Almost every month now, someone claims to have deciphered the enigmatic script of the Indus Civilisation, the last undeciphered script of any major ancient civilisation. Dozens of scholars have tried in vain to get a grip on it. This does not really surprise, for neither the value of individual signs nor the underlying language(s) are known. To be able to read the more than 4,200 Indus seals and inscriptions would provide major and probably surprising insights into the oldest history of India.
The most recent attempt at decipherment by .S. Rajaram and . Jha in their book The Deciphered Indus Script has just been exposed in Frontline and a discussion has been initiated in The Pioneer. This decipherment is but a collection of wild guesses, based on an incredibly flexible Indus "alphabet" and compounded and bolstered by actual fraud, Rajarams "Piltdown" horse. One Indus seal (Mackay 1937-8, no. 453) is supposed to read, in late Vedic Sanskrit: "Arko haasva, Sun indeed like the horse [sic]," a reference to the Yajurveda! According to Rajaram, it is accompanied by a picture of a horse. But this picture is found on a broken seal, where the front part of the "horse" is missing, and only the hindquarters of a typical "unicorn" bull are visible. The very break line of the seal, fuzzily reproduced from a clear original, is reconstructed by Rajaram as the neck and head of a horse and made "visible" in an added "artists impression".
The search for the original seal, badly referenced by Rajaram, is virtually impossible for the lay reader but not so for an insider, due to A. Parpolas concordances and his magnificent photo collections of the Indus inscriptions. There are in fact two seals of that type, with the same inscription (Parpola, 1991, no. M-772, M-1034). Both are broken and without the "horses" neck and head that have been liberally supplied by "computer enhancement" (as Rajaram privately admitted later on). But M-1034 clearly shows the genitals of a bull, not those of a horse.
What kind of motive drives expatriate writers such as a Rajaram to wildly imagine or even to invent their evidence? Just as the infamous British Piltdown man (this 1912 hoax tried to establish the "missing link" between ape and man), this Piltdown horse is composed of fake parts, put together with the same intention: to show something that simply is not there but is wished for, and, therefore, manufactured.
Why a horse? Horses are badly needed in the Indus Civilisation, as zoology and archaeology tell us they were not found in South Asia then. Domesticated horses, animals of the northern steppes, were imported into South Asia (and Mesopotamia) only early in the second millennium bce (same as BC, or Before Christ, which scholars dont use due to its religious connotation. bce is Before Common Era). The first archaeologically-attested bones come from the plains below Bolan Pass (in whats now west-central Pakistan), at 1700 bce, 200 years after the Indus Civilisation disintegrated. All other early finds of equid bones, despite some excavators insistence, belong to the half-ass (onager, hemione, equus heminonus khur) or come from archaeologically unclear levels.
As Rajaram and Jha, along with many autochthonists, want to let the horse-rich Rig Veda precede the Indus Civilisation (2600-1900 bce), they need Indus horses and chariots badly. The Piltdown horse seal now proves their point! They also find an Indus sign which looks like a spoked wheel (but which may be the south Indian potters wheel-or just about anything else). Finally, they read many seals as referring to horses, which proves: "The supposed horselessness of the Harappans is a dogma that has been exploded by evidence. But like its cousin, the Aryan invasion, it persists for reasons having little to do with evidence or scholarship." (In other words, the prevalence of the horse will disprove the commonly-accepted theory that the speakers of Indo-Aryan came from outside and were responsible for the disintegration of the Indus Civilisation.)
Not surprisingly, the rest of the decipherment is of the same quality. Rajaram and Jha suppose the Indus inscriptions are written in late Vedic Sanskrit, spoken in the Indus valley. The seals would contain a Vedic synonym dictionary (Nighantu, preserved in Yaskas Nirukta) and mathematical formulae of early ritualistic geometry from the contemporaneous Shulbasutras. However, it appears from archaeological evidence that at least some the seals were used to stamp bales of merchandise while others seem to have been tokens and identification tags.
Which hard-nosed merchant would put the formula for the circumference of a circle (pi = 3.1415...) or part of a dictionary on his seals? Virtually anything goes in this "decipherment". The script can be read from left to right or the other way round, though the former director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India, B.B. Lal, has shown decades ago that it is almost exclusively written from right to left. Next, about 100 of the 400-800 signs of the Indus script are supposed to be an alphabet-long before alphabets anywhere else in the world: the earliest Indus signs now come from layers of 3500-2800 bce (discovered at Harappa in 1999 by Harvards R. Meadow). The rest of the signs is said to be logographs, as in Chinese writing.
But Rajarams and Jhas ingenious alphabet has no vowels, except for an initial, general purpose vowel (as in A-rya, I-ndra, U-ma). This is the famous U-shaped "rimmed vessel sign" that almost always ends an inscription but which they commonly read left to right, as the first sign! The virtual lack of vowels makes the script practically unreadable in any Indian language, Vedic Sanskrit included. A simple combination like m-- has a dozen or more possibilities: how to distinguish between "Manu" and mina, "fish"? In stark contrast, the script is supposed to be full of technical, Paninean signs, including even Vedic pitch accents (svara). If something still remains unreadable, fill it in! For, the Indus script is a "rough and ready script" which "follows no hard and fast rules". As Voltaire supposedly said: consonants count little, vowels-nothing!
Since the proof of the pudding is its eating, one may consider the actual decipherments, such as "mosquito", "the house is in the grip of cold", "a hundred noisy crows", "an angry mother-in-law". Do we put anything like this on our seals? Since the seals refer to late Vedic texts and science, we can expect not only pi but also Vedic gods, tribes, kings and rishis, such as Rudra, Soma, Yama, Aayu, Yadu, Puru (sic!), Madra, Sudaas, Paila, Ajiigarta, or the name of Dwarka (Sriitiirtha). And, of course, horses. Even Epic/Puranic details such as Krishnas friend Akruura or Ramas hi-tech weapon, agni-vaana, are not missing. After all, the Indus-Saraswati Valley is "the cradle of civilisation"!
Apparently, Rajaram and Jha do not realise how ridiculous all of this reads outside the confines of the revisionists rewriting of Indian history along autochthonous lines. They have an alphabet at the very dawn of writing anywhere, be it in Egypt, Mesopotamia or the Indus. They have a northern import, the horse, in South Asia long before it is attested. They have horse-drawn, wheeled chariots long before they are found anywhere south of the Uralic steppes or outside Mesopotamia. They have Vedic Sanskrit spoken in 4000/2600 bce, when its closest relative, the linguistically slightly pre-Rig Vedic Indo-Aryan of the Mitanni realm in Syria/Iraq, dates only to circa 1400 bce-which also is contemporaneous with the closely related Archaic Iranian of Zarathustra, as found in the Avesta texts of the Parsis.
In short, Rajarams and Jhas claims are historically impossible and are based on an unsubstantiated reading of the script. As typical proof they use the "enhanced" picture of the Piltdown horse, along with an idiosyncratic reading of the accompanying inscription.
Most scholars, after checking some of the "facts" presented in the book, would simply put it aside laughing or would shake their head and regard the principal author as one more, albeit blatant, example among the currently growing guild of fervent rewriters of history. The book, by its very improbability, further taints the present wave of revisionist writing (S.S. Misra, S. Talageri, K.D. Sethna, S.P. Gupta, Bh. Singh, M. Shendge, Bh. Gidwani, P. Choudhuri, A. Shourie, S.R. Goel, and their expatriate or foreign fellow travellers such as S. Kak, S. Kalyanaraman, D. Frawley, G. Feuerstein, K. Elst, K. Klostermaier). The Piltdown case casts a revealing beam of light on what is happening right now in academics and in society at large and it does not go unnoticed outside the subcontinent.
Finally, Rajaram also is a "specialist" in many other fields, from the 2,000-year-old Jewish Qumran scrolls to modern Christianity and from European history to cosmological science (matching his touted but very lacuneous pre-1990 US career as "nasa and Artificial Intelligence scientist"). He writes in newspapers, journals and on some of the supposedly Indian but in fact US-based Internet sites, such as The Sword of Truth, Hindu Vivek Kendra, Hindutva. One of the most prolific chauvinistic writers, he indiscriminately lashes out, with boring repetitiveness, at "western" Indological studies (which, even in this day and age, can only be "Euro-centric" and "missionary"!) or at the supposedly "Marxist Delhi historians", at Muslims and Christians inside India, fanning communal hatred and promoting an imagined, ideal and perennial India that never existed. To what desperate means he must take is now abundantly made clear by his Piltdown horse. In the end, one can only agree with his decipherment No. 64: "A great disgrace indeed!"
And yet, he has not retracted anything but boasts that his "many friends in government" have advised the Book Depot to publish his "popular book on the Saraswati river in English and 13 other languages". May the goddess of learning, Saraswati, save us all!
(Prof Michael Witzel, a reputed Indologist, teaches at the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard University)