A Dravidian solution to the Indus script problem
aruvar payanta … perum peyar muruka
ninn ati y-ulli vantanen
(Tirumurukârruppatai 255, 269, 279)
The Indus Civilization and its forgotten script
Stone seals inscribed with an unknown script were obtained from Harappa in the upper Indus Valley in the 1870s
and 1880s. In the early 1920s, curiosity about their origin initiated excavations at Harappa and 750 km away at
Figure 1. Discovery sites of Indus seals and inscriptions. (After CISI 2: 448.)
Mohenjo-daro in Sindh. Immediately more seals of the same kind were found. The publication of these discoveries
turned attention to a few seals of the Harappan type that had come to light in Mesopotamia. They dated the newly
found Harappan or Indus Civilization to the third millennium BCE. Radiocarbon dating has fixed the duration of the
Mature Harappan phase, during which the Indus script was used, to 2600-1900 BCE. About 30 Harappan seals
come from the Gulf and Mesopotamia, left there by sea-faring Indus merchants.
Since the 1920s, ceaseless archaeological research has revealed some 1500 Harappan sites in Pakistan and
western India. The Harappan realm in the Greater Indus Valley is one of the earliest cradles of civilization. Its urban
culture is among the first four in the world to possess a script of its own. Some 5000 short Indus texts from more
than 50 sites are known today, and much other data as well has accumulated. But the decipherment of the Indus
script has remained the most intriguing problem pertaining to this impressive city culture that initiates Indian civilization.
The Indus script vanished together with the Indus Civilization, which collapsed many centuries before hymns composed
in Vedic Sanskrit begin the historical period in South Asia around 1000 BCE.
The numerous unsuccessful attempts to understand the Indus script include a recent claim that it is not a writing
system based on language, but consists of non-linguistic symbols. Similar misconceptions prevailed about the
Mesopotamian cuneiform script
and the Egyptian hieroglyphs
before their decipherments.
Extreme shortness of texts and
their restriction to seals, small
tablets and pottery graffiti have
been adduced as proofs for this
thesis, but all these features
characterize also the Egyptian
hieroglyphic script during the first
600 years of its existence. Yet this
early form of Egyptian script was
real writing, and can be partially
read on the basis of later texts.
The high degree of sign
standardization, the arrangementof texts into regular rows, and the presence of hundreds of recurring sign sequences from different sites all indicate
that the Indus script is real writing.
Most attempts to read the Indus script apply the unsuited method of comparing the Indus signs with similarlooking
signs of other scripts and transferring their phonetic values to the Indus signs. This general error is often
coupled with the mistake of deriving Brahmi from the Indus script, though it is based on the Semitic consonant
How then can the Indus script be deciphered? We may turn to successful decipherments and to the history of writing
for guidance. Most ancient scripts have been deciphered with the help of translations into known scripts and languages.
But here no such help is available. Historical information of the kind that opened up the cuneiform script is virtually
missing. Later Indian texts tell us nothing about the Indus Civilization. Contemporary cuneiform sources speak of the
most distant land called Meluhha, widely understood to denote Greater Indus Valley, but they offer little further
information. There is no related writing system to help with the phonetic values of the signs. Nor is there any fair
certainty of the underlying language, which was a great advantage in unraveling the Ugaritic and Mayan scripts. All
surviving texts are very short and probably not complete sentences but just noun phrases. This naturally hampers
grammatical analysis, as does the absence of word dividers.
In spite of all the difficulties, there are some positive circumstances. One is the relatively high number of preserved
inscriptions. Collecting and publishing all available evidence reliably and legibly belongs to the fundamental preparatory
tasks that have proved useful in all decipherments. This aim is being realized partly in the photographic Corpus of
Indus Seals and Inscriptions; its third volume has just come out.
Several versions of a standardized text edition in machine-readable form have been completed, and a thorough
revision is again being done. Computerization has enabled the compilation of concordances that systematically
record all occurrences of individual signs and their sequences, and various other indexes and statistics. Among the
things to be standardized is the direction of writing, normally from right to left and in seal stamps carved in mirror
image from left to right. Other routine tasks are location of word boundaries and search for possible grammatical
markers. One way to segment longer texts is to see if their component parts occur elsewhere as complete texts.
A crucial but difficult task is the compilation of a reliable sign list, which distinguishes between graphemes and
allographs. The allographic variation constitutes one important basis for interpreting the pictorial meaning of the
Indus signs. Signs may represent the same grapheme if their shapes are reasonably similar and they in addition occur
in very similar contexts. Based on these criteria, my sign list has very nearly 400 graphemes.
It is difficult to construct even parts of the Indus grammar on the basis of textual analysis. The positional sequences
of signs can be exploited to analyse the Indus texts syntactically, to define textual junctures, and to classify the signs
into phonetically or semantically similar groups. Such analyses have been carried out with automated methods. Data
accumulated in this way will certainly be useful in decipherment once a decisive breakthrough has been achieved —
in other words when the language has been identified and some signs have been read phonetically in a convincing
manner. But such analyses alone are unlikely to provide that breakthrough.
The language underlying the Indus script
In the decipherment of any ancient script, there are two principal unknowns to be clarified, namely the underlying
language or languages and the type of the script.
The language problem is most crucial. If the language of the Indus script belonged to a language family not
known from other sources, the Indus script can never be deciphered. This is clear from the case of Etruscan, an
isolated language written in an easily read alphabetic script. Etruscan can be read phonetically, but in spite of this is
not much understood beyond the texts covered by copious translations. But as the Harappan population numbered
around one million, there is a fair chance that linguistic relatives have survived and that traces of the Harappan
language can be found in the extensive Vedic texts composed in the Indus Valley less than a thousand years after the
collapse of the Indus Civilization.
While it is likely that various minority languages were spoken in the Greater Indus Valley, only one language was
written. The sign sequences are namely uniform throughout South Asia. This argument is reinforced by the Indus
seals found in the Near East. Some of them have native Harappan and some non-Harappan sign sequences.
One would expect that the most frequently attested Indus sign would very often occur next to itself, but this is
never the case in the Indus Valley. The combination is however attested on a round Gulf-type seal coming from the
Near East. The seal contains five frequently occurring Indus signs but in unique sequences. This suggests that
Harappan trade agents who resided in the Gulf and in Mesopotamia became bilingual and adopted local names, but
wrote their foreign names in the Indus script for the Harappans to read. The cuneiform texts in fact speak not only of
a distant country called Meluhha, but also of a village in southern Mesopotamia called Meluhha whose inhabitants
had purely Sumerian names.
According to its inscription, one Old Akkadian cylinder seal belonged to “Su-ilishu, interpreter of the Meluhhan
language”. This implies that the Meluhhan language differed from the languages commonly spoken and understood
in ancient Near East, above all Sumerian, Akkadian and Elamite. Near Eastern languages appear historically much
less likely to have been spoken in the Indus Valley than languages known to have existed in South Asia.
Because the origin of the Aryan languages is such a controversial issue, especially in India, it is necessary to trace
these languages back to their source, the Proto-Indo-European. The location and dating of Proto-Indo-European
too have been long debated, but a fair consensus concerning this problem is in sight. When the Proto-Indo-
European-speaking community dispersed, its language had a dozen terms related to wheeled vehicles. Wheeled
vehicles were invented shortly before 3500 BCE in south-eastern Europe, from where they quickly spread to areas
where the principal Indo-European languages were later spoken.
Greek and Armenian are the closest linguistic relatives of Indo-Iranian, and the protoforms of these languages
are likely to have been spoken in the Pit Grave or Yamnaya cultures which between 3300 and 3000 BCE spread
with ox carts from North Pontic steppes eastwards to the Ural mountains. The Eurasian steppes are the native
habitat of the horse. It was there that the horse was first yoked to pull a light-wheeled chariot, at the end of the third
millennium BCE. Early Aryan loanwords in Finno-Ugric languages spoken in north-eastern Europe locates Proto-
Aryan to the Volga-Ural steppes.
From the Volga-Ural steppes the horse-drawn chariot spread southwards to the Bronze Age culture in southern
Central Asia, the “Bactria and Margiana Archaeological Complex” or BMAC, which flourished about 2300-1500
BCE. BMAC people started moving to Iran and to the Indus Valley in the Late Harappan period, around 1900-
1600 BCE. At the same time, the BMAC sites were surrounded by nomadic peoples from the Eurasian steppes,
who probably spoke early forms of Indo-Iranian. On their way to Iran and India, these migrants took over the rule
and culture of the BMAC. Alexander Lubotsky (2001) has listed all words shared by Iranian and Indo-Aryan
which do not have an acceptable Indo-European origin. In structure, these words largely agree with the 383 foreign
loanwords in the language of the Rigveda listed by Frans Kuiper (1991). Lubotsky has suggested that most words
in both lists come from the language of the BMAC. This justified conclusion implies that these foreign words of an
unknown language were borrowed by Rigvedic Aryans before they entered the Indus Valley, or from the language of
the Daasas, an earlier come wave of Indo-Iranian speakers with a BMAC substratum. Hence these words do not
represent the Harappan language. Their use for the decipherment of the Indus script would in any case not be
feasible for the simple reason that the exact meaning of so many of them is unclear.
Although Indo-Iranian languages have been spoken in the Indus Valley since the second millennium BCE, they
were hardly spoken by Harappan people in the third millennium. The domesticated horse played an important role
in the culture of the Indo-Iranian speakers, but according to faunal remains the horse came to South Asia only after
2000 BCE and it is not depicted in Harappan art. The first appearance of the horse is in Swat, in the BMACderived
Gandhara Grave culture; its characteristic “face urns” seem to be connected with the cult of Aoevins, the
Vedic gods of chariotry.
Burushaski spoken in northernmost Pakistan is a linguistic isolate, but possibly related with the Ketic languages
of Siberia. There is little trace of Burushaski further south. Burushaski’s arrival from the north was probably preceded
by the Himalayan group of Tibeto-Burman languages, which may be connected with the Northern Neolithic of the
Swat Valley and Kashmir. The Northern Neolithic had some contact with the Early Harappans but only in its own
In general the Sino-Tibetan languages always restricted to the Himalayan regions in South Asia are unlikely
candidates for a genetic relationship with the Harappan language.
The Austro-Asiatic languages known from Central and Eastern India, with linguistic relatives in South-East Asia
and minor participation in the linguistic convergence in South Asia, are also unlikely to have descended from the
The only remaining alternative among the well-known potential linguistic relatives of the Harappan language is
the Dravidian language family. The 26 Dravidian languages are now mainly spoken in Central and South India.
Figure 4. The Dravidian languages and their subgroups. (After Krishnamurti 2003: 18.)
However, one Dravidian language, Brahui, has been spoken in Baluchistan in the northwest for at least a thousand
years, as far as the historical sources go. In contrast to Burushaski, Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic languages,
which are very small minority languages in South Asia, the Dravidian speakers until recently constituted one fourth of
Loanwords from Dravidian have been identified from Indo-Aryan texts composed in northwestern India around
1100-600 BCE. These six examples are from the earliest text, the Rigveda (the capital letters are retroflex consonants,
which did not exist in Proto-Indo-Iranian):
mukham ‘face, front, mouth’ < PD *mukam ‘id.’
khalam ‘threshing floor’ < PD *kaLam ‘id.’
phalam ‘fruit’ < PD *paZam ‘ripe fruit’
kuNDam ‘pit’ < PD *kuNTam ‘pit’
kaaNa- ‘blind in one eye’ < PD *kaaNa ‘not seeing’
kiyaambu- ‘watery plant’ < PD *kiyampu ‘taro, aroid, Colocasia’.
The retroflex consonants, a diagnostic feature of the South Asian linguistic area, can be divided into two main
groups. One of them is distributed over the Indus Valley and the Dravidian-speaking areas.
In addition to the retroflex consonants, Indo-Aryan has several other structural features that have long been
interpreted as borrowings from Dravidian. Some of them exist at the earliest level. Historical linguistics thus suggests
that the Harappans probably spoke a Dravidian language. With this conclusion we turn to the problem of script type.
The type of writing system represented by the Indus script
Recent American-Pakistani excavations at Harappa with meticulous stratigraphy have produced new evidence on
the evolution of the Indus script. Pottery has scratched symbols since 3300 BCE. Some of these pot-marks became
signs of the Indus script, which was created during the final phase of the Early Harappan period, between 2800-
2500 BCE. It is possible and indeed even probable that the Early Harappans got the idea of writing through stimulus
diffusion from the Proto-Elamites of the Iranian Plateau, but they did not copy the signs of the Proto-Elamite script.
Only few specimens from this formative period are presently available. During the Mature Harappan period, the fully
developed script was used without much change at all major sites. The script disappeared fairly soon after the
collapse of the Indus Civilization.
Archaic Sumerian, the oldest logo-syllabic writing, mainly consists of iconic word signs or logograms occasionally
complemented with rebus-based syllabic signs which also initially expressed “words”. Grammatical markers were
at first ignored in writing, but were gradually introduced with the growing familiarity with phonetic signs and better
ability to analyze language.
The logo-syllabic system demanded hundreds of signs. Devising the first syllabic scripts became possible around
2300 BCE, when many syllabograms were already in use in the cuneiform script. Logograms could now largely be
eliminated. The Egyptian variant of logo-syllabic writing, whose rebus puns ignore vowels altogether, enabled an
even more drastic reduction of graphemes. Around 1600 BCE, Semitic scribes in Egyptian-occupied Levant started
writing their own language with just those phonograms of the Egyptian script that comprised a single consonant.
Logo-syllabic scripts have hundreds of graphemes, syllabic scripts manage with less than 100 and most alphabetic
scripts with less than 40.
The number of known Indus signs is around 400, which agrees well with the logo-syllabic type but is too high for
the script to be syllabic or alphabetic. Word divisions are not marked, but many inscriptions comprise only one, two
or three signs, and longer texts can be segmented into comparable units. This is a typical word length in Sumeriantype
logo-syllabic script, while in syllabic and alphabetic scripts many words require more signs. The Indus script
was created before any syllabic or alphabetic script existed, so all main criteria agree in suggesting that the Indus
script is a logo-syllabic writing system.
Methodology: the basic decipherment formula and initial clues
The prospects and methods of deciphering a logo-syllabic script without translations differ in some essential respects
from those of syllabic and alphabetic scripts. The syllabaries and alphabets form closed systems that cover the entire
phonology of the language, and can be decoded as a systemic whole. In logo-syllabic scripts, there are many more
signs, and the phonetic bond between the signs is weaker. There is no chance of building such phonetic grids as in the
decipherment of Linear B, and a complete decipherment of the Indus script is certainly not possible with presently
Most signs of early logo-syllabic scripts were originally pictures denoting the objects or ideas they represented.
But abstract concepts such as ‘life’ would be difficult to express pictorially. Therefore the meaning of a pictogram
was extended from the word for the depicted object to comprise all its homophones. In the Sumerian script the
drawing of an arrow meant ‘arrow’, but in addition ‘life’ and ‘rib’, because all three words were pronounced alike
in the Sumerian language, namely ti. Homophony is usually language-specific, and rebuses thus enable language
identification and phonetic decipherment.
Individual signs of logo-syllabic scripts may be deciphered if four conditions can simultaneously be fulfilled: (1)
the object depicted in a given pictogram can be recognized; (2) the said pictogram has been used as a rebus; (3) the
intended rebus meaning can be deduced from the context(s); and (4) acceptably homophonous words corresponding
to the pictorial and rebus meanings exist in a historically likely known language. (Method demands strictness with
homophony; in the case of Proto-Dravidian, variation in the length of vowels and consonants is allowed, but not
The iconic shape of the Indus signs thus constitutes one of the chief keys to their interpretation. Unfortunately the
A Dravidian solution to the Indus script problem
pictorial meaning of most Indus signs is not clear. In some rare cases an iconographic motif added to an Indus
inscription can suggest the intended meaning of a sign. The scene at the right end of one tablet from Mohenjo-daro
(M-478) shows a human being who kneels in front of a tree and extends a V-shaped object towards it. The person
apparently presents offerings to a sacred tree in what may be a pot shown in cross-section. If so, the intended and
iconic meanings of the V-shaped sign in the text coincide, and it can be understood directly from the pictogram. We
need not know what the Harappan word for the depicted object was.
Figure 5. Pot of offerings in the text and iconography of the tablet M-478
from Mohenjo-daro. (After CISI 1: 115.)
Figure 6. (Offering of) “four pots of fish” on the tablet H-902 from Harappa. (After CISI 2: 339.)
The plain ‘fish’ sign probably has the intended meaning ‘fish’ on Indus tablets such as H-902 B which seems to
mention offering of four pots of fish. In Mesopotamia fish offerings were made in temples, in India fish and meat and
strong drinks were offered to godlings inhabiting sacred trees. That the signs looking like a ‘fish’ really have this
pictorial meaning is certified by the Indus iconography, in which it is placed in the mouth of a fish-eating crocodile.
But if phonetic decipherment is possible only in cases where the rebus principle has been employed, how can we
locate such cases, and how can we deduce the intended rebus meanings? These are certainly among the most
difficult tasks. Contextual clues include the function of inscribed artifacts. The vast majority of Indus texts are seal
stamps and seal impressions. As with iconographic clues, we can use for their interpretation parallels from elsewhere,
Western Asia and historical South Asia being most relevant.
A clay tag stamped with cloth impression on the reverse and with a square Indus seal on the obverse comes from
Umma in Mesopotamia. The Harappans’ contact with the Near East makes it highly probable that the Indus seal
inscriptions chiefly contain proper names of persons with or without their occupational or official titles and descent,
as do the contemporaneous Mesopotamian seal inscriptions.
Starting point: the ‘fish’ signs of the Indus script
In Mesopotamian and later Indian onomastics, names of gods are used to form personal names. We can expect to
have theophoric components of proper names and of priestly titles in some fairly large and uniformly distributed
group of signs in the Indus seals.
Although Mesopotamian ECONOMIC texts often record rations of fish, fish is NEVER mentioned in
Mesopotamian SEAL inscriptions. Yet the ‘fish’ sign, both plain and modified with various diacritic additions, occurs
so frequently on Indus seals that almost every tenth sign belongs to this group. This suggests that at least in the Indus
SEAL inscriptions, the ‘fish’ signs denote something else than ‘fish’ and are used as rebuses.
The most commonly used word for ‘fish’ in Dravidian languages is miin, and has the homophone miin meaning
‘star’. Both words may be derivatives of the root min ‘to glitter’.
Of course, one must check that the words in assumed readings are represented in more than one subgroup and
can be reconstructed for Proto-Dravidian. In addition, the hypotheses must be checked against script-external
evidence. Do the proposed interpretations make sense in the Harappan context, and with regard to the later South
Asian tradition, and the Mesopotamian contacts?
Figure 7. The fish-eating crocodilian ghariyal with the ‘fish’ sign of the Indus script on the seal M-410 from Mohenjo-daro. (After CISI 1: 98.)
A Dravidian solution to the Indus script problem
There is some external evidence supporting the proposed Dravidian rebus reading of the ‘fish’ sign. The motifs
fish and star co-occur on Mature Harappan painted pottery. Tamil speakers, who call these two things with the same
word, have imagined the stars to be fish swimming in the ocean of night sky.
Additional support for reading the ‘fish’ sign as a rebus for ‘star’ is the absence of a sign depicting ‘star’ from the
Indus script, although the ‘star’ symbol is painted and incised on Early Harappan pottery. The omission of a ‘star’
pictogram from the script is understandable as an economic measure, as the ‘fish’ sign covers the meaning ‘star’ as
The rebus meaning ‘star’ suits the expected meaning ‘god’ as a component of proper names in seal inscriptions.
Whenever a god or goddess is mentioned in cuneiform texts, the pictogram of ‘star’ is prefixed to the name as its
determinative, to indicate that what follows is divine. In the Sumerian script, the ‘star’ pictogram means not only
‘god’ but also ‘sky’. ‘Star’ is thought to have originally been an attribute of the sky-god An. With An as the leading
divinity of the Sumerian pantheon, his symbol would then have started to mean ‘god’ in general. Astronomy, including
the use of a star calendar, played an important role in ancient Mesopotamia, and deeply influenced the religion: all the
main gods were symbolized by particular stars or planets.
In the Near East, the ‘star’ symbol
distinguished divinities even in pictorial representations.
Significantly, a seal from Mohenjo-daro depicts an Indus
deity with a star on either side of his head in this Near
The ‘fish’ signs could well have been
parts of Harappan proper names, for ever since Vedic
times people in India have had astral names derived
from their birth stars. There are indications that this kind
of name-giving is of non-Aryan origin.
Methodology: Checking and verifying
The hypotheses can and must be subjected to scriptinternal
checking in the manner of cross-word puzzles.
One cannot overemphasize the importance of this
Figure 8. A seated deity with stars on either side of the head on the seal operation. If we apply exactly the same assumptions
M-305 from Mohenjo-daro. (After CISI 1: 383.)
and methods of interpretation to signs associated with an interpreted sign in a compound sign or in a recurring sign
sequence, do we get sensible results? If yes, these provisional results must be subjected to further external checking:
Are the posited compound words actually attested in Dravidian languages and not mere imagination? Particularly
important is Old Tamil literature, the only ancient Dravidian source not much contaminated by Indo-Aryan languages
and traditions. Interlocking of consistent readings with each other and with external linguistic data and clues constitutes
the essence of all decipherments.
Compounds formed with ‘fish’ signs and Indian mythology
The numerals belong to those few Indus signs whose function and meaning can be deduced with fair certainty, partly
from the fact that they consist of groups of vertical strokes, which is the way numerals are represented in many
ancient scripts, partly from their mutual interchangeability before specific signs, including the plain ‘fish’. Reading the
sequence ‘6’ + ‘fish’ in Dravidian yields the Old Tamil name of the Pleiades, aru-miin, literally ‘6 stars’. Note that
the numeral attribute precedes its headword in the Indus script as it did in Proto-Dravidian, but by no means in every
language of the world.
‘7’ + ‘fish’ corresponds to the Old Tamil name of Ursa Major, eZu-miin. This sequence forms the entire
inscription on one big seal from Harappa (H-9).
In Mesopotamia big dedicatory seals were
sometimes presented to divinities. The stars of Ursa
Major have since Vedic times been identified with the
ancient “Seven Sages”. These mythical ancestors of
priestly clans play an important role in early Indian
Because the Pleiades constitute the first
constellation of the Vedic star calendar, its heliacal rise
at the vernal equinox is thought to have marked the
beginning of the New Year. This and the position of the
marking stars in the sky dates the calendar to the twentythird
century BCE and suggests its Harappan origin.
The Vedic people did not inherit the calendar from the
Indo-Iranian tradition but adopted it in India.
Figure 9. The sequence of signs depicting ‘seven’ and ‘fish’; these
two signs form the whole inscription of the large seal H-9 from
Harappa. (After CISI 1: 166.)
A Dravidian solution to the Indus script problem
Vedic texts prescribe the kindling of sacred fires under the Pleiades, because the Pleiades now have the Fire-
God Agni as their mate. We are told that the Pleiades were the wives of the Seven Sages, but are now precluded
from intercourse with their husbands, who divorced them. Therefore the Pleiades now rise in the east, while the
Seven Sages (that is, the stars of Ursa Major) are in the north. The Fire God Agni mentioned as the mate of the
Pleiades apparently represents the young vernal sun, whose conjunction with the Pleiades started the New Year.
Later Sanskrit texts tell the myth in more detail and in several variant forms. According to them, the Fire God
Agni (or the great ascetic god OEiva) seduced the Pleiades in the absence of their husbands, the Seven Sages. They
were divorced. Only Arundhatii, the faithful wife of Sage VasiSTha, could not be seduced. She could remain as the
star Alcor with her husband, the star Mizar of Ursa Major (see fig. 13).
This is really one of the central myths of the Hindu religion. In a Puranic version, God OEiva seduced six of the
wives of the absent Seven Sages in their Himalayan hermitage. The Sages cursed OEiva’s phallus to fall down. The
phallus started to burn the world and stopped only when the Sages placed it on a vulva-shaped platform and
worshipped it with cooling water-libations. This is how the cult of OEiva’s linga or phallus originated. OEiva, one of the
greatest gods of Hinduism, has mostly the phallus as his cult icon since the earliest historical times. OEiva’s Vedic
predecessor Rudra is thought to be of non-Aryan origin. In Vedic texts, Rudra is euphemistically called oeiva
‘benign’, and equated with the Fire god Agni as is OEiva in the Pleiades myth.
Banyan fig and the pole star
One recurring sign sequence with the plain ‘fish’ sign as its latter member begins with a sign whose iconic meaning
seems to be ‘fig tree’. Can we here too have a Dravidian astral term?
Figure 10. The seal M-414
from Mohenjo-Daro. The normal
direction of writing, from right to
left, is that of the impression; in
this original seal stamp, the text
has been carved in mirror
image. (After CISI 3.1: 409.)
The iconic interpretation as ’fig’ is based on a comparison with Harappan painted pottery. In the script, the fig
tree is shown as three-branched, just as on the painted pottery, except when another sign is placed inside it; then the
central ‘branch’ is omitted. In the combined sign, the branches end in fig leaves as they do on the painted pottery,
but in the basic sign with less space the fig leaves are simplified, and one or two down-going lines are sometimes
added beneath the leaves on either side; in some variants
three or four such lines replace the leaves altogether.
The ‘three-branched fig tree’ motif occurs on
Harappan pottery from the Early through the Mature
to the Late phase. In one variant from the time when
the Indus script was created, four strokes are attached
to either side of the middle stem. They are similar to the
strokes of the Indus sign, except for their upward
direction, which may be due to the direction of the two
lower stems. The strokes seem to represent the airroots
of the banyan fig.
The rope-like air-roots are characteristic of the
banyan fig, Ficus bengalensis or Ficus indica. This
mighty tree is native to South Asia and does not grow
in the parts where the Indo-Aryan speakers came from.
A post-Vedic Sanskrit name for the banyan fig is vaTa.
This is a Dravidian loanword, ultimately derived from
Figure 11. Allographs of the Indus sign (no. 123) representing a three-branched ‘fig tree’ and of its ligature with the ‘crab’ sign (no. 124), where the
middlemost branch has been omitted to accommodate the inserted ‘crab’ sign. (After Parpola 1994: 235.)
Figure 12. A painted goblet with the ‘three-branched fig tree’ motif from
Nausharo ID, transitional phase between the Early and Mature Harappan
periods (c. 2600-2550 BCE). (After Samzun 1992: 250, fig. 29.4 no. 2.)
Tags: Aryan immigration, Aryan Myth, Asko Parpola, Classical Tamil Award, Dravidian solution, Dravidians, Eurocentric approach, Historiography, Indology, Indus script, Iravatham Mahadevan, IVC, Michael witzel, philology, Rachel C. Tadmor, Rigveda, World Classical Tamil Conference