The interpretation of ancient records is no easy task. It is difficult enough when the records are in archaic versions of currently known languages, and even more difficult when they are in scripts long out of use. This was the case, for example, with Egyptian hieroglyphics. But human curiosity and ingenuity will not give up the quest to decipher what our distant ancestors were recording.
So it was that the tireless work of people like Athanasius Kircher, Sylvestre de Saci and others in the eighteenth century led to the triumph of Jean-François Champollion who finally deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics and rendered into a modern language portions of the famous Rosetta Stone.
Ever since the unearthing of relics of a pre-Vedic civilization in North-Western India, dating back to more than 5,500 years, scholars have been attempting to figure out what those seals, the first of which caught the eyes of Alexander Cunningham in the 1870s, actually convey. In due course, two schools of thought developed in this regard: one insisting that it was no script at all, but merely unconnected drawings of an artistic nature; and the other convinced that the unearthed seals were actually elements of a systematic linguistic system. In the first decade of the twenty first century, the scholarly debates on this issue degenerated into mutually name-calling platforms from which the proponents of the two views began to argue against each other more vociferously than for their own respective thesis.
That is more or less the background of this book which is the fruit of decades of dedication to break through the veil of symbols and uncover what they really stand for. The book is a rich and fascinating collection of Indic hieroglyphics, reproduced in black and white, organized, systematized, and presented with informative commentaries, copious references, and insightful annotations on each.
The central thesis of the book is that artisans of the Indus civilization “created the Indus writing system,” and furthermore that “artisans of proto-indic language families … and Dravidian (languages) interacted with one another, absorbed many glosses and structural language features from one another.” An insight informing the decipherment seems to be that “the underlying language whose glosses are used in the key is mleccha (meluhha).” We are reminded that “Mleccha was substratum language of bharatiyo (casters of metal) many of whom lived in dvîpa (land between two rivers – Sindhu and Sarasvati – or islands on Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Khambat, Makran coast and along the Persian Gulf region of Meluhha).”
There can be little doubt that the author S. Kalyanaraman is eminently equipped for this study. Versatile in many Indian languages, he is also deeply devoted to Indic culture and history. In 2003 he brought out an impressive five-volume work on Saravati Civilization. His erudition and thorough familiarity with the subject matter shine through every page of the book. In normal times this book would be hailed by one and all in the field as a worthy contribution to the Indus decipherment quest. But this is not likely to happen. That is because there is still a deep divide in the scholarly world on the question of whether Indus scripts embody a language or are random and unorganized representations of a variety of ideas and information. This book may not resolve the divergent perspectives once for all. While drawing on the pioneering work of scholars like Iravatham Mahadevan and Asko Parpola, the author takes on some of the established authorities in the field and is not shy of pointing out (what he perceives as) their errors. Without naming Steve Farmer or Michael Witzel explicitly, the book also challenges the view of the staunch upholders of the thesis that the Indus valley civilization had no written language, i.e. that it was non-literate. He asks rhetorically how one can characterize as illiterate a civilization with so many tangible references to heraldry, agriculture, myths, magic, rituals, religious, socio-political, economic functions and the like. This raises the important question of whether there can be sophisticated culture and civilizations without literacy, i.e. a written language.
This book is a precious compendium of the treasure chest of the ancient tablets left by men and women of distant generations. To probe into the possible meanings of those silent seals is a commendable pursuit indeed. The next time one comes across the figure of an antelope or the carving of a papal leaf, the etching of a waistband or any other allograph or rebus, one can always refer to this fascinating book: a twentieth century Champollionesque pictographic dictionary that persuades the reader that the entries could very well have been entities of an once living language.
One may expect severe criticism of the work from experts holding on to competing views, both on the methodology and the conclusions of the work. But then, it is rather doubtful that there will ever be unanimity of this complex challenge to our investigations on this matter, all the more so because history, even ancient history, is wrought with political slants and cultural colorings in our times. But these will not, indeed these should not, diminish the scholarly substance and learned arguments presented in the book. I earnestly hope that scholars in the field will give due and serious consideration to the merits of the book.
One can find European books cluttered with Lain, Greek, French, German, and Italian words. But it is not easy to find a book so richly interspersed with words in diverse Indian languages as one sees here: Tamil and Sanskrit, Bengali and Munda and more. The average reader who barely knows two languages, and can read only things in the Roman script may therefore find the book somewhat difficult to plow through. But for those who are familiar with more than one alphabet, and are willing to listen with interest to an enriching perspective on this more than a century old puzzle, this book must be a treat.
I read Indus Script Cipher, not as an expert but only as an educated layman. I feel strongly that Dr. Kalyanaraman deserves the respect and gratitude of his readers, and most of all Indian readers many of whom are either ignorant of or unfamiliar with this fascinating subject. At the very least it will make them aware that we have meaningful and concrete relics of a civilization that thrived on Indian soil more than five millennia ago. The contemplation of our ancestors and their achievements is an integral part of both history and cultural continuity.
September 14, 2010