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Ashvins › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 30 June 2016
The Ashvins (Carly Bertn)
The Ashvins (aka Asvins, Asvinau, or Asvini Kumaras) are two twin brothers of Hindu mythology, sons of the sun god Surya. They may also be referred to as the 'Horsemen' and are forever young, handsome, and athletic. They are considered the physicians of the gods. As twins, they represent a cosmic duality of ideas such as light and dark, healing and destruction.In many ways they are similar to the Dioskouroi ( Castor and Pollux ) of Greek and Roman mythology and may well have been based on historical figures, perhaps two rulers famous for their skills in battle and good deeds.


The Ashvins appear in Vedic literature (1500 – 1000 BCE) as the twin sons of Surya the sun god or of the sky. Their mother is Samjna (Conscience), the daughter of Visvakarma. Unfortunately, Samjna became so tired of Surya's brilliant light that she one day gave him a handmaid, Chaya (Shade), and left him to live a life of reflection in the forests, transformed into a mare.Surya was not to be so easily deprived though and disguised as a stallion mated with Samjna. The resulting offspring were Revanta (chief of the Guhyakas) and the two twins. The twins are also considered the parents of Nakula and Sahadeva, the Pandu princes.


The two brothers are forever youthful, handsome, brilliant, golden, fast, and athletic. Compassionate, they help those in need from old women to soldiers left behind by a retreating army. They also represent duality, can change their form at will, and possess the power to cure. Indeed, this latter ability meant that they are the subject of many Hindu hymns as they are considered the official doctors of svarga, one of the intermediary heavens and realm of Indra. In this guise, they are known individually as Dasra and Nasatya or collectively as Dasras, Nasatyas, Gadagadau, or Svarvaidyau.


The Ashvins' name derives from the Sanskrit asva or 'horse' and they are closely associated with that animal, sometimes even considered to have the bodies of men and the head of a horse, but as with many other Hindu deities, they have several alternative names too. These include Abdhijau ('ocean born'), Badaveyau (after their father in some texts, Badava, underground fire), and Puskarasrajau ('wreathed in lotuses'). The Ashvins are very rarely depicted in ancient Hindu art, but they do appear as figure sculptures on the 12th-century CE gopurams (monumental gates) at Chidambaram.


The Ashvins' medical skills famously helped the sage Cyavana who, when he reached a very old age, they returned to a state of youth. This apparently selfless act was in fact motivated by a promise from Cyavana's wife Sukanya that should they restore good health to her husband then she would reveal to the Ashvins the one thing which they lacked to become complete gods.The twins obliged and told Cyavana to bathe in a pond, and on immersing himself in its waters, he emerged as a sprightly youth. Good on her promise, Sukanya then told the Ashvins that they were not complete because they did not drink the elixir soma, like the other gods.


The twins then set about acquiring some soma and eventually succeeded in persuading Dadhyanc, son of the Atharvan priest, to teach them the sacrificial ceremony which involved the sacred drink. There had been the problem that Indra did not want the Ashvins to drink soma as they were, he felt, contaminated by their spending too much time with humans. The great god threatened terrible revenge if the twins were to find out about the ceremony and get their hands on soma. The Ashvins got around this by giving Dadhyanc a new head so that when Indra did find out he had taught them of soma, he lopped off Dadhyanc's new head but then, having carefully stored it, the Ashvin's were able to give back to Dadhyanc his original head.


The Ashvins have another important duty, which is to ride with their father in his golden chariot across the sky each day as he brings warmth and sunlight to the earth. Sometimes they have their own golden chariot which has three wheels and is pulled by either horses or birds, on other occasions they ride only their horses. Specifically, they precede their father and so have become the personification of the morning twilight. As they strike their horses with their whips, they dispel the morning dew.

Indus Script › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Cristian Violatti
published on 05 June 2015
Unicorn Seal - Indus Script (Mukul Banerjee)
The Indus Script is the writing system developed by the Indus Valley Civilization and it is the earliest form of writing known in the Indian subcontinent. The origin of this script is poorly understood: this writing system remains undeciphered, there is no agreement on the language it represents, no bilingual texts have been found thus far and its connection with Indian writing systems proper (eg Brahmi, Devanagari and Bengali script) is uncertain. This is the main reason why the Indus ValleyCivilization is one of the least known of the important early civilizations of antiquity.
During the early Harappan phase (c. 3500-2700 BCE), we find the earliest known examples of the Indus Script signs, attested on Ravi and Kot Diji pottery excavated at Harappa. Based on the fact that only one sign is displayed on the pottery surface, these examples represent a premature stage in the development of the Indus Script. Its full development was reached during the Urban period (c. 2600-1900 BCE), when longer inscriptions are recorded. Thousands of inscriptions are known from some 60 excavation sites: most of them are short, the average length is five signs and none of them is longer than 26 signs.


Examples of Indus writing has been found on seals and seal impressions, pottery, bronze tools, stoneware bangles, bones, shells, ladles, ivory and on small tablets made of steatite, bronze and copper. Square stamp seals are the dominant form of Indus writing media; they are normally an inch square (2.54 centimetres) displaying the script itself on the top and an animal motif at the centre. They are chiefly made of steatite, some of them include a layer of a smooth glassy-looking material, but there are also examples of seals made of silver, faience and calcite. The seals were pressed on a pliable surface (eg clay) in order to replicate its image.


Since the Indus Script has not been deciphered yet, its use is not known with certainty and all that we think we know is based on archaeological evidence alone. Some of the seals may have been used as amulets or talismans, but they also had a practical function as a marker for identification. Since writing in ancient times is generally associated with elites trying to record and control transactions, it is also believed that the Indus Script was used as an administrative tool. There are also examples of this script being used on clay tags attached to bundles of goods that were traded between merchants; some of these clay tags have been found in the Mesopotamia region, well outside the Indus Valley, a testimony of how wide goods travelled in ancient times.
The Indus Script was also used in the context of 'narrative imagery': these images included scenes related to myths or stories, where the script was combined with images of humans, animals and/or imaginary creatures depicted in active poses. This last use resembles the religious, liturgical and literary use which is well attested in other writing systems.


Slightly over 400 basic signs have been identified as part of the Indus Script. Only 31 of these signs occur over 100 times, while the rest were not used regularly. This leads researchers to believe that a large amount of the Indus Script was actually written on perishable materials, such as palm leaves or birch, which did not survive the destruction of time. This is hardly surprising considering that palm leaves, birch and bamboo tubes were widely used as writing surfaces in south and south east Asia. Some researchers have argued that the roughly 400 symbols can actually be reduced to 39 elementary signs, the rest being merely variations of styles and differences between scribes.
There are a number of factors preventing scholars from unlocking the mystery of the Indus Script. To begin with, some of the languages of ancient times, such as Egyptian, were deciphered thanks to the recovery of bilingual inscriptions, that is by comparing an unknown script with a known one. Unfortunately, no bilingual inscriptions have yet been found to allow the Indus Script to be compared to a known writing system.
Indus Valley Seals

Indus Valley Seals

Another obstacle for its decipherment relates to the fact that all of the inscriptions found so far are relatively short, fewer than 30 signs. This means that analysing recurring sign patterns, another technique that can help to unlock the meaning of a writing system, cannot be successfully performed for the Indus Script.
The last important reason why the Indus Script remains undeciphered, and possibly the most debated of all, is that the language (or languages) that the script represents is still unknown. Scholars have suggested a number of possibilities: Indo-European and Dravidian are the two language families most commonly favoured, but other options have been proposed as well, such as Austroasiatic, Sino-Tibetan, or perhaps a language family that has been lost. On the basis of the material culture associated with the Indus Valley Civilization, a number of scholars have suggested that this civilization was not Indo-European.


Although decipherment of the Indus Script has not been possible yet, the majority of the scholars who have studied it agree on a number of points:
  • The Indus Script was generally written from right to left. This is the case in most examples found, but there are some exceptions where the writing is bidirectional, which means that the direction of the writing is in one direction on one line but in the opposite direction on the next line.
  • The representation of certain numerical values has been identified. A single unit was represented by a downward stroke, while semicircles were used for units of ten.
  • The Indus Script combined both word signs and symbols with phonetic value. This type of writing system is known as "logo-syllabic", where some symbols express ideas or words while others represent sounds. This view is based on the fact that roughly 400 signs have been identified, which makes it unlikely that the Indus Script was solely phonetic. However, if the hypothesis that the hundreds of signs can be reduced to just 39 is true, that means that the Indus Script could be solely phonetic.


By 1800 BCE, the Indus Valley Civilization saw the beginning of its decline. As part of this process, writing started to disappear. As the Indus Valley Civilization was dying, so did the script they invented. The Vedic culture that would dominate North India for the centuries to come did not have a writing system, nor did they adopt the Indus Script. In fact, India would have to wait more than 1,000 years to see the return of writing.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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