Interpreting the Dholavira Sign Board of Indus Civilization
Dholavira is a large archaeological site of the ancient Indus valley civilization, situated in the Kutch district of Gujarat in Western India. One of the most interesting and significant discoveries at Dholavira is the sign board found in the northern gateway of the city and is often called the Dholavira Signboard. The credit of finding this sign board with 10 inscribed symbols goes to ASI in 1991, by a team led by Prof. R. S. Bisht. The board originally was designed with set pieces of the mineral gypsum to form ten large symbols on a big wooden board. At some point, the board fell flat on its face. The wood decayed, but the arrangement of the symbols inscribed survived. The size of symbols of the signboard are comparable to large bricks that were used in nearby walls. Each sign is about 37 cm (15 in) high and the board on which letters were inscribed was about 3 m (9.8 ft) long. The size of letters being big that could be viewed from a distance, and the width of the board matching with the width of northern gateway of the Dholavira citadel, it is conjectured to be a sign board. The board is long with 10 Indus symbols and one circular symbol appearing four times. Its large size and public nature make it a key piece of evidence cited by scholars who opine that the Indus symbols represents a different type of communication. Another four-sign inscription with big size letters on a sand stone was also found at this site, considered first of such inscription on sand stone at any of the Harappan sites.
This paper is focused on what the 10 symbols of Dholavira sign board communicate. The significance of 262 Indus symbol has been listed in the book “The Dictionary of Indus Symbols”. The analysis of the symbols of the board for what they communicate is worked according to the symbol analysis of the dictionary. The symbols resemble the objects that are still in use during yajna rituals and picture of such objects is a proof of the fact that the rituals are a continuum until this date.
The Intention Behind Erecting a Sign Board
It is interesting to understand why sign boards were in vogue during Indus civilization, as far back as 3500 years when the script of language did not exist. An insight into Vedas reveal that people performed yajnas to appease deities and the recurrent request was for rains. They had faith in deity Indra who would cut the clouds with his weapon and bring copious rain. Yajnas thus became the major activity of people for which recitation of Vedic chants by Vedic priests was mandatory. All oblations were offered to Agni- the fire in the sacred fire altars, who was revered as the celestial priest carrying oblations to the Gods in the heaven. Thus, maintenance of fire and fire altars of yajnas which required elaborate preparations and many ingredients became central activity of people. Making of the wooden vessels and ladles of specific wood, earthen utensils and ingredients for varieties of offerings, was tough for civilians and hence these were arranged to be disposed for purchase in corporate departments through agents. The place where these were purchased was indicated through symbols in very bold font so that people could notice it and approach them.
The study of the nature of symbols have been correlated by the author to be related to the yajna rituals. Indus civilization was an era of Yajñas and performance of yajnas by people was the social order of the day for the maintenance and wellbeing of the society. The governing society had also insisted every Yajamāna of the house to execute Yajña meticulously and non-performers were considered as beasts.
Fire was conceived as deity Agni in Vedic period, who resided in every house in altars. People had to make their altars, maintain domestic fire as production of fire was not easy. Production of fire was like invoking deity Agni and could be done only through elaborate rituals along with the recitation of Vedic hymns. Alternately, it could be borrowed from a man who was wealthy and maintained fire perpetually by performing yajnas. Performing homa, offering oblations and protecting altars with ghee and fuel of specific wood contributed to health, increased happiness and added to the wealth of the world (Ref. “The Yajur Veda”, Translated by Devi Chand Ch 28.12). The proof of the mandatory rules of performing yajnas is in Yajurveda Ch 28.23and 24 says how homa should be performed for removal of diseases and how the Gayatri verse, the protection of Vedic speech, it’s longevity and understanding of essence of knowledge were preserved and promoted by performing Yajnas.
Objects used in Yajna
Purchase of varieties of ingredients were required for Yajña, such as, containers of earth and wood, wooden posts, forest products, animals, Soma sticks, sacred wood sticks etc. The expenditure had to be sponsored by the performer and the priests who performed yajna were to be arranged much in advance. Some aspects of how the civilians could procure the required objects from the supervising organizers are listed in Yajurveda. Chapter 30 of Yajurveda provides details about the governing the country and the ways of maintaining of law and order. The social and religious activities were run smoothly through Several departments that were governed by the King for the benefit of citizens from where the materials needed for performing the Yajña could be procured. Yajurveda Ch 30.20 indicates that the King should appoint a wise man as head of the village- Gramya Ganaka and he should keep account of the Yajña performed and transactions of purchased objects. He must engage “anuchara” who works for orders.The village head “Gramya ganaka”, maintained an account of the transactions involved because many objects were bought for yajnas right from grains to soma-the costliest product. The Indus seals can be read as the standardized format for the types of Yajña to be performed and the requirements of ingredients as prescribed in the Yajurveda were probably acquired from co-operative houses, the list of ingredients, the scale of Yajña, and the span to which it went had to be noted by the village accountant.
Yajnas were mainly of two types: The Shrauta (big scale rituals performed in yajnashala observing rigid rules and called for huge expenditure and participation of many priests) and Grihya rituals (less rigid, domestic rituals, performed by the yajamana of the house). Both varieties were briefed in the relevant sutras and brahmana texts.
According to Yajurveda, the total numbers of Yajña types were over four-hundred, and the Indus civilization had many tribes. Offerings varied depending on the Iṣṭadevata they chose – Rudra, Indra, Varuna, agricultural deities etc. It further depended on the four social orders (Brāhmaṇa, Kṣatṛya, Vaiṣya, Śūdra) – a combination of which gave rise to the multiple number of Yajña. Performing Yajña was mandatory for all citizens. The ones who did not perform Yajña were degraded as beasts (this is elaborated in the Ṛg and Yajurveda). Yajña had to be ministered by priests right from the Dikṣā ceremony,meaning the consecration of the sacrificer at the beginning of yajna. It consisted of a series of attitudes and manipulations, adopted, and followed by the sacrificer. It was only after the Dikṣā the sacrificer contacted the agent anuchara for procuring the materials required to perform the Yajña.
The performance of a Yajña involved the purchase of many ingredients such as:
- Samidh sticks (firewood of specific trees – this required approval of a supervisor who was responsible for the maintenance of the forest – Vanaya or Vanapan). Yupa sacrificial posts were to be chiseled from trees and varieties of containers of both mud and wood varieties were to be made afresh before yajnas.
- Animals like goat, sheep, antelopes, etc. were required for immolation. Construction of the altar called for acquisition land (permissions had to be acquired from governing bodies of the village) and making of bricks in large numbers which took a time span of a whole year.
- In addition to this, milk, curds, butter, ghee, were essentially to be purchased for the Yajña since not all reared cows in their homes.
- The Soma sticks, which were sourced from the Mujavant mountainous regions, were very expensive and equated to the cost of gold. The purchase of Soma sticks was in bulk and was bought for exchange of animal or gold.
The accountant of the village affairs Gramanya Ganaka kept in account of all purchases.
Anuchara / Sanaichara
Anuchara is the term used for agents, who worked for orders, whom the sacrificer after his Dikṣā engages to collect materials for the sacrifice. The physically disabled people who moved slowly were also not neglected by the society and given a suitable job as Anuchara. Since the crippled man moved slowly, he was called sanaichara as Sanai meant moving slowly in Sanskrit. A sacrificer, after their Dikṣā initiation contacted the attendant anuchara of gramya ganaka accountant to fix the different priests through Madhuparka ceremony, and supplied the materials that were required by the sacrificer. The construction of altars involved long procedures and soma yajnas demanded many objects. Similarly, many domestic rituals like full moon-new moon rituals were also complicated, involving procedures. All arrangements and supply of ingredients could be done through agents .
The symbols inscribed on seals are the archaeological proofs with the indication of the ingredients used in a Yajñic ritual. Some of the symbols displayed in bigger form on the board are inscribed on the small seals also and exhibit an astonishing amount of standardization in the representation of the symbols. This means there existed similarities between the symbols of the seals and the board. Since Indus seals are about Vedic civilization, the sign board has information related to yajna activities.
The signboard is the display of a place where anuchara could be contacted for the arrangements and performance of the above-mentioned rituals. It is for this reason the symbols were in bold font of 15 inches in size, displayed on a wooden board to attract the attention of common people and could be seen from a distance. It probably displayed an information like “contact us for the rituals” through inscribing symbols which was the mode of communication during that period. The symbols on the sign board have been correlated with similar representation in the Indus seals and studied for further information. Many symbol representations are miniature representation of the objects that are still in use during Yajna rituals. The explanation of symbols is supplemented with the picture of seals where they have appeared, picture of similar objects and conclusions drawn later.
Deciphering the Dholavira board
The identification of symbols is named first, followed by an explanation of its significance. An example of seal picture for how each symbol appears in the seal is also provided.
Figure 2: A line drawing of the symbols inscribed in Figure 1.Number of symbols on the sign board: 10 (Symbols 8 and 9 are read as one unit as they are twin representations)
Symbol reading from left to right:
- Gārhapatya – the Circular symbol with 6 spokes, one of the 3 sacred altars.
- The Praṇītāh Pātra – a kind of cup with a handle. (may be in relation to Cāturmāsya rituals)
- Daśāpavitra- the filter used in soma yajna.
- The symbols of Gārhapatya altar.
- Āhavanīya, the square shaped altar, one of the three sacred fire altars.
- The Catuṣpatha symbol where 4 roads meet, where oblation is offered to Rudra.
- Idhma, a single stroke may indicate the supply of wood logs required for the sacred hearths and maintenance of fire on daily basis.,
- and 9. Punarādheya, the two Gārhapatya symbols indicate about– the reinstallation of sacred fires.
- Pariśasa -the symbol of the tongs used in Pravargya, an independent fire ritual
The symbols say a lot about all the rituals that were in vogue during Vedic and post Vedic periods.
*(For more details on symbols, reference number in the book “The Dictionary of Indus Symbols” that correspond with the 10 symbols of the board are indicated below in order of numbers: 137, 129, 80, 137, 139, 197, 49, 140, 85)
- Gārhapatya Symbol
The first symbol of the board
The symbol which is circular in shape with 6 spokes has been identified as one of the sacred altars “Gārhapatya”. It is repeated 4 times in the board of symbols and hence the importance of it in Indus civilization can be understood. It appears on board firstly as a single representation, secondly, along with a square altar and thirdly as twin representations. The significance of all three are discussed as it is also repeated extensively in the Indus seals.
Gārhapatya altar is round, one square Aratni in area. One Aratni = twenty-four inches. Gārhapatya is one of the three sacred fires perpetually maintained by house holder which he receives from his father and transmits to his descendants. It is the domestic fire, dignity of the householder, belonging to Gṛhapati – master of the house, and maintained by the householder perpetually. Gārhapatya altar is one of the three sacred fires thus used in all types of yajna. In the shed of yajna shala the circular Gārhapatya is placed to the West of vedi (an elevated or excavated plot of ground where the middle points come closer, see Figure 3) . In homa, the fire from this is drawn to light the other two sacrificial fires called Āhavanīya and Dakṣiṇāgni. Its symbolized form in seals and in the Dholavira board is circular form with six divisions corresponding with six seasons of the year. The six spokes indicate the six seasons and a circle around the spokes indicates that the Gārhapatya needs to be maintained all through 6 seasons of the year. Gārhapatya fire is used for warming the Havis and utensils, and for cooking the oblatory material called Havis (see photo in fig.10) The representation as a symbol may also indicate that fire is perpetually maintained by logs of wood to maintain the fire.
According to Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, the construction of Gārhapatya represents the terrestrial world, is conceived as the womb; hence, it is circular (since both earth and womb are circular in shape). Initially the area for altar in Yajñaśāla is cleaned from weeds, stones, insects and the outline area of altars and vedi are marked. The circular space of Gārhapatya is strewn with saline soil and sand layer on it. The saline soil represents amnion and sand is viewed as the seed, (sand also does not burn away the amnion by sun’s heat). This area is then enclosed like the womb on all sides by enclosing stones. Within the circular site – six stones are laid, which is depicted in the symbol of Gārhapatya. These six stones represent the Agnipuruṣa lying on his back with head towards east, two bricks running south to north as belly and head at the center; four stones indicate the four appendages of arms and legs of the body. Of those, two are connected from north to center diagonally forming the arms, and the other two are connected from south to center diagonally forming the thighs. While laying the bricks, the priest follows the movement of the sun. The symbol of Gārhapatya can be seen in many Indus seals. (see Figure 4)
- Praṇitā Pātra
Praṇitā Pātra is a wooden vessel, in which holy water is fetched. Usually it is square or rectangular in shape, 8 inches in length and 4 inches in height, with a handle, made of Nyagrodha or Rouhitaka wood, fit for sacrificial purpose. Praṇitā Pātra with two depressions is called Sakshira pranita patra, used in chaturmasya (four monthly) rituals. One ditch carries milk or payasa and the other carries sacred water (Purified with Pavitra grass). It is used in Cāturmāsya rituals where a Caru or Pāyasa cooked in milk is offered to Marut. The second symbol of Praṇītāh Pātra in the board hints about the undertaking various objects made for Cāturmāsya rituals.
Daśāpavitra is the fringed woolen filter, held over Drōnakalaśa (bucket shaped container) for filtering or purifying Soma. Its central part called navel / Nābhi are made of white wool of a living ram. Daśā is fringes,cloth. The centre part is cut and re-woven with wool of a living ram. It has fringes; hence, the name Daśā. The filter is one Prādeśa in length (twelve Aṅgula or one span) with a handle. The freshly crushed juice of soma is filtered in this as purifying act. The third symbol of the board Daśāpavitra, a filter used to filter soma juice indicates about the undertaking of special objects required for soma Yajñas
- Gārhapatya symbol
See Section 1 for analysis.
The fifth symbol of the board in square shape and seen in many Indus seals is called the Āhavanīya, the consecrated fire, is one of the three principal sacrificial fires. The altar is an oblatory altar, used for offering havis to Devas in Yajña. It is a square mound, situated on the eastern part of the Vedi (see photo 1 of fig 7) It is represented in two forms, either as a simple square altar or in rhomboidal shape with a smaller square of Uttaravedika with in the big square. The hearth is kindled in yajnashala by fire brought from Gārhapatya and the Homa is performed in it. In the Soma sacrifice, the fire of Āhavanīya is transferred from the original to the newly constructed Uttaravedika, (a small square high altar within the sacrificial arena,see last picture of figure 7) and uttaravedi later becomes Āhavanīya in which oblations to deities are offered. The original Āhavanīya is then called Gārhapatya. The two symbols,4th and 5th on the board of altars inscribed together may hint the activity of transferring fire from Gārhapatya to Ahavaniya, a long procedure, is undertaken. Most of the Śrauta rituals, oblations are done on Āhavanīya and not done on Gārhapatya Agni. Gārhapatya is more like a witness. The construction of altars is a complicated procedure and many priests are called for this work and hence advertised on the board about it through symbols. The symbols of both Gārhapatya and Ahavaniya presented together in the board indicates whom or where to contact agents if one must know about the constructional aspects as well as the arrangement of priests and the various ingredients required for this.
Construction of Āhavanīya fire altar has eight bricks that are compared to the eight syllables of Gāyatri metre. This is because the Gāyatri metre for Agni has eight syllables, and it is in five layers. Āhavanīya is for the heavenly world. First, the area of altar area is cleaned and sprinkled with Prokśani water. Then the sharp bricks are made. The blocks are set in all four directions starting from the East to ward off the demons creeping in from four directions.
The post dusk celebration includes the poking of Āhavanīya in four directions with sacred grass and the central part being undisturbed to drive away evil spirits. (see the third picture of Indus seal in Fig 7). This is done so that the positive and auspicious powers flow and reach the performers / sacrificer from all four directions. Therefore, Āhavanīya is a square and construction involves knowledge of geometry.
The Dholavira board lacks clarity with the 6th symbol. The analysis is based on the line drawing which is reconstructed to be two intersecting lines, which is identified as Catuṣpatha.
Catuṣpatha is a place where the four roads meet and represents the area of human settlement near rivers. The symbol on board hints about the elaborate preparations of Darśa Pūrnamāsa rituals (related to the full moon, new moon rituals), where all four categories of priests were required.
At the cross road an oblation is offered to Rudra believed to be one of the dwelling places of Rudra. In Tṛyambaka homa an offering is made to Rudra on a Palāśa leaf and is placed on cross roads. Crossroads is the dwelling place for spirits, and usually Mantra / Bali are offered, or light is lit. In snake worship rituals of Shravani or sarpabali, offering of food to Rudra is offered in Catuṣpatha for taking care of cattle from snake bites. Samasta homa is another ritual where Catuṣpatha is used. The condensed milk preparation was offered at the cross road by the Ṛṣis. The symbol on the board indicates about the availability of accessories related to the offerings on Catuṣpatha.
- Long Stroke Indicating Idhma
Indus seals are with different types of strokes in varying numbers as symbols. One set of symbols are bold and short strokes, while some are long ones. Each convey different information. The long stroke which is only one in number on the sign board (There are also representation of 2,3,5,6 long strokes in seals) is identified to be the representation of ‘Idhma’. Idhma means wood sticks used for kindling fire, offered along with Sāmidheni verses recited at the time of kindling sacred fire. It is made of Palāśa or Khadira wood or twigs, which varies according to the rituals. The symbol of a single stroke represents a single oblation of wood offered to deity Prajāpati who is the creator of all beings. The symbol on the board communicates the availability of special wood sticks for various rituals .
Punarādheya is the reinstallation of fires that takes place under certain contingencies such as illness, death of the Yajamāna, loss of wealth, and at a desire for prosperity. When Gārhapatya is abandoned or discontinued due to calamities or accident, it is called Prājahita. Punarādheya is indicated by a set of two symbols of Gārhapatya. This twin representation can be seen in the board, seal picture as well as in support picture where the 2 circular altars are side by side. The empty one represents the abandoned altar while the other one shows ritual activity. One of the Indus seals depicts two Gārhapatya symbols together suggesting Punarādheya.
Reinstallation of fire is performed in the same paradigm of Ādheya, the initial rite of installing sacrificial fire in altars, with a few deviations. It is also a Prāyaścitta (seeking pardon) when the original Gārhapatya or Āhavanīya fires are extinguished by accident or discontinued for some reason. The discarded or the original Gārhapatya in the altar is called Prājahita. The fire is borrowed from Gārhapatya of a Vaiṣya house to relight the new Gārhapatya is called Aharyāgni (Aharya means to borrow). The seal picture also depicts two Gārhapatya altars to communicate how punaradheya must be performed before the commencement of Soma yajna if Gārhapatya is not maintained. The picture of Figure10 of a yajna depicts the two circular Gārhapatya altars which hints the reinstallation of new Gārhapatya altar before the commencement of yajna.
- Pariśasa or Śapha
Pariśasa or Śapha are a pair of tongs for raising the Gharma – the heated pot from the fire, used in the fire ritual called Pravargya. The symbol is indicated in many seals may represent the performing Pravargya fire ritual was mandatory and to be performed as a minor ritual before the commencement of big scale soma yajna.
Pariśasa is a pair of wooden tongs of two types, and one is used in raising Ukhā (container of fire) pot from fire, while the other is used in raising the Gharma, the special pot called Mahavira. Pariśasa may also be used in death ritual called Anustaraṇī where the animal flesh was used to cover the dead body so that human flesh of the dead one is not charred. The representation of Pariśasa as the last symbol in the board indicated the availability of this tool.
This paper proposes a new interpretation for the previously unsolved puzzle of the Dholavira sign board. The symbols used in this sign board are also utilized in many Harappan / Indus seals. Each symbol has a distinct data about yajna and the order of symbols is not significant. The repetition of circular symbol of Garhapatya altar appears to be the central theme because Agni / fire was of great importance in ancient times. The relationship of two identical representation of circular symbols are also decoded. Offerings made in sacred fire altar was the distinctive feature of Vedas. The square altar of Ahavaniya is indicated but interestingly the semi-circular altar called Dakshinagni where oblations are made to the dead pitrus is not indicated. This may be an indication that accessories of Sraddha related rituals are not part of this agent. The symbols have more relevance to socio religious aspects rather than having a linguistic resemblance to Brahmi or Sanskrit script. The structure of symbols is an exact replica of the objects used in rituals. The sign board of Dholavira gives knowledge about some aspects of the past Indus civilization and about the organizers of yajna in a symbolographic presentation.
- The Dictionary of Indus Symbols, available online on Amazon in both eBook and Print Format: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1726820335/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1
- Symbolography in Indus seals, Available online on Amazon in both eBook and Print Format: https://www.amazon.in/Symbolography-Indus-Seals-Rekha-Rao-ebook/dp/B016QQKBQE
- The Depiction of Vedic Priests in Indus Seals, Available online on Amazon in both eBook and print book format: https://www.amazon.com/Depiction-Vedic-Priests-Indus-Seals/dp/1717855202/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&qid=1537762482&sr=8-9&keywords=Rekha+rao
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