Symbolography in Indus seals

(This is a guest post by Rekha Rao, the author of Symbolography in Indus seals)

Symbolography in Indus Seals by Rekha RaoIndus civilisation has evinced keen interest amongst scholars from various disciplines in their pursuit to unfold many aspects of this wonderful civilisation, which is one of the oldest. Though many aspects of the civilisation have been well addressed, decoding of Indus seals remained as an enigma even as of date. This has remained controversial, as there is no uniformity or logic in its interpretation. The prominence of the mythical one horned bull that can be seen in many seals, occupying almost seventy-five percent of seal area, with differing signs between seals, does indicate it is beyond what has been understood till date. This research is focused on, (1) Understanding the symbols of the script that are inscribed, (2) The interpretation of seals depicting activity, and (3) Demystifying the curiosity in answering prominent questions that arise when one examines the seals with an open mind such as:

  1. Why seals have a single horn bull?
  2. Why some are double horned humped bull and some non-humped ones?
  3. Why the single horned bull is in front of a manger and not the double horned humped bull?
  4. Why the manger has different design patterns and, supported on a slender pedestal?
  5. Why the decorations on the neck, nature of tail of the bull is different in each seal?
  6. Why the bull in each seal is associated with different symbols?
  7. Do these seals are a part of a continuum or is it explicit?
  8. Why the seals are small in size 2 by 2 inches?

In an endeavour to find answers to these questions, the research work had to cross several domains until such time the connectivity got established.

A convincing analysis of the riddles associated with the single horned bull, the manger structure, and the symbols used in the Indus seals have been attempted with a holistic approach. The single horned bull has been proved here to be a concept of Hotṛ priest with strong correlation with Vedic hymns has been established. The structure of manger has the depiction of chandas-the metre and the pattern of repetitions involved. Each seal appeared to have information on one particular aspect of the Vedic contents and the Yajña.

This book also answers the enquiries like

  1. Which class of people made use of these seals?
  2. What was the intention behind the issue of seals?

The seals are portrayed on a two-inch stone piece. It was probably with the idea of easy handling, transporting, and storing as reference document. It was like a ready reference material for the students involved in Vedic studies and practitioners of Vedic rituals. Probably, it was also planned to avoid the probable mistakes during recitation and ritual procedures at a time when script was non-existent, while the literary activity was at its peak and the multiple chapters of each Veda was voluminous for memorisation.

With the aid of a seal as reference, a man who had undergone his initiation in the Veda Śikśha could get the information like, for which ritual the sequence of Mantra is to be recited, and which tone and metre had to be adopted. The hymns to deities were in different metres, had to be recited meticulously according to the prescription of the Ṛgveda, Yajurveda, and the associated Brāhmaṇa text teachings. Different food offerings were to be made as each deity had its own preferred food and it was indicated as symbols. Seals were meant only for a specific class of educated lot and not for commoners. The frame structure in a seal shows a big square in which smaller squares are engraved to indicate about the specific metre chosen. These frames are like sample piece demonstration of metre that is to be followed by the sequence of hymns of similar pattern in a series while reciting for a Yajña. This gives a logical point for why the square frame in front of the single horned bull has smaller units in varying numbers and it matches with the squares adopted as Pada while dealing with the literary aspect of Vedic metre.

The understanding of seals reveal that India is the only country or probably one of the countries which has an unbroken pattern of traditions maintained for over 3000 years. The advancements in the field of science have not influenced this part of social heritage. The Somayajña performed in 2011 in Kerala, called Panjal Atirātram had performed the Pravargya fire ritual following the Vedic pattern, and it was amazing to find a seal that also depicted this Pravargya ritual in the seals. The royal and Somayajña are rare now for neither the royal families exist nor the Soma plant. However, the domestic or Gṛhya rituals like Śrāddha Karmas (death rituals) and the Ṣoḍaśa Saṁskāra (social observances) are very much alive and observed by every family in India.

Every religion, born or adopted in a country leaves its imprint among the followers and especially the death rituals are unique to every religion. Even to this day Hindus are very much the followers of Vedic rituals, the Yajña, the same Vedic Mantras are recited in the same metre that existed then. The death rituals, the Śrāddha – post death rituals also mostly the same as depicted in seals, and is definitely the unique pattern that does not exist in any other part of the world. The imprints of Vedic practises are practised only in India.

Of the 165 seals that are analysed in this book,I showcase the analysis of a seal which depicts the conceptualised picture of pitr in sraddha related seals.

Representation of Pitṛ in seals


The concept of superhuman status of God / deity and the lower form of Preta and spirits and the still lower class of demons all emerged on the karma theory or the actions performed in human status. All three – the deity, the Pitṛ, and the demons, had to be in human form that was mandatory to perform actions, the good actions of Satchetana of positive nature were promoted to deity status. Moreover, the wicked and bad ones who ate human flesh were demons, like Vṛtta, Vāla, etc. Ṛgveda 5.20.1 has many hymns with this theory.

In the Indus seals the Preta – the bodies after death are depicted differently from the dead persons after one year and entering into Pitṛ Loka. After death, Pitṛ were offered food in the Śrāddha rituals, and later were invited to consume Soma juice.

Ṛgveda 10.15.6, about fathers’ quotes about their posture also:

“Bowing your bended knees and seated southwards, accept this sacrifice of ours with favour.
May they fathers worthy of Soma, invited to their favourite oblations Laid on sacred grass come neigh and listen.”

The Pitṛ are always depicted in a sitting posture on the tree with the weight on one leg. The arms are outstretched and the fingers are depicted as bifurcated in two parts. The Pretātma was believed to be having bondage with the humans for the first twelve days after death. When the emotional bondage shredded they were called Pitṛ. Pitṛ, who have endured the journey to the upper world are depicted in human form, in a specific sitting posture on the branch of silk cotton tree. They are depicted with bifurcated hand structure and extra-long arms that are stretched. Many Ṛgveda verses say how Pitṛ can reach the offerings offered to them by their sons, and collect the essence of Piṇḍa from their abode. They were also offered the Soma juice, a favourite of Pitṛ.

All seals with Pitṛ are depicted sitting on the branch of the tree, are presented in human form with extra-long stretched arms with hands in Pitṛtīrtha. It is the way of mane’s hand, where the part of the hand between the thumb and the forefinger is parted, a hand gesture through which water is offered for the Pitṛ. The rituals related to Pitṛ –the Pitṛyajña was a sort of energy exchange at two levels. Many seals reveal about the history of Ṛgvedic beliefs and ritual practises regarding death and worship of ancestors.

The topic of Yajña, the hymns, its metre, the accessories used and preparation of Yajña arena are oceanic in contents. The research work narrated in this book is the understanding of each symbol, and what it communicates when presented in a series. This new interpretation provides a logical continuity and helps to read the Yajñic rituals that are depicted in the seal with some amount of coherency.

An attempt is made here to know the three major classifications of Yajña, followed by its seven groups called Saṁstha and correlated with the seals. Over 160 seals has been analysed in the C section of this book. The reading of many more seals can be interpreted with the help of the 260-symbol analysis provided in the Section B of this book.

This book is an independent research in understanding what the seal communicates, may prove as the first step in this new approach of understanding Indus seals.

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