The Dholavira Signboard and Harappa
Here it is, folks: the Dholavira Signboard, all ten symbols of it. What the heck is it trying to tell us?
The mystery surrounding the inscription, if that’s what it is, seems to RT to characterize the Harappan Civilization (mature phase, 2700-1800 B.C.) that produced it. Here we have an ancient polity larger than Mesopotamia, characterized by mud-brick cities, an emphasis on cleanliness and ritual baths, and wide-spread urban planning. It conducting trade with Sumer and presumably Sargon’s Empire, but nonetheless has offered up only a few tantalizing examples of its writing system and pretty much disappeared after centuries of existence, leaving no successor civilization behind. What happened?
RT first got interested in this puzzle because he’s convinced that the Indus River valley represents the sharpest, most significant cultural boundary in the ancient world. East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet got its start here. And sure enough, stark differences can be seen right at the beginnings of recorded history, starting with the fact that Mesopotamia produced a civilization devoted to its writing system, one that was practically drowning in written words and that continued to use cuneiform for a couple of millennia, while the Indus valley evidently possessed some kind of writing system, but one which faded away with the civilization that produced it. Following the disappearance of Harrapan society, writing did not reappear in the Indian subcontinent until the 6th or 5th centuries B.C. We must confront an astonishing fact: India went without a written script for more than a thousand years.
Or did it? We know that the Bramhi script used to record the Rig Veda and other early surviving Sanskrit manuscripts was written on highly perishable materials such as tree bark, so it conceivable that the same was true of the Harrapan writing. But why would the Indus valley adopt such perishable media when it knew of cuneiform written on clay tablets? RT confesses himself flabbergasted. Why were the Harappans so transitory?
Here is RT’s speculation about the Signboard. The Harappan writing system clocks in at about 400 characters, which indicates it probably was an ideograph-syllable script, like cuneiform. The graphic quality of the letters suggests a compromise between a script designed to be carved on stone and written on bark–that is, the characters are constructed of angular shapes softened by slight curves. The letterforms themselves evidently have little relationship to proto-cuneiform. This writing system appears to have developed independently of other scripts.
Then there is the matter of the “wheel-form” symbol which appears four times in the signboard. Forty percent of the inscription relies on a single concept, and not just any concept, but one which might well be connected to the wheel of Rebirth, that powerful concept in Indian religion, which today appears on the Indian Republic’s flag. Could this sign be the symbol for Harappan civilization? Could its concurrent star-like shape suggest the gods or heaven? How does it relate to the fifth symbol, the open diamond/ellipse?
We will have to wait to find out. With so few examples of the script to work from, linguists have not yet deciphered Harrapan writing or been able to identify the language that it recorded. We may never know, or a Harappan Rosetta Stone may turn up. In the meantime, excavation continues.