or central portion of plant, soft stalk, star, bottom portion, a finger ornament, nail, pillar of Pandal, step, and so on.

    The word “தாழ்” has the meanings padlock, ring (noun), degrade, demean, fall etc.

    The word “தாலம்” has the meaning of palm trees, as matted leaves were used as seat (Silappatikaram.XVI.35). Though, it is a post-sangam literature, for academic interest I am giving this meaning.

    Coming to the word “கழுதை”, the word is found in the Sangam literature – Puram.15.1-3; Puram.392.8-10; Padait.25.4; Perumpaanat.78-80 etc, where it refers to donkey only, of course, it can be ass also.

    But Parpola has pained himself to show that the so-called Proto-Dravidian speakers know ass / donkey, implying that they did not know horse.

    Therefore, his whole exercise appears to be childish than academic considering his stature and scholarship. Probably, his “Dravidian” friends have not provided the Tamil inputsd properly in the context. As they have from “கழகம்” owhich has also the same root கழ் / கழ, where all come together, join together.

  2. ramanchennai Says:

    சிறுத்தை ஆந்தை – what about them, does Mr.Asko Parpola has any explanations?

  3. K. V. Ramakrishna Rao Says:

    This is my reply to “The Hindu” sent today (29-06-2010):

    Yesterday, I was the first to question his confused interpretation of தாழ், தாள், தால்; வேள் / வேல், வேய் / மேல் etc. He accepted the other interpretations. Particularly, two women questioned about his identification of “wild ass” as understood by the proto-dravidians from the shown seals. He could not differentiate between his “wild ass” that reportedly entered India from the west through Indus valley and that of Sangam literature [புறம்.15.1-3; புறம்.392.8-10; பதிற்றுப்பத்து.25.4; பெரும்பாணாற்றுப்படை.78-80 etc]. Puram.56.5 and 58.14 mention about பனைக்கொடியோன், but, he was not drunkard as he implied with irrelevant Harivamsa story. Ironically, பனைமீன் (Maduraikkaamchi.375) refers to fish only not any star [where his vertical strokes with fish symbol interpretation fails]. Puram.177.16 talks about பனங்குடை that has nothing to do with any of his interpretation. If கழுதை (கழு+தை = beautiful woman) starts kicking with hindlegs, definitely, the two women who asked about “wild ass” would become wild.

  4. gajanan Says:

    There is a book by
    The Inscriptions
    of the
    Indus Civilization
    Texts — Deciphering — Contents
    by Rainer Hasenpflug.
    He has refered to AParpola and KSchildman.

    Please go thru the downloads on the left side of the above site.

  5. Tejaswini Says:

    The Indians even now are in the pheriphery of research. The cultural specification rest with birth and death ceremonies alone and not with any other custom. In India practice is different from literature. For example all communities including orthodox Brahmins consider naming ceremony of a child as family affair without involving priests. However as seen from Ramayana and Mahabharata naming was done by family priests which is contrary to actual practice. Similarly death ceremony is the one which distinguishes community to community. Tamil Brahmins will never give up death rites even he had been given Deeksha or Agnostic or Atheist etc. Except he had adopted sanyasa. This is nothing to do with religosity but imbibed in genes. This is being done strictly based on 50:50 probability. The Buddhists never bury their dead. Another important aspect of south Indian Brahminism is the extensive use of rice in rituals in different names Akshadan Tandulam Shalyam etc., if we accept Aryan theory who were considered to be staple eaters of wheat and barley why did Brahmins never use wheat in rituals in different names. I don’t know whether any Auphasanam is Carried out in wheat and making obligation by way of Pori(a form of fried paddy) is a compulsory one in marriages. Who removed wheat from oblations and introduced paddy/rice and why was it accepted without any murmur?The role of paddy/rice is very large from the day a child was born paddy seeds were given as dhana and throwing rice at the mouth of a dead person. Is it an Aryan practice or Dravidian practice. If it is a Dravidian practice why should Brahmins adopt it? The problem lies somewhere. The entire Indian intelligentia is indulging in intellectul dishonesty. The Himalayas regions are the cradle of Indian civilization. Rice was cultivated in Bihar even before seven thousand years. The other important ritual is the use of tender mango leaves which is not the home of river Sindhu. An amazing aspect unnoticed by Indian researchers is the similarities of Malnad/Malabar and Himalayan regions in all respects including topography and climate. The term Gaur and Malnad have amazing similarities Gaur in Sanskrit means rain mountains etc which is the same in Tamil Mazhai, Malai and Goddess Parvati, Gauri and Goddess Mariamma in Tamil. Gaud was transliterated as Cholia/Malnad Brahmins etc., there is no denying fact that Tamilians always looked for Himalayas and Cholas had special fascination for Ganges and Gaud Brahmins. Hence Tamil can never be part of Indus valley but belong to Himalayas.

  6. Isaac Mozeson Says:

    Like miin, Akkadian ninu = fish. Like taaz, etz is a Hebrew tree trunk.

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