Updated Feb 16, 2008: Priya Raju suggested 2 more dimensions – food and attire to the framework. I have added them below.
I pointed to a seal in my previous post with a link to Parpola’s interpretation. He interpreted the lower part brilliantly as the Seven Sisters (Sapta Kannika) which is the “Pleaides”. And I think he is also correct in that the Vernal Equinox – when the Sun enters Pleiaides – is the New Year. He also correctly references the myth where Lord Muruga (Karthik in Bengal) was born and was tended to by the Karthikai (“Krithika” in Bengal) Penngal [Krithika Women a.k.a Pleaides].
But what about the tree, the god within the tree, the human worshipping the tree, the goat etc? A.L. Basham in his “The Wonder that was India” talks about women worshipping the peepul tree for fertility. I recalled my grandmom talking about this. Therefore, the tree is the Peepul (Arasa Maram) – look how closely the leaf’s characteristics on the seal resemble the real one in the wikipedia. The horned figure is the Mother Goddess that we worship till date in Tamilnadu for fertility. The belief is the worshipper will beget a handsome baby boy like Lord Muruga. Infertile women are asked to go around the Peepul tree on certain auspicious days and make votive cradle offerings tied to the tree to become pregnant. I believe that the small object besides the kneeling woman is the votive cradle offering [Citation Needed]. I asked for the Tamil Farmer’s Almanac (“Paambu” Panchank) from my father and figured out the exact auspicious days on which this ritual is done.
Why the Goat? A possible explanation is this: every star has a symbolic deity and an animal. For Krithika, it is the goat. Another point to note is – in Celtic religion, sometimes infertile animals are part of the ritual. Interestingly, the animals depicted in the IVC seals are real animals with their distinctive species markings. For instance, this goat is the Pashmina/Cashmere Goat (one that gives the Cashmere wool). This is how a modern day cashmere goat looks (look at the characteristic wavy antler and look at the seal again). This just shows the powers of observation of these people.
The humans in this seal are all women because they have a feminine triple horn (to be covered later) and they all wear bangles – these bangles were made of shell. To this day, in Bengal women wear Sankha Pola – shell bangles during weddings and auspicious days. You can also see the plaited hair which is another feature in the woman’s attire till date in Tamilnadu. BTW, Shell bangles were a key manufactured item of the IVC people.
Please note that I am yet to attempt to decipher the script: my focus has been only on the pictures on the seals because I felt that we must first understand the symbology.
Existing Models for IVC Decipherment:
Currently there are 3 models per my own classification:
1. Parpola Model – Sir John Marshall, who discovered Harappa had hypothesized, that the language of the IVC was Proto-Dravidian. The Indus symbol above is known as the Fish. Father Heras proposed that it means “Meen” in Tamil which means “Star” since the phrase “Vinn Meen” (literally, Sky Fish) denotes “Star” even today. Asko Parpola is the first historian to accumulate a significant corpus of decipherment of the Indus script – and he agrees that “Meen” = Star. He has systematically proved that claim with a lot of data. Before you jump into any conclusions about his intent, Parpola is a Sanskrit Scholar and has done a lot of work on the Vedas and Upanishads.
2. Vedic Model – This model attempts to fit the Vedic Symbology onto IVC and tries to prove that Sanskrit was the language spoken in the IVC. Quite obviously, the historians who propound this view – including some western historians such as David Frawley – are the darlings of the Hindutva-vadis.
3. Mahadevan Model – Iravatham Mahadevan is one of the greatest Indus researchers India has produced and is the leading expert on the Brahmi script. He has also deciphered a huge number of Indus seals. Mahadevan supports the Parpola Model in that he thinks the language is Proto-Dravidian – but he adds that there is also a Vedic component. So his is a hybrid model.
The erstwhile “European Model” has been subsumed by these models. It is important to remember that it was Sir William Jones who proved that Sanskrit is Indo European with his path-breaking comparative linguistics method and the brilliant Caldwell who proved that the Dravidian languages were a separate language family distinct from Indo European. Max Mueller has also made some key contributions. But the Europeans introduced several errors which still affects the way we think about the IVC.
For the record, initially I was in the Mahadevan camp but after considerable rethinking, I am firmly in the Parpola camp. In my review of the IVC research done so far, I have identified some major gaps which can be attributed to the lack of a Symbology [Thanks Dan Brown for popularizing this term]. I think a new symbology framework will help us unearth some clues which we will later use for script decipherment.
Proposed 8-point 10-point Symbology Framework:
1. Religion – What was their religion? Most evidence points to a non-Aryan religion, centered around a fertility/mother goddess. I believe this was not a simple fertility cult – but a dramatically different religion with an astronomical foundation. This will be covered in the next post.
2. Language – What language did they speak? Many languages including Sanskrit and Elamite have been proposed as candidates – ideas without definitive evidence. Parpola and Mahadevan are right in believing that the IVC inhabitants spoke Proto-Dravidian. Parpola has even applied some ideas from the Dravidian language spoken by the Gonds. If you apply the principles of language drift and comparative linguistics to existing Dravidian languages, it can be proven quite easily that Tamil, the Gondi and a few more Dravidian Tribal languages will be the closest to Proto-Dravidian. Tamil is a natural choice to decrypt the IVC seals because of its richness – linguistically and culturally. Not to forget, the abundance of native Tamil speakers.
4. Flora and Fauna – Given that many of the IVC seals depict animals and plants in great detail, we need to understand their flora and fauna better.
5. Astronomy – All agrarian societies had a pretty advanced knowledge of astronomy for their time. We need to understand their core astronomical beliefs, especially since my research indicates that it was closely tied to their religion.
6. Economics – What means of livelihood did they have? We already know that they traded with Sumer using standard weights and measures, they had workshops that made beads, bead necklaces, shell bangles, toys and votive offerings. Agriculture and Animal husbandry were also key components of their economy. Priya Raju made an interesting suggestion that maybe some of the seals represent the place where the goods being traded are sourced from. Definitely worth investigating, right?
7. Engineering/Architecture – We need to learn how they built fantastic buildings, arrived at a city plan, great bath and an advanced sewer system. What clues does their script bear in relation to this topic.
8. Collation Scheme – One of the most surprising aspects of the IVC seals is the small number of characters. In fact, this has led to historians like Witzel/Farmer to conclude that IVC was illiterate – which I believe is highly improbable and totally ludicrous. Why are they assuming that each seal is a stand-alone? So I started thinking about it and wondered if there was a collation scheme to tie the seals together ? Mahadevan has talked about how every seal had a hole at the back through which a thread can be passed. And based on that he concluded that every seal was worn as a pendant around the neck. This didn’t make sense to me – till I remembered that one of the key products of the IVC economy were beads and bead necklaces. I put these two together and I realized that they must have strung a set of seals together on a string and form longer sentences and possibly many strings could together form a chapter/book etc. No one seems to have thought of a collation scheme, so I couldn’t find any material on this. But this must be explored seriously.
9. Food – what food did they eat – grains, cereals, fruits, vegetables, animals. These will also have some language clues.
10. Attire – what did they wear – we already know that cotton was a key export item, but what kind of dresses did they wear? Are there any clues in the seals?
To illustrate the framework, let us pick the popular seal known as the unicorn:
Calling this the Bull Unicorn (Bull with a single horn) is an European error – caused by their identifying it with unicorn myths from their cultures. IVC people were extremely scientific and I doubt if they’ll represent mythical creatures on their seals – when all along, they’ve only depicted fauna native to their region as we have seen above with the goat. My interpretation is that this is a cow – specifically, the species Bos Indicus (or the Zebu) with a short or non-existent hump and horns. Look at a picture of the current day cow from this breed.
Okay, but why only one horn, then? I thought long and hard about this and finally tied this to their engineering/architecture capabilities. One of the first lessons in Engineering Graphics I learnt in college was the Plan View and Elevation View (also known as perspectives) – a system to represent 3D objects in 2D using the observer’s view point. They must have used these techniques to create the layouts for their buildings and town plans – and they must have applied those to their seals as well. Now, if you observe an animal on its side and profile it, you will notice only one horn.
In fact, this plan view and elevation view perspectives repeats itself in many seals, so i see it as a critical component of the Indus Symbology. For instance, the bangles in the peepul tree worship seal. If you use the perspectives method, you can see why they depicted the bangles the way they did.
By now I am sure you appreciate the 8-point 10-point symbology. Are there any dimensions missing? I’d love to hear your views on this.
Next week we cover the IVC religion in-depth. Stay tuned.