Dholavira inscription: AI-Assisted translation of the Harappan script

The inscriptions at Dholavira are written in the Indus script, which is one of the oldest writing systems in the world. However, the Indus script remains largely undeciphered, so the meaning of the inscriptions is still a mystery. Dholavira is one of the largest and most well-preserved sites of the Indus Valley Civilization, which existed from approximately 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE.

One of the most significant Dholavira inscriptions is found on a large stone block in Building 10 of the site. Building 10 is a multi-level structure that is believed to have been used for public or administrative purposes.

The inscription in Building 10 consists of ten large signs or characters that are incised into the stone block. The signs are arranged in a linear sequence, and each one is approximately 37 centimeters tall.


The significance of this inscription is still a matter of debate among archaeologists and scholars.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding its meaning, the inscription in Building 10 is considered one of the most important discoveries at Dholavira. Its large size and prominent location suggest that it was a significant element of the site’s architecture and may have held great significance for the people who lived and worked there.

Unknown language

The language of the Indus Valley Civilization remains a subject of debate and speculation.

Some scholars have proposed that the language of the Indus Valley Civilization may have been Dravidian, a family of languages still spoken in South India. This hypothesis is based in part on the presence of Dravidian languages in the region today, as well as the similarities between the Indus script and later Dravidian writing systems.

Other scholars have suggested that the language of the Indus Valley Civilization may have been related to the Indo-European languages, which include Sanskrit and modern-day Hindi, as well as many European and Central Asian languages.

However, there is currently no definitive evidence to support either of these hypotheses.

Scripts that succeded the Indus script

After the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization, the region was ruled by a number of different empires and kingdoms, each of which developed their own scripts for writing. Some of the scripts that succeeded the Indus script in the region include:

  1. Brahmi script: The Brahmi script is one of the oldest writing systems in India, dating back to the 3rd century BCE. It was used to write a variety of Indian languages, including Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Pali.
  2. Kharosthi script: The Kharosthi script was used in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in the region that is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was used to write a variety of languages, including Gandhari and Sanskrit.
  3. Gupta script: The Gupta script was developed during the Gupta Empire, which ruled much of northern and central India from the 4th to the 6th century CE. It was used to write Sanskrit and other languages.
  4. Devanagari script: The Devanagari script is one of the most widely used writing systems in India today. It developed from the Brahmi script and is used to write a variety of Indian languages, including Hindi, Marathi, and Nepali.

Based on the list of scripts that followed the Harappan script, it appears that the Brahmi script would be the most logical starting point since it was the oldest and most influential. Additionally, the Sanskrit language seems like the most probable candidate for the language that was written in this script.

Comparing letters of the Brahmi script with the Dholavira signboard

Our Western writing systems have existed for thousands of years and have remained relatively unchanged. The Indus Valley script and the Brahmi script, on the other hand, are separated by only one thousand years. As a result, we might expect that at least some of the letters in the two scripts are similar, and that they still represent the same sounds.

Following this logic, I got the following list:

A few notes about each letter

One of the letters that has the highest probability of being a match is the one I labeled as “M”. This letter appears very similar in Brahmi script as well as in most regional scripts that were derived from Brahmi script. However, Brahmi script is believed to have its origins in Aramaic, which, in turn, was developed from Phoenician script. Aramaic also influenced ancient Turkic alphabets and others. In most of these languages, the letter M has a similar appearance. To illustrate this point, here are examples of the letter M from Hittite glyphs and Old Turkic alphabets:

On the side note, the first Sanskrit speakers recorded in history were actually the Mittani, who were the neighboures of the Hittites.

Some of the other letters, are almost a perfect match, when Brahmi script is compared with the Dholavira signboard. These letters are B, N and R. However, letters B and N are rotated.

Regarding the letter TH, the wheel symbol used in Dholavira script is unique and has no identical symbols in any other scripts except for possibly the Phoenician script and the Ethiopian script, which both have a similar-looking letter TH. These two scripts are also derived from the Arameic script. In the Brahmi script, the letter TH is also circular, but with a dot instead of a cross.

And finally, the two most problematic letters where the one that I matched with the sound YA, and the mysterious glyph that represents the leaves of the peepal tree.

The first letter, YA, poses two problems. Firstly, it appears differently in various versions of the Dholavira signboard, resembling either an X or ^, which is somewhat frustrating. I went with the value of YA after examining the original photo, and taking into consideration that the letter X was not commonly used in this region while that there are plenty of letters similar to ^. Initially, I attempted to match it with the symbol GA of the Brahmi script, which is possibly a better match, as YA appears to be a stylized version of the same symbol. However, in some other regional scripts, such as Karoshti, the symbol ^ represents the sound YA, which was a better fit for my translation. This is not a huge leap, as Karoshti and Brahmi share the same root and have many common letters.

The peepal leaf sound was a mystery. However, it seems that some eminent scholars proposed a value KA.

Here are some references that discuss this interpretation:

  1. Asko Parpola, an eminent scholar of Indology and one of the leading experts on the Indus script, has suggested that the peepal leaf glyph may represent the sound “ka” based on comparative studies of the Indus script with other ancient scripts. Parpola has discussed this in several of his publications, including:
  • Parpola, Asko. 1994. Deciphering the Indus script. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Parpola, Asko. 2005. Study of the Indus script. In: South Asian Archaeology 2003: Proceedings of the 17th International Conference of the European Association of South Asian Archaeologists, Volume 2, edited by Catherine Jarrige and Vincent Lefevre, 747-759. Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations.
  1. Gregory L. Possehl, another noted scholar of the Indus Valley Civilization, has also suggested that the peepal leaf glyph may represent the sound “ka.” Possehl has discussed this in his book “The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective,” published in 2002.
  • Possehl, Gregory L. 2002. The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

My attempt of translation of the Dholavira signboard

Reading the assigned sounds from left to right yielded no results. However, when I tried reading from the opposite side, I got the word M-TH-TH-R-YA. Mathathreya?

Who is Mathathreya?

Mathathtreya, also known as Lord Dattatreya, is a Hindu deity who is considered to be a combined avatar of the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Dattatreya was born in the Satya Yuga, at the begiining of time, in the first of the four Yugas or epochs of Hindu cosmology, which is said to have lasted for over 1.7 million years.

He is also known as the “Lord of Wisdom” or “Great Sage.” He is depicted with four arms, holding a conch shell, a discus, a lotus, and a mace. According to some traditions, Mathathreya is considered as the future avatar of Vishnu who will appear at the end of the current Kali Yuga (the last of the four yugas or cosmic ages in Hinduism) to restore order and righteousness on earth.

Mathathreya is described as one of the prime disciples of the ancient sage Vedavyasa, who is credited with compiling and composing the Vedas.

Here are some examples of Sanskrit texts that mention Mathathreya:

  1. The Bhagavata Purana: This Hindu text describes Mathathreya as one of the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu, who appeared in the form of a great sage to teach wisdom and spirituality to humanity.
  2. The Brahma Sutras: This text of the Vedanta school of philosophy mentions Mathathreya as one of the prime disciples of Vedavyasa, who received the knowledge of the ultimate reality (Brahman) from his guru.
  3. The Mahabharata: This epic Hindu text refers to Mathathreya as one of the sages who witnessed the conversation between the Pandava prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.
  4. The Buddhist canon: In Buddhist texts such as the Pali Canon and the Mahayana sutras, Mathathreya is described as a future Buddha who will appear in a future age to teach the Dharma and lead sentient beings to enlightenment.
  5. Jain Agamas: In the Jain tradition, Mathathreya is considered as one of the four tirthankaras of the present cosmic cycle, who preached the Jain teachings and attained liberation from the cycle of birth and death (samsara).

The Aryan connection

According to some theories, Mathathreya is a compund word, meaning “of three mothers”, refering to his combined nature of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. This name sounds very similar to that of Hermes Trismegistus, who was also said to have three mothers. Other theories, connect the name Mathathreya to that of Mithras, the god of light in Indo-Iranian mythology.

In any case, this mythological archetype is really ancient, and it would have been known to the Indus Valley Civilization. Mathathreya was the one who blessed Arjuna before the battle, and this battle, if it ever really happened, could have only happened while Indus Valley Civilization still thrived.

The lord of the elements and spirits

Mathathreya was said to have 24 gurus. They were all elements of nature. The Sanskrit word “butha” (भूत) means “element”, “being”, “spirit”, or “entity”. And this is perhaps the second word that we can read on the Dholavira signboard – BU-THA.

Therefore, the first two words of the Dholavira signboard could read MATHATHREYA BUTHA

After that, the peepal leaf symbol gave me a lot of headaches. I kept the proposed value KA. The last two syllables would read NA-THA. In Sanskrit, “natha” (नाथ) means “lord” or “master”. It is often used as a suffix in compound words to indicate someone who is a master or expert in a particular field or discipline. For example, “yoganatha” would mean “master of yoga”

The final translation, with the help of AI

As I am not a Sanskritist, I had to use AI to check if my assumptions are correct. I entered these words in ChatGPT and got a confirmation that they are grammaticaly correct.

Mathathtreya butha ka natha – “Lord Dattatreya, who is the one who protects and nourishes all beings.”

Moreover, ChatGPT provided me with similar examples from Sanskrit litterature.

Mathathtreya puṇya pāvana nātha” appears in the Mahabharata, which means “Lord Dattatreya, the sanctifier of merit and our protector.”

Mathathtreya vade bhutavidya” – This means “Mathathtreya spoke about knowledge of the elements” and occurs in the Vishnu Purana.

To summarize, this translation is based on the most recognizable script and language from the time period, and the message is consistent with the style and ideas of that era. To verify its accuracy, the sound values I assigned should be applied to translate another inscription. However, I must note that I am not aware of any other inscription that uses only these symbols. This means that more Indus Valley symbols must be deciphered before we can attempt to translate other inscriptions.


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