Monday, 28 March 2016

Continuity of Harappan culture in Sindh and the intriguing case of the copper plates

I have just found a significant paper of 2012 by Rafique Mughal on archaeological research in Sindh about the so-called Jhukar culture of the beginning of the 2nd mill. BC. Like Kenoyer about Harappa, he shows how this culture is in strong continuity with the previous 'Harappan' phase:
Most recent research has confirmed that the onset of decline or Late Harappan period or phase of the Indus Civilization did signal a number of changes in the material culture but the basic Indus cultural fabric continued to survive for a considerable length of time in a very large area of Sindh and southeastern Baluchistan. 
Mughal speaks of his excavations at Jhukar: 

The new evidence changed our understanding and perspective of the Late Indus/Harappan Cultural period in the lower or Souther Indus Valley. It was found that the Indus ceramics as known from Mohenjo-daro and other cities were present in all the layers at Jhukar and found mixed with the new or modified forms of pottery which are labeled as "Jhukar" in the literature. [...] There were less than ten percent new pottery types but all these types were found associated with 80% of the Mature Harappan or Indus pottery. The evidence was almost conclusive to establish for the first time that the Jhukar culture is only a pottery style emerging in association with the continuing Mature Indus ceramic tradition without any break or sudden change in cultural continuity in Sindh. 
 There was a change in the disappearance of square seals, substituted by round ones, similar to those found in the Persian gulf (Bahrein). The script continued to be used on pottery, which is a remarkable fact. Mughal also speaks of the wide relations of the Indus sites with Balochistan and Central Asia, especially the Bactria-Margiana, all areas that belong in my opinion to the Indo-Iranian cultural domain. On the other hand, in the Jhukar period there were relations with Gujarat and even Rajasthan (Gilund) but not apparently with Punjab. Thus the unity of the vast Mature Harappan net was broken.

About the crisis of the urban civilization in Sindh, Mughal sees the main factor in the change of course of Indus and Hakra (Nara in Sindh) caused by tectonic movements. He also cites the earthquake of 1819 in lower Indus valley causing mass migrations. But we must consider also the change in rains and the aridification around the beginning of the 2nd mill. BC.

While in a past publication of 1992 he saw a complete end of Harappan "cultural mosaic" after Jhukar, here Mughal concludes, like B.B. Lal, with the continuity of "Indus traditions" and also people up to the present:
Even today, many Indus traditions continue to survive in art form and daily life of the people. For example, the use of shell bangles on the upper and lower parts of arms recalls the style of famous bronze dancing girl of Mohenjo-daro. The short-wheeled bullock carts of present-day Sindhi farmers are precisely identical in shape with those found at the Indus culture sites. The facial features of many local people in Sindh very much resemble those of the famous "King-Priest" of Mohenjo-daro. Such examples demonstrate survival of several aspects of the Indus Civilization since the third millennium BCE that would link the past with the present and also future.    

Probably he was alluding to someone like this modern rural Sindhi (from here).
This continuity suggests that the general abandonment of sites in Sindh following Jhukar did not mean a disappearance of the local culture, we can imagine at least a survival of some rural communities using carts and shell bangles, also present in Rajasthan and Gujarat. More specific is the survival of ancient kinds of boats depicted also on Indus tablets, and the Ajrak or blockprinted shawls that have been recognized in the garment of the so-called King-Priest of Mohenjo-daro.
A similar trefoil motif can still be found on some modern ajraks (from here, cf. here):

It is interesting that the technique of ajrak has been cited in a recent paper by V. Shinde and R.J. Willis about some particular copper plates from a private collection in Pakistan, with Indus script and animal and human-like figures comparable with Harappan seals and tablets. 

About these plates, the authors write:
The proposal that this unique set of copper plates was designed for printing is indeed radical, but offers the most obvious reason for their existence. The principles of printing were perhaps known to Indus Valley artisans through the ancient technique of ajrakh, printing fabric with woodblock designs. It is possible that the copper plates were created firstly to maintain a permanent record of the standard designs on seals and tablets, and furthermore provide a cheap and portable means to distribute standard designs to craftsmen that carved seals in the Indus Valley region.
Copper plates with inscriptions are an important aspect of ancient Indian epigraphy (see here), but apparently not for printing. In this case, the authors think that they were used for printing because the script is 'mirrored' as in the seals. They have even tried to print with a plate on tussah silk and parchment, with good results. An example is here on tussah silk:

Ajrak printing is done with wooden carved blocks, made from Acacia Arabica trees, indigenous to Sindh (see here). We can suppose that already in Indus times they used such wood for textile printing, which went completely lost like cloth or leather. We can even wonder if the seals were not used also as stamps with ink, and if in post-Harappan times they continued to be used in wood instead of steatite. Anyway, the aspects of continuity between the civilization that flourished in the Sindhu and Sarasvati valleys during the 3rd millennium BC and the later South Asian culture are remarkable, and suggest that, despite crises and natural calamities, the civilization flowed without breaks, like a majestic river.   

A traditional bullock cart and flat bottomed ferry boat used for local transport along the Indus River near the ancient site of Mohenjo-daro, Sindh (


  1. Very interesting of course is this. Its not unexpected though .

    What more work can be done you think on the Sindhu-Sarasvati script?.

    1. What is impressive is how stable are some aspects of culture in South Asia. Also Egypt and Mesopotamia have some continuity, but there the Arabic culture has submerged the previous ones, while Indus-Sarasvati culture, somewhat more isolated and surely more vast, was able to absorb all invaders. Unless it will adopt Western culture and English language nowadays!
      Some interesting reflections on local survival here:

      About Indus script, if there is continuity the best candidate as successor is Brahmi. We should focus on it as a key for deciphering, but it seems they have not managed yet...

  2. I think we should not confuse archaeological/materialistic continuity with Genetic one. Genetic changes can happen without showing changes in pottery or scripts.

    Only aDNA can give the final decision on this.

    About adapting western culture , its happening worldwide . In India I think its less effective and mostly seen in city areas .

    I think on Brahmi and SSVC script continuity is arguable, but isn't there a large gap of the disappearance of script (~600 Years) between the two?.

    1. On Brahmi there is an interesting news.

      An inscription found on a granite rock at Mayiladumpara in Malur panchayat here is said to be an ancient two-line epigraphical text that can be dated back to a period between 3500 and 1700 BC.

      The inscription was discovered and deciphered by a team of epigraphy enthusiasts headed by P. Pavithran, former head of the Department of Malayalam Studies of the Kozhikode University, who is currently UGC Emeritus Fellow involved in research of epigraphical texts in Kerala and Sri Lanka. The discovery of this five-letter Indus inscription in an area known for its Adivasi settlement is a continuation of earlier finding and deciphering of such scripts in other parts of the region.

      “This ancient Brahmi script is in Sabarpari style as it is written from bottom to top and right to left,” said Dr. Pavithran. He said he deciphered the script as a reference to a resolute ruler. The inscription is believed to be older than the inscription he found in the Maruthom forest area of Kasaragod, which, he said, was Boustrophedon style, and the scripts found at Edakkal in Wayanad.

      Dr. Pavithran had earlier deciphered a coin inscription found from Madayipara and a two-line Brahmi inscription found at Makreri Subramanya Temple at Peralassery here. But it is for the first time that the Indus inscription has been found in the district. He says the inscriptions found in the region, especially in the tribal settlements, could be information meant for ancient traders who had used the route. More excavations are required to unravel the history of these ancient inscriptions in the region, he added.

      These inscriptions are often mistaken for ancient drawings, he noted.

    2. Maybe they are really drawings ;), tribal symbols, without more details and a full image is difficult to judge, and I don't understand how it can be dated.
      However, maybe it is something like the Megalithic symbols which are considered by some as a survival of Indus script:

      Brahmi has been found on fragments of pottery from Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, of the 4th century BC, in Prakrit: this shows how it was spread by merchants also in the south. The continuity with Indus script obviously can be admitted only if we admit that it was used on perishable material like palm leaf. Of ancient India we have remains only of stones, pottery and coins, although they wrote also letters and so on.
      The oldest palm-leaf manuscripts available are of the first mill. CE, and not from India:

      I have not spoken of genetic continuity, although it is obviously implied in the comparison of the king-priest with a modern Sindhi. I think that we cannot easily divide cultural and genetic continuity. Material culture is transmitted from generation to generation, and the arrival of a new people brings a different material culture, not only language. When the Romans colonized Etruria, not only Etruscan language and script disappeared, but also artifacts changed. When Seljuq Turks invaded Anatolia they were a minority, but brought a new (Arabic) script, new pottery decorations, new architecture... and a new language, which however did not cancel the previous ones.
      On the other hand, Muslims brought a new script and material culture to India but did not influence very much the genetical landscape and could not impose Persian as the main language (although there are many loans in Hindi/Urdu). So, there can be changes of material culture and script even if there are no great genetic changes, but if there are no changes in material culture, how can we admit the arrival of new populations?

    3. Genetic changes are always the best markers of the population change.

      If we do find for example the SSVC population more or less had the same markers ( SNP,Mtdna and somewhat Autosomal composition), then without doubt we will have the basis to say that the language did not change.
      But if we do find genetic discontinuity then the situation should be considered reverse.

      I do consider that without a bilingual inscription we will be not able to crack the SSVC script ever.

      But I do find it strange the hiatus of 600-800 or more years inscription. Can we think that the period was of pandemonium hence scripts were not made in solid materials , which can be considered as a marker of peace and prosperity and in difficult times people didn't have such time or mentality. Perhaps the blow to the economic condition is the reason of the disappearance ?.

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    5. I think scholars like BB Lal already suggested that the Urbanism and perhaps also the script were related with the prosperity, that was achieved from trade economy, and also weather permitted. That's why we find strong integration during the mature period.

      During late phases, when the trade started to fade away due to both environmental and political causes, both became unnecessary. So from this view we have to assume that the Script we find from SSVC, is majorly for business purposes, but we can not discard that cultural elements were also attached without any doubt.

    6. Yes, especially for seals with deities like the Pashupati seal. Inscriptions on stone were not used also in Harappan times, they are an innovation of Mauryas, maybe inspired by the Achaemenid inscriptions. So, when the square seals with inscriptions were abandoned, the script could continue on pottery (something has been found in Jhukar, Bet Dwarka and possibly Megalithic) and palm leaf or other perishable material. I want to add something in the post on the copper plates described by Shinde, because they can be connected with ajrak. The long inscription on one plate could be useful because it is quite long and has not the function of seals.

    7. I have an idea, what if those square seals were actually currency/coin like stuff?.

    8. I also thought something like that, but it is likely that they were also a sort of identity cards, in the Harivamsa it is said that people should carry a seal (mudra) to enter the city of Dvaraka...

    9. Quite fascinating.

      I think this can explain, the length of the script which is quite short but fits for currency standards and also the pictures on them .

    10. The animals are thought to refer to social identity, like profession or caste (e.g. Lamberg-Karlovsky 1986: The Emergence of Writing). It is remarkable that in the Indus seals found in Iran, Gulf and Mesopotamia there is always the gaur and not the unicorn. The symbol of merchants? The unicorn instead, since it is the most common, is proposed as the symbol of administrators.

    11. Yes Giacomo, I find that consistency quite incredible also.

      Can you remember any ancient text, showing this connection between merchants and gaur?.

    12. I meant as a ''probable connection''.

    13. Actually, I do not know of any legends about gaurs, and it would be difficult to find a symbolic connection of this massive and wild animal with the profession of merchants.

      What is interesting, however, is that in seals with three-headed animals (, the bison/gaur is regularly in the lowest position, like Vaiśyas, merchants, in the Vedic system. In the middle we have the unicorn, that could be associated with Indra like the nilgai, therefore with Kshatriyas, and above an animal with two long horns identified with an antelope (or a wild goat?). If it is a goat, this was an animal associated with Agni, the Brahmin god. The unity of the three animals could be a symbol of harmony of the three functions called in the Rgveda brahman, kṣatra and viś.

    14. I do find that a very innovative but cool looking scenario!. We should dig more on this.

    15. It is also interesting that seals with goats alone are concentrated in Kalibangan and Banawali (see, two sites with fire altars:

      I think it is connected with the cult of Agni, and the presence of Brahmins devoted to that cult.

    16. The theory is developing and I'm loving it! :) .

    17. That the third animal is a wild goat or ibex can be confirmed by this seal found near Derawar fort on the Hakra/Sarasvati river:

      It is identified as ibex and not only has a similar head but also an analogous inverted position, which could have some symbolic meaning...
      We must also remember the existence of Triśiras 'three-headed', a monster drinking with one head Soma, another Surā (alcoholic drink), the other food. These three elements can be easily connected with Brahmins as Soma-drinkers, Kṣatriyas typically addicted to Surā and Vaiśyas as producers and distributors of food (see e.g.

      Here a description of Triśiras with quotations:

    18. Yes Giacomo, that is a very significant seal, coming also from a key region!.
      In Iranian Ancient art, it seems goats also have significance.

      Although according to this article.

      The symbolic and/or religious significance of the ibex in pre-Islamic Iran is unclear, although in Yasht 14 of the Avesta the god of victory, Vərəthragna, appears to Zarathushtra in various animal forms, including that of a male ibex (Yt. 14.25; von Gall, p. 445).

      This favors a connection with Ksatras rather than Priest ?.

      I like the symbolism of Triśiras you are suggesting.

    19. The form as a male ibex or buck in Yt. 14.25 is only one of the many of Vərəthragna, that is the equivalent of Indra. He first appears as a bull, then as a horse, then as a camel, then as a boar...
      The name aja 'he-goat', but also interpreted as 'leader' is given also to Indra, Rudra, the Maruts, the Sun, besides Agni.
      But it is remarkable that in Hindu tradition the goat is the vahana of Agni, and his chariot is pulled by goats. RV X.16.4 says that the goat is the portion of Agni:
      Maybe the connection is due to the lively nature and the voracity of the goat, like the fire.
      Another possible identification is with Puṣan, a solar deity connected with goats:

      There is also Aja Ekapād(a) 'one-footed goat', considered also a symbol of the Sun as a pillar of the world:

      I remember having read of a figurine of a goat with a sort of long support found in a Harappan site. There is also a seal with an ibex and a Sun:
      Also a three-headed seal shown in that page has the Sun.

      But the Sun is a form of Agni in Vedic thought. And Agni has also three heads:

      About the goat seal, the finding at fort Derawar is remarkable, because there the Hakra made an inland delta, suggesting that it corresponds to Vināśana, the place of starting of Sattras, long rituals made by Brahmins along the Sarasvati river.

      BTW, I am tempted to read the script on the seal as a-ja...

    20. I am tempted to read the script on the seal as a-ja
      I was going to ask you that, this again shows that we think alike :) !!.

      Fabulous stuff BTW.

  3. Interesting article, did you know about it?.

    1. Thank you, I had already seen somewhere, it is a nice attempt, but the results are not very convincing: the words are not precise, and the meaning is often not likely. About the fish sign, I was inclined to read it rather śa or sa, like Jha (as I remember, because of a statistical study of the frequency of Sanskrit sounds compared to the frequency of Indus signs), the Brahmi sign ma is similar but has an opposite position. BTW, we have the word śaphara/saphara meaning 'carp or large fish'.
      But recently I noted the similarity also with the Brahmi sign for 10, that has been noted also by Kak:

      Now, we must acknowledge that many signs appear to be numbers, having a number of strokes. Reading isolated VIII as cha-an (?) 'pure' is really improbable, it should be a number.
      Maybe also the fish with 4 strokes around is a number, the four strokes look like a way of marking the symbol frequently used, I don't think they can be two repeated sounds like na.

  4. Giacomo,

    I have found a beautiful article on the continuity of Varuna's cult in Sindh.

    Varuṇa, Jhūlelāl and the Hindu Sindhis
    Anita C. Ray
    Australian Catholic University, Melbourne

    The worship of Varuna has persisted among the Hindu Sindhis for more than : three and a half millennia. This paper enquires into the reasons for this deity’s
    vitality and longevity, examining his representation in the earliest records of the Hindus and considering critical moments in his career—such as his manifestationas Jhulelal in the eleventh century and the resurgence in his worship after the Partition of India in 1947. The paper proposes that Varuna’s biography : represents a long conversation between faith and cultures and that he has
    survived within the flow of history because the Hindu Sindhis have creatively
    preserved his quintessential attributes.
    Keywords: Varuna, : Rg Veda : , Indus river, Jhulel al, Hindu Sindhis, Partition

  5. Giacomo,

    I was searching for some idea on how to decipher the symbols, and I found this artificial language, which was done to help people with brain demage in the speach area to express their thoughts. It looks really compact, like the SSVC symbols. What do you think:

    1. Interesting system, but as I understand it is used to convey messages, while in the seals we should not have messages about actions, rather description of objects (wares) sealed or proper names (of owners, or like identity documents), in some cases maybe names of deities. Moreover, the frequency of repetition of symbols suggest that they are phonetic signs or numerals (also the presence of strokes suggests they are numerals in some cases). The Blissymbols are original because they use numerals to express the number of verb subjects, but I don't think this can apply on the seals, although we cannot completely exclude the use of verbs. I think numerals are rather about quantities of wares, or maybe just to distinguish one seal from the others, like modern identity cards. However, I should do more comparisons to arrive at a probable conclusion.

    2. Well, the chance that it is exaclty the same is remote. But I mean, the overall system.

  6. This story is similar to the deluge and the saptarishi:

    The Apkallu (Akkadian), or Abgal (Sumerian), are seven Sumerian sages, demigods who are said to have been created by the god Enki (Akkadian: Ea) to establish culture and give civilization to mankind. They served as priests of Enki and as advisors or sages to the earliest kings of Sumer before the flood. They are credited with giving mankind the Me (moral code), the crafts, and the arts. They were seen as fish-like men who emerged from the sweet water Abzu. They are commonly represented as having the lower torso of a fish, or dressed as a fish.

  7. " Text 8101 Kalibangan Kalibangan089. Multiple seal impression. 17 glyphs are recognized in the impressions created by multiple (perhaps four or five) seals. Lothal has yielded 27 such multiple impressions, perhaps, on one package. These are examples which demonstrate that long texts of inscriptions can be created by combining texts from multiple seals even though the average number of glyphs is about 5 or 6 per inscribed object. It all depends on the multiplicity of the contents of the package described by the seal impressions as bills of lading."

    It looks like the practice of punched marked coins:

  8. Interesting comparison, the practice is similar, but the support is different (clay, metal) and also the nature of the impressions (inscriptions in Harappan sealings, simple symbols in punch-marked coins). So, I think that the function is different. However, some symbols on punch-marked are reminiscent of Harappan symbols:
    I was also impressed by the similarities seeing those coins in the Indian Museum in Kolkata.

    1. Perhaps those were used to make ingots of metal, with the same function as coins. . The SSVC seals are more detailed, so they could be used to mark larger objects.Harappans sustained trade with Sumerians. Perhaps they used something similar for trade.

      Curiously, the water carrying man is very similar to the weight of 29Kg used in Crete's linear A and B, see:

      There is a paper about the art of ingots: