The best laid plans

The best laid plans

Decoding Dholavira: How and why did Dholavira, once a ‘smart city’ and now an archaeological site, spring up in the wilderness of Gujarat, you wonder?

In the 1960s, farmers tilling their lands on an island in the Rann of Kutch turned up some curious objects which they handed over to a museum in nearby Bhuj. When archaeologist J P Joshi saw these objects, he instantly recognised them as Harappan seals. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that systematic archaeological excavations began in Dholavira under the direction of R S Bisht. The excavations revealed an ancient city spread over about 70 hectares, and with several unique and remarkable features. Dholavira is now the 5th largest Harappan city known, after Rakhigarhi, Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa and Ganweriwala.

Dholavira lies on the island of Khadir Bet in the Rann of Kutch, a vast inland sea that evaporates every year into a spectacular dry desert of gleaming white salt.

In the winters, traversing the long, straight causeway across the Rann to Khadir Bet is one of the highlights of the journey to Dholavira.

The salt sparkles bright and white on either side of the road, empty and silent all the way to the horizon. This white desert is both ethereal and ephemeral. Come June, the monsoon rains turn the barren, endless, salt-encrusted land into a vast, shallow waterbody full of fish and water birds.

Dholavira is near the western extremity of Khadir Bet, so once you reach the island, there is still a long way to go before you get there.

As you wend your way through scrubland and small villages, past Rabari shepherds, farmers and an occasional camel, you marvel at the site’s remoteness. Perhaps because it is so far-flung, only intrepid bikers and those determined make the effort to get to Dholavira, though visitor numbers are on the rise now.

You will probably run into a few tourists at the entrance to the archaeological site and perhaps amongst the main ruins too. But veer ever so slightly off the accepted tourist trail and you will meet only village women gathering firewood and goatherds watching over their goats. In some parts of Dholavira today, the only chatter is from birds flitting busily from bush to bush.

How and why did an ancient city spring up in this wilderness, you wonder?

Back in the day

The city of Dholavira was established about 4,900 years ago. In that time, the Rann remained navigable throughout the year. In other words, Harappans probably travelled to and from Khadir Bet by boat. Far from being an isolated outpost, Dholavira in Harappan times was a busy, mercantile hub, a maritime metropolis. Boats and bullock carts came here carrying copper, shells, semi-precious stones, wheat and other goods from the thousands of other Harappan sites across India and Pakistan. They left laden with gorgeous beads, finely finished copper tools, stoneware and other products, bound perhaps for Harappa or Rakhigarhi or even Mesopotamia.

That this very networked, teeming city survived, nay thrived, for almost 1,500 years in this inhospitable, desert-like environment is remarkable. It was possible thanks to some very careful water management.

Harappans everywhere were fastidious about water and hygiene. Mohendjo-Daro famously had almost as many wells as houses, and a Great Bath to boot. Dholavira’s inhabitants had limited access to fresh water.

Two seasonal streams run close to the site and archaeologists have also unearthed a well on site. With meagre rainfall limited to a three-month period, the Dholavirans relied on ingenious systems to collect and store water to see them through the remaining dry months. The city is ringed with a series of 16 large reservoirs, some of them interconnected. Together, these storage structures account for about 10% of the area of the city!

Small check dams on the streams channelled water from the seasonal torrents into one of the reservoirs. A wide network of stormwater drains collected rainwater from all over the settlement and directed it via a central channel into another one of the 16 reservoirs. These stormwater drains are big enough for people to walk in, and have well-made slopes, steps, paving and even manholes. Perhaps our BBMP engineers could visit Dholavira to learn from this incredible system instead of dashing off abroad on periodic ‘study tours!’

Like many other Harappan sites, Dholavira was divided into different zones, and fortified. Almost the whole city was enclosed within a wall. Within this, the various zones were also walled off, rather like today’s gated communities. The strongest fortifications were those guarding the Castle and the Bailey, together termed the Citadel. Archaeologists surmise that this is where the elites lived, well-protected by the towering walls that rear up out of the dry, brown earth.

A jaw-dropping 18 metres wide at their base, these 5,000-year-old steeply sloping, impenetrable walls still have a brooding, forbidding air about them. Middle Town, where traders and artisans lived, was set within its own walls, but nowhere near as impressive as the Citadel’s fortifications. Those living in Lower Town, with its smaller houses and slightly less-regular streets, would have had to cross a gate to get into Middle Town.

Today, we can step across this ancient gate with impunity but in Harappan times, almost certainly, a guard would have stood there, barring the way and calling upon us to halt.

I remembered how my history textbooks had talked about the Indus Valley Civilisation being classless and peaceful. It had sounded like John Lennon’s imagined world — no wars and an egalitarian society! But the gates, walls and divisions at Dholavira and elsewhere clearly indicate that the reality was, sadly, not quite that perfect.

Iconic symbols

The other Harappan thing we probably all recall from school are the famous seals. A small museum just outside the archaeological site has replicas of some of the hundreds of seals that were found in Dholavira. I was quite thrilled to finally see these up close after years of having seen only photographs of them. Some of the seals have geometric designs on them, like spirals and squares. Many have animal motifs, most famously, bulls and unicorns.

Did you know most seals are only slightly bigger than your thumbnail? Yet, they are exquisitely carved, the animals showing a realism that has been achieved with the bare minimum of strokes. Most of the seals also have writing on them, which of course, we cannot read.

The Harappan script is one of archaeology’s greatest remaining puzzles. Despite some of the world’s brightest minds applying considerable resources to the problem, the script frustratingly stays undeciphered. One hurdle is that most samples of writing known are from seals and so are of very short lengths, usually just 5-7 characters. This makes it difficult to figure out any patterns and rules that the writing may have. Which is one of the reasons why an artefact unearthed in Dholavira is so very special.

In a small chamber in the Citadel’s Northern gate, archaeologists made one of the most exciting discoveries in Dholavira — India’s first signboard.

Jaimal Makwana, who worked on the excavations under Dr Bisht and is now Dholavira’s most informed and passionate tourist guide, described the electric atmosphere when the signboard was found. “As soon as we first saw a part of it, the trench supervisor alerted Bisht Sir that there was something very different, very unusual here, that he should see. He dropped whatever he was doing and came running to see. It was quite exciting!”

First of the signs

The signboard was made of wood with 10 large letters made of pieces of gypsum. The wood had long since rotted away but the gypsum had survived the intervening millennia. With letters more than a foot tall, the signboard was clearly meant to be visible from a distance. In his report, Bisht points out how at 3.7 m, the signboard’s length is roughly the same as the width of the gate. Given where it was found, he suggests that the signboard was originally placed over the gateway. With 10 letters, the signboard is one of the longest Harappan inscriptions known. Once it had been documented, archaeologists preserved the signboard where it was found, safely covered up to keep it from the elements and vandals both. Even though we cannot see it, it was exciting to think about the rare and unusual object buried at the gate, made by people who inhabited the land long, long ago. Does it announce an event? Does it say, ‘Welcome?’ Or does it perhaps bar some people from entering? Until the script is deciphered, this Harappan announcement will remain enigmatic.

At the Citadel’s eastern gate is another not-to-be-missed feature. Amidst the sandstone walls all around are the remains of a few banded limestone pillars. The pillar fragments stand out for their superlative cut and finish. Take a good look or perhaps even a selfie, for these broken parts of pillars are remnants of the earliest stone architectural members in India. What’s more, similar such banded limestone was sourced from a quarry just 4 km away and sent all the way to Harappa, over 800 km away!

Sadly, Jaimal informed us that this ancient quarry may soon be obliterated as there are plans for a road through the area.

Just north of the Northern gate is a vast mud-covered expanse. The hot breeze funnels through this emptiness, sometimes whipping up miniature dust devils that force you to shut your eyes. At the edges of this empty land, thorny bushes stab and pull at you. This unprepossessing ground is actually a marvel of urban planning: it is India’s oldest stadium!

In its heydays, the terraced stands that archaeologists uncovered on either side would have echoed with the cries of spectators watching sportspeople competing, or with cheers or chants during ceremonies. Perhaps markets were held here occasionally. Interestingly, Dholavira has not one but two such multipurpose grounds.

Adjacent to this large stadium is Middle Town, home of artisans and traders. The main street runs straight east-west, the crossroads run north-south. On either side are the stone plinths of Harappan-period houses. These once supported mud walls within which people worked, ate, cooked, slept, loved and lived their lives. With its ruins of houses and with stray objects like querns, grinding stones, pots and suchlike still lying around, Middle Town is like an open-air museum. You can easily people it in your imagination with workers at a bead workshop here, a child bathing in the bathroom there. And again, that careful attention to planning and cleanliness, with jars placed on specially-made platforms outside every home to collect household waste water and sewage. You can still see some of the jars and the neatly finished drains, some with their 4,000-year-old terracotta pipes intact.

In the midst of all the evidence of intelligent planning, it was natural to wonder why it had disappeared, where it had all gone wrong. Around 1800 BCE or so, in parallel with the rest of the Harappan civilisation, a sudden and somewhat mysterious degeneration began. Buildings were no longer built of the same exacting standards, pottery traditions changed, trade declined. Scholars speculate that climate change, natural disasters, economic and social factors could have all played a part in the rapid decline of this civilisation. Whatever the reason, by around 1450 BCE, the great city of Dholavira ceased to exist. Soon, the Harappans and their achievements faded from memory and were buried by time.

On my way out, I stopped by at the modern tourist facilities provided at the site. The washbasins leaked. Doors did not shut. The toilets did not have water. Perfection and planning from 5,000 years ago had been replaced by modern laxity!