Inscriptions on stone and wood

Published : Jun 18, 2010 00:00 IST

Among the fabulously large body of artefacts unearthed at Dholavira two Indus inscriptions, one on wood and the other on stone, stand out. The inscription on wood, with 10 signs, is spectacularly large and is the longest inscription discovered so far at any Indus site in the Indian subcontinent. Each is 35 cm to 37 cm tall and 25 cm to 27 cm broad. The 10 signs constitute a work of great craftsmanship. Each sign is made of several pieces, which have been inlaid on a wooden board.

The signboard must have been placed above the north gate of the citadel that existed at the Harappan city of Dholavira. All the signs are made of thoroughly baked gypsum and their white brilliance must have made the board visible from afar.

The other inscription is on natural, limy sandstone and has four big signs engraved on it. While Professor R.S. Bisht and his team discovered the 10-sign inscription in 1991, the sandstone inscription was discovered in 1999. (Despite toiling for several decades, scholars have not so far been able to decipher the Indus script, which runs from right to left.)

The eminent Finnish Indologist and scholar in the Indus script Asko Parpola, in an interview to S. Theodore Baskaran, published in The Hindu on March 24, 2008, called the Dholavira signboard with 10 signs “the first example of what we could call monumental inscriptions”.

He added: “Each sign is about 30 cm high. The usual sign on a seal is less than 1 cm, as you know. The board itself is three metres long. We have also got some new seals and artefacts. However, though these are important finds, they do not bring about any fundamental change in our understanding of the Indus script.”

It was under interesting circumstances that the signboard inscription came to light. Y.S. Rawat, a member of Bisht's team, and Namit Bisht, the latter's teenaged son, were brushing the floor of the western chamber of the north gate of the citadel when Rawat found something gleaming. He felt that it could be a mould. After two days of careful brushing, Rawat and Namit exposed a peepal-leaf sign.

“Slowly, in three months, we could expose the entire inscription,” said Bisht. “The peepal leaf is one of the 10 signs in the inscription.”

He surmised that the signboard was not lying in its original place. Since the width of the signboard equalled the width of the passage (doorway) of the north gate, it must have been erected just above the north gate, he opined. Since the letters were made of baked gypsum and the signboard had been erected at a commanding height, it must have been visible even to the people in the middle town and lower town. It was hard gypsum because it was baked and the moisture had been allowed to evaporate.

“When the Harappans were leaving the city, they must have respectfully removed the signboard and placed it in the chamber because of the reverence they had for it. The inscription could stand for the name of the city, the king or the ruling family,” said Bisht.

The four-sign inscription on stone is said to be the first inscription to have been found on stone in the Indus plains. It must have been longer because the stone slab is broken after the fourth sign.

“It was natural rock cut into a shape and then engraved with an inscription with a tool. I am sure there must be more [broken] pieces with the inscription,” Bisht said.

The stone with the inscription had been used as building material for making underground chambers in the bailey area of the citadel during stage V of the seven stages of the Indus civilisation at Dholavira. Though the stone was found in an underground chamber, it originally belonged to some other structure.

Bisht opined that the Harappans were a literate people. The commanding height at which the 10-sign board had been erected showed that it was meant to be read by all people.

Besides, seals with Indus signs were found everywhere in the city – in the citadel, middle town, lower town, annexe, and so on. It meant a large majority of the people knew how to read and write. The Indus script had been found on pottery as well. Even children wrote on potsherds.

Bisht said: “The argument that literacy was confined to a few people is not correct. You find inscriptions on pottery, bangles and even copper tools. This is not graffiti, which is child's play. The finest things were available even to the lowest sections of society. The same seals, beads and pottery were found everywhere in the castle, bailey, the middle town and the lower town of the settlement at Dholavira, as if the entire population had wealth.

“It appears to be an egalitarian society. This does not happen elsewhere [in other Indus sites]. On the basis of architecture, you can decide the places that were seats of authority. However, on the basis of material culture, you cannot distinguish between the major divisions of the city – among its inhabitants.”

T.S. Subramanian

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