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I was recently at Sasan, in the Gir forests of Gujarat, for a research and writing project. The government lodge there offers not very glamorous but clean and affordable accommodations so I took a room there. It was there that I heard about Lothal one cold evening during a “bonfire soiree” organized by the lodge staff. My lodgemates, a Gujarati NRI family, were recounting the experiences of their Gujarat expedition. Just the previous day they had visited Lothal, an important site of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, which had been re-excavated post-independence, during the early 1950s.
The morning after the bonfire soiree I was to catch a flight from Ahmedabad back to Chennai. My flight, originally scheduled for 2 p.m., was re-scheduled to 4 p.m. Would that give me time to visit Lothal on the way? The drive from Sasan to Ahmedabad was about five hours, I estimated. I would reach Lothal in approximately four hours and, going by my informants, it would take another 20 minutes to reach Lothal from the main highway. Yes, I decided, if I left early I could do it.
I have always enjoyed early morning drives when the sun feels pleasant on the horizon, and the air is so crisp that it pricks you with its sharpness. The taxi driver was thankfully a silent and punctual man; we began early at 6 and during the next four hours I lavished my senses with the splendor of the early morning sun and air, quite undisturbed by the taciturn man at the wheel.
By 10 the sun had become fierce and the air heavy and blunt, as we entered Ahmedabad district. The driver slowed down to locate the narrow metalled road, marked by a large sign, that bifurcates from the left side of the highway and leads to Lothal. This road pierces through vast fields of cotton and rice plantations and immediately one senses the abrupt transition from the urban highway to the rustic country road.
Gujarat has the best constructed and maintained roads in the country; even this country road, passing through the village of Sarajwala, is smooth and free of potholes. As the driver maneuvered around the bends of the road, we encountered the stares of villagers, some at work in the fields, and others on their heavily loaded ox-carts and tractors. Cars were few, so I presumed that Lothal was not a popular tourist destination.
The road finally ends at the entrance to the site of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, which has been very recently declared a World Heritage Site.
My decision to first visit the museum maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India proved wise as I was able to better comprehend the construction of the town that must have flourished there some 4,000 years ago.
As I entered the museum, a large painting on the opposite wall met my eyes; it was an artist’s imagination of the town as it must have existed. This pictographic representation transported me in a time machine manner, to an era of skilled craftsmen and traders.
The well preserved and neatly laid out exhibits on the walls tell the tale of a civilization that was well advanced in its knowledge of metals and alloys from which it manufactured pots and pans, instruments, weapons, toys, and ornaments. I was struck by the precise craftsmanship of the many articles on exhibit, which combined practical utility with aesthetics. An exquisitely chiseled hand mirror made me stop in my tracks. Did they already know how to manufacture mirrors? The tablet on the side explained that an alloy of tin and copper was molded and polished into a reflecting surface. The potters, like the blacksmiths, had crafted articles for common usage, decorating them with geometric motifs.
Next, I stepped into the most interesting section of the museum for me—a display of ornaments. Unique necklaces, bracelets, and earrings made with micro-beads of gold. What caught my fancy were some of the tiniest beads I’d ever seen, as little as 0.25 mm! In addition, there were numerous ornaments of gilded copper wires, shells, and clay, which must have been used by the not-so- affluent of those times. My imagination took wings. I visualized rugged, dusky, and sinewy women adorned by these treasures. And then coming back to my own times I realized that beaded jewelry is once again finding favor with women these days; we women surely are coming full circle in our taste for jewelry.
I came across a large clay model of the town that must have existed in Lothal—another artist’s imagination at work. I was now ready to see the ruins of the ancient Lothal.
“This way, madam,” said a chatty young guide, who attached himself to me, leading me around the circumference of the mound on which the town of Lothal had been built.
The first sight that met my eye was a massive dockyard, which, the guide informed me, has made Lothal prominent on the international archaeological map. It is perhaps the greatest work of maritime architecture before the birth of Christ. It was excavated besides the river Sabarmati, which has since changed course; the proof lies scattered in the numerous shells strewn on the barren mound. Along with other tourists, I fell to collecting what shells and pieces of broken pottery I could, to take back as souvenirs. However, not all archaeologists are convinced that the structure was used as a dockyard; some believe it was a large tank that served as a reservoir.
A long wharf connects the dockyard to the main warehouse, located at a height above the ground. This definitely must have been done to protect the city from floods and tides. Rising from the flat alluvial plains a wall is discernable, which encircles the whole town. Near the warehouse, also on a high plinth, is the upper town, or acropolis, with extensive drainage systems. I stopped to read the blue rusted boards for information on the acropolis but the guide pulled me away. “Listen, madam, I will tell you everything. Board has nothing.”
The rooms of the upper town were built for the upper classes, he said definitively. Their luxury is evident in the private brick baths and a remarkable network of drains and cesspools. A grand palace close to the warehouse has foundations that indicate that it must have been two- or three-storied. “This belonged to ruler, to king,” continued the guide in his broken but understandable English.
From the plinth of the acropolis, the lower town, with its commercial and residential area, is at a short distance. Criss-crossing the lower town are numerous streets and lanes. The bead factories, the main industry of the Harappans, explained the guide, were situated in the lower town. Next to the bead lapidaries is a coppersmith’s workshop, lined with bricks and identified by its furnace. Niches in the workshop’s walls were probably used to hold lamps for providing light to the workers.
“The word Lothal means ‘Place of the Dead’ in Gujarati, madam,” said the guide though why it was so named he could not explain. Everyone knows that the Indus Valley Civilization disappeared from Mohenjodaro but fewer know that the Harappan culture made its last stand in Gujarat. Not only is it one of the southernmost outposts of the subcontinent’s oldest civilization, but it saw all the phases of the civilization that had all but disappeared from Mohenjodaro in Sindh.
The blue, rusting signs at the site document the history. The civilization survived here in Lothal till the 16th century B.C.E., long after it had disappeared from the northern provinces and the result is a high maturity in town planning and a fine insight provided by the less derelict ruins. The vitality of the civilization at Lothal can be judged by the three floods that resulted in large-scale destruction but were unable to dampen the ambitions of the inhabitants. Instead, they repaired the gaps and re-built the important structures on higher platforms. Once again I could only marvel at the ingenuity of the ancient Harappans.
With memories recorded on my camera and mind, I wound up my visit. My silent companion at the wheel and I sped off to cover the last hour of our journey from Lothal to the Ahmedabad international airport, from the ruins of one civilization to the flourishing life of another one.
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.
Indus Valley Civilization
The Harappans had undoubtedly a mature culture. Around 2,400 B.C.E. they arrived in Lothal from the Indus valley, probably in search of more fertile lands and potential ports. But the Harappans, it seems, were attracted to Lothal not only by its sheltered harbor with a rich cotton and rice growing hinterland, but also by its bead-making industry. One of the few known ports on the ocean, it was originally the site for the Red Ware culture, and known for its micaceous pottery.
Lothal developed as the most important port and center of bead industry until 1900 B.C.E., when a great flood apparently resulted in 300 years of decline.
While planning the town it seems that the Lothal engineers accorded priority to two needs: a dock for berthing ships, and a warehouse for storing and examining cargo.
Weights and Measures
Perhaps the most unique feature on display in the museum in Lothal are the weights and measures. The tablets explain that bricks were in a perfect ratio and the decimal system was used. Weights were based on units of .05, 0.1, 1.25, 5, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500, with each unit weighing approximately 28 gms, similar to English ounce or Greek Unica.
Lothal is 82 km (51 miles) from Ahmedabad and 7 km (4 miles) from the Ahmedabad-Bhavnagar highway. The nearest major train station and airport is in Ahmedabad. In Ahmedabad one can either hire a taxi to Lothal or utilize the state transport bus services.
Where to Stay
The Palace Utelia, a renovated turn-of-the-century castle is located six miles from the archaeological zone. n
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