Running head: THE INDUS SCRIPT


The Language and Writing of the Ancient Indus Civilization

Caren della Cioppa

University of Alaska Anchorage

The Language and Writing of the Ancient Indus Civilization



A Brief History of Writing Systems


One of the greatest human achievements is the creation and development of writing systems.  Prior to the advent of writing, all useful information had to be memorized.  History and the knowledge of a civilization were passed on from generation to generation through stories and speaking between individuals.  Most early civilizations have legends of how their writing came to be.  Most suggest that writing was brought as a gift from the gods in some fashion.  Although the legends are fascinating, it is very apparent that human language existed long before even a single word was written down.  The invention of writing systems comes much later than the beginnings of language.  The earliest writing likely developed gradually with its beginnings as early as twenty thousand years ago in the form of early cave drawings, called petroglyphs.  Later drawings clearly became pictograms, or picture writings that were a direct image of the object represented.  Such early forms of writing were relatively unrelated to the language spoken because they simply represented physical objects rather than the sounds used linguistically to identify the objects.  Later the meanings of many pictograms were extended to represent concepts related to objects such as a picture of the sun to represent heat, or daytime, etc.   Such pictures are called ideograms since they represent an idea rather than an object alone.  Later as the pictures progressed, they became simplified and stylized to the point where they would only be understood by those educated in the system.  As the evolution of writing progressed, the pictograms and ideograms became symbols that represented the linguistic sounds that represented the ideas, and objects and the words of the language. (Fromkin & Rodman, 1998)    

The oldest known writing system is that of the Sumerians, an ancient civilization of southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) from over six thousand years ago.  Their pictograms progressed to ideograms and later to a simplified set of symbols produced by a wedge shaped stylus pressed into clay tablets.  This form of writing is called cuneiform writing from the Latin cuneus meaning wedge-shaped.  The cuneiform writing system spread throughout the Middle East and Asia Minor, and was borrowed by the Babylonians, Assyrians, and the Persians.  At around 4000 B.C. the Egyptians were also using a pictographic writing system called hieroglyphics.  The Phoenicians living in what is now Lebanon, aware of both the Egyptian and Sumerian writing developed the West Semitic Syllabary by 1500 BC.  composed of only consonants.  The ancient Greeks, using some of the characters to represent vowels, were able to apply it to their language, consequently starting the first known alphabetic writing system of 26 characters.  The Chinese writing system is a word writing system where each character itself represents an entire word or idea.  The Chinese system has a thirty-five hundred year uninterrupted history. (Fromkin & Rodman, 1998)


The Indus Writing System


The Indus Valley civilization was the first major urban culture of Southern Asia dating from around 2600 to 1900 B.C.  This civilization flourished along the broad fertile floodplains of the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra Rivers in what is now Pakistan.  Geographically the Indus Civilization was comprised of about 1000 settlements of varying sizes, and includes almost all of present-day Pakistan, parts of India as far east as Delhi and south as Bombay, as well as parts of Afghanistan.  Most of what is known about the writing system of the Indus civilization is found on about 4000 inscribed soapstone seals that were used to make impressions on malleable material such as clay.  Most seals have holes in them possibly indicating that they might have been strung to be worn around the neck.  Inscriptions with both writing and pictures have been found on small copper tablets as well as many fragments of pottery.  This writing system is quite different from that of the Sumerian script of relatively nearby Mesopotamia.  In addition to writing symbols, many pictures of animals are depicted on the seals.  Such animals as the elephant, water buffalo, rhinoceros, tiger, crocodile, antelope, bull, goat, and even the unicorn are depicted on the seals.  Another common theme is a figure seated in the yogic cross-legged position wearing a buffalo-horned headdress. The figure, which is surrounded by many animals, leads some archaeologists to suggest that it may represent an early form of the Hindu deity, Shiva, Lord of the Beasts. (Price & Feinman, 2001)


The Language History of the Indus Area


    In India there are 18 languages officially recognized by the constitution, and these fall into two major groups: Indic, or indo-Aryan, and Dravidian. Additionally, there are over 1600 minor languages, and dialects.  The official language of Pakistan is Urdu, but comparatively few people use it as their first language. Punjabi is probably the most widely spoken language, and Sindhi, Pashto, Saraiki and Baluchi are also spoken by many people.  Brahui, another Dravidian language is also spoken in Pakistan mainly in the Kalat and Hairpur regions. The total number of Brahui speakers is estimated to be approximately 2,000,000 people. All Brahuis are bilingual and most of them also speak Baluchi.  In addition, English is extensively used by educated people in both India and Pakistan today. (Services International, 2001)

The Dravidian languages consist of a family of about 23 languages that appear to be unrelated to any other languages.  These languages are now spoken by over 200 million people in South and Central India as well as in Northern Sri Lanka and parts of Pakistan.  Research indicates that the Dravidian languages probably evolved from a language spoken in India prior to the invasion of the Aryans around 1500 B.C.  Dravidian languages have some distinct characteristics such as the formation of a large number of sounds in the front of the mouth.  The verbs have both a negative and affirmative voice, and gender classification is made on the basis of rank rather than sex, with one class including beings of a higher status and the other beings of a lower status that includes inanimate objects and sometimes women.  Another distinctive feature is that there is a great use of suffixes but not prefixes with the nouns and verbs.  Dravidian languages have their own alphabets that can be traced back to a common source related to the Devanagari alphabet used for Sanskrit.  Brahui, however, uses the Arabic script. (, 2001)


The Aryans were part of a great migratory movement that spread in successive waves from Southern Russia and Turkistan around 2000 B.C.  Their warrior bands invaded many urban centers throughout Mesopotamia and Asia Minor.  Most of the languages spoken in northern India are of the Indo-Aryan language family.  The general script of the Aryan languages is different from that of Dravidian languages as well.  The modern Aryan languages are considered to have evolved from Sanskrit, the classical sacred and literary language of the Hindus of India.  Sanskrit is a complex language that is highly inflected and is subject to certain alternations of vowels and context-influenced modifications of sounds. It has three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter) and three numbers (singular, dual, and plural). In addition to ancient Sanskrit, the Indo-Aryan language family includes the medieval languages called Prakrits; and modern languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, and other languages of India, Nepali, and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. The Dardic languages, which include Kashmiri and Romani (Gypsy), are considered to be an Indo-Aryan subgroup or a third Indo-Iranian branch. (, 2001)


The Indus Script and Language Theories



The samples and seals of Indus writing have been studied by various scholars for over 70 years, but still there has been little progress in deciphering this interesting and elegant script.  There are several significant causes for this difficulty.  Unfortunately, most of the samples of Indus script are very short texts.  The average number of symbols on the seals is only 5, and the longest example contains only 26.  The language actually used by the Indus people is still unknown, although several theories abound.   To this date there have been no bilingual texts discovered to assist in solving the language mystery.

Among the experts there are several theories about the language the Indus Script represents:

1.  The language is completely unrelated to any other.

2.  The language is Indo-Aryan and therefore Indo-European.

3.  The language belongs to the Munda family of languages spoken largely in eastern India, and related to some Southeast Asian languages.

4.  The language is Dravidian.

Among the four basic hypotheses, only two of the alternatives have wider support. These are that the Indus people spoke either an Indo-Aryan language related to Sanskrit, or Dravidian.  Asko Parpola, the Finnish world expert on the Indus script, has devoted 30 years to the study and decipherment of the Indus script.  Asko Parpola puts forth significant arguments in favor of the Indus language being Dravidian rather than Sanskrit.  His main argument is that he feels it is difficult to reconcile chronologically with the dates of the Indus civilization.  The Indus civilization was at its peak at about the second half of the third millennium B.C. but the Aryans who are responsible for the creation of Sanskrit didn't enter the Indus area until the second millennium B.C.  Another interesting observation by Parpola was that, although the Aryans were nomads who were known to rely heavily on the use of horses, no horses appear in any of the animal representations in the art of the Indus civilization.  Also, the Aryan-speaking nomads, although they had superior military force because of their horse drawn chariots, were far less in number than the estimated Indus population of five million.  It would be highly unlikely that such a huge population would have been all killed off by the Aryans.  Parpola suggests that through time the original Indus people simply assimilated the Aryan language, but that the original Indus language was likely closely related to the North Dravidian languages represented today by the Brahui language of Baluchistan and Afghanistan, and the Kurukh spoken in Northern India from Nepal and Madhya Pradesh to Orissa, Bengal and Assam. (Parpola, 2001)  

Iravatham Mahadevan, India's Indus script pioneer has also devoted 30 years of his life to the study of the Indus script.  He was initially interested in collecting ancient coins but became interested in writing in order to read the legends on the old coins.  He is known for his decipherments of the Tamil Brahmi script, which is the earliest deciphered script from the Tamil, caves in Southern India.  Because of his breakthrough discoveries regarding the Tamil script, he was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship and was asked to work on the Indus script problem, in 1970.  Mahadevan concurs with Parpola that the language of the Indus Valley was probably of Dravidian origin because most world scholars now believe that the Aryan immigrations came later than the time of the Indus Civilization.  This would of course rule out Aryan influence on the early language of the Indus people.  He also believes that since Brahui, which is a Dravidian language, is still spoken in the area, chances are good that the ancestors of the Brahuis were also living there at the time of the Indus civilization.  He states that evidence from excavations in Pakistan and elsewhere indicates that the Indus culture has been there from the 8th millennia B.C.  The age of the culture makes it likely that it developed there rather than was brought in by immigration and invasion.  Although Mahadevan strongly feels that the Indus language was of Dravidian origin, he is careful to state that it is still only a theory. (Mahadevan, 1998)

There are some other scholars, like Prof. Kinnier-Wilson of Cambridge, who even believe that the Indus language may have been a form of Sumerian.  But there is little evidence to substantiate this theory because there is no similarity between the Sumerian language and the modern Pakistani and north Indian languages. (Mahadevan, 1998)

Due to the fact that to this date there have been no long narratives of Indus script discovered, and there still are no bilingual inscriptions, the language of the Indus people will continue to remain a mystery.  The hope of the dedicated scholars who have devoted their lives to the Indus script, is that one day along the Makran coast or somewhere in the Middle East, there will be discovered a clay tablet or a seal that is inscribed in two languages, thus offering a translation into some known language.  It is the hope that one day there will be found an Indus equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.   On the Rosetta Stone the text appears in form of hieroglyphs (script of the official and religious texts), of Demotic (everyday Egyptian script), and in Greek. This representation of a single text of the three scripts enabled decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. (Figure 1)(Schade & Wäsch, 1996)

Figure 1: The Rosetta Stone (Schade & Wäsch, 1996)


The Inscriptions and Attempts at Decipherment


With no definite knowledge of the underlying language, and no samples of translations of the Indus writing into another known language, researchers have little to go on in their quest to decipher the script.  There is no known way to determine the pronunciations of words that might be represented by the script.  However, comparisons with pictographic scripts from other languages can often offer some clues to the possible meanings of some of the characters.  Table 1 shows examples of pictographic scripts from several other ancient cultures, and obvious similarities can be noted. ( Parpola, 2001)

Table 1:  The Indus Script and other writing systems (Parpola, 2001)


It is probably reasonable to predict that pictographs that resemble certain things in one language system may well represent the same thing in another writing system, such as the characters representing a mountain in these various writing systems.  However, pronunciations of the words represented can't be determined by the meaning alone, without knowledge of the language represented. (Parpola, 2001)

Besides comparison with other pictographic systems, very important clues are given by archeological findings from the Indus civilization.  Artifacts such as art, tools, weapons, and architecture, painted pottery, and the carvings on the seals and amulets are particularly significant.  These are direct evidence of how the Indus people represented certain objects. (Parpola, 2001) 

Unfortunately, because of the demand for fluency in writing, the meanings in a pictographic system are not always immediately recognizable.  The original pictures become simplified and are eventually reduced to only the essentials of the original picture, such as in the case of the Sumerian cuneiform writing that was eventually reduced to a series of lines and wedges.  To interpret such a system, there need to be samples of the different successive forms as the writing became simplified. Documentation of this progression is not available with the Indus writing. (Parpola, 2001)

Most of the samples of written text available of Indus writing are in the form of carved seal stones for stamping in soft clay.  Analyses of the articles that bear the stamps offer the best clues of the intended meanings of the seals. Since many of the tags have impressions of woven cloth and matting, it is believed that they were once attached to bales of goods.  This indicates that they were probably involved in economic transactions.  Some examples of Indus seals found in Western Asian sites indicate that trade existed between the Indus civilization and that of Mesopotamia.  The Mesopotamian seals are readable so it is reasonable to assume that the Indus seals are analogous to the Mesopotamian ones of the same period. (Parpola, 2001)

In classical Indian civilization, proper names of individuals often mention divinities, so it is reasonable to assume that such a practice might have also occurred in the early Indus civilization.  Since many of the Indus signs appear to be in the pictorial form of a fish,  it is thought that the fish sign may have actually had an intended meaning of a god.  This interpretation was made because in most Dravidian languages the word for 'fish' is 'meen'.  However, a homonym 'meen' which also means 'star' also exists in the Dravidian languages. There is speculation that the fish sign may have actually been a symbol for the star as well as for the fish.  In the cuneiform writing, the pictogram for 'star' is a prefix to every divine name to indicate divinity.  The Mesopotamians associated their divinities with specific heavenly bodies and stars.  In India, the planets have been worshipped as minor divinities for at least two thousand years, with each one associated with one of the gods of Hinduism. So, it is not unreasonable to assume that the Indus people also associated their gods with the stars.  Further support for the interpretation of the fish sign to be linked to the star, is the obvious practice of astronomy by the Indus civilization.  It has been found that the very straight streets throughout the Indus cities are always oriented towards the cardinal directions.  This is an indication that the Indus people had an understanding of astronomy.  There was also a star calendar used during the peak of the Indus civilization during the 23rd century B.C., which was later, adopted by the Aryans in India.  Indus scholars speculate that the fish symbol rather than a star symbol was used to represent the concept of god because in the early Harappan religion, the fish had a central position.  The fish seems to appear in most of the early painted pottery.  It is felt that the fish may be a symbol for the God of Waters.  The fish symbol seems to have a divine place in most of the early civilizations of the Indus era, including the Sumerians of Mesopotamia.

    In addition to the fish symbol, another frequent symbol of the Indus script is interpreted to represent the large Indian fig tree.Parpola points out that one of the Sanskrit names for this tree is vata, which is of Dravidian origin from the word vatam meaning cord or rope.  Earlier explanations that link the symbol with the Indo-Aryan seem to conflict with the fact that the Aryans nomads didn't bring this tree with them, but in fact encountered it there when they arrived.  It is also found that in Dravidian, the word vata also has the meaning north. Therefore there is speculation that the symbol of the fig tree next to the symbol of the fishmight represent the word vata-meen, which is the Old Tamil name for the North Star.  In this fashion, the various symbols of the Indus script are studied and analyzed in attempts to determine a true meaning for each. (Parpola, 2001)


    At this time, there is still no accepted Indus Dictionary, but Tables 2 and 3 show some examples of the Speculations on the various signs by both Parpola and Mahadevan. (Khan, 2001)











1. fish

2. star

The word meen designates both fish and star in most Dravidian languages. Suggests the heavenly bodies were conceived of as fish swimming in the ocean of heaven, representing gods.

space + fish

vel (i) + meen

white star

Vel-meen and Velli both mean Venus in Tamil.

3 + fish

mum (m) + meen

three stars

The new year asterism Pleiades has this name in Tamil; in myth the wives of the Seven Sages.

6 + fish

(*c) aru + meen

seven stars

In Tamil, the name of Ursa Major, the 'Seven Sages' in India.


elu + meen

seven stars

In Tamil, the name of Ursa Major, the 'Seven Sages' in India.

dot/drop + fish

pottu + meen

1. carp fish (= rohita 'red' in Sanskrit)
2. star or red dot/blood drop (= rohini 'red' in Sanskrit)

The red dot painted on the forehead at marriage = the 'third' eye of the Heavenly Bull < alpha Tauri = the ancient star of the new year (marriage of Sun + the heavenly bride rohini, 'menstruating'), represented by the red fish (scales as tilaka mark).

halving + fish

pacu + meen

green star

in Tamil, paccai refers to greeness and the planet Mercury, which represents the green-hued child god Krishna.

roof + fish

mey/may + meen

black star

Saturn's name in Tamil. Saturn rides a turtle, a 'fish' with a 'roof'.

fig tree + fish

vata + meen

North Star

Vata-min is the star 'Alcor,' orig. probably Thuban. 'Banyan fig' is the tree of 'ropes' (vata): starts do not fall because they are fixed to the North Star (in Dravidian also 'fig/rope star) by means of visible ropes.

fig tree + intermediate space

vata + vel(i)

North Star

In Tamil, velli means both (1) 'the planet Venus) and (2) 'star (=meen)

4 + fig tree

nal + vata

hanging rope

Banyan as '(the tree) possessed of hanging ropes': nal/nal/al 'to hang down' seems to be the etymology for al (a-maram) ' banyan tree'. Indus tablets with '4 + fig' have a solitary fig leaf on the reverse.



man, servant

The sign occurs in priestly titles paralleling Mesopotamian titles 'Man/Servant (of the god X)'; the most common Dravidian word for man also means servant.

ring(s)/ bangle(s)


boy, youth, Muruku (the youthful god of love and war)

The sign signifies 'royal ear-rings' in [Tibetan] Lamaism. The sign recurs, sometimes alone, on Indus stone bangles; Indus tree-gods wear bangles; in later folk religion, bangles are offered to sacred trees with prayers for off spring (cf. muruku ' boy').

(head of) cow

a (+-tu)

possessive suffix

The interpretation of this important sign remains open; this is just a suggestion that needs testing.

Table 2: An Indus Dictionary - Parpola (Parpola, 1994)









The most frequent and almost always terminal sign of the Indus script is read as a jar and connected to the legend of 'jar-born' sages and the symbolism of the jar connected to priestly ritual in Indian tradition.



Also a terminal sign, pr suffix associated with names or titles on seals like the 'jar' sign above.


Servant, attendant or lower functionary

Simple pictogram, frequently shown with ' jar' (lower order of priestly functionary?) but never with ' lance' sign.


Officer or functionary

Also appears to be a suffixed element, interpreted as officer because of later Indian traditions referring to senior officers of the king referred to as 'yoke bearers.'

Jar + Bearer

Officer or functionary with priestly duties

Clearly combination of two signs, could be related to later Indian traditions combining the two motifs.

Lance + Bearer

Officer or functionary with military duties

Also combination, perhaps designating officer with military duties.


Farmer, tiller, tenant

Also characteristically a terminal sign, sometimes in conjunction with ' jar,' ' lance,' or ' bearer' signs, suggesting combination of categories or serving under them.

Table 3: An Indus Dictionary - Mahadevan (Mahadevan, 1982)


Hopes for the Future

"Since 1986, the joint Pakistani American Harappa Archaeological Research Project (HARP) has been carrying out the first major excavations at the site in forty years. These excavations have the shown Harappa to have been far larger than once thought, perhaps supporting a population of 50,000 at certain periods. These excavations, which continue in 1998, are rewriting assumptions about the Indus Valley. New facts, objects and examples of writing are being discovered each season."(Khan, 2001)

Figure 7 shows the important trade routes and areas of natural resources of the Indus civilization. Figures 2,3,4,5,& 6 are examples of some of the artifacts found in these recent excavations.  Continued excavations and further research by dedicated scholars such as Parpola and Mahadevan may someday unlock the fascinating mysteries of the People of the Indus Civilization, what language they spoke, and why they disappeared.  Perhaps lying buried in the sands of the Indus Valley lies an Indus "Rosetta Stone" waiting to reveal its secrets to the world.



Figure 2: A steatite unicorn seal from Harappa with Indus script

"This seal dates to around 2450-2200 BC. When pressed into clay the impression will be reversed. Since the Indus script may have been read from right to left, the last two signs visible at the top right hand edge of the seal might in fact be the last two signs of the inscription." (Kenoyer & Meadow, 1998)

Figure 3 Three clay sealings

 "Three sealings from the Harappa Phase levels (2600-1900 BC) that may have come from large bundles of goods shipped to the site from a distant region. The clay does not appear to be the same type of clay as found near Harappa and each sealing has the impression of two different seals." (Kenoyer & Meadow, 1998)

Figure 4: Molded tablets

"Molded tablets sometimes have impressions on one, two, three or four sides. This group of molded tablets shows the complete set of motifs. One side is comprised entirely of script and has six characters, the first of which (on the very top) appears to be some sort of animal. A second side shows a human figure grappling with a short horned bull. A small plant with at least six branches is discernible behind the individual. The third panel portrays a figure seated on a charpoy or throne in a yogic position, with arms resting on the knees. Both arms are covered with bangles, and traces of a horned headdress and long hair are visible on some of the impressions. A second individual, also with long hair and wearing bangles, is seated on a short stool to the proper left of the individual on the "throne." The fourth panel shows a deity standing with both feet on the ground and wearing a horned headdress. A branch with three pipal leaves projects from the center of the headdress. Bangles are seen on both arms."  (Kenoyer & Meadow, 1998)


Figure 5: Long rectangular seal with no animal motif

"This type of seal is only found in the last part of the Harappan Phase." (Kenoyer & Meadow, 1998)


Figure 6: Impression of an Indus-style cylinder seal of unknown Near Eastern origin

"One of the two anthropomorphic figures carved on this seal wears the horns of water buffalo while sitting on a throne with hoofed legs, surrounded by snakes, fishes and water buffaloes. Copyrighted photo by M. Chuzeville for the Departement des antiquites orientales, Musee du Louvre." (Parpola, 2001)

Figure 7:  Raw Materials and Trade Networks

"This map shows raw material distributions in the Indus Valley and adjacent regions. The extensive trade networks of the Harappan Period (2600-1900 BC) linked distant resource areas to the major cities in the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra river valleys. Goods were shipped by boat along the rivers or by oxcart overland. The use of seals and sealings appears to have been integral to the development of trade networks. Seal impressions probably identified the owner(s) of goods, and perhaps the contents of the terra cotta vessels they were shipped in. Impressed clay was also used to seal rope or cloth that bound bales of goods." (Kenoyer & Meadow, 1998)

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Fromkin, V., Rodman, R. (1998). Writing:  the ABCs of language. In Michael Rosenberg (Ed.), An introduction to language (6th ed., pp. 491-512). Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company.

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Khan, O. (2001). Ancient Indus Valley Script Contents. Retrieved June 13, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

Mahadevan, I. (1982). Terminal ideograms in the Indus script. In Possehl, G. (Ed.), Harappan Civilization: a contemporary perspective (p. 316). Oxford: Oxford & IBH Publishing Co.,.

Mahadevan, I. (1998). Iravatham Mahadevan. Retrieved June 14, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

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Price, T. D., Feinman, G. M. (2001). Chapter 10 - Old world states and empires. In Beaty, J. (Ed.), Images of the past (3rd ed., pp. 419-429). Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company.

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