The Terminal Sign

The Terminal Sign

As regards the other signs, the position is even weaker. There is the famous terminal sign, the most frequent sign, which occupies ten to twelve percent of all Harappan writing. This sign, popularly called the jar sign, is as popular as the letter "e" is in the English language.

Q: What are your thoughts about the terminal sign of the Indus script?

A: It is one of the most important signs. The problem is there is a dispute about what the object itself is a picture of. Hunter said it was a vessel, with long lips or handles. B.B. Lal, the famous Indian archaeologist has a very good paper on it, where he proves that some of the variants of this sign very closely resemble jar forms found at Kalibangan. My personal view is that particularly the representation of this sign freely drawn on pottery and copper tablets leaves little room for doubt that it is a container.

Parpola now thinks that it represents the front view of a bull or a cow with curved horns or a face. There is some parallel, it is not a very far-fetched idea, but the symbolism of the jar is much nearer. I am influenced by the fact that in the Indian tradition the ruling classes, the princes and the priests, always claim to have come from a jar. The jar-born elite is a very famous old Indian symbolism starting all the way from the RgVeda, where Agastiya and Vasishta are supposed to have been born out of jars. The major rishis were jar-born. So I have tried on an ideographic, symbolic level to connect the two, but I have sufficiently emphasized in my writing that this is not decipherment. When the script died, the most important user of that symbol retained it in his mythology. Who was he? Invariably a priest or a ruler. Therefore through the pathway of Indian mythology I arrive at the conclusion that the jar sign represented the ruling elite of the Indus Valley civilization.

But within the Indus script itself it might have performed the function of a grammatical suffix. It could have been a nominal suffix, used only by the elite. Very early in my work I had tried to find the phonetic value of that sign, but for many years now I have given up working on phonetic signs because there is insufficient evidence to arrive at the phonetic value of any sign so far. I occasionally still try to do so, however.

Q: Parpola's argument that it is a representation of a cow has some appeal to me on the level of looking at cows straight on. It also seems to me that there must be some deep connection between the cow and Indus culture. Even in Harappa today cattle thieving, cattle chasing remain popular. It is changing to the buffalo, but in those days it was cattle and they must have been represented somehow.

A: Well, you have plenty of that in the animal symbolism of the seals. You have the so-called unicorn which may be a side view of an animal with two horns, one behind the other. You have the magnificent bull with the hump, or a short-horned bull always in an aggressive mood. There is no doubt that the Indus Valley people thought along these lines and could have worshipped animals, or the animals could very well have been their totem signs, one group having the unicorn, most probably the ruling group, another the elephant, another the rhinoceros and so on.

Whether the jar sign is a front view of a cow I have my reservations, but I may be influenced by my own connecting this with the mythological tradition, so I cannot claim to be a disinterested witness. Nevertheless, looking at the pictorial parallels provided by Parpola himself in his book I am not convinced - in which case at least occasionally some seal or another should show a greater fidelity to a bull or a cow's face. The two parallel lines on top of the jar are parallel, they are not horizontal or slanted. If they are slanted they are slanted downwards, they do not look like horns at all to me.

Similarly many years earlier the Russians said it represented the front view of the hull of a ship. Well, they have not been pursuing this. Those who are not dealing with the decipherment of the Indus script like B.B. Lal all say it looks like a jar. It could be an agricultural [storage] jar, or a ritualistic jar as I believe. It does not appear to be the same as the perforated jar, but I think that it is some kind of a jar which is related to the ruling elite. But in the Indus Valley itself it would have primarily a phonetic value.

There is also a famous sealing where you find this particular jar with a lid on it shown. About half a dozen examples are available of this jar sign which I think Parpola has overlooked. But the argument is still unsettled. Here again I do not think how the question will be settled without a bilingual or a syllabic version of the Indus script being spelt out and a jar being replaced by two symbols which could be read. But that is still in the future.