Building Characters from Components

Indus script characters are created in a very logical fashion from component parts. A component may have a pictographic reading, an ideographic reading, or both. If a component is drawn to a different scale, it will carry a different meaning. These elements can be illustrated with some characters related to human habitation.

Mahadevan's sign number 261 comes in two different sizes. In its smaller form, it depicts the shape of a mouth when it makes a long O sound, which gives us the idea of a voice or noise. In its larger form, it is a pictograph of a perimeter wall. Hence, we think of some kind of enclosure, with the straight walls suggesting a permanent structure.

Mahadevan's sign number 267 can be read as a simple pictograph of a courtyard house. However, at another level of meaning, it becomes a voice in an enclosure. A voice in an enclosure is a sign of human habitation.

It is interesting to note here, that research by Iégor Reznikoff has shown that our ancestors found their way around caves by means of echoes¹. The voice as an echo determined where the cave walls were.

Mahadevan's sign number 284 represents a city plan. Courtyards and streets sit inside the city wall. In accordance with the Indus convention, the plan is portrayed with the direction northwest at the top. This means that the streets in the diagram run north south and east west, just as they did on the ground in the city of Harappa.

In Chinese, the symbol depicting four voices is a clamour. A clamour in an enclosure gives us the idea of a city.

Mahadevan's sign number 373 comes in two different sizes, which Mahadevan recognised as numbers 373 and 374. The smaller form (374) is a pictograph of a pack. The larger form (373) is the contour or outline of an area that does not have rigid boundaries, such as a hill.

Mahadevan's sign number 1022 resembles sign number 267, but the walls of the enclosure are replaced by a softer outline. Hence, the dwelling does not have a rigid boundary. It is a tent.

The sound of voices can be associated with a tent, in a similar way to that for a house.

Mahadevan's sign number 1059 resembles sign number 284, but the centre is surrounded by a contour rather than walls. Hence, the city does not have a fixed boundary. It is a caravanserai.

A caravanserai would have been a noisy place, so the link with a clamour is again appropriate.

Image Credits:

Indus Script Signs with Numbers: Sign List of the Indus Script and List of Sign Variants: Iravatham Mahadevan, 1977: The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables: The Director General Archaeological Survey of India.


1. Iégor Reznikoff, 2014: On the Sound Related to Painted Caves and Rocks: Monographs of the Archaeological Society of Finland 2, pp. 101-105: Archaeological Society of Finland.