The Unbreakable Code

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Indus Valley Civilisation/Harappan Civilisation is one of the 3 civilization of the Old World and the most widespread. The civilization stretched from modern Afghanistan, through Pakistan and Northwest India. At the civilization’s peak, the population may have been over 10 lakhs. Inhabitants developed new techniques for metallurgy and handicrafts, including seal carving.

The Indus script is made up of partially pictographic signs and human and animal motifs including a puzzling ‘unicorn’. These are inscribed on terracotta tablets, miniature soapstone seal stones and occasionally on metal. The symbols were produced during the Kot Diji and Mature Harappan periods, that is, between 3500-1900 BCE. It is not yet understood if the symbols were used as a writing system or to record language. Although research has proved that the script is read from right to left.

The first publication of a seal with Harappan symbols dates to 1875, in a drawing by Alexander Cunningham and since then, over 4,000 inscribed objects have been discovered, some even as far as Mesopotamia.

These signs were written in many ways, including carving, chiseling, painting, and embossing, on objects made of many different materials, such as soapstone, bone, terracotta, silver, and gold. Often, animals such as bulls, elephants, rhinoceros, water buffaloes and the mythical unicorn accompanied the text on seals.

Despite many attempts, the script as of now is still not deciphered, although research is still ongoing. There are many who have given theories, but not a single one can be proven as a fact.

There are 3 main problems that have resulted in the script not yet being deciphered.

1. No firm information is available about its underlying language. Was this an ancestor of Dravidian or Sanskrit, or of some other Indian language family, or if it was a language that has disappeared.

2. No names of Indus personages or rulers are known from historical records or myths: no equivalents of Ptolemy or Rameses, who were known to hieroglyphic decipherers from records of ancient Egypt available in Greek.

3. There is, as of now, no Indus bilingual inscription comparable to the Rosetta Stone (Egyptian and Greek). It is conceivable that a similar treasure may exist in Mesopotamia, given its trade links with the Indus civilization.

Iravatham Mahadevan in the early 1970s published a corpus and concordance of Indus inscriptions listing 417 distinct signs and 3,700 seals in specific patterns. He also found that the longest inscription contained only 14 symbols in a single line, and the average inscription contained five symbols.

Their decipherment attempts can be divided into 3 major hypotheses

1. Dravidian Hypothesis
2. Sanskritic Hypothesis
3. Miscellaneous Hypotheses

Scholars, such as John Newberry, Krishna Rao, and Subhash Kakhave argued that the Indus system has some connection with the Brahmi script, while others such as Iravatham Mahadevan and Kamil Zvelebil have argued that the script had a relation to a Dravidian language.

Yuri Knorozov, a Russian scholar, with the help of computer analysis claimed that Dravidian is the most probable language for the script.

Photos of many of the thousands of extant inscriptions are published in the Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions (1987, 1991, 2010), edited by Asko Parpola and his colleagues. He led teams to decipher the script and proposed multiple readings. One such reading of the signs and symbols was legitimized when the Dravidian word for both ‘star’ and ‘fish’ ‘, “min” was hinted at through drawings of both the things together on Harappan seals.

Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao who claimed to have deciphered the script compares it to the Phoenician alphabet and assigned sound values based on this comparison. His decipherments lead to the Sanskritic reading of the script, especially the numerical.
The support that the Brahmi script continues to get is because of the graphic similarities between it and the late Harappan script.

Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel argue that the Indus system did not decode language but instead were used to symbolize families, clans, gods and other religious concepts.
A group of scholars in 2004, probably out of frustration, said that the script was nothing but random pictograms and that the Indus Valley people were actually illiterate.
Rajesh Rao, a computer scientist, tried using the digital approach. They have calculated the amount of randomness in the choice of a token if given a preceding token — in natural-language scripts, (Sumerian cuneiform and the English alphabet), and in non-linguistic systems, (computer programming language Fortran and human DNA).

Following are the few things that are known about the Indus Valley script –

• The Indus script is written from right to left. This is seen in most of the examples, but there are some incidences where the writing seems to be bi-directional.
• Certain numerical values have been identified, like semicircles representing 10 and a single unit being represented by a downward stroke.
• The script has been identified as being “logo-syllabic”, which means that some symbols express ideas or words, while others represent sounds. This is because the script combines both symbols and word-signs with phonetic value.

The Indus Valley script is often referred to as the most deciphered script because of the 100 decipherments that have been made regarding it. But unfortunately, a common consensus cannot be reached. The political war between the script being Sanskrit or Dravidian is constantly ongoing. This is because they believe that whoever has descended from the people who had written the script are actually the true inheritors of India.

Considering the fact that approximately 400 signs have been recognized, and this is clearly too large a number for each character to be a phonogram, hence the script has been classified as a logo-syllabic script.

Containing both, signs and phonetics, the script from the Bronze Age still remains a mystery for the world.

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