The Decipherment of Harappan Writing


Clyde Winters

Over 3500 years ago a civilization existed in the Indus Valley. This riverine civlization is referred to by archaeologist as the Harappan or Indus Valley civilization (see:The Harappan Civilization


Harppan boat on moulded tablet from Mohenjo-daro

The founders of this civilization were Proto-Dravidian speaking people from middle Africa ( The Proto-Sahara). Now mainly situated in South India, these people earlier lived in Central Asia, and even China (see:Shang Dynasty ).

Male head from Mohenjo-daro,

Mohenjo-daro Museum, MM431.

The Harappans have left us thousands of written documents. These documents are called seals by archaeologists. The Harappan seals are written in a Dravidian language anologous to Tamil (Winters,1990).

Scholars early recognized that the Harappans may have spoken a Dravidian language. This view was supported by 1) the fact that in the West Indus , Brahui , a Dravidian language is spoken in Baluchistan and Afghanistan; 2) the Rig Veda is written in a form of Dravidian called SumeroTamil; and 3) the presence of Dravidian loan words in Sanskrit indicated that Dravidian speakers probably occupied northern India and Pakistan before the Aryan invasion of the area after 1000 BC with their grey ware.

Over 4000 Harappan seals have been found at 60 different sites. The script incorparates 419 signs. But there are around 60-70 basic syllabic signs. The remaining 339 signs are compound or ligature signs formed by the combination of two or more basic signs (Winters,1987). There are also 10 ideographic signs (Winters, 1987a).

Inscribed Indus Valley Objects

Harappan writing appears on both steatite seals and copper plates/tablets (Winters, 1987b). Ninety percent of the seals are square, the remaining ten percent are rectangular. They range in size from half-an-inch to around two-and-half inches.

Harappan seals and sealings

The seals have a raised boss on the back pierced with a hole for carrying, or being placed on parcels. These seals carry messages addressed to the gods of the Harappans requesting support and assistanc in obtaining "aram" (benevolence) (Winters 1984a, 1984b).

The key to deciphering the Harappan script was the recognition that the Proto-Dravidians who settled the Indus Valley had formerly lived in the Proto-Sahara were they used the so-called Libyco-Berber writing (Winters,1985b).

Further research indicated that the Indus Valley writing was related not only to the Libyco-Berber writing but also the Brahmi writing. Some researchers claim that the Brahmi writing is related to Phonecian writing. But a comparison of the Brahmi vowels and Phonecian vowels fail to show similarity.

Comparison of Brahmi and Phonecian Vowels

Although we fail to see a relationship between the Brahmi and Phonecian vowels, comparison of the Brahmi and Harappan vowels show complete correspondence.

It is clear that a common system of record keeping was used by people in the 4th and 3rd millenium BC from Saharan Africa to Iran, China and the Indus Valley (Winters, 1985). The best examples of this common writing were the Linear A script, Proto-Elamite, Uruk script Indus Valley writing and the Libyco-Berber writing (Winters, 1985). Although the Elamites and Sumerians, abandoned this writing in favor of the cuneiform script, the Dravidians, Minoans, Mande (the creators of the Libyco-Berber writing) and Olmecs continued to use the Proto-Saharan script.

The Sumerian, Elamite, Dravidian and Manding languages are genetically related (Winters,1989). This is not a recent discovery by linguist and anthropologists. N. Lahovary in Dravidian Origins and the West (Madras,1957) noted structural and grammatical analogies of the Dravidian , Sumerian and Elamite languages. K.L. Muttarayan provides hundreds of lexical correspondences and other linguistic data supporting the family relationship between Sumerian and Dravidian languages. And D. McAlpin in Proto-Elamo Dravidians: The Evidence and its Implication (Philadelphia, 1981) provides documented evidence for the family relationship between the Dravidian languages and Elamite.

Using the evidence of cognate scripts and the analogy between the Dravidian language, and the languages spoken by peoples using cognate scripts it was able to make three assumptions leading to the decipherment of the Harappan writing.

One, it was assumed that Harappan script was written in the Dravidian language.

Two, it was assumed that the Draviaind language shares linguistic and cultural affinities with the Elamites, Manding and Sumerians--all of whom used a similar writing system. This led to a corollary hypothesis that the Harappan writing probably operated on the same principles as the related scripts, due to a probable common origin.

Three, it was assumed that since the Harappan script has affinity to the Proto-Manding writing (Libyco-Berber) and the Manding language, the Harappan script could be read by giving these signs the phonetic values they had in the Proto-Manding script as preserved in the Vai writing, since the northernManding languages like Bambara and Malinke are genetically related to Dravidian languages like Tamil. The discovery of cognition between Vai and Harappan signs ont the one hand, and the corresponding relationship of sign sequences in the Harappan and Vai scripts helped lead to a speedy reading and decipherment of the Harappan signs.

This made it possible to use symbols from the Manding-Vai script to interpret Harappan signs. The only difference, was that when interpreting the phonetic values of the Harappan script, they were to be read using the Dravidian lexicon. The terms used to express the translation of Harappan signs are taken from Burrow and Emeneau's, Dravidian Etymological Dictionary. Once the seals were broken down into their syllabic values, we then only had to determine if the Harappan term was a monosyllabic word, or if it was a term that was made up of only one syllable.

A comparison of the Harappan signs, Brahmi and Vai writing show that the signs have similar phonetic value. It is the similarity in phonetic value that allows us to read the Indus Valley writing use Vai signs.

Many would-be deciphers of dead languages have assumed that you can not read ancient language using contemporary or comparatively recent time-depth lexical material. This is a false view of archaeological decipherment. For example, Jean Champollion used Coptic to read the Egyptian hieroglyphics; and Sir Henry Rawlinson, used Galla ( a Cushitic language spoken in Africa) and Mahra (a South Semitic language) to decipher the cuneiform writing.

Moreover, we know from the history of the cuneiform writing several different languages (Eblate, Elamite, Sumerian, Assyrian, Akkadian, etc.) were used written in the cuneiform script. This meant that if cuneiform could be used to write different languages, why couldn't the Proto-Saharan script used in ancient middle Africa (and later Asia and Europe), be used to write genetically related languages like the Manding and Dravidian groups.

This decipherment Harappan seals (Winters, 1984a, 1984b, 1987a, 1985, 1987b, 1989) shows that they do not contain the names and titles of their owners. They are talismans, with messages addressed to the Harappan gods requesting blessings. This is in sharp contrast to the Mesopotamian seals which were used for administrative and commercial purposes.

The Harappan seals illustrate that the Harappan Believer wanted from his god 1) a good fate; 2) spiritual richness; 3) virtue; 4) humility; and 5) perserverance. They were protective amulets found in almost every room in the city of Mohenjo-Daro.

A Unicorn seal, note the manger under the head of this god

The Harappan writing was read from right to left. Above we can see the average Harappan seal and its talismanic formula: 1) depiction of Diety X (in this case Maal/Mal) as an animal, and then the votive inscription was written above the Deity.

The manger, under the head of Maal is made up of several Harappan signs. It reads Puu-i- Paa or " A flourishing Condition. Thou distribute (it)".

The Harappan seals were often found by archaeologists in a worn condition. The fact that the seals often had holes drilled in the back, suggest that the seals were tied with string and hung around the neck or from belts.

Perforated boss on the back of many seals

The importance of the Harappan seals as amulets is attested too by the popularity of wearing totems among the Dravidians. During the Sangam period (of ancient Dravidian history), the warriors and young maidens wore anklets with engraved designs and or totemic signs. Moreover at the turn of the century, in South India, it was common for children to wear an image of Hanumen around their neck; while wives wore a marriage totem around their necks as a symbol of household worship.

It is also interesting to note that K.K. Thapliyal in Studies in Ancient Indian Seals, found that many Indian seals from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD , portray animals, with an inscription above the animal ( just like in the case of the Harappan seals) which were indicative of the religious views of the owner of the seal. This evidence supports our finding that the Harappan seals were worn (or carried) by the Harappans to help them remember the Harappan man's goal, to obtain guidance from his deity.

In the Harappan worldview animals were used in many cases to represent characteristics human beings should exhibit. As a result the bird was recognized as a symbol of the highest love, due to its devotion to its offspring ; and the elephant due to its strict monogamy symbolized the right attitude towards family life and social organization.

The principal Harappan gods are all depicted on the Harappan seals. The main god of the Harappans was the unicorn. The unicorm probably represented Maal ( Vishnu or Kataval). This god was held in high esteem by the coherds and shepards. Other Harappan gods were represented by the water buffalo, humped bull, elephant, rhino, tiger and mythological animals.

Seals depicting the Harappan gods

The crescent shaped horns of the oxen or castrated bull on some Harappan seals may represent the mother goddess "Kali". The lunar crescent shape of the oxen's curved horns recalled the lunar crescent which was the primordial sign for the mother goddess.

Siva was probably represented by the the short horn bull. The elephant on the Harappan seals may have represented Ganesa/Ganesha the elephant headed god of India. In the "Laws of Manu", it is written that Ganesha is the god of the 'shudras', the aboriginal population of India. The Tamilian name for the elephant god is 'Pillaiyar, palla and veeram'. The hunter figure on Harappan seals wearing the horned headdress and armed with a bow and arrow may have been Muruga, the son of Uma.

Pillayar, is considered the shrewdest of animals. He is associated with Harvest time, abundance and luck. The appearence of mythological animals on the Harappan seals may refer to Pillayar or Ganesha in one of his many transformations.

In summary , my decipherment of the Harappan seals indicate that the seals and copper plates/tablets are amulets or talismans. They are messages addressed to the Dravidian gods of the Harappans, requesting for the bearer of the seal the support and assistance of his god in obtaining aram (Benenolence). As a result, each animal figure on the seals was probably a totemic deity, of a particular Dravidian clan or economic unit that lived in the Harappan cities. As a result, eventhough the Harappans had different gods, each god was seen by his follwers as 1) a god having no equal, 2) a god having neither Karma, and 3) as a god who is the ocean of aram.

The Harappan believed that man must do good and live a benevolent life so he could obtain Pukal (fame), for his right doing(s). Through the adoption of benevolence an individual would obtain the reward of gaining the good things of life--the present world--and the world beyond. In general, the Harappan seals let us know that the Harappans sought righteousness and a spotlessly pure mind. Purity of mind was the 'sine qua non', for happiness 'within'.

Further Reading

Winters, C.A. (1984a). "The Inspiration of the Harppan Talismanic Seals", Tamil Civilization, 2 (1), pp.1-8.

Winters, C.A. (1984b). "The Indus Valley writing is Proto-Dravidian", Journal of Tamil Studies, no.25, pp.50-64.

Winters, C.A. (1985). "The Proto-Culture of the Dravidians, Manding and Sumerians", Tamil Civilization, 3(1), pp.1-9.

Winters, C.A. (1985b). "The Indus Valley and related scripts of the 3rd millenium BC". India Past and Present, 2(1), pp.13-19.

Winters, C.A. (1987). The Harappan script, Journal of Tamil Studies, no.30, .

Winters, C.A. (1987b). The Harappan writing of the Copper Tablets, Journal of Indian History, 62, .

Winters, C.A. (1989). A grammar of Dravido-Harappan Writing, Journal of Tamil Studies, 35, 53-71.

Winters, C.A. (1989b). "Tamil, Sumerian and Manding and the Genetic model", International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics, 18(1).

Winters, C.A. (1990). The Dravidian language and the Harappan script, Archiv Orientalni, 58, 301-309.

Winters, C.A. (1991). The Proto-Sahara. In The Dravidian encyclopaedia (Vol. 1, pp. 553-556). Trivandrum, India: International School of Dravidian Linguistics.

Winters, C.A. (1994). Afrocentrism: A valid frame of reference, Journal of Black Studies, 25 (2), 170-190.

Winters, C.A. (1996). Foundations of the Afrocentric ancient history curriculum, The Negro Educational Review, 47 (3-4), 214-217.

Other Afrocentric Links by C.A. Winters

Send comments to

revised: 2004