Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BCE) emerged on the banks of River Indus in Pakistan. However, its sites are scattered over a large area including parts of India. The two large sites Moen jo Daro and Harappa are located in Pakistan while Lothal, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi and Dholavira are in India.The signs and symbols inscribed on tiny seals discovered from the archaeological sites of this Civilization are considered to be an ancient script which is yet to be deciphered. Describing the long journey of decipherment and its detours, which have misled many archaeologists to distant sources, this book draws attention to the languages and culture of the Indus region for relevant clues to decode the ancient seals. “Indus Seals (2600-1900 BCE) Beyond Geometry: A New Approach to Break an Old Code” is not only an update of Talpur’s previous research on the geometrical configuration of the signs and symbols but it also goes beyond to the images of animals, humans, deities, trees and unidentifiable objects inscribed on the seals. Seeking clues in the ancient words retained in the present day Sindhi language and highlighting the symbols of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism on the seals the book interprets social, cultural and ideological content of the seals.
Parveen Talpur is a writer, historian and archaeologist. Originally from lower Sindh, Pakistan, her career in writing and archaeology began simultaneously as she tailored her archaeological research reports to feature articles in two of the most prestigious English language newspapers ‘Dawn’ and the ‘Pakistan Times’. From 1991-1997 Talpur was a visiting scholar at Cornell University, New York (1991-1997) where she worked on the decipherment of ancient cryptic symbols engraved on tiny seals discovered from Indus Valley Civilization (2600-1900 BCE0. The results of her research were first published in Wisconsin Archaeological Reports Vol. 3, 1994. Later they were published as a book ‘Evidence of Geometry in Indus Valley Civilization.’ Talpur writes nonfiction and fiction and has to her credit many feature articles, three television documentary scripts, a book of poems, a trilogy on Pakistani women and five books. In 2014, Talpur published her well-illustrated book “Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900).” She has now published its companion book “Indus Seals (2600-1900 BCE) Beyond Geometry: A New Approach to Break an Old Code.”
I have examined the seals from three diverse perspectives: Buddhism, the Sindhi language, and geometry. In the framework of Indus seals a mutual embeddedness between these three underexplored sources cannot be denied as one could not be fully understood without the other. At least, that is how it has worked for me. For instance, it was while studying the geometric composition of the man sign on the seals that I was reminded of a Sindhi word angal. Later, I was able to connect it with the concept of angles in geometry. Similarly, while studying Alexander Cunningham’s identification of a few vernacular features on the Shahbazgarhi Rock inscriptions, I was able to identify some of these in the Sindhi language; hence the links between the Sindhi and the Pali language used in ancient Buddhist scriptures. As for the connection between Geometry and Buddhism, it can be as ancient as the Indus cities. Currently this connection is most conspicuous in the meticulously made Buddhist mandalas but the rudiments of their geometric patterns can be found on the Indus seals.
Indus Seals (2600-1900 BCE) Beyond Geometry
Alexander Cunningham while examining the edicts of King Asoka, inscribed on Shahbazgarhi Rock near Peshawar, recalled the Harappa seal which he had rejected earlier. He now suggested that perhaps, the signs and symbols engraved on it were precursors of the script engraved on the Shahbazgarhi rock. It was a logical inference to relate Indus signs to the specimens of the oldest known indigenous script of the subcontinent. While the edicts were intentionally scripted in the local dialect, Cunningham too, consciously or unconsciously, assigned the local phonetic values to the signs engraved on the seal, I will return to his interpretation in chapter four. It is important to give here some background of Cunningham’s understanding of India’s Buddhist past which led him to make this connection.
Cunningham plays a major role in the story of the British officials’ obsessesion with the mystical past of the subcontinent which they resolved to dig through various means; one of these was through archaeologists and their well equipped teams of officers and laborers who explored the landscape of the subcontinent. The dividends paid and after discovering many pertinent sites they finally reached Moen jo Daro, metropolis of the largest ancient civilization, the Indus Civilization. Ironically, once the physical remains of the ancientmost past of the subcontinent were discovered the expeditions went astray.
Moen jo Daro is not clearly mentioned in any later Indian texts such as the Vedas and the Mahabharata, officials of the Archaeological Survey of India were not looking for it in the way archaeologists with the ‘spade in one hand and Bible in another’ were tracing site after site in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Moen jo Daro was, therefore, discovered accidentally under the foundations of a Buddhist stupa.
Most of the search in the Indus region in pre-Moen jo Daro days was anyway for the Buddhist monuments. Moen jo Daro was to reveal the roots of the most prominent feature of Buddhism-the nonviolence- as indicated by the absence of weapons in its ruins. There is no evidence in its structural remains suggesting wars; hence, Indus Civilization has come to be acknowledged as the most peaceful ancient civilization. In order to understand the seals it is therefore important to have some understanding of the socio-cultural context in which they were crafted and for this some knowledge of the Buddhist period of Indus’ history is important. Before proceeding to that we must acknowledge the enduring nature of the philosophy of nonviolence which not only crept into Buddhism but in fact it is at the core of most of the religions and philosophies prevailing in the subcontinent.
Ever since British colonized India they were fascinated by the colorful Indian culture including the diversity of languages and creeds. There was a class of officials who was charmed by Buddhism and Alexander Cunningham was one of them. He had been working on the history of Buddhism and in 1854 published his book “Bhilsa Topes or Buddhist Monuments of Central India.”
Through Buddhist scriptures, Cunningham had already surmised that stupas existed before the advent of Buddha and were held sacred by the people. In fact Buddha considered the ancient sages as his immediate predecessors. Cunningham while referring to Sakyamuni Buddha which is a historical figure also calculates that this Buddha in mortal form died in 543 BCE. We must also bear in mind that the mortal Buddha, known to us as Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, came to be represented in human image during the Kushan period (100-200 CE). Prior to this period Buddhist faith was represented by symbols and the stupa image was one of the important symbols. As mentioned earlier, the mountain walls in the valleys of the 150 mile long Kirthar Range between Sindh and Balochistan are engraved with a significnt number of stupa images, and these can very well be the ancient most stupa images so far discovered in the region, perhaps, going back to the Neolithic period32.
Buddhist symbols are also discovered from Moen jo Daro and some of these overlap with the Jain and Hindu symbols. This is a further proof that the ancient ideology of nonviolence surfaced later not only in Buddhism but in other nonviolent philosophies and movements of the subcontinent. Perhaps, the seeds of this thought were sown much before the rise of civilization, as can be seen engraved on the mountain walls of Kirthar. It has been suggested by scholars of Buddhism that the absence of Buddha’s images in these walls is because Hinayana Buddhism was practiced in the region33. However, it is also safe to assume that this absence can also be due to the fact that the mountain images are revealing a very remote era which goes beyond Buddhism and its branches as we know it. I must also add that the Kirthar mountain images not only predate the birth of Buddha but they might be much older than the Indus Civilization.
Cunningham’s book which was actually an attempt to write the history of Buddhism through its monuments goes a step further and identifies many common features between Buddhism and the ancient western traditions. For instance, when he saw the remains of Buddhist monuments surrounded by mysterious circles of stone pillars he was reminded of the Druid colonnades of Britain. Buddhist tree worship reminded him of the English reverence for Oak. He hoped that “In the horse-shoe temples of Ajanta and Sanchi many will recognize the form of the inner colonnade of Stonhenge34.” He even saw similarity between Buddha, the Welsh god Buddwass and Saxon Woden and that Wednesday is named after Woden’s day and Wednesday is called Budhwar in Hindi, according to Cunningham “these coincidences are too numerous and too striking to be accidental.” To support his views he cites other sources such as Pliny who thought many magic rites of Druid in Britain may have originated in the east, in Persia. Cunningham also found religious semblance between Brahmans and Buddhists and finally he finds Hinduism, Buddhism and Druids alike as all three believe in transmigration of the soul.