If my visit to Lothal in Gujarat (“Time Travel,” India Currents, May 2007) was the beginning of a fascination for the Harappan peoples, then Dholavira was the high point of that fascination.
I was staying with a close friend in Jamnagar who suggested that a trip to Lothal should be followed up with a trip to Dholavira—from port to metropolis of the Harappans. I promptly consented.
I hired a taxi from Jamnagar to Dholavira, and set off. We covered the 390 kilometers (242 miles) distance with an overnight halt at the Quality Inn in Gandhidham, a bustling port town in western Gujarat.
After settling down at the inn, I conducted an internet research on Dholavira, gathering interesting bits of information. Mohen-jo-daro and Harappa were first discovered by Sir John Marshall in 1920 and he called it the Indus Civilization since it flourished in the valley of that river. Marshall’s announcement wowed the world and pushed India’s history back by 2,000 years.
With the prime sites Mohen-jo-daro and Harappa going to Pakistan at the time of Partition in 1947, however, a feverish search began in India to locate and excavate Indus sites. Archaeologists began uncovering a civilization so vast that at its peak it is estimated to have encompassed a staggering 1.5 million square kilometers—an area larger than Western Europe! In size it diminished contemporary civilizations in the Nile Valley in Egypt and in the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys in Sumer (modern Iraq). Its geographical boundaries are now believed to extend up to the Iranian border in the west, Turkmenistan and Kashmir in the north, Delhi in the east, and the Godavari valley in the south.
In the 1990s a team of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), headed by archaeologist Ravindra Singh Bisht discovered Dholavira on the salty marshes of the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. Bisht said, “Exploring Dholavira is like opening a complete book on the Indus. We now have answers to the most enduring riddles about the civilization.”
For starters, Indus town planners were not as monotonous and regimented as archaeologists had us believe until then. In Dholavira they display surprising exuberance that expresses itself in elaborate, stone gateways with rounded columns, and giant reservoirs for water. Bisht also found a board inlaid with large Harappan script characters—probably the world’s first billboard!
Next morning, looking forward to the historical sights awaiting us, we got back on the road towards Dholavira.
Soon I noticed the hinterland becoming scantier in both plants and populace; the few folks on the roadside were dressed in shocking shades of reds, blues, and oranges. And finally the last few souls too disappeared and there was an eerie barrenness amidst the shimmer of the desert heat as we drove into the Rann. But nature presents myriad pleasant distractions and soon the barrenness ceased to bother us. On either side of the glistening snake of the road lay the sea reduced to great slates of salt. Salt had collected into tall conical mountains; the white of the salt lent the whole place a strange arctic look.
Then the road bifurcated, with one fork marked “BOP (border out post), Way to Rann,” and the other “Way to Dholavira.”
We decided to travel a little further down the road marked “BOP,” to catch a glimpse of the India-Pakistan border. But immediately two uniformed Border Security Force (BSF) guards stopped us, saying that we needed permission from their superior for going further. Obtaining permission, we proceeded ahead, accompanied by the BSF personnel but saw nothing of the border, which is another 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the Rann. So we decided to retrace our path, and continue on the fork that led to Dholavira.
A little before the actual site we passed a respectable-looking hotel of Gujarat State Tourism. Down the road, the newly constructed ASI museum rose to sight. Immediately upon entering the museum, we were met by a couple of ASI employees who welcomed us, expressing surprise at our visit during the hot off-season.
Many of the artifacts in the small museum were similar to the ones displayed in the Lothal museum I had visited earlier—pottery; terracotta figurines; bead, shell and copper jewelry; seals; and weights and measures. Yet there were some novel and amazing artifacts such as a set of chessmen suggesting that a chess-like game had been in vogue then! Gold bangles and various shapes and sizes of grinding stones suggested that the ancients took their cooking seriously.
An ASI employee, Ravjibhai, gave us a tour of the ruins of the Harappan civilization excavated in 1990. He pointed to two storm water channels—Manhar (to the north) and Mansar (to the south)— which, although dry now, visibly flank the city. The city was laid out on a 13-meter gradient, higher in the east and lower in the west. A series of 26 reservoirs between the inner and outer walls of the city collect the monsoon run-off from the channels. The reservoirs skirt the city, while the citadel and baths are centrally located on raised ground.
The archaeological excavations at the site have revealed seven significant stages of the rise and fall of the first urbanization in South Asia. The western gate through which we entered can be seen as being initially built very wide and high but Ravjibhai was of the opinion that perhaps the peoples of the later civilizations were not able to maintain security and upkeep of such a wide gate so they blocked most of it and the stairs leading from the gate upwards and inwards to the citadel too, were narrowed later.
Finally, we witnessed the most stunning feature of the city—a unique water-harnessing and storm-water drainage system. Before us lay a 7-meter deep and 79 meters long reservoir cut vertically through the rock!
“Excavation is time-consuming and tedious,” explained Ravjibhai. “We don’t use spades to dig, we work with small chisels and paint brushes. Work can be done only during the short winter period of two or three months and sadly archaeologists do not want to come to this place to work as it’s remote, so the work is further delayed. In 17 years this is all we have been able to unearth.”
Ravjibhai, a native of a nearby village, had worked closely with the archaeologists since 1990. He knew every nook and corner of the place, every excavated artifact, and every detail intimately.
“I’ve been working as a daily wager for 17 years now as the officers are not keen on regularizing my job. Who will act servant to them then? Huh? Had such a spectacular site been discovered in another country by now there would be an airport there but no one’s interested in this place. The archaeologists get themselves transferred and the government is oblivious to the goings on,” he complained.
We looked closely at the reservoirs and drainage system. He showed us small windows that were cut to filter the water as it moved from one reservoir to the next. A large well, equipped with a stone-cut trough to connect the drain meant for conducting water to a storage tank, lies on one side of the citadel and lower down on the other side can be seen figure-of-eight structures probably used for bathing.
At the foot of the citadel lies the town. A spectacularly planned marketplace is in full view—streets crisscross the marketplace and in places the underground drainage lies excavated. On the other side of the citadel are residential quarters as meticulously built as the marketplace. At the foot of the citadel we could see an Olympic-like stadium with seating on different levels. But the track, where sports and entertainment must have been held, is still a private, cultivated, rectangular plot of land. The government has yet to buy it from the owner.
From atop the citadel we could see the other gates—eastern and northern, all obeying the rules of Vastu Shastra. Just a little above the stadium, protected and wrapped under tin sheets lies the most important of the artifacts discovered at Dholavira—a sign board with an unique inscription of 10 large signs, yet un-deciphered.
“Two kilometers from here we have discovered a copper factory,” Ravjibhai told us. “Just imagine how huge this town must have been and so well planned.”
As we wound up our visit and walked back to the museum, I noticed a cluster of small circular structures, which, Ravjibhai told us, are for housing students of archaeology and archaeologists from around the world.
The sun was now setting over the desolate ruins of Dholavira, the location where the sun of the Harappan civilization had set many centuries ago.
Anita Kainthla has authored three books (a collection of poetry; a biography of Baba Amte; and the religious and historical background of Tibet), and writes features and travelogs for magazines.