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The Indus Valley Civilization, an ancient urban society that flourished over 4,000 years ago, remains one of the most intriguing chapters in human history. It existed along the banks of the river Indus, which is now situated in Pakistan and northwest of India. It is one of the most crucial civilizations that has altered the legacy of Indian history and baffled researchers for decades. 


The Indus Valley Civilization, an ancient urban society that flourished over 4,000 years ago, remains one of the most intriguing chapters in human history. It existed along the banks of the river Indus, which is now situated in Pakistan and northwest of India. It is one of the most crucial civilizations that has altered the legacy of Indian history and baffled researchers for decades. 

The three sides of an amulet from Harappa

The journey into the world of Indus scripts begins with the discovery of artifacts in the early 20th century. Archaeological excavations at sites like Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro revealed intricately crafted seals, tablets, and pottery with a series of symbols that appeared to be a form of writing. These scripts marked a modern society, which historians had never predicted to exist at that time. Hence, it opened chances for re-evaluating history with a new perspective and a promise of recent developments.

“The enigma of the Indus script reminds us that there are still mysteries in history that have yet to be unraveled.”

– Mark Kenoyer

Unveiling the mysterious script

Why can not the greatest historians of all time still not have correctly deciphered it, you might be wondering, and what exactly is the hype surrounding these scripts? So continue reading to get a complete understanding of these priceless scripts from our national heritage!


Initially, to understand why we cannot decipher them, we need to have previous insight into them.

As archaeologists unearthed more artifacts, they noticed variations in the symbols across different sites of the civilization. This observation led to speculation about whether the script was uniform or if there were regional variations in its usage. These variations, along with the absence of an overarching decipherment, have spurred debates among scholars regarding the purpose and significance of the script.

A large unicorn seal from Harappa<br>(Courtesy: Archaeological foundation of Pakistan
The Unicorn Seal found at Harappa

Since I can’t add all the signs in the blog, click on the picture to get more insight on how to decipher these scripts with each symbol.
Courtesy: A list of inscriptions and their sign lists as compiled by Nisha Yadav and M. N. Vahia.


The enigma of the Indus scripts lies not only in their undeciphered nature but also in the potential stories they could tell. Were these symbols a form of communication, an administrative tool, or perhaps a religious script? Were they used for trade, record-keeping, or cultural expression? As researchers continue to piece together the puzzle, these questions remain tantalizingly unanswered.

The existence of the Harappan period.Can be justified by the presence of inscribed seals, sealings, copper tablets, and inked potsherds.  However, the Indus scripts were not only limited to these mediums but also to perishable materials like bird bark that were used for the codification of messages. These haven’t survived the ravages of time.

Problems in deciphering the script.

  • No bilingual base: Despite engraved seals, not many larger inscriptions are available. Due to the availability of bilingual texts, it is an uphill task to proceed with attempts at the decipherment of the Indus Script. Unlike the Rosetta Stone, which allowed the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs due to its bilingual inscription in Greek and Egyptian, the Indus scripts lack a clear bilingual context. This absence makes it difficult to link the symbols to a known language and hampers the establishment of a phonetic basis for decipherment.

  • Symbol Diversity and Ambiguity: The Indus script contains hundreds of unique symbols, some of which appear to be repeated frequently while others occur rarely. The symbols’ varied shapes and potential ambiguity in their meanings make it challenging to identify consistent patterns.

  • No other linguistic descendants- The script itself consists of hundreds of symbols, referred to as ‘signs’ or ‘characters,’ etched onto seals, tablets, and other artifacts. While some symbols are relatively simple and geometric, others are more intricate and pictorial. These symbols have no clear resemblance to any known writing system, which has made decipherment a formidable challenge.

  • Logo-syllabic nature- There’s also another interpretation of the logo-syllabic nature of the script that confuses the researchers on whether to determine the signs as phonetic or ideographic. According to D. O. Edzard, 200 or even 450 graphemes that are available to us are too few for a purely ‘logographic’ script. Additionally, there is no appropriate grammar syntax. 

  • This challenge of decipherment is taken up by a battery of scholars. Their concerted efforts have paid no dividends. No consensus is reached and the proposed decipherments hover around analysing the same preconceived notions. Fresh assumptions are built which we will look

Characteristics of the Indus Script

The proposed life span of the Harappan civilization expectedly approaches 500-1000 years, at the site of Mohenjodaro and Harappa. Surprisingly, the script appears to be static, throughout. Signs or letters of the Harappan script are often devoid of contextual surroundings. Ideograms hang loose, as if, in complete isolation. Since 1875 more than 4,000 objects inscribed with this script have been found. The script consists of about 400 signs which can be divided into basic signs, approximately 250, and various additional auxiliary marks which do not stand alone but are used in combinations with the basic signs. These combinatory marks are variously interpreted as determinatives, vowel marks, punctuation, or other indications of graduation. In addition to these signs, there occur many compound signs which are made up of the basic signs combined with each other, or basic and auxiliary signs combined.

A potsherd from Kalibangan that demonstrates that signs were drawn from right to left

Different Theories about the Origin of the Indus Script :

Some scholars opined that the script was of a foreign origin while another set of scholars considered it as indigenous. The indigenous opinions are as follows :

•Langdon connected the Indus script with the Brahmi script of the later times.

∙ C. J. Gadd also held similar views concluded that the writing was at least in part syllabic. According to him the language of the seals is indo Aryan and the sea inscriptions were in general names. D.C. Sircar and S.K. Chatterjee too thought that Brahmi could be derived from the Indus script.

∙ Pran Nath gave alphabetic values to a number of signs of the Indus script. He compared them with those of the Brahmi scripts and concluded that the latter was derived from the former. According to him the language of the Indus seals is some
form of Prakrit or older Pre-Vedic language.

∙ Svami Shankarananda and B. K. Barua felt that the key to the Indus script lies in
the Tantric texts.

∙ Heras is of the strong view that the Indus civilization was of Dravidian and that the
language of the Indus seals was Proto –Dravidian. In fact he reads often old Tamil in the Indus seals. His approach is now rejected.

∙ The Soviet scholars like Knorozor, Gurov and the Finnish scholars Asko Parpola and Penti Altov considers the Indus language as Proto –Dravidian. Among Indian scholars who subscribe to this view mention must be made or Iravatam Mahadevan.
Fairservis is another foreign scholar who profound this theory.

∙ S. R. Rao and M. V. Krishnna Rao on the other hand are of the opinion that the Indus language is Proto-Vedic.

There were many foreign researchers who didn’t associate the Indus civilization with traditional culture but with the civilizations of the East. Some of these are:

L. A. Waddell, one of the earliest scholars, who attempted to decipher the Indus script
thought that it had links with the Sumerian script. He, accordingly, read all the inscriptions as
Sumerian and therefore concluded that the inhabitants of Mohenjodaro were Aryans.

W. M. Flinders Petri, the well known Egyptologist, thought that the Indus script had
something in common with the Egyptian hieroglyphs, which were ideographic. According to him, The Indus seals contain not the names of the officials but only their titles. His views,
however, did not receive any acceptance among scholars; particularly on the ground that, “if
all the seals had belonged to officials, then almost every inhabitant of Mohenjodaro must
have been an official personage and member of the court”.

M. G. de Hevesy opined that there was close similarity between the Indus script and the
recent script of the Eastern Islands, a quiet remote Islet in the Pacific ocean, about 2500
miles to the west coast of Chile. He has compared about 130 signs of both the scripts. But in
spite of the external linkages between the two scripts, points like the distance of time
between the period of one script and the other, of space extending over thousands of miles,
“the lack of any evidence proving the existence of intermediate script in the remote age of
the Indus valley script” have to be taken into account before postulating any connection
between the two.

G. R. Hunter has made a detailed study of the script in its varied aspects. After tabulating all
the signs “he believes that he has thereby obtained the interpretation of certain symbols, such as the ordinal suffix, the ablative and dative terminations, the numeral signs etc “. On the basis of the resemblance between the Indus script on the one hand and the Sumerian and Elamite on the other he, like some other scholars, is inclined to suggest that the Indus script came from Western Asia.
He says, many of the signs bear a remarkable resemblance to the monumental script of
Ancient Egypt. The entire body of anthropomorphous signs has Egyptian equivalents which are virtually exact. And it is interesting to note that not one of these anthropomorphous signs have the remotest parallel in Sumerian and proto-elamite. One is bound to conclude that the
presumption is strong that our (i.e. Indus) script has been borrowed in part from Egypt, and
in part from Mesopotamia.

Impression of the longest continuous Indus inscription, a seal from Mohenjo-daro

Indus Scripts: The Cultural heritage

Understanding these scripts is very crucial to understand our heritage that wasn’t just limited to the traditional backwardness, but it had eras of modernity in lifestyle, food and entertainment. These scripts help us thrive on the hope of a better future and looking up to the last as a source of inspiration and creativity.

The Indus scripts offer a tantalising glimpse into the ancient Indus Valley Civilization and its complex tapestry of culture, society, and knowledge. As we navigate the intricate strokes of these symbols, we embark on a journey to uncover the essence of a civilization that thrived millennia ago. While the scripts continue to defy full decipherment, they serve as a testament to the enduring mysteries that lie at the heart of human history, inviting us to unlock the secrets of our past and connect with a world that once thrived along the banks of the ancient Indus River.



Deciphering the Indus Script by Asko Parpola

Harappan Civilization: Homogeneity and Heterogeneity by Vijneshu Mohan

Indus Script, Study of its sign design by Nisha Yadav and M.N Vahia

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Tags: #harappancivilisation #indusscripts #indusvalley #historygeeks


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