Harappan Archaeomusicology research to recreate ancient sounds

 Harappan Archaeomusicology research to recreate ancient sounds

Team L&M

India International Centre (IIC) recently presented a unique programme on Harappan Musicology and New Linguistic Evidence for Words they may have Spoken. It was an audio-visual presentation by Shail Vyas, Homi Bhabha Fellow, Mumbai, musicologist and composer. The program was chaired by KN Shrivastava, Director, IIC, IAS (Retd.). Others present included archaeologists Dr RS Bisht (Former Joint Director General, Archaeological Survey of India), Dr Vasant Shinde (Former Vice Chancellor, Deccan College), Dr BR Mani (Former Director General, National Museum) and Dr KN Dikshit.

The presentation was moderated by Dr VN Prabhakar, Associate Prof. IIT Gandhinagar; Former Director, Archaeological Survey of India

The programme presented a unique experience of recreated sounds and music of Harappan musical instruments and to hear the words they may have spoken – a new and fascinating research on Harappan Archaeomusicology that attempts to recreate ancient sounds. Harappan music has never been studied so far. Vyas has been working on this subject to solve this problem since 2011. He has identified about 20 possible instruments from Harappan period and many more from other ancient times. He also attempted a recreation of early prototypes of various Harappan instruments, which were shown in context of a musical performance through a beautifully shot high quality video.

This innovative multidisciplinary research also revealed a large set of linguistic data that strongly point towards a language that the Harappans may have spoken, a fiercely-debated question of ancient Indian history with respect to Aryan theory.

Harappans had possibly a large-scale trade with other contemporary civilisations like Mesopotamia. In his research for any cultural exchanges that might have transpired along with the trade, Vyas found many iconographic evidences. He found written records of about 60 terminologies related to music in Sumerian literature, out of which about 30 are found to have Sanskrit originated names, including names of instruments, designations for musicians, musical notations etc. To verify the direction of this exchange, terms related to well known Harappan trade items were studied which revealed 60 more terms with Sanskrit etymologies. These include species of woods, jewellery, beads, seals, units of measurement etc. This is oldest known written records of Sanskrit terminologies found till now. Some examples are given below.

Examples of musical terminologies: 

Sanskrit Sumerian Sanskrit meaning Sumerian meaning
ḍiṇḍima dimdim a kind of drum a musical instrument
mṛja meze a kind of drum a drum
śarkara šukarak a kind of drum a musical instrument
vāṇa bana arched harp arched harp
ḍamaru dimmaršu a sacred drum a musical instrument
śamyā šamuša a kind of cymbal or other musical instrument a type of instrument
mangalatūrya malgatum an instrument played at festivals a musical instrument
mṛtyutūrya miritum an instrument played at funerals a musical instrument
sāyaṃtūrya sabitum an instrument played at evening a musical instrument
kinnara nar a class of anthropomorphic

musicians and singers

a musician and singer
ṣaḍja sagida a musical notation a musical notation
gada gude a musical instrument a lute
gargar harhar/ ĝarĝar a lute a musical instrument
svara saĝara a musical notation a musical notation
stavitṛ eštalu a praiser, singer a type of singer
gatṛ/gala gala a singer/a musical instrument and throat lamentation singer


Examples of other trade items:

Sanskrit Sumerian Sanskrit meaning Sumerian meaning
mes meṣī the tree Dalbergia Ougeinensis a tree (from Meluhha

– i.e. Harappan civilization)


(common names

asain, asin, sain, ain, saaj, aisan, etc.)

esi the tree Terminalia Tomentosa a tree (from Meluhha)
abja (Mangrove, Indian Oak,

Itchytree etc.)

abak the tree Barringtonia Acutangula a tree (from Meluhha)

(śīśam, sisam,

samazum the tree Dalbergia Sissoo a tree


sissu, etc.)
sūtrakāra šukara a carpenter carpenter
Ammarā amra/amru the second beam of timber over a door beam, timber
praśas pašu an axe a type of axe
māna mana a particular measure or weight a unit of weight
droṇa dana a unit for measuring fields a unit of length
goṇī gun a weight measure a unit of weight
Sindhu hindum Name of Indus river, used in identity of Indian land, people, religion, products etc. a bead (the most abundantly found Harappan export all over Mesopotamia)
hiraṇya hiriatum any vessel or ornament made of


an ornament of gold
nepathya nabihum an ornament, decoration, costume (especially of an actor) an ornament
mudrā musara/ mašdara seal, inscription inscription
sravadraṅga šakanka market, stirring town, a fair market
nidhimat nakamtum forming a store or containing treasure storehouse
aṃsakūṭa asqumbitum a bull’s hump hump
nandi ninda śiva’s bull (a bull calf) bull calf
romaś/lomaś maš a goat goat
akṣadevana EKIDma dice-playing, gambling a wooden object used in a game
mah/maha mah great, strong, powerful great
śaṇḍa saĝĝa a priest, a patronym chief administrator of a temple household, an official

There is much work to be done to better understand the data but the musicological data in conjunction with textual, archaeological,  botanical,  zoological  and circumstantial evidence suggest strongly that Old Indo-Aryan (commonly called as Sanskrit) was already present  in  Indian  subcontinent  during  Harappan  period,” says Vyas adding that the group of Harappans who travelled, traded and settled in Mesopotamia may have spoken some form/s of Old Indo Aryan or it was the lingua franca of the Harappan region.



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