Civilised past

Last Updated 19 April 2014, 14:57 IST

Present-day Lothal near Ahmedabad showcases a past of prosperity, albeit in a museum, which belonged to the admired Indus Valley Civilisation, writes chitra Ramaswamy.

The International Kite Festival took me to Gujarat.

While in Ahmedabad, I decided on an impulse to take a walk back in time, to the Indus Valley Civilisation.

So Lothal it was, 85 km from Ahmedabad, the once prominent ancient city and a trade centre of the civilisation.

The drive to Lothal itself was picturesque with expansive fields of sunflower and cotton. Mohammad, the young chauffeur for the day, manoeuvred the car deftly, and we skirted past the village of Saragwala in the Dholka taluk of Ahmedabad district to reach Lothal.

At Lothal, all that remains of the great civilisation, about which endless volumes have been written, are ruins of its wharf that connected the dockyard to the main warehouse, a mound and a dozen cubicle blocks that formed part of the warehouse.

But an archaeological museum adjacent to the excavation site, though small, more than makes up for the missing structures.

What stood before

Lothal, a combination of the Gujarati words ‘loth’ and ‘sthal’, means ‘mound of the dead’ and is about 270 km from Mohenjo-daro in Sindh.

Its name is in keeping with Mohenjo-daro, which means the same in the Sindhi language.

With the partition in 1947, while Harappa and Mohenjo-daro became part of Pakistan, Lothal remained on Indian soil.

Thanks to the efforts of the Archaeological Survey of India, spearheaded by S S Rao, Lothal came out of oblivion in 1954.

He apparently stumbled upon it while on a mission to survey the Sabarmati Valley.

Its dockyard, believed to be the world’s foremost, was scientifically developed and boasted a unique maritime architecture that used lock gates.

In its days of glory that peaked during 2200-2000 BC, it connected the city to an ancient course of the Sabarmati river, facilitating trade between the Harappan cities in Sindh and the peninsula of Saurashtra, which then was part of the Arabian Sea.

Originally a small village, Lothal rose in status as an important city around 2400 BCE, when the Harappans settled in it.

They were attracted to it by its sheltered harbour, terrain and topography that was conducive to rice and cotton cultivation, and above all, by its established and famed bead-making industry.

The Harappans founded a planned city there, dividing it into an acropolis inhabited by its rulers, and the lower or downtown that forked to form the commercial centre and the residential locality for all other dwellers, including the merchants and craftsmen.

It displayed all signs of aristocracy, with special paved baths, underground and surface drains built of kiln-fired bricks and wells supplying potable water. Downtown Lothal witnessed periodic expansion as the city prospered.

Scientific advances and engineering skills were hallmarks of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Excavations show evidence that Lothal contributed one of three measurement scales that are integrated and linear, the other two being found in Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.

The smallest known decimal divisions scale made from ivory has been discovered at Lothal.

Lothal engineers were known for their impeccable drainage system that had corbelled roofs over brick-faced platforms, where the sewerage entered the cesspool.

Similarly, bricks were designed most scientifically to suit the structures.

Museum cache

The museum is home to some prized collections of Indus-era antiques in modern India and throws light on aspects of the Harappan life.

It is evident that bead making was an important industry. Processed semiprecious stones of Lothal were exported to Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Egypt.

The Harappan ports of Megham and Bhagatray served as entry points for the semiprecious stones from the mines of Ratanpur and other areas lying south of India.

The most scintillating bead works of Lothal were the 1-3 mm long, perforated microbeads crafted out of talc and kaolinite.

The abundantly available conches in the east of Kutch and Kathiawar, the large elephant habitat in Saurashtra, gave rise to the fine inlay work in shell and ivory that were exported.

An elephant bone and other objects dug up at Lothal suggest the skilled nature of its bone workers who also produced objects like pens, ornaments, awls and knives.

History records that the Indus people  had invented tools unknown to other civilisations at the time,  and that the scientists were far ahead of the Greeks in pioneering the study of stars and advanced navigation using the humble shell compass.

The museum displays masterpieces of glyptic art. These seals in different patterns portray animal figures and fine calligraphy made to perfection from steatite, a soft stone.

Also, they used imported siliceous stone to give impetus to the stone blade industry.

Lothal, an important metal-working centre, had imports of arsenic-free copper from Saudi Arabia and Oman, which it used in making hand tools, household utensils and animal figures.

Pottery was a significant small-scale industry. Jars, beakers and goblets were produced variously.

The museum also showcases ornaments, indoor games, household utensils and human and animal figurines made from an amalgam of materials.

Religion and rituals

Seals dug out from the ruins lead one to surmise that the people of Lothal worshipped a fire god, depicted as a horned deity.

It is also palpable that animal sacrifice associated with the ancient Vedic religion was integral to the Lothal-ians, who held diverse religious beliefs and practised a variety of rituals.

While it is supposed that there was no particular worship of mother goddess, they paid obeisance to a sea goddess.

This belief has gained ground from the fact that present-day villagers worship Vanuvati Sikotarimata, supposedly a sea goddess.

Boats presumably sailed up to the mound and timber was shipped to Saragwala and Broach in 1942, navigating through the now-silted creek linking modern Bholad with Lothal and Saragwala.

Civilisation here survived long after the core of the Indus civilisation fell into decay in Harappa and Mohenja-daro.

Though people still continued to inhabit Lothal and preserved their religious and traditional moorings, they were unable to resurrect the city that was devastated by floods and other natural calamities.

(Published 19 April 2014, 14:10 IST)

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