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Post Info TOPIC: Sanskrit has also contributed to Indus civilisation: Asko Parpola


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Sanskrit has also contributed to Indus civilisation: Asko Parpola

Sanskrit has also contributed to Indus civilisation: Asko Parpola

July 7, 2010

Sanskrit has also contributed to Indus civilisation


Sanskrit has also contributed to Indus civilisation
Saturday, July 03, 2010
Ancient civilisations and long un-deciphered mysterious scripts have always been hauntingly engaging challenges to the human consciousness.
Fired by John Chadwick’s classic in archaeology, ‘The Decipherment of Linear-B’, that chronicles how the secrets of the late Minoan and Mycenaean civilisation in ancient Greece were unveiled, renowned Indologist Prof Asko Parpola set out on an equally challenging task over 45 years back to crack the script of the Indus Valley Civilisation. For someone who has done a lifetime of monumental research on ‘Deciphering the Indus Script’ even using modern computerised tools, Parpola, whose path-breaking study on ‘A Dravidian Solution to the Indus Script Problem’ had bagged the ‘Kalaignar M Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Research Award’ at the ‘World Classical Tamil Conference (WCTC)’ in Coimbatore, is remarkably self-effacing and realistic. A diligent scholar from Finland in both ‘Vedic’ and ‘Dravidian’ studies,spoke to M R Venkatesh of ‘Deccan Herald’.



What prompted you to undertake this amazing intellectual journey?

Well, my interest in the Indus Script was aroused during my student years. I also studied the classical languages of Europe, Greek and Latin, when I became a student of Helsinki University in 1959. At that time there was much discussion whether the ‘Linear-B Script’ had been deciphered or not. Actually it had been deciphered in 1952. A book on it by John Chadwick came out in 1960. I read it and it was quite fascinating. I was quite convinced that this (decipherment) is correct though there were still some Greek scholars who were sceptical. And then, my childhood friend Seppo Koskenniemi who was working for IBM in Finland asked if I would like to try computers for any problem in my field. He volunteered to do the programming; so at that time I thought we might do something useful to promote the study of the Indus Script. Because compiling statistics (on the frequency with which signs are repeated, etc.) has been very useful in all decipherment
attempts. My brother Simo who studied ‘Assyriology’ also joined the team.

How did you use computer technology in this study of Indus Script as India’s renowned epigraphist, Iravadham Mahadevan says you are the first person to have done it?

Asko Parpola: Well, it is not me. Seppo Koskenniemi and his brother Kimmo Koskenniemi, who is now Professor of Computer Linguistics at the University of Helsinki, assisted me. They have been there from the beginning.

On your seminal work on the Indus Script, what effected your change of approach to include sociology, anthropology and linguistics, instead of just an epigraphist approach that failed to make headway earlier?

Well, actually, I have not changed my approach. It has been there all the time.
I think every aspect has to be taken into consideration. We have to take advantage of every possible source (of knowledge) at our disposal.

Your solution to the Indus Script riddle – that the underlying s a syncretism rather than a collusive view of Indo-Aryan and the Dravidian family of languages. Your comments please?

Yes, I think these two language families have been in contact with each other ever since the Indo-Aryan speakers entered South Asia. It is impossible to leave Indo-Aryan sources out of account. They have preserved very important information of Harappan heritage.

One of 20th century’s greatest philosophers Wittgenstein had said understanding a language is understanding a whole form of life. Has your findings on Indus Script vindicated that insight on how language works?

Well, may be. You are putting it in very lofty words. I think every language is a unique way to see the world. I am using this phrase in connection with the tragic situation that is prevailing now in the world. So many languages, minority languages, are disappearing. At the moment, we are still having may be some 5,000 languages in the world, but very rapidly a large number of them have disappeared. It is just as with plant and animal species. Once they have gone, you can’t get them back and each of them is a unique
creation which is very valuable.

But these linguistic identities, when politicised, could lead to all kinds of disastrous consequences. So how is a harmonious understanding of world languages possible?

Yes. Besides Tamil, there are other Dravidian languages that have descended from the proto-Dravidian. But Tamil has preserved the language structure in a very archaic form. And also it has very ancient sources that are very precious. But at the same time, we must say that ‘Sanskrit’ has also preserved a very important part of the Indus heritage. So, it is impossible to say that there is something like ‘pure Dravidian’ or ‘pure Aryan’. They should not be pitted against each other. I mean, there has been mixture from the beginning. And even if you look at the history of Tamil Nadu, the ‘Brahmins’ were here
already in ‘Sangam’ times. So, they have also contributed hugely to the Tamil civilisation. So you have at least these two main language groups in India from very early times, side by side.

Your next project: will you continue your work on the Indus script?

I think it will be difficult not to continue, but actually my PhD was originally on ‘Sama Veda’ and I have been doing ‘Sama Vedic’ research in South India for many decades. There is a lot of material which I have not really had a good opportunity to work on, but which I would like to publish. Also, the ‘Thirukkural’ (of Tamil Saint-poet Thiruvalluvar) is a timeless book. I am working on a translation of it into Finnish and I would like the Finns also to have it.

How do you see the WCTC’s significance? Has it provided a platform to take forward your work on the Indus script?

Yes, I think so. For the Indus script it (WCTC) is certainly very important, a big boost to draw the attention of more Tamil and other Dravidian scholars into this venture. Scholars should get funds to pursue the studies further.



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Underlying language of Indus script, Proto-Dravidian: Asko Parpola



The underlying language of the Indus script was Proto-Dravidian, Asko Parpola, Professor-Emeritus of Indology, Institute of World Cultures, University of Helsinki, Finland, said on Friday.

Declaring that “an opening to the secrets of the Indus script has been achieved,” Prof. Parpola said the results of his readings kept within narrow limits: fertility cult connected with fig trees, a central Hindu myth associated with astronomy and time-reckoning and chief deities of Hindu and Old Tamil religion.

Delivering the Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Research Endowment Lecture on “A Dravidian solution to the Indus script problem” at the World Classical Tamil Conference here, the Indologist said the readings were based on reasonable identifications of the signs’ pictorial shapes. The results made good sense in the framework of ancient Indian cultural history.

“These readings have been achieved with strictly adhered methodology which is in full agreement with the history of writing, methods of decipherment and historical linguistics including the comparative study of Dravidian languages,” he told the audience that included Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi.

Displaying nearly two dozen illustrations of Indus seals and inscriptions, he dwelt upon the topic by explaining two broad aspects — underlying language and type of the script — that were essential in the decipherment of an ancient script. He also substantiated his thesis with an etymological analysis of certain Tamil words such as ‘muruku’ and ‘miin’.

Hinting that Harappan language had a genetic relationship with the Dravidian language family, Prof. Parpola said 26 Dravidian languages were now mainly spoken in central and southern parts of India. However, one Dravidian language, Brahui, had been spoken in Baluchistan of Pakistan for at least one thousand years. In contrast to Burushashki, Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic languages, very small minority languages in south Asia, the Dravidian speakers until recently constituted one-fourth of the population in India.

Loanwords from the Dravidian family had been identified from Indo-Aryan texts composed in northwestern India around 1100-600 BCE. Besides, Indo-Aryan had several structural features that had long been interpreted as borrowings from Dravidian. “Historical linguistics thus suggests that the Harappans probably spoke a Dravidian language.”

Referring to the type of writing system, Prof. Parpola said the number of known Indus signs was around 400 “which agrees well with the logo-syllabic type but is too high for the script to be syllabic or alphabetic”. Though word divisions were not marked, many inscriptions comprised one, two or three signs and longer texts could be segmented into comparable units. The Indus script was created before any syllabic or alphabetic script existed.

Pointing out that the confirmed interpretations and their wider contexts provided a lot of clues for progress, he acknowledged there were still serious difficulties in the decipherment of the script. “One is the schematic shape of many signs which makes it difficult to recognise their pictorial meaning with certainty. Possibilities of proposing likely readings and their effective checking are severely limited by our defective knowledge of Proto-Dravidian vocabulary, compounds and phraseology.”

The problem of the Indus script resembled to some extent that of the logo-syllabic Maya script, where advance was phenomenal after Mayan speakers were trained in the methods of decipherment.

The Indologist said those who had good acquaintance with the realities of Indian culture and south Asian nature could make useful contributions in suggesting possible pictorial meanings for the Indus signs. For this, there was no need to be a Dravidian speaker.

Iravatham Mahadevan, eminent archaeologist, presided over the event.

Acceptance speech of Asko Parpola, recipient of the Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award

Your Excellency the President of India, Srimati Pratibha Devisingh Patil, Honourable Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Thiru Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi, distinguished dignitaries, dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, Vanakkam!

It is indeed a very great honour to receive the first Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award from the President of India. Yet I feel embarrassed, because my work is only partly related to Classical Tamil, while there are Classical Tamil specialists who really would have deserved this award. But as this is not the only time when the award is given, I humbly accept that this is my turn. I am most grateful for the very considerable support for my continued work in this field.

The Government of India has rightly recognized Tamil as a classical language, a status that it fully deserves in view of its antiquity and its rich literature that in quality and extent matches many other classical traditions of the world. Yet, Tamil is not alone in possessing such a rich heritage in India, which is really a very exceptional country with so many languages having old and remarkable literatures, both written and oral. Sanskrit with its three thousand years old tradition has produced an unrivalled number of literary works.

Sanskrit goes back to Proto-Indo-Aryan attested in a few names and words related to the Mitanni kingdom of Syria between 1500 and 1300 BCE, and to earlier forms of Indo-Iranian known only from a few loanwords in Finno-Ugric languages as spoken in central Russia around 2000 BCE. But none of these very earliest few traces is older than the roots of Tamil. Tamil goes back to Proto-Dravidian, which in my opinion can be identified as the language of the thousands of short texts in the Indus script, written in 2600-1700 BCE. There are, of course, different opinions, but many critical scholars agree that even the Rigveda, collected in the Indus Valley about 1000 BCE, has at least half a dozen Dravidian loanwords.

Old Tamil texts constitute the only source of ancient Dravidian linguistic and cultural heritage not yet much contaminated by the Indo-Aryan tradition. Without it, it would be much more difficult if not impossible to penetrate into the secrets of the Indus script and to unravel the beginnings of India’s great civilization. In my opinion the Tamils are entitled to some pride for having preserved so well the linguistic heritage of the Indus Civilization. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that, though their language has shifted in the course of millennia, people of North India too are to a large extent descended from the Harappan people, and have also preserved cultural heritage of the same civilization.

Nanri! Tamizh vaazka!

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