Excavations in Khirsara village in western Kutch reveal a "major industrial hub" and trading centre of the mature Harappan phase. By T.S. SUBRAMANIAN in Khirsara. Photographs by D. KRISHNAN, Photo Editor, The Hindu.

AS I stood on the edge of the trench and looked in, my eyes widened with amazement. In one corner stood a tall, slender jar with four perforations, two on either side, just below the rim. There were three beautifully crafted pots, wedged in the soil and, a few feet away, a big, upturned lid. Also on the trench floor lay a massive conch shell that looked like a bird with outstretched wings, as if it had been shot in flight and had fallen to the ground.

Outside the trench that April morning, on the baulk, stood Jitendra Nath, who was the director of the excavation. “Will you measure the height and the width of the jar?” he asked Kalyani Vaghela, the young research assistant in archaeology from the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara, Gujarat. She unfurled the tape and rolled it down the height of the jar and announced that it measured 85 centimetres in height. It was 33 cm in diameter.

“This is an important find. We have got so much of pottery in a small area within the trench. When we extend our excavation more, we will get an idea of why we are getting so many pots and jars in a small area,” said Jitendra Nath. He is the Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) excavation branch in Vadodara.

The excavation, a massive one, is under way at Khirsara, a Harappan site situated about 85 km from Bhuj town in Gujarat’s Kutch district. Thirty-nine trenches, each 10 metres by 10 metres in area, have been laid since December 6, 2012. They have yielded a cornucopia of globular pots, sturdy storage jars, painted ware, perforated parts of broken jars, incense burners, dish-on-stand, goblets, beakers, basins, bowls, ladles, and so on. “There is pottery everywhere. We have to dig carefully. We can use only small pickaxes,” said Jitendra Nath. The excavation team has also unearthed terracotta figurines of bulls, peacocks, ducks, and also an anthropomorphic figurine. A lot of toy-cart frames made of terracotta were found. The excavation, which is into its fourth year, reveals that Khirsara, which lies on the trade route to Sind (now in Pakistan), was once “a major industrial hub” in western Kutch. The 12-acre site, situated on the outer edge of Khirsara village, sits saucer-like, with mounds on all sides and a depression in the middle and is known locally as “Gadh Wali Wadi”. The Khari river flows nearby and in the distance are the hills of Kutch. A Harappan settlement, belonging to the mature Harappan phase, flourished here for 400 years from circa 2600 BCE to circa 2200 BCE.

“Mature” evidence

The Harappan civilisation can be divided into three phases, early, mature and late. If the early Harappan phase lasted from circa 2800 BCE to circa 2600 BCE, the mature phase was between circa 2600 BCE and circa 1900 BCE. The late phase, including its collapse, lasted from circa 1900 BCE to circa 1500 BCE. Juni Kuran in northern Kutch and Khirsara belong to the mature Harappan phase. And Dholavira, located on the island of Khadir in the Great Rann of Kutch, is an example of a Harappan site that typifies all three phases.

Jitendra Nath pointed to the important features that make Khirsara a mature Harappan site. “Pre-Harappan pottery and post-Harappan pottery are absent here. The settlements belonging to the early Harappan and late Harappan phases are also not found here,” he said. Besides, Khirsara has thrown up artefacts and structures that make it a mature Harappan settlement. There are massive structures, fortifications, seals with script and carvings of animals, bricks with the standardised ratio of 1:2:4, and a variety of pottery, including reserved slip ware, which is called so because a slip, that is, a coloured coating is applied over the pot after it is finished and dried. Specialists in the study of pottery say that such pottery was reserved for the elite, and hence the name. After the first slip (a coloured coating involving a solution of red ochre, white kaolin or purple or yellow colour) has dried, a second slip is applied over the first coating. When the second slip is wet, an instrument, say, a comb, is run over it to form different patterns. This removes the second coating that comes under the comb’s teeth, making a pattern on the pot, in the form of wavy or straight lines or even checks.

Northern polished black ware (NPBW) is reserved slip ware because it has a silvery or golden coating over it. The NPBW was mostly tableware and the elite used it. The quarry from which the stones were brought to the habitational-cum-industrial site has not been identified yet.

“Seals found in this site belong from the early stage to the late stage of the mature Harappan phase. There are rectangular seals depicting the unicorn and the bison and the Harappan characters. There are rectangular bar-type seals with the Harappan script alone and circular seals, all of which show that Khirsara is a mature Harappan site,” said Jitendra Nath. He argued that seals were the “main characteristic” by which Khirsara could be classified as a mature Harappan site. “We are getting seals from the lowermost level to the uppermost. Pottery, seals and structures are the major hallmarks by which this site could be said to belong to the mature Harappan phase,” he reasoned.

The team encountered five structural phases in the mature Harappan stage itself at Khirsara, said R.N. Kumaran, Assistant Archaeologist, ASI. Floods led to the termination of each phase and evidence of flood deposits was available in the citadel area. “We are getting sand and silt in a continuous band. ‘Kankar’ stones were also available,” said Kumaran.

The structural remains of a fortified settlement revealed a citadel with residential quarters, a warehouse, an industrial-cum-residential complex, habitation annexes and a potters’ kiln, all pointing to systematic town planning. The citadel complex was where the ruling elite lived. It had square and rectangular rooms, verandahs in front, a beautiful staircase leading upstairs and a rock-cut well. The warehouse, 28 metres long and 12 metres wide, has a series of 14 massive parallel walls, which are more than 10 metres long and about 1.5 metres wide. All the structures are built of dressed sandstone blocks, set in mud mortar.

Magnificent artefacts

The artefacts that have been discovered here reinforced the “industrial” nature of the settlement. Among them is a gold hoard, in a small pot, of disc-shaped gold beads, micro gold beads and their tubular counterparts. As Jitendra Nath and this reporter stood on a trench that had been filled up, he pointed to the levelled earth below and said, “It was in this trench that your friend S. Nandakumar [a site supervisor] found the gold hoard.” It was a trench allotted to Nandakumar, and one of the labourers digging the trench came up with a pot that had 26 gold beads inside. “Gold beads are not found in big quantities in the Harappan sites,” Jitendra Nath said. Some disc-shaped gold beads were found at Lothal, a Harappan site in Gujarat.

There are a variety of beads made of shell and steatite and of semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, agate, carnelian, chert, chalcedony and jasper. About 25,000 steatite beads were found in one trench alone. Shell bangles, shell inlays, copper bangles and rings were also found in plenty. Among copper implements were chisels, knives, needles, points, fish hooks, arrow-heads and weights. There were also bone tools, bone points and beads made out of bones.

“We have found good evidence of bead-making here,” said Jitendra Nath. “We found a lot of drill-bits used for drilling holes in the beads…. We also found stone weights of various denominations. While the smallest weighs five grams, the heaviest is about five kilograms.”

The ASI team found 11 seals, including circular seals. Some of them are carved with unicorn and bison images, and have the Harappan script engraved on them. While the unicorn seal is made of soapstone, the bison seal is made out of steatite. A rare discovery was that of two bar seals, both engraved with the Harappan script only and remarkably intact.

The trenches have yielded a vast amount of reserved slip ware, painted with exquisite designs; a variety of red ware; buff ware, or polished ware; chocolate-coloured slip ware; and grey ware.

Jitendra Nath said: “The kind of antiquities we are getting from this site indicates that Khirsara was a major industrial hub in western Kutch. It was located on a trade route from other parts of Gujarat to Sind in Pakistan, which is about 100 km away. Of course, the Harappans who lived here were basically traders, manufacturing industrial goods for export to distant lands and to other Harappan sites in the vicinity and farther away.”

Fortification

Khirsara is unique among Indus Valley settlements in having a general fortification wall around the settlement and also separate fortification walls around every complex inside the settlement. The citadel complex, the warehouse, the factory-cum-residential complex, and even the potters’ kiln have their own protective walls.

The massive, outer fortification wall still stands in many places, 4,600 years after it was built. It measures 310 metres by 210 metres and is built of partly dressed sandstone blocks set in mud mortar. The wall’s width is 3.4 metres but additional reinforcements in later phases have increased its width considerably. The bedrock below the wall was levelled with clay, sand, grit, lime and thoroughly rammed in to bear the load of the superstructure. Like fortification walls in other Harappan sites, this one also slopes upwards to give it strength and life.

Said Jitendra Nath: “We found three salients on the northern fortification wall of the warehouse. The outer fortification too has salients at regular intervals for giving strength to the wall and for mounting watch.” A protection wall, with a width of 2.34 metres, running parallel to the outer fortification wall, was built on the northern and eastern sides to protect the site when the overflowing Khari river caused flooding.

As the booklet Indus Civilisation brought out in 2010 by the Indus Research Centre, Roja Muthiah Research Library, Chennai, says, the Harappan (or Indus Valley) civilisation “has fascinated not just historians and archaeologists and anthropologists but also experts from such diverse fields such as urban planning, architecture, linguistics, computer science, mathematics, statistics, geology, astrophysics etc.” What fascinated them was “the greatness of this ancient civilisation, its vast extent, its trade links to other regions and its great achievements in the fields of architecture, commerce, fine arts, manufacturing, etc. These are being better understood with every new archaeological find.”

Indus enigma

However, as the booklet says, “The Indus civilisation remains an enigma in some ways. The cause of the sudden fall of the civilisation—renowned for its urban planning, high-quality construction, water management and carefully designed drainage systems—is still not fully understood.” Besides, the Indus script continues to remain undeciphered despite attempts by scholars and researchers.

At its peak, the Harappan civilisation covered an area of 1.5 million square kilometres, across India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. It extended from Sutkagendor in the Makran coast of Balochistan to Alamgirpur in the east in Uttar Pradesh and from Mandu in Jammu to Daimabad in Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra. Since the 1920s, several hundred Harappan sites have been discovered. After Partition in 1947, when Mohenjardo and Harappa fell in Pakistan, the ASI has discovered many sites in Gujarat, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, and Maharashtra. These sites include Dholavira, Lothal, Juni Kuran, Desalpur, Narappa, Kanmer, Surkotada and Shikarpur in Gujarat; Rakhigarhi, Bhirrana, Banawali and Farmana in Haryana; Alamgirpur, Sanauli and Hulas in Uttar Pradesh; and Kalibangan in Rajasthan.

Discovery of Khirsara

How did the ASI’s excavation branch at Vadodara discover Khirsara? Since most Harappan sites were situated in northern or eastern Kutch, not much was known about the Indus civilisation in western Kutch. Desalpur was the only site excavated there, a minor excavation in the early 1960s. “So we were searching for a Harappan site in western Kutch,” said Jitendra Nath. The Gujarat State Archaeology Department had explored Khirsara in the 1970s, but only a brief report was available on it.

Jitendra Nath’s keen eye, backed by his years of excavation at Taradih in Bodh Gaya, Athirampakkam near Chennai, Ummichipoyil in Kerala, and in other places, came into play. “When we came here, we saw so much of Harappan pottery, along with artefacts such as shell bangles and stone-beads scattered over the surface,” he said. “Then we looked at the site and found it almost intact. We did not have such a big site in western Kutch before. Desalpur was the only other Harappan site in western Kutch.” But Desalpur was excavated for only one season and not much was known about it.

So Jitendra Nath and his team did a survey of Khirsara in 2009 and began excavation in December that year. The ASI team exposed the inner and outer sides of the fortification and found residential structures along the inner side of the fortification.

In the second year (season) of excavation, the team unearthed the citadel and went on to locate the factory area where it found evidence of a lot of industrial activity, including shell-working. There was tell-tale evidence of bead-making. A variety of beads made of copper, shell and terracotta, and semi-precious stones were found in abundance. Copper objects, including needles, knives, fish hooks, arrowheads and weights were found. What is puzzling is that no copper figurines of animals, as found in other sites, were found here.

When the ASI team dug up a mound, it encountered evidence of a five-metre-deep structure, going back to 2600 BCE. This earliest structure was made of stones with mud bricks used in between.

In the third year, the team excavated the residential complex in the citadel. The citadel was strategically located adjacent to the warehouse and the factory site in such a manner that the elite class might exercise full control over the manufacturing and trading activities. A five-metre-broad pathway led from the citadel to the industrial complex. The citadel complex was 90 metres by 90 metres and about a hundred people could have lived there. There were interconnected rooms, door sills, hearths, and so on. The houses had bathrooms with an outlet for water to flow. Streets inside the citadel were rammed with clay and household waste such as potsherds, bones, shell debitage and grits. A pot burial, containing charred bones and ash kept inside a circular hearth, was found inside a room. The ASI is yet to excavate a large area of the residential complex, but it may do so in the next season.

Bipin Negi, Assistant Archaeologist, ASI, pointed to the perfect manner in which the fortification wall around the citadel was built and how it had withstood the ravages of time. It is a tall, sloping wall, several metres in height. “This citadel wall is much broader than the general fortification wall. It is set in mud mortar, which is sticky clay. The wall has been standing for 4,600 years,” said Negi.

As we went around the trenches that had exposed the industrial-cum-residential complex, Kumaran explained how it had been identified as a factory site. “We have found furnaces and a tandoor. There is evidence of copper-working and ash. We have found huge quantities of steatite beads and some seals made of steatite. From all this evidence, we have identified it as a fortified factory site.” He led us to the entrance of the fortification wall of the industrial-cum-residential complex. The entrance was in the south. Akin to other Harappan sites, there were large limestone slabs at the entrance; the slabs obviously served as doormats. There were a couple of small guard rooms adjacent to the entrance. Residences inside the industrial complex, too, had stone slabs at the entrance. There were bathrooms, with sloping slabs used on the floor for water to flow into covered outlets. The outlets led into the drains in the street.

To the sheer delight of the ASI team, the warehouse came into view when they excavated the north-east corner of the site last year. Excavation of the warehouse, which has continued this year, has revealed it to be a massive structure with 14 parallel walls. Jitendra Nath said, “It must have been a multipurpose warehouse for storing goods meant for export and grains. A warehouse is a rare type of structure found in a few Harappan sites. It indicates a state of surplus economy and is a sign of prosperity. You build such structures for storing goods for export or goods that have been imported.” The parallel walls supported a superstructure made of wood and daub and goods were stored in the superstructure. The pathways between the parallel walls were air ducts to keep the goods fresh. The entrance had a series of guard rooms adjacent to it. The ASI found grains in the warehouse and samples of these grains have been sent to Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, Lucknow, for investigation and identification.

Potters’ kiln

Situated on the outer side of the general fortification wall, the potters’ kiln is a bit of an engineering marvel. Negi pointed out that its fire chamber had been cut out of both bedrock and earth, and a dome sat on the fire chamber. The freshly made pots were arranged inside the dome and a passage led to the fire chamber. It was through the passage that the burning logs were pushed inside the fire chamber. The circular wall of the fire chamber had holes for air circulation and oxygenation. The burning logs generated heat of about 500 Celsius and the pots were baked.

The ASI has not located the reservoirs which would have supplied water to the Harappan settlement at Khirsara. Jitendra Nath said, “Maybe, when we excavate more, we will find water bodies. The western half of the site has not been excavated yet. We have been concentrating mostly on the eastern half. We may dig the western half next year.” Kumaran was hopeful about the “possibility” of the existence of a reservoir because “we have found drains at a depth of 1.5 metres and paved stone flooring. It was not for carrying sullage.” There was also a rock-cut well in the residential quarters within the citadel. There were chances of encountering a reservoir if the excavation continued for two or three years. Jitendra Nath was confident that “a complete picture of the site will emerge only when we excavate more and more”.