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What Did the Indus Valley Civilisation Have in Common with Tamils?

The Unicorn Bull seal from the Indus Valley civilisation | Image credit: YouTube

The Unicorn Bull seal from the Indus Valley civilisation | Image credit: YouTube

The Indus script - which developed along with the civilization - has mystified experts, scholars, and symbolists for decades ever since it turned up on seals, pottery, and other artifacts. Some believe it could be the precursor to Dravidian languages.

The Indus Valley civilisation was a Bronze age civilisation that existed in north-west India and eastern Pakistan between 5,000 BCE and 1,500 BCE. The urban civilization is believed to have mysteriously collapsed in 1,500 BCE with scholars speculating that climate change and migration behind its sudden disappearance. Recent evidence now suggests that the civilisation might have moved south. Excavations and made from sites in Tamil Nadu over the past two years studies of the Indus Valley script and the Tamil-Brahmi script - the precursor of contemporary Tamil - suggest that there may have there might have been an urban, Bronze age civilisation in India’s southern region. The findings also suggest that after the collapse of the Indus civilisation, the remaining members of the civilisation migrated south.

The Indus-Dravidian link

The Indus script - which developed along with the civilisation - has mystified experts, scholars and symbolists for decades ever since it turned up on seals, pottery and other artefacts. The script has been found to be consistent across the Harrapan civilisation.

Archaeologists, however, have increasingly been finding links between the Indus script and the Tamil-Brahmi script with many speculating the Indus script was indeed Dravidian. In 2019, excavations carried out in the Keezadi site in Tamil Nadu’s Sivagangai district revealed graffiti dating back to 580 BC. The graffiti has been deemed to bear a distinct resemblance to the Indus script.

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Not just Keezadi, graffiti marks similar to the Indus script were recently discovered on potsherds excavated from a site in Mariyapuram, Uthirakosamangai which falls in the Ramanathapuram district. The discovery was made by a team of archaeologists including a government school teacher who found nearly twenty pieces of potsherds that contained inscriptions.

Due to a lack of understanding, the hundreds of symbols in the Indus script are denoted using numbers. According to a report in the Times of India, several graffiti marks found on the potsherds are strikingly similar to the Indus script, much like the ones found in Keezadi.

Graffiti Marks

The Indus script disappeared around the time of the collapse of the Harappan civilization. It is considered one of the earliest available scripts in India, dating back 4500 years. After its disappearance, the next major script to emerge and bear ancestry to contemporary languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, Bangla, Tamil. It is seen as the forerunner of all writing systems that emerged in South Asia except the Indus script which, by the time of Brahmi’s emergence, was obsolete.

Tamil Nadu Archeological Department in 2019 released a report that said that between the death of the Indus script and the emergence of Brahmi, a type of script did exist in the form of graffiti marks. These marks - which are now being excavated in Tamil Nadu - are not mere scratches but an early precursor of what would later evolve into the Brahmi script. Much like the Indus script, these graffiti marks have also not yet been deciphered.

Who Were the First Indians?

The findings of similarity between the Indus script and graffiti marks in Tamil Nadu might mark an important revelation in the history of India and its early settlers.

While scholars and researchers had previously postulated that the First Indians contained the Steppe-Pastoralists DNA, indicating the early settlers migrated from Eurasian steppes, the Dravidian links to the Indus Valley civilisation may indicate that early Indians were indeed Dravidians who moved from the north to the south of India.

In 2019, the results of much-anticipated results of the DNA studies of remains of a woman excavated from Harappan burial site Rakhigarhi have revealed that the woman contained no R1a1 gene - which is often called the ‘Aryan gene’ - meaning that she did not have the Steppe-Pastoralist DNA. The findings may suggest that Steppe-Pastoralists who are widely credited with bringing Indo-Aryan languages to India as well as farming from the West, did not exist in India 4,500 years ago. Studies have also proved that a majority of the population in both North and South India have descended from the ‘Indus Valley Cline’ which includes south/south-east Asia related and Iranian-related hunter-gatherers. The Steppe-Pastoralists are now believed to have arrived 3,500 to 4,000 years ago and according to Harvard geneticist Prof David Reich, contributed 0-30 per cent of the gene groups that exist in India today.

The precursor to Tamil?

In 2017, Indus script expert Iravatham Mahadevan observed in a report that the Tamil sport of Jallikattu was depicted in an Indus seal found in Mohenjodaro (present-day Pakistan) in what he interpreted as a link between Dravidian and Indus cultures. In 2018, symbolist TL Subhash Chandra Bose wrote in his book ‘Ancient Tamizh — The Faculty of Harappan Symbols and Scripts’ that another seal foud in Bannavali referred to the sport of Sallikattu in language similar to that found on a Sangam era stone slab preserved in the Salem Archaeological Museum. Through the book, the symbolist uses various instances to suggest that the ancient and lost language of the Indus people was actually an early form of the Tamil language. Finnish Indologist and Indus script expert Asko Parola also feels that the Indus script is Dravidian.

In a previous interview, Indus expert Iravatham Mahadevan had, however, refuted the possibility of a “direct relationship" between the Indus civilisation and the Dravidian South owing to the vast gap in space and time. “But linguistically, if the Indus script is deciphered, we may hopefully find that the proto-Dravidian roots of the Harappan language and South Indian Dravidian languages are similar. This is a hypothesis," he said.

The excavations in Tamil Nadu’s Keezadi are in their seventh phase. A detailed excavation ot the area, as well as the Keelakarai-Madurai region and analysis of all the objects and graffiti, may shed further light not only on the links between Dravidian languages and Indus script but also on who the First Indians could have been.

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first published:March 16, 2021, 16:26 IST