New Evidence on the 'Piltdown Horse' Hoax

Published : Nov 11, 2000 00:00 IST

Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer are the scholarly authors of the Cover Story, "Horseplay in Harappa," in Frontline (October 13, 2000).

Michael Witzel is Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University and the author of many publications, including the recent monograph Early Sources for South Asian Substrate Languages, Boston: ASLIP/Mother Tongue 1999. A collection of his Vedic studies will be published in India by Orient Longman later this year. He is also editor of The Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, accessible through his home page at


He who sees me everywhere and sees everything in me... Gita VI, 30

Our thanks to Iravatham Mahadevan and Asko Parpola, two of the world's leading experts on the Indus script, for their comments on N. S. Rajaram's latest "horse" fantasy. We welcome this opportunity to discuss new evidence that has come to light since our expos of Rajaram's bogus "decipherment" of the Indus or Harappan script appeared in "Horseplay in Harappa," the cover story of the October 13 issue.

Rajaram's newest 'horse': We would first like to add further detail to Asko Parpola's thorough deconstruction of Rajaram's newest "horse" discovery. As Parpola points out, the "horse" Rajaram imagines on the cover of Frontline is an optical illusion that only shows up when seal M-18 A is blown up (as it necessarily was to create the cover) to many times its actual size. The "eye" of Rajaram's "horse" (seen in Figure 1) is created by a tiny fault (probably caused by abrasion) in the ancient seal, which prior to its discovery lay in the ground for some 4,000-odd years.

Figure 1. On the left, the cover of the October 13 edition of Frontline, illustrated with Harappan seal M-18 A. On the right, a blowup of part of the cover, where Rajaram finds another "horse." The "eye" of the "horse" is caused by a tiny flaw in the ancient seal, highlighted by the lighting coming from the right. The lighting also causes other Rorschach-like illusions that vanish when the seal or its impressions are viewed in other conditions (see Figure 2).

In the beautiful colour photo by Erja Lahdenper, especially commissioned for Parpola's Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions, the tiny fault is highlighted by the illumination coming from the right. (By convention, photos of seals are lighted fr om the right, seal impressions from the left.) Similar illusions create the impression that the "head" of the "horse" is much thicker than its "neck," that its "shoulders" are rounded, and that the "horse" has "ears" and even "feet." (As soon as you noti ce the "feet" or hooves, you realise that Rajaram's poor horse has his neck twisted around and is facing the wrong way - like the village lecher forced to ride backwards through the marketplace on an ass!) All these illusions disappear when the seal is v iewed at normal scale or in different conditions, as is evident when we compare the images in Figures 1 and 2.

Quite a bit is actually known about this seal, which was chosen for the cover because of its particular beauty. A careful drawing of the newly discovered seal was made by G.R. Hunter less than two months after the close of the excavating season in Mohenj o-daro in late February 1927. Hunter's drawing of the seal's impression is found in his classic 1934 study of the Indus script. Hunter's drawing shows what has been known to Harappan scholars for almost 75 years: that the sign is totally abstract and doe s not contain a hint of any animistic form.

All illusions of "horses" (or other creatures) in the sign also vanish when we examine photos not of the seal but of its impressions. This is clear from the crisp black-and-white photo of its impression (M-18 a in Parpola's Corpus of Indus Sea ls and Inscriptions) again photographed by the talented Erja Lahdenper. See the images (flipped horizontally to simplify comparison with the seal) in Figure 2.

Figure 2. On the left, G.R. Hunter's original sketch (from The Script of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro and Its Connection with Other Scripts, 1934, Plate XIX) of the sign where Rajaram finds his newest Harappan "horse." We have flipped the image hor izontally to simplify comparison with the colour photo in Figure 1. On the right, a photo of the sign from a seal impression (Parpola M-18 a, again flipped horizontally). In this case, the "eye" of the "horse," created by the tiny fault, lies hidden deep in the shadow of the impression. All other optical illusions vanish as well. Note in both images the separation of the "head" and "neck" from "body" -- showing that at best Rajaram's is a poor decapitated "horse."

Parpola notes that this character is a composite sign, and that the sign's rooflike element (Rajaram's "head" and "neck") shows up in other Harappan signs. In the lower half of this page, we show one of dozens of examples of the same or similar element, which is often seen combined with the Harappan "fish sign" - apparently to modify the sign's base meaning. (On composite signs, see Parpola's Deciphering the Indus Script, 1994, especially pp. 79-82.) Following the logic of his note to Frontlin e, Rajaram might very well imagine a "horse" in the figure on the right - all that is needed is an "eye" and Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief"! See Figures 3 and 4.

As though all this evidence were not enough, we have Mahadevan's direct testimony presented in his communication published in this issue: "I have seen the original seal with the Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi (ASI No. 63.10/363). No horse is t o be seen there. Rajaram's 'horses' only prove that one sees what one wants to."

Figure 3. The so-called Harappan fish sign - shown in the first example with and in the second without the rooflike modifying sign. Details here are from Parpola H-129 a bis. The roof element above the "fish" character is similar to the top element in the sign where Rajaram sees his newest "horse." Figure 4. The roofed fish sign with a simulated "eye" added. Through our whimsical "computer enhancement," we transform our fish into a dancing Harappan "horse"!

New light on the seal's 'computer enhancement': In "Horseplay in Harappa," we noted that Rajaram let it slip out in an online exchange that his original "horse seal" (based on a seven-decade-old photo of a broken seal impression, Mackay 453) was a "computer enhancement" produced to "facilitate our reading." Neither this fact, nor the precise location of the original in Mackay's writings, nor the fact that Mackay 453 was broken is told to the reader of Rajaram's book. After this slip, Rajaram has adamantly refused to discuss his "computer enhancement" publicly, although he has boasted to us that he has many years' academic experience in computer imaging. (But see now our postscript to this communication, reporting a recent Rajaram interview.)

New evidence on this issue has come to light since our article was published, through the good offices of Iravatham Mahadevan. In scholarly communications printed in this and an earlier issue of Frontline (October 27, 2000), Mahadevan relates that in September 1997, Rajaram sent him a copy of the "horse seal" that was different in important ways from the "computer enhancement." Rajaram, in turn, has repudiated Mahadevan's account, claiming in a note published in a nationalistic email List that "t he copy I sent him in 1997 was exactly the same one that went into the book." In the same note, Rajaram hints that Mahadevan's first letter to Frontline might be a forgery, qualifying his repudiation with the words "assuming that he [i.e., Mahadev an] did write that letter."

In the light of these remarks, Mahadevan has made available to Frontline, Witzel, and Farmer the correspondence he had with Rajaram in the fall of 1997. That correspondence, not unexpectedly, supports Mahadevan's and not Rajaram's view of reality. The copies of both the "horse seal" and "Artist's reproduction" of the supposed horse (illustrated in our original article) sent to Mahadevan are significantly different from what later went into Rajaram's book.

Comparison of different versions of the "horse seal" by Frontline graphics specialists (summarised in Figure 5) throws interesting new light on the "computer enhancement" found in Rajaram's book. Koenraad Elst, a Belgian writer and frequent defender of the Hindutva "revisionists," has recently argued that Rajaram's problems with Harappan horses have all been innocent errors1 Comparison of what Rajaram sent to Mahadevan with what is found in his book suggests a different interpre tation. We limit ourselves to two points involving the "horse" image:

1. The photocopy of Mackay 453 sent by Rajaram to Mahadevan was hardly a crisp image, but it was good enough for Mahadevan to see that the original seal was broken. Not even a Harappan expert could tell that the seal was broken from what is printed in Ra jaram's book. The so-called "computer enhancement" badly degrades the image - hiding the fact that the seal is broken and turning its break (as Mahadevan suggests) into the "neck" and "front legs" of Rajaram's deer-like "horse." 2. The copy of the "horse seal" that Rajaram sent to Mahadevan includes annotations on its lower righthand side, in part identifying the plate where Mackay 453 is found2. That information is crucial, since thousands of images are found in Mack ay's works - many of them quite tiny and difficult to distinguish. No data at all identifying the plate (or even the publication) in which Mackay 453 is located are contained in Rajaram's book. In the reproduction found in that book, the annotations are clumsily covered up - creating the illusion of what Indologists have taken to be a common icon (a "feeding trough" looking a bit like an old-time telephone) often found at the feet of animals in Indus inscriptions. (For examples of these objects, see our article in Frontline, October 13.)

Figure 5. From bull to Hindutva horse in three steps. On the left, the original of the "horse seal" impression (Mackay 453). Comparison with dozens of seals shows that the image is that of a unicorn bull; evidence of this was shown in our original art icle. In the middle, the photocopy of Mackay 453 sent by Rajaram to the great Indian scholar Iravatham Mahadevan in September 1997. The photocopying was careless, but the image was sharp enough for Mahadevan to recognise at a glance that the seal was bro ken. Note the annotations at the lower right that in part identify the seal location. On the right, the "computer enhancement" of Mackay 453 printed in Rajaram's book. In the "enhancement," it is no longer possible to tell that the seal is broken, and th e crack in the seal is turned into the "front legs," "neck," and "head" of Rajaram's deer-like "horse." The annotations have been covered over, creating what Indologists have mistaken for a common Harappan icon - a "feeding trough" often seen at the feet of animals in Indus inscriptions. Frontline graphics specialists tell us that many pixels were removed from the image during the "computer enhancement" - but not data enhancing the illusion, like the large dot often mistaken for the "eye" of the deer-like creature.

Other images in the Rajaram-Mahadevan correspondence, which it would be superfluous to discuss here, also show that what Rajaram sent to Mahadevan was not what appeared in his book. The story of the "computer enhancement" of Mackay 453 is summarised in < B>Figure 5.

Hindutva motives behind Rajaram's work: As we showed in "Horseplay in Harappa," Rajaram's "Piltdown horse" and bogus "decipherment" of the Indus script were closely tied to Hindutva propaganda. The aim of both was to fill in "missing links" betwee n Harappan and Vedic cultures - as part of the broader goal of reducing India's rich multicultural past to Hindu monotones. Since our first online expose this summer, Rajaram has consistently portrayed the criticism directed against him by Western and I ndian scholars as a minor quibble over a single seal. The goal, as he portrays it, has been to divert attention from his supposed breaking of the Harappan code, which he claims has solved "the most significant technical problem in historical research of our time." Thus, in his communication published in this issue, he claims that the "main thrust" of our article and Romila Thapar's commentary on our piece was simply "that the Harappan Civilisation was ignorant of the horse because it is not depicted on any of the seals." Rajaram argues that he and his co-author "regard the question of the horse to be of minor significance: our book is about the Indus script, not the Indus horse."

In fact, our article showed in detail that Rajaram's "decipherment" of the Indus script is even more absurd - if that can be imagined - than his fabricated "horse" evidence. Moreover, the two are closely linked: if the seal does not depict a horse , then the method Rajaram used to read the inscription on the seal, which he says refers to a horse, is obviously bogus. This is why Rajaram insists that the seal depicts a horse long after erstwhile supporters like Elst have backed away. To change his r eading of the "horse seal" inscription at this late date would be to admit publicly what we demonstrated in our article: that the "decipherment" method has so many loopholes built into it that you can get any reading out of any text. As we showed in our article, this gives Rajaram the room to confirm his absurd Hindutva "revisions" of history.

All this reflects the real "main thrust" of our article - Hindutva horseplay in Harappa. There have been many failed but honest attempts to decipher the Indus script, most of which have been quickly forgotten. What makes Rajaram's effort worth close ana lysis is not its scholarly merit - because it has none - but the element of duplicity in his work and the ugly politics underlying it. This was the real subject of our article, which focused on the enormous abyss between Hindutva "revisions" of history a nd any sane view of the past.

The absurdities of these "revisions" may be obvious to professional historians, but due to their political ramifications they cannot be ignored. The barrage of insults and threats that we have received since our article went to press suggests that our an alysis has hit a sensitive nerve in Hindutva circles. We view this as a welcome suggestion that the mythologising tendencies of reactionary writers can be defeated with hard evidence - but only so long as scholars take their social responsibilities serio usly and are willing to combat those tendencies head on. It has been written that "history is the propaganda of the victorious." For historical scholars who ignore those responsibilities, the sense of that saying may become obvious all too soon.


Just a few hours before our deadline for this communication, we were forwarded the transcript of an interview with N.S. Rajaram conducted by Frontline correspondent Anupama Katakam in Bangalore. This is the first time, so far as we know, that Raja ram has discussed the "computer enhancement" since he used that phrase in a note sent to the two of us and his followers on July 30, 2000. At the end of that note, he abruptly shut off discussion and declared that he would not discuss the "horse seal" is sue with us further.

In his recent interview, Rajaram makes a number of startling statements, a few of which we list here:

1. The 'feeding trough': When asked in the interview about the "feeding trough," Rajaram pointed to his annotated copy of Mackay 453 (apparently the original of the copy he sent to Mahadevan in 1997) and appeared to blame his publisher. According to his interpretation - and we quote Rajaram verbatim - the annotations "got scrambled in the scanning. This writing which has got scrambled resembles this telephone-like thing which they refer to as a trough." Graphic experts we have consulted in the pa st few hours tell us that "scrambling" like this from scanning is absolutely impossible. Elsewhere in his interview, Rajaram not only denies that he has scanned the picture, but seems uncertain whether or not his publisher has either - which makes his co nfident "scrambled in the scanning" story even less credible. The story is especially peculiar in the light of the many years of academic experience that Rajaram claims to have in computer imaging.

2. The 'computer enhancement': Rajaram's long online letter from July 30 about the "horse seal," which is now on file at Frontline, states that Rajaram and Jha "provide a computer enhancement and an artist's reproduction to facilitate our r eading." At the end of his interview, however, while showing the Frontline correspondent his copy of Mackay 453, Rajaram says: "This photograph is what Jha sent me. I have not computer enhanced it. If I said that - which is possible...I might have said [it]...because I didn't have the photo at the time, which I traced later. I might have said it meaning not that I enhanced it but it might have been done for publication." (The ellipses in these quotations are in the original transcript: we have no t removed any of Rajaram's words.) What he claims here is directly contradicted by what he says in his July 30 letter, where he states that he had examined the text at the Mythic Society in Bangalore. We also know that he had a copy since at least 1997, when he sent it to Mahadevan. At another point in his interview, Rajaram says that "I am not in a position to say 'Yes' or 'No' [about the computer enhancement]." At still another, he tells the interviewer: "And I either sent a photocopy of it.... And I remember what I said to the publisher. I said, 'see if something can be made of this.'"

No matter which, if any, of Rajaram's inconsistent stories is correct, we find it remarkable that after all these months of controversy - highlighted by frontpage stories in the Indian press - Rajaram claims to know nothing about how the photo in his boo k was doctored.

3. Defence of the 'horse seal': The most remarkable statements in Rajaram's interview concern his continued defence of his original "horse seal." He repeats his original arguments in the interview, ignoring the exhaustive analyses of the evidence that have appeared online and in print. At one point Rajaram proclaims: "As far as identification is concerned we are sure it is a horse!" To claim otherwise, as we pointed out earlier, would necessitate admitting that his "decipherment" was fraudulent a s well.

In any case, at this point Rajaram may be the last person on the earth to believe in his "horse seal" or bogus "decipherment," which was hailed as revolutionary by Hindutvavadis just one year ago. Last summer, we offered $1,000 to any Harappan researcher willing to defend Rajaram's claims. Not one has taken us up on our offer. So far as the scholarly world goes, nothing is left of Rajaram's Hindutva "revisions" of history than an as'va-s'ava - in plain English, a dead horse.

- mw & saf

1 Elst was an early enthusiast of Rajaram's "decipherment" and "horse seal," only repudiating the latter after our original expose online this summer. In his Update on the Aryan Invasion Debate (1999: 182), Elst speaks of "the apparent absence of horse motifs on the Harappan seals (except one)" - referring readers to a reproduction supposedly found "in N.S. Rajaram: From Harappa to Ayodhya, inside the front page." The reference is to a booklet published by Rajaram in November 1997, based o n a talk given in September - just a few days before his correspondence with Mahadevan. When we take Elst's advice and look at the inside cover of the booklet (Sahitya Sindhu Prakashana, Bangalore, November 1997), we find the "Artist's reproduction" of t he horse that Rajaram sent to Mahadevan, but no picture of the seal on which it was supposedly based! After being told by Mahadevan that he had a bull, not a horse, Rajaram apparently decided to play it safe for the time being and not publish the picture of his original "evidence."

2 Below the plate number and reference to Mackay 453, the annotations also contain the number 443, explaining Rajaram's occasional references in 1997 to the "horse seal" as Mackay 443 instead of Mackay 453. Mackay 443 (on the same plate) portrays a small seal of a bison with a "feeding trough" at its feet.

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