Antiquities and Archaeology
Little man with huge potential
Ancient figure could provide clue to the development of writing
By Martin Bailey. News, Issue 251, November 2013
Published online: 13 November 2013
An ancient Indian figure of a human with a boar-like head could provide a crucial clue in the story of the development of writing. The copper figure, discovered in the foundations of a villager’s house, is thousands of years old. It went on display for the first time last month, in a major exhibition on Indian art in Brussels.
The 30cm-high figure, which weighs 2kg, was found by Sabdar Ali, who lives in Kheri Gujar, in the state of Haryana in the Punjab. It has been officially declared an antiquity and now belongs to the Archaeological Survey of India. Ali says he found the figure in the foundations of his home.
The figure has a cast relief on its chest of a unicorn-like animal, similar to motifs found on seals of the Harappa culture, which thrived until around 1900BC. Most exciting, however, is the inscription above this creature, in less bold relief. Naman Ahuja, the curator of the exhibition “The Body in Indian Art” at the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels (until 5 January 2014), describes the find as the “most amazing” recent discovery from this early period. He claims that the inscription represents “a combination of Harappan signs and Brahmi letters”, suggesting that it comes from “a period of overlap between the two cultures”.
The Harappa civilisation, in the Indus Valley, developed writing around 2500BC; the result was one of the earliest scripts. Its culture declined around 1900 BC. The earliest surviving example of Brahmi writing, used in the Ganges Valley, dates from the third century BC.
What has puzzled scholars is the lack of evidence of writing in the Indian subcontinent during the 1,500 years between the end of Harappa script and the emergence of Brahmi script. This has led to a debate over whether Brahmi writing developed indigenously in India or came about through contacts further to the west.
The artefact suggests a possible link. Harappa script has not yet been deciphered, so this three-line text could end up playing a key role. The inscription has been transcribed on the basis of Brahmi to read: “King/Ki Ma Jhi [name of king]/Sha Da Ya [form of god]”.
The figure appears to be a cult object. With its head turned towards the side and raised arms, Ahuja says the figure “looks unmistakably like the Hindu god Varaha”, who appears in the form of a boar. However, no other sculpted figure of Varaha is known from this period.
The key question is whether the object is authentic. It was first published by two archaeologists, Sanjay Kumar Manjul and Arvin Manjul, in the archaeological journal Pragdhara. It is accepted by Rakesh Tiwari, the director of the Uttar Pradesh state archaeological department. Ahuja, the curator of the Brussels exhibition and an associate professor of Indian art at Jawaharlal Nehru University, is also convinced that it is ancient. In his catalogue, he dates it to the second to first millennium BC.
Ahuja admits that forgeries have come onto the market and that he was immediately suspicious, but he believes this figure is ancient. “The patina is most important: it was examined in the Archaeological Survey of India’s laboratories and established as authentic,” he says. “The inscription has letters that are undoubtedly an archaic Brahmi script. The boar-like form, akin to the incarnation of Varaha, is certainly too unique to be forged.”
Richard Blurton, the British Museum’s curator of South Asian Art, who advised on the Brussels exhibition, was very interested to see the figure, although he has not yet had a chance to study the find. “It is a fascinating object and I am delighted that it is being brought to scholarly attention,” he says.
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