Book Review: Harappa Script & Language by S. Kalyanaraman (2016)

‘Harappa’ is an inclusive and integrative approach providing a comprehensive account of the major concerns surrounding the Harappa script and language within the wide expanse of Indic civilization.

Harappa Script & Language: Data mining of Corpora, tantra yukti & knowledge discovery of a civilization by S. Kalyanaraman (2016). The book can be purchased from Amazon.


In a speech organized by the Indian Council for Historical Research and delivered in Delhi on November 11, 2016, Professor Shivaji Singh referred to the prevalence, until recent times, of two separate versions of the early history of India. One based on literary sources (primarily the Ŗgveda) talks about the Ārya and non-Ārya (Dāsa) peoples. The other, based on archaeological record, throws light on mainly the material culture of various communities and groups of communities distinguished as the Harappans, Hakrans, the Kot Dijians, etc. No one-to-one correspondence between these two versions of history was entertained even though they relate to one and the same peoples within broadly the same space-time contexts (see Singh 2016).

Since the Harappan Civilization was thought to precede the Vedic Civilization, the history books described it first and the Vedic Civilization afterwards in different subsequent chapters. Professor Singh went on to observe that thanks to the scholarship of Professor B. B. Lal, an internationally recognized archaeologist, many scholars, who earlier believed in Vedic-Harappan dichotomy and shared the view of Aryan arrival in India from outside, now, accept Vedic-Harappan identity. Later, in a private communication to Dr Kalyanaraman, Professor Singh acknowledged that he considered the latter’s work “extremely important” because Dr Kalyanaraman had “broken the myth that Bharatiya tradition has downgraded the status of the artisans and placed them with the Shudras. In fact, it is this myth on which the entire structure of Subaltern history is based” (Kalyanaraman 2016A: 65).

I wish Professor Singh had publicly recognized the sterling contribution of Dr Kalyanaraman (hereafter K) to the field of Vedic civilization (also known as Indus/Harappa/Sindhu-Sarasvati civilization). In a previous review of K’s works, I have discussed at length what the reader stands to learn from his more than twenty published monographs about the remarkable treasure-house of jñāna discovered/recovered from the Harappa script corpora in many fields and disciplines ranging from art and music to mathematics and metallurgy. Equally important is K’s recovery of the significant contributions made to that treasure-house by simple Meluhha artisans whose descendants today follow Khandoba, Vithoba, and other popular folk deities and who today are consigned to the so-named ‘backward and deprived classes’(anusūcita janajātis)(see Tilak 2014).

The hypothesis of “Harappa Script & Language: Data mining of Corpora, tantra yukti & knowledge discovery of a civilization,” (hereafter ‘Harappa’), is premised on the definition of Mleccha (Meluhha) as the spoken forms of ‘Pre-Sanskrit’ or ‘Proto-Indo-European’ (PIE) language that may have been spoken as a single language (before divergence began) around 3500 BCE. Borrowings have occurred among Dravidian, Munda and IE language-families making India a Sprachbund (language union or linguistic area) from the Bronze Age where the people of India speaking over twenty five distinct languages have continued to absorb language features from one another and making them their own.

In ‘Harappa’ K continues his life-long mission of decoding the Harappa script and language that have remained an enigma to scholars, academics, archaeologists, and historians. Claims of decipherment number in hundreds, though none has found consensus or acceptance among scholars. In 1996, Gregory L. Poesshl, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, surveyed over thirty extant claims and concluded that the script is likely to remain undeciphered. But K does not share in Poesshl’s pessimism. Back in 1822, Jean Francois Champollion had deciphered the Egyptian writing system (hieroglyphs) as a combination of phonetic and ideographic glyphs. Then, John Hubert Marshall, who was Director-General of Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1908 indicated that the Indus inscriptions resemble the Egyptian hieroglyphs far more than they do the Sumerian linear and cuneiform system. Taking his cue from Champollion and Marshall, K began his studies in the assumption that a solution to the Indus script puzzle is to be found in the trade and commercial activities of the Harappan people, their script, and their language.

Since the days of Marshall in 1920s, archaeologists have identified over two thousand archaeological sites on the Sarasvati River Basin. Explorations and excavations in about twenty other sites have now taken the Harappa script corpora to over eight thousand inscriptions that have constituted K’s research base for his cryptographic analyses and delineation of the courses of the River Sarasvati in North-western India.

K’s analysis of the data led him to argue that the Harappans, who produced the seals, were mostly artisans of all sorts, from lapidaries (workers in gem stones), masons, miners, to smiths, who worked on stones, ivory, shell, minerals, metals, and alloys of metals. They created the Indus script and writing system in order to record the details of their professional activities. They used a code and a code key (known as the rebus) to transform and transfer information and messages that were deliberately obscured so that the messages could not be read or understood even if they were intercepted. A cipher is a secret language invented to conceal the meaning of a message. Artisans and traders of the Indus area created the cipher and included it with the goods that were shipped (like including a font that you may have used to generate a file?). Their trade associates in other parts of the world who received the messages were able to securely decipher the text of the coded message by performing an inverse substitution using the code keys (rebus; see Tilak 2010 for more details).

I Harappa script corpora

‘Harappa’ features the story of a civilization documenting the nature of work performed as people moved from rural to urban living coping with the industrial society formed in the wake of the Bronze Age Revolution and conduct of guilds as incipient economic forms of states that were known as janapadas. Will Durant observed that history is “an industry, an art and a philosophy — a search for perspective and enlightenment.” ‘Harappa’ similarly is a search for a civilization enfolding in two domains of knowledge: (1) Archaeo-metallurgical advances made during the Bronze Age Revolution; and (2) Invention of a writing system to document, in Meluhha (Harappan) language these advances required. Another objective of this treatise is to unravel the semantics of Dharma saṁjñā to be recovered through hieroglyphs using a method of data mining of Harappa script corpora numbering over eight thousand inscriptions based on the principles of tantra yukti, which provides a scientific basis for reconstructing the lexis of an ancient Bharata language that K insists was Meluhha (Mleccha). K hopes that his narrated history will inspire the youth to regain the high status in the world that India (that is Bharat) enjoyed in ancient times (Kalyanaraman 2016: 3).

II Data mining of corpora: rebus and tantrayukti too


An abiding feature of K’s scholarship on the Harappa script and language has been his constant upgrading/updating of the methodology used in his scholarly pursuit. K pioneered the use of the rebus method to decipher the Harappa script. His inspiration for deciphering the Harappa script originated in the well-known dictum of Tolkappiyam (a work on the grammar of the Tamil language): all words are semantic indicators (ellaac collum porul kur-ittanave), which led him to incorporate elements of the method known as the Rebus. Rebus (in Latin ablative plural of res = things) means ‘of or by things’ and by extension ‘not by words, but by things. In ‘Harappa,’ he has also added the more traditional method known as tantrayukti to make his analyses of data more comprehensive.
K initially employed the Rebus method that had already been in practice with Egyptian hieroglyphs using existing symbols (such as pictograms) for their sounds regardless of their meaning to represent new words. The rebus method uses existing well known symbols, such as pictograms, purely for their sounds (regardless of their meaning) to represent new words. Many ancient writing systems used the Rebus principle to represent abstract words, which otherwise would be hard to be represented by pictures (pictograms). An example that illustrates the Rebus principle is the representation of the sentence “I can see you” by using the sequence of pictures “eye—can—sea—ewe.” Rebus also uses words pronounced alike (homophones) but having different meanings: the word ‘club’ for instance, which may have the meaning of a weapon or a group depending upon the context. Similarly, wavy lines may be drawn suggesting the motif of ‘sea’ for writing the word ‘see.’ Some linguists believe that the Chinese developed their writing system according to the rebus principle.
In Rebus method used today, it is common to find the use of the numeral 8 to stand for the verbal form ‘ate’ or a syllable with that sound; the numeral 4 as a stand in for ‘for;’ and the numeral 2 for ‘to or too.’ So, we can have: gr + 8 = great; 4 + T = fort; 2 + L = tool. The ancient rebus method, to that extent, has some common ground with the contemporary texting language known as ‘txt’ or ‘txtspk.’
K argues that almost every single glyph or glyphic element of the Meluhha script may be read rebus using the repertoire of artisans (lapidaries working with precious shell, ivory, stones, and terracotta, mine workers, metal smiths working with a variety of minerals, furnaces, and other tools), who created the inscribed objects and used many of them to authenticate their trade transactions. Many of the inscribed objects were used as calling cards of the professional artisans, listing their professional skills and/or repertoire of kani, supercargo for a boat shipment (Kalyanaraman 2016: 86).

Rebus reinterpretation of a man seated in a yoga like posture

An Indus seal showing a horned male person seated in yoga like posture figures in many text books assigned to courses on Indian religions, history, and civilization. A three-leaved branch of the Pipal tree appears on his crown with a star on either side. Two stars adorn the curved buffalo horns of the seated person who wears a scarf on pigtail. Seven bangles are depicted on the left arm and six on the right, with the hands resting on the knees. The heels are pressed together under the groin and the feet project beyond the edge of the throne (see figure below). In the considered opinion of the scholarly community, the person in the seal represents (a) a yogi or an ascetic practicing meditation or engaged in austerities or penance; (b) a proto-Rudra/Śiva or (c) Agni, the god of fire.


Without disputing this line of interpretation, K has attempted a Rebus reinterpretation of this pictograph on a seal. He suggests that the seal may have additional information to communicate regarding the field of metallurgy. The word in Prakrit for penance is kamandha, which is homonymous with the Tamil word kampattam meaning ‘mint. The word for large horns with sweeping upward curve as applied to buffalos is dabe in Santali. The words dab, dhimba, dhombo meaning a lump (clot) are homonyms for dabe. The word for twig in the Atharvaveda (5:19.12) is kudi. A Santali word kuthi meaning ‘smelting furnace’ would be a homonym for kudi. Another Santali word kote meaning ‘forged’ [metal] is also relevant here. After analyzing other glyptic elements on the seal, K concludes that the person on the seal is a lapidary scribe working in a mint (Kalyanaraman 2016: 432-433; also based on personal communication with Dr Kalyanaraman).

Tantra yukti

In a welcome gesture, K has introduced in ‘Harappa’ the traditional method of documenting and presenting research called tantrayukti (also known as yuktibhāṣā in the context of mathematical and astronomical researches). The Sanskrit compound ‘tantrayukti’ is made of two words –’tantra’ and ‘yukti’ where ‘tan’ (to spread) is the verbal root in ‘tantra,’ which means science (śāstra) and yukti is a derivative of the verbal root ‘yuj’ (to unite/concentrate). Tantra then can be understood as that which discusses and details subjects and concepts and yukti is that which removes blemishes like impropriety, contradiction, etc. from the intended meaning and efficiently joins such meanings together. The expression tantrayukti thus denotes those devices that aid the composition of a text in a systematic manner to convey intended ideas clearly. Cakrapāṇi in his commentary on the Carakasamhita lists forty such distinct devices of tantra, many of which are exemplified in the treatises of Suśruta, Caraka, Vāgbhaṭa, Kauţilya, and Pāņini on knowledge domains of Āyurveda, Arthaśāstra, and Sanskrit grammar, respectively (Kalyanaraman 2016: 63). Select items from the forty or so strong repertoire of tantrayukti, accordingly, were habitually employed in the tradition while composing a treatise.

Mlecchita vikalpa and tantrayukti

The term ‘mlecchita’ means ‘made by Mleccha’ and the expression Mlecchita vikalpa refers to a distinct or specific option or alternative (vikalpa) associated with the Mlecchas. Mlecchita vikalpa is an expression used as the fifty-second item in the list of sixty-four arts to be learnt by youth in Vātsyāyana’s Kāmasūtra (Chapter 3, Part 1). Translators of the Kāmasūtra (including Richard Burton, Bhagavanlal Indrajit, and Shivaram Parashuram Bhide) explain the expression Mlecchita vikalpa as ‘the art of understanding writing in cipher’ or cryptography or, simply, encryption. In ‘Harappa,’ K argues that Mlecchita vikalpa recognizes the usefulness of tantrayukti possibly because of its ‘sūtra’ style of composition. Since a characteristic feature of the structure and form of Harappa script similarly is crispness of expression, K speculates that this feature may have been governed by the cardinal principle of tantrayukti (the average number of ‘text signs’ being five with or without pictorial motifs or field symbols on seals and tablets). Additionally, crispness of an expression is not obliterated by verbosity, nor is the depth of meaning that is intended to be conveyed compromised (to attain crispness).

Some typical tantrayukti devices that K proposes to use in the narratives of Harappa script corpora include: upamāna (or dŗşţānta = analogy), vākyaviśeşa (completion of a sentence meaningfully even in the absence of a word which is implied), pūrvapakṣa (objections, prima facie or provisional view), uttarapakṣa (correct view or answers), hetvārtha ((extension of argument), vidhāna (right interpretation), nirvacana (definition or derivation or etymology of terms (Kalyanaraman 2016: 5-10). K also reasons that tantrayukti doctrine would be useful in linguistic analyses and in delineating the origin and formation of ancient languages of India. To that extent it would be more directly relevant to increasing the knowledge base of Indology than the ‘Aryan Invasion Theory’ (AIT), which is more an article of faith subjected to polemics than theory. AIT has been treated as a ‘linguistic doctrine’ by many linguists and researchers of the civilization of India though it has yielded limited or no success in deciphering the Harappa Script.

III Knowledge discovery

K’s preliminary decipherment of Harappa script cipher as metalwork catalogues recorded in Meluhha language(s) resulted in two unique discoveries: (1) A three-sided tablet with Harappa script inscription showing a boat loaded with ox-hide ingots found in Mohenjodaro and (2) three pure tin ingots found with Harappa Script inscriptions from a shipwreck in Haifa, Israel. They also signified the Bronze Age Revolution that was brought about via (1) Cire perdue lost-wax technique for creating metal sculptures of exquisite beauty and artistry (e.g. dancing girl bronze statue of Mohenjodaro); (2) Techniques of alloying of minerals to create hard alloys necessary to forge useful tools, implements, weapons, pots and pans; and (3) Organization of guilds of artisans and merchants as corporate forms to control the works-in-process (e.g. circular platforms of Harappa) and shipment of cargo of metalwork merchandise using dhows, seafaring vessels.

The discovery of another object, described as ‘Susa pot’ containing metal implements, confirmed for K the function of the Harappa script: documenting trade transactions related to metalwork of Meluhha artisans. On this basis K further speculates that these three discoveries also point to the contributions made by seafaring merchants from ancient India for transactions in tin trade that stretched from Hanoi in present Vietnam to Haifa in Israel. Since the world’s major source of tin is the Mekong River delta of Ancient Far East, K hypothesizes existence of a Maritime Tin Route from Hanoi to Haifa that predated the more famous ‘Silk Route’(Kalynaraman 2016: 61-62).

K subsequently extended ‘data mining techniques’ he had developed over decades of research to almost eight thousand inscriptions of the Harappa script corpora that revealed literary/ritual and the trade and commercial activities of Harappans, who called themselves Bhāratam Janam (i.e. metal caster folk = Mleccha/Meluhha) and who catalogued their life-activities in (1) ten thousand eight hundred richas compiled in the Ŗgveda and (2) in Harappa script corpora, which now number about eight thousand inscriptions of cipher text (Kalyanaraman 2016: 60). Interestingly, K informs us, they were also poets and philosophers of sacred fire (agni) as well as workers in smithy and forge and these two activities were conveyed by one and same word (kole.l). Harappa/Sindhu-Sarasvati civilization, accordingly, produced creative works that employed recurring (1) literary and rhetorical devices (chanda = prosody) as well as (2) pictorial motifs that were linked to spoken forms of Mleccha/Meluhha language words. K posits that these constitute two sides of the trope: one is literary/musical side that used the prosody; the other is life-activity side (mlechhita vikalpa) which used the ‘metalwork catalogues’ to create the Harappa script corpora.

Annex B of ‘Harappa’ discusses the Harappa script as a knowledge system with reference to a number of stoneware ceramic bangles that were found at Harappa and that K describes as ‘dharma samjñā, ‘badges of responsibility.’ Socio-cultural framework of a workshop (smithy-forge as a temple) for a cluster of Vedic villages unravels organization of artisanal-seafaring merchant society as a corporation with ancient guilds.’ K further adds:

‘[E]ach functionary in the guild had a recognizable paṭa ‘badge’ (Corporate badge of dharma, of responsibility assigned in a socio-cultural organization of the samajam).’ A Bronze Age village of Bhāratam Janam or a cluster of such villages was a janapada, a Corporation of artisan guilds.’ This active life-doctrine provides a significant lesson of history of a civilization: work results in creation of wealth and a person’s conduct changes in relation to the Supreme Divinity, metaphorized as Naţarāja: the Cosmic Dancer. The imperative of trade necessitated the invention of a writing system preserved in the seals that K deems to be ‘tokens of dharma-dhamma saṁjñā – Corporate badges of responsibility.’ They served, K explains, as veritable reminders of the wearer’s responsibilities for abhyudaya, ‘social welfare’ coupled with his or her own life imperative moving from being to becoming, to attain nihsreyas, union of aatman with paramaatman (Kalyanaraman 2016: 3, KalyanaramanA 2016: 305ff).

Only a reader seeped deeply in the ‘Bharatiya samskriti’ or a reader, who is familiar with K’s previous monographs, will be able to understand this somewhat ambiguous and disconcerting passage as well as the subject matter of Annex B in general. Hopefully, in the next edition of ‘Harappa’, K will revise the above passage as well as Annex B so that its contents and the subject matter become clearer to the average reader.

Concluding observations

K’s choice of using a dozen or so Annexes (from A to L) instead of individual chapters to cover the most important topics and questions concerning the Harappa script and language is unusual. On the other hand, his addition of the explanatory tool of tantrayukti to bring the narrative of Harappan civilization, philosophy, and spirituality to the reader in a more efficient and comprehensive manner warrants further investigation. He offers timely and useful articulations (though prolix on some occasions) of the core dynamics at play in the debates surrounding the Harappa script corpora. Many of K’s strengths and merits as a scholar were discussed at length in my previous reviews of his published monographs (see Tilak 2010, 2014A, and 2014B). Here, I would merely reiterate that ‘Harappa’ has an appropriate blend of description and analysis and is philosophically and philologically sophisticated.

Professor Singh’s advice to the historians of ancient India to keep the Veda in one hand and the [digging] shovel in the other is consistent with the vision of integrated history and culture of India that Dr. Kalyanaraman, too, frames on the Veda and Archaeology (or rather, archaeo-metallurgy). More recently (in April 2015), K’s integrative vision has been dramatically endorsed by a discovery reported by the Students of the Institute of Archaeology, New Delhi of a yajña kuņḑa [sacrificial altar] and an octagonal yūpa [sacrificial post], which were found in Binjor together with a Harappa Script Seal. The decipherment has shown that a ‘Soma Saṁstha Yāga’ was performed, which is relevant in establishing the Vedic culture continuum in the Sarasvati Basin (see Kalyanaraman 2016 A: 66).

My only concern with ‘Harappa’ has to do with K’s choice and assertion of tantrayukti as a distinct methodology and its presence in the title of the monograph under review. In fact however, his application of yukti is rather sketchy and ambivalent to support its presence in the title. After a brief discussion in the introductory section that stretches to about two hundred pages, yukti does not figure in the remaining five hundred pages of ‘Harappa.’ Caraka himself equates inference and yukti at a different point and Cakrapāņi (commentator of the Carakasaṁhitā) questions the status of yukti as a separate means of attaining knowledge. He argues that it is properly subsumed under the more general case of inference (see Carakasaṁhitā Vimāna sthāna 4:4).

Leaving this concern aside, K’s ‘Harappa’ is a sterling example of an inclusive and integrative approach providing a comprehensive account of the major concerns, debates, and philosophical positions surrounding the Harappa script and language within the wide expanse of Indic civilization and Sprachbund. As befitting the work of a scholar with the comfortable authority born of deep, lasting familiarity with the subject, ‘Harappa’ is—and this should be underscored—very persuasive. This is a rarity for scholarly literature on Indic civilization, science, and spirituality.


Kalyanaraman, S. 2016. Harappa Script & Language: Data mining of Corpora, tantra yukti & knowledge discovery of a civilization.

Kalyanaraman, S. 2016A. Harappa Script – background, methodology, decipherment and significance. Accessed December 11, 2016.

Singh, Shivaji. 2016. With Veda in One Hand and Spade in the Other: Writing Early History of India Afresh. 9th Maulana Azad Memorial Lecture delivered in New Delhi on November 11, 2016.

Tilak, Shrinivas. 2010.

Tilak, Shrinivas. 2014. A

Tilak, Shrinivas. 2014. B

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