The Significance of Indus Script Cipher

published on September 3, 2010

This book  ‘Indus Script Cipher’ (Sarasvati Center, June 2010) by Dr. S. Kalyanraman,
Director of the Sarasvati Center is a prodigious effort in deciphering the Indus
Valley Script which is found in hundreds of seals discovered in Harappa, Mohenjo Daro and other sites on the Sindhu- Sarasvati rivers. The majority of the finds are from the
Sarasvati site. As the reader knows, the Sarasvati river is that mighty river mentioned
some 75 times in the Rig Veda. It disappeared sometime in 1,800 BCE owing primarily to techtonic shifts and this fact has been confirmed by recent satellite photography.

The Indus script, like the Egytptian one, is a hieroglyphic : sacred carvings. The word is
from Greek , hiero (sacred) and glyph (carving).However, Dr. Kalyanraman while retaining the use of the word ‘hieroglyphic’ is at pains to point out that the Indus seals
are not all sacred. In fact, most have a secular meaning and practical use.

For the last one hundred years or so, there have been attempts to decipher this script, which Dr.Kalyanraman advisedly calls a Cipher, meaning that it is a secret code. His view is that these secret codes were carved on various materials of the seals by the
Artisans of the Indus Valley Civilisation (Sarasvati Sindhu Civilisation as it is now
Called) to communicate messages to their fellow artisans and merchants in foreign
countries, chiefly Mesopotamia and regions in the Middle East.

A good example is the swastika which stands for the zinc ore which makes objects bright and shining. A merchant or trader would immediately understand the contents of the
boxes being shipped to him. The secrecy was most likely to protect the cargo from pirates and other marauders. Often the picture would also send a signal to the trader as
to how the item was manufacturesd. And so on and so forth.

Many scholars and linguists have been unable to decipher the Indus script and some have
abandoned the search for a decipherment. They believe that these are simply pictorial
designs or carvings which have been placed at random, as items, much like artists
paint pictures, with no special intent other than self expression. These scholars believe
that the Indus Script found in the seals does not represent a language. The people of the
Valley were not literate, although obviously there was a spoken language. But there was no writing in that period.

Many other scholars believe that the systematic nature of the signs and the carvings indicate that there is a connected underlying language which is the basis of the carvings.
Dr. Kalyanraman is one of them. So are Dr. Iravathy Mahadevan and Dr. Aski Parvola, the Finnish linguist and scholar. The carvings or glyphs are therefore a written language.

He comes to this conclusion in two ways. In present day Bharat all the languages are
interrelated and go back to a tradition of spoken language for thousands of years. Dr.
Kalyanraman is proficient in many of these present day languages of Bharat.
The pictures on the seals show everyday objects such as bangles  and customs such as wearing the sindoor by married women. The continuity of the social customs is evident from as far back as 3,500 BCE, the approximate date of the Indus Valley Civilisation and their artifacts. One sees this all around in the social customs and objects used by the
peoples of present day Bharat. The classical literature of both North and South and the various regions of Bharat also testify to the continuity of the Indus Valley civilization.

What language did these people speak ? Dr. Kalyanraman is of the opinion that they
spoke all three of the known major languages of Bharat : Indo –Aryan, Dravidian and
Munda. The borrowings and cross overs of vocabulary and grammatical structure took
place as in any other part of the world. This hypothesis is significant because it addresses the question of who the peoples of the Valley were. The commingling of these people and their languages means that as in present day Bharat there was no serious divide as
between the Aryan North and the Dravidian South or the Tribal population of present
day Bharat.

Mahadevan and Parpola have argued that the underlying language of the Indus Script was a Dravidian language, a forerunner of Tamil. They focus on that one language, unlike Kalyanraman who sees the situation as a commingling of the three major streams of Indo Aryan, Dravidian and Munda.

Kalyanraman’s book, ofcourse, has a political dimension. But it is also a path breaking exploration of the nature of language in the evolution of civilization. A language is learned both by society and children in the same way : the direct experience of objects
in the external world. A mother points to a cow and says Gau. The connection between sound and meaning are immediately established in the child’s mind. Sometimes the
same sound may stand for different meanings (homonyms) and this too the child learns by experience. Or very different sounding words can stand for the same meaning(synonyms). And so on.

Whether the general reader wishes to pursue these themes is an individual decision.
There are hundreds of illustrations and for those familiar with Bharat’s languages, the
connection between the meaning of the pictures on the seals and everday words will  itself be a fascinating exercise. Once the reader grasps the overall themes of the book it will be extremely interesting to dip into it to check out the reading of individual seals or the detailed link between that one word and its links with the languages of present day Bharat.

A word on the method Dr. Kalyanraman uses to decipher the Indus Script. He uses the rebus method which has been used in other decipherments such as the Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Latin word  ‘rebus’ simply means object . Hence, a rebus would be a carving or picture that stands for an object. The swastika in the Indus seals would stand
for zinc ore. The rebus is in contrast with a pictograph where the pictograph stands for
an idea.

Since Dr. Kalyanraman has already hypothesized that the seals were carved by artisans and craftsmen for practical purposes of communicating with fellow artisans and traders, the decipherment is in the majority of cases of those dealing with objects and real life

The book is some 500 pages long and is the result of nearly twenty years of research and study (so the author informs us). It will inaugurate  intense debate and discussion in scholarly circles and that is to be expected and welcomed. The issues dealt with, if
not always directly, but implicitly are:

1.The nature of language and human communication
2.The identity of the peoples of the Indus Valley
3.The continuity of the Indus Valley Civilisation
4.The language community of the diverse languages of Bharat
5.Has the Indus Script been deciphered ?

The book is currently available at and most likely has hit bookstores
in Bharat .

(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university).

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