Seventeen years into the 21st century, and we are just beginning to encrypt our messages. Since the dawn of writing, our private messages have been at risk of interception. Today, we are entering an age where everyday messages follow some form of encryption.
So, it’s curious that if you wanted a lesson in encryption in ancient India, you could have gotten one from a fourth-century B.C. temple dancer.
The Devadasis, or temple dancers, were historically known to be promiscuous. The Kama Sutra details many passages describing how their conduct should be, how they should flirt and be flirted with. But in a list of the 64 essential skills for a cultured person to have (not a bad listicle topic for 400 B.C.), the author Vatsayana includes Mlecchita Vikalpa.
The art of understanding writing in cipher, and the writing of words in a peculiar way.
Devadasis could not always keep their lovers openly, and so needed a form of private communication. Vatsayana did not describe the techniques in his Kama Sutra, but it is evident that cryptography was put to practice at the time. Written only a few centuries later or in the same time period, Kautilya’s Arthashastra also mentioned the presence of cryptographic techniques amongst the people. It was only in the 13th century A.D., that Yashodhara elaborated on these seemingly well-known techniques in his commentary on the Kama Sutra. Some of the known ancient Indian ciphers are below:
Kautiliyam: Where vowels are substituted for consonants.
Muladeviya: Where one set of characters replaces another, known only to the two parties. A more commonly-used and difficult-to-crack cipher, at the time.
Akshara Mushtika Kathana: The use of fists to convey hidden and suggestive meanings, also written as the art of talking with one’s fingers. (A famous practitioner of the 64 arts, the “Chausathi Kalna“, is the deity Jagannathan. An example of this would be classical dancers who evoke meanings with their hand gestures.)
Gudhayojya: A verbal cipher, it involves appending a random set of words to the beginning or end of each word. For example, using the addition “cat” to the sentence ‘I would like to go to a movie’ would give you ‘Cati catwould catlike catto catgo catto cata catmovie’ – which would be difficult to interpret is overheard.
According to author M.N. Krish, Vatsyayana might not have intended any harmful use for his cipher. It was most likely used to aid the sending of love letters. But several centuries since he wrote the Kama Sutra, the Arab scholar Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi (800-870 A.D.) set out to break the code.
And he did it. Al-Kindi developed the ‘frequency-analysis’ technique of codebreaking, which counts the number of times a particular character appears. The most common characters are likely vowels, such as ‘e’.
Al-Kindi’s technique remains in use today. But by then Vatsyayana’s Devadasis would have been using it for centuries.
The past offers us interesting ways to use such techniques. If you’d like to encode a message using the Muladeviya cipher, this web-tool will do the job. And if you’d like to try your luck decoding a message using frequency-analysis, this one will help you do so.
Today, if you’d like to send a secret message to a lover, a digital communication is the most sought-after approach. But spare a thought for the written letter and coded, spoken word too – for according to Vatsayana, it too is a skill of the cultured. Ancient Indian tips on sexual codes have survived millennia – so why not give them a shot?
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