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Sunday, January 13, 2013



It was the most dreaded answer, from the history teacher, to my question, “How much did I get in the last test?”  He almost always said … rotating his arm in a huge circular motion … to an instantaneous outburst of mirth from every corner of the classroom. 
బండిసున్నా!  (“BanDi Sunna”, in Telugu)
The word ‘BanDi Sunna’ always stayed with me – a constant companion in my nightmares – even after I finished school and the words, tests and marks, receded into the past.
BanDi in Telugu means ‘Cart’ and Sunna is ‘Zero’. The symbol for Zero, of course, is a circle that resembles the wheel. The word Sunna is derived from Sanskrit ‘Sūnya’. That means the word came into Dravidian lexicon only after the interaction with Indo-European languages. Then the Sanskrit word for wheel is ‘Chakra’. If the Telugu or Proto-Telugu speakers knew the word Sūnya, then they must have also known the word Chakra. If so, why didn’t they use that word for wheel, instead of the word for cart?
Probably, they had a preexisting set of words that are synonymous derived from a different root.
The Wheel Sign
Common Variants of Wheel 
Telugu word for wheel is ‘Gānu’ and resembles ‘GāDi’ the common word in Hindi for cart, carriage or vehicle. ‘GāDi’ in Telugu means a rut made by a wheel. Gānuga is the circular oil mill with a single wheel pulled by an ox. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that there was an original ‘Gā’ word for cart and wheel. Further, Gam, Gva and Gava are words that denoted travel or movement even in Vedic lexicon.
It was for this reason I tried to read the wheel sign that occurs more than two hundred times in Harappan specimens and an equal if not more number of times with a few minor variations, as a symbol of carriage or cart and phonetically as the letter ‘Ga’.
Alternatively, the words, Chakra, Chakki (Circular Grinding Stone) Charka (Spinning Wheel) and Chara (Movement) called for a different phonetic reading, ‘Ca’. The first three symbols in the famous signboard of Dholavira has a ‘Crab sign’ followed by two ‘Wheel signs’.  It is tempting to read the crab-sign – that resembles the cross-sign ‘Ka’ in Brahmi – as ‘Karkataka’ and phonetic ‘Ka’, and the two wheel signs as ‘Ch-Ch’, giving us the name of the island Cutch.
It had never occurred to me to read the wheel-sign as the letter ‘R’. Not until Sue Sullivan’s Indus Script Dictionary forced me to.
I began very skeptically.
Let me quote Sullivan here …
“I found the value for the wheel sign, ‘ra,’ by using an Indo-European root for ‘wheel’. (The first syllable of the Tamil word for wheel, ‘urulai’, just did not fit as a phonetic value). This is not to say that several other signs did not come from Dravidian words, they obviously did. But ‘ra’ is such a common sign in Indus script, and I often found it followed by the ‘dvi’ sign, which looks like an apostrophe. Was I looking at the name ‘Ravi’? As it turned out dozens of seals began with the name Ravi …”
Her derivation of Ra from IE as exemplified by ‘Rota’ failed to convince me. The Brahmi letter for Ra is far from circular and so is the case with almost all the North Indian IE scripts.
– Devanagari
– Gujarati
– Gurmukhi
– Bengali
– Assamese

But as you travel south to Deccan,
Oriya, even though an IE language has an R letter that has elements of a circle – .
The two principal languages of Deccan
Telugu and Kannada have circular R letters – and ; and Malayalam is very close -
Therefore, the circular R seems to have more affinity towards South Indian scripts, a fact that had forced me to look for possible conformities for wheel and cart beginning with the letter R in Telugu. One word that came immediately to my mind is ‘Rāṭnam’ (రాట్నం) or Rāṭam in Telugu. Rāṭnam means the spinning wheel and Rangula (Colourful) Rāṭnam means Merry-go-round. The Tamil word ‘Ural’ meaning the stone used for wet-grinding had transformed into Rōlu (రోలు)in Telugu – a circular depression in stone in which another heavy stone is rotated to crush wet grain, vegetable matter etc.  Therefore the first syllable in the Tamil word for wheel ‘Urulai’, which is common to many circular objects, can easily be seen as an R.
Rōlu (రోలు) from Neolithic Kupgal (circa 3000 BCE)
The root probably is a cattle rearing term from early Neolithic. The ‘post’ to which an animal is tied with a long rope, leaving it free to move and graze in a circular area, is called ‘RāDu’ or RāTa in rural Telugu. Here we are talking about a term possibly used even before the invention of wheel.
The IE Ratha, meaning carriage is probably derived from this same root.
More and more I pondered over it, more and more her identification of wheel sign for R, looked not only plausible but certain. Now assuming that the wheel sign is R, I began examining the common occurrence of ‘Apostrophe’ sign after the wheel.
Sullivan reads the short strokes as number signs. In all probability her reading is right. But in the word ‘Dvi’ the operative syllable is D, not Vi. Further, Ravi is a common name in India only in very recent times, from the 19th Century. We don’t find the name often in the king-lists of ancient and medieval dynasties except that of an insignificant prince of Sauvira lineage who is killed by a stray arrow of Arjuna, and another, one of the hundred sons of Dhritarāshtra.
Surya, Aditya, Mārtanda are the earliest and often used designates of Sun.  Therefore, the profusion of seals with ‘Ravi’ name is unconvincing.
Then what is the meaning of the apostrophe?
 In Indian ‘Chandas’, Science of Metrical Poetics, the long letter is called Dvi-mātra. Mātra is the time taken for the drop of eyelid. A short syllable is vocalized for the duration of a mātra. Whereas, a long letter called ‘deergha’ is uttered for two mātras. Sullivan’s reading of ‘Dvi’ as a common diacritical mark will give us a value for the compound – Wheel & Apostrophe – as Rā.
Next, I started looking for the commonest ‘R’ words.
The Royal Letter
 Ranyo Asoka (Kanaganahalli - 2nd Century BCE)
‘R’ always denoted royalty - Réges
The Indian designates of royalty – Rājanya – are Rāja, Rāya, Rācha, RāTa, RāNa, Rōy etc. The earliest Brahmi inscriptions called the king ‘Rānyo’ as in the inscription on Asoka’s portrait freeze unearthed at Kanaganahalli that calls him Rānyo Asōka. The other derivatives of the regal R are RashTra, Rājya etc. If ‘R’ letter is commonly found in the Harappan milieu, it must have been used very often with these above terms and not an uncommon ‘Ravi’. Further, a variation of the apostrophe with one long and one short stroke, usually with a relatively long inscription of three or more signs, also followed the wheel sign. Sullivan reads this sign as ‘Nta’ and derives a meaning Rantu (= River) from Monier-Williams. I would prefer to read this sign as a variant of the apostrophe and take only a diacritical value.
If I read the compound Wheel & Apostrophe as Rā, my obvious next step is to look for the signs that followed it. Where else to look for them, but Sullivan’s ‘Dictionary’?
The most common signs that followed the Rā compound – provided the values given by Sullivan are correct – give us the following readings.

2. Ma
3. Ma
4. Ja
Rā Ma
Rā Ma
Rā Ma
Rā Ja
5. Cha
6. Ya
7. Ku
8. Na
Rā Cha
Rā Ya
Rā Ku
Rā Na
9. Na
10. Na
11. A-Ya
12. Ni
Rā Na
Rā Na
Rā A Ya
Rā Ni
13. Sh
14. Ta
15. Ash
16. Pri
Rā Sh
Rā Ta
Rā Ash
Rā Pri
The first three combinations read Rāma. The last one (16.Pri) is difficult to read. Sullivan’s Dictionary has five inscriptions with this sequence. 13 to 15 indicate kingdom – Rāsh, RāTa and Rā-ash. There are 12 sequences in which two long strokes followed the Rā combination. And, all of them are in turn followed by the simple fish sign except three, tempting me to ignore the intervening long strokes and give a reading similar to Rāma.
The incidence of Rāma sequence makes me wonder if they indicate a single individual. Puranas end each of the Yugas with the life of a hero – incidentally all their names end with the suffix Rāma – Bhārgava Rāma, Rāma Dāsarathi and Bala Rāma. Rāma probably was not a proper name but a royal designation akin to Rājah. Then, why was a fish-sign more common than the three long strokes with the value, ‘Ja’?
Jhasha – The Mythical Fish
There are 60 or more words in Sanskrit with the letter ‘Jha’. Most of the words with initial Jh are onomatopoetic like Jhaṇjhan, Jharjhara etc. However, the first ‘Jha-word’ in recorded literature is Jhasha in Śatapatha Brāhmana. It is the mythical fish that saved the first king and the seven seers from the great flood. By the Ramayana period, the letters Jha and Ja are used interchangeably and letter Jha fell into disuse. Probably, the fish sign had an initial value of Jha and later the Meena-Mastya words gave it the ‘Ma’ value. The morphological similitude between the letters – Ma, Ya and Jha in various Brahmi derived scripts cannot go unnoticed.




Some later scholar trying to decipher Rā-Jha might have misread the spelling as Rāma and attributed it to individual proper names. The concocted etymology of Rāma name, deriving it from the prayer mantras addressing Shiva and Nārayana – both of a much later origin – only strengthens my view. (Reason for including Shha letter is due to its common occurrence after the Rā combination and its significance as a Regal designate in Persian).
Harappan society was an urban civilization. If one goes by the tradition, – from the Puranic to the Arthashastra – the cities are governed by the kings. Most of the Harappan inscribed material is available on the seals with a mercantile function – probably the name of the issuer, destination or content. It is logical that many of them are issued by the king of a particular city, a reason for the profusion of seals with the initial sequence indicating royal designations.
Finally, the effort and the novel path taken by Sue Sullivan are highly commendable and I am sure most of the values – phonetic and symbolic – are accurate and it is truly a major stride in the right direction in cracking the code that has been eluding the scholars for more than a century.