Fired by John Chadwick's classic in archaeology, 'The Decipherment of Linear-B', that chronicles how the secrets of the late Minoan and Mycenaean civilisation in ancient Greece were unveiled, renowned Indologist Prof Asko Parpola set out on an equally challenging task over 45 years back to crack the script of the Indus Valley Civilisation. For someone who has done a lifetime of monumental research on 'Deciphering the Indus Script' even using modern computerised tools, Parpola, whose path-breaking study on 'A Dravidian Solution to the Indus Script Problem' had bagged the 'Kalaignar M Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Research Award' at the 'World Classical Tamil Conference (WCTC)' in Coimbatore, is remarkably self-effacing and realistic. A diligent scholar from Finland in both 'Vedic' and 'Dravidian' studies,spoke to M R Venkatesh of 'Deccan Herald'.
What prompted you to undertake this amazing intellectual journey?
Well, my interest in the Indus Script was aroused during my student years. I also studied the classical languages of Europe, Greek and Latin, when I became a student of Helsinki University in 1959. At that time there was much discussion whether the ‘Linear-B Script’ had been deciphered or not. Actually it had been deciphered in 1952. A book on it by John Chadwick came out in 1960. I read it and it was quite fascinating. I was quite convinced that this (decipherment) is correct though there were still some Greek scholars who were sceptical. And then, my childhood friend Seppo Koskenniemi who was working for IBM in Finland asked if I would like to try computers for any problem in my field. He volunteered to do the programming; so at that time I thought we might do something useful to promote the study of the Indus Script. Because compiling statistics (on the frequency with which signs are repeated, etc.) has been very useful in all decipherment
attempts. My brother Simo who studied ‘Assyriology’ also joined the team.
How did you use computer technology in this study of Indus Script as India's renowned epigraphist, Iravadham Mahadevan says you are the first person to have done it?
Asko Parpola: Well, it is not me. Seppo Koskenniemi and his brother Kimmo Koskenniemi, who is now Professor of Computer Linguistics at the University of Helsinki, assisted me. They have been there from the beginning.
On your seminal work on the Indus Script, what effected your change of approach to include sociology, anthropology and linguistics, instead of just an epigraphist approach that failed to make headway earlier?
Well, actually, I have not changed my approach. It has been there all the time.
I think every aspect has to be taken into consideration. We have to take advantage of every possible source (of knowledge) at our disposal.
Your solution to the Indus Script riddle - that the underlying s a syncretism rather than a collusive view of Indo-Aryan and the Dravidian family of languages. Your comments please?
Yes, I think these two language families have been in contact with each other ever since the Indo-Aryan speakers entered South Asia. It is impossible to leave Indo-Aryan sources out of account. They have preserved very important information of Harappan heritage.
One of 20th century's greatest philosophers Wittgenstein had said understanding a language is understanding a whole form of life. Has your findings on Indus Script vindicated that insight on how language works?
Well, may be. You are putting it in very lofty words. I think every language is a unique way to see the world. I am using this phrase in connection with the tragic situation that is prevailing now in the world. So many languages, minority languages, are disappearing. At the moment, we are still having may be some 5,000 languages in the world, but very rapidly a large number of them have disappeared. It is just as with plant and animal species. Once they have gone, you can't get them back and each of them is a unique
creation which is very valuable.
But these linguistic identities, when politicised, could lead to all kinds of disastrous consequences. So how is a harmonious understanding of world languages possible?
Yes. Besides Tamil, there are other Dravidian languages that have descended from the proto-Dravidian. But Tamil has preserved the language structure in a very archaic form. And also it has very ancient sources that are very precious. But at the same time, we must say that ‘Sanskrit’ has also preserved a very important part of the Indus heritage. So, it is impossible to say that there is something like ‘pure Dravidian’ or ‘pure Aryan’. They should not be pitted against each other. I mean, there has been mixture from the beginning. And even if you look at the history of Tamil Nadu, the ‘Brahmins’ were here
already in ‘Sangam’ times. So, they have also contributed hugely to the Tamil civilisation. So you have at least these two main language groups in India from very early times, side by side.
Your next project: will you continue your work on the Indus script?
I think it will be difficult not to continue, but actually my PhD was originally on ‘Sama Veda’ and I have been doing ‘Sama Vedic’ research in South India for many decades. There is a lot of material which I have not really had a good opportunity to work on, but which I would like to publish. Also, the ‘Thirukkural’ (of Tamil Saint-poet Thiruvalluvar) is a timeless book. I am working on a translation of it into Finnish and I would like the Finns also to have it.
How do you see the WCTC's significance? Has it provided a platform to take forward your work on the Indus script?
Yes, I think so. For the Indus script it (WCTC) is certainly very important, a big boost to draw the attention of more Tamil and other Dravidian scholars into this venture. Scholars should get funds to pursue the studies further.