The finds in Dholavira in Gujarat's Kutch district, unlike elsewhere, throw light on the rise and fall of the Indus civilisation in its entirety and in the correct sequence. By T.S. SUBRAMANIAN recently in Dholavira. Photographs by D. KRISHNAN.

“YOU should visit Dholavira. The site adds a new dimension to the personality of the Indus civilisation,” Ravindra Singh Bisht, former Additional Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), had told me in 2010. Dholavira in Gujarat is among the five biggest Harappan sites, the others being Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, Ganweriwala (all three in Pakistan) and Rakhigarhi in Haryana, India.

Professor Bisht had led 13 seasons of excavation at Dholavira from 1990 to 2005 and had revealed to the world the grandeur of the Harappan site and its futuristic water-harvesting techniques. “The efficient system the Harappans of Dholavira developed for conservation, harvesting and storage of water speaks of their advanced hydraulic engineering, given the state of technology in the third millennium BCE,” he had said.

Dholavira today is a small village in Bhachau taluk, Kutch district, and is situated in a corner of an island called Khadir in the Great Rann of Kutch. Its Harappan story began circa 3000 BCE and ended around 1500 BCE. Its genesis, growth, development, decay and collapse spanned seven stages in those 1,500 years. “It means we found the nascent, childhood, adolescent, ageing and, finally, de-urbanisation stages of the Indus civilisation there. That is why I call it the rise and fall of the Indus civilisation. This has been found elsewhere, but the sequence in its entirety is found at Dholavira, in the stratified debris in the castle, which witnessed the vicissitudes spread over 1,500 years,” Bisht had said (Frontline, June 18, 2010).

Journey to Dholavira

After spending two days at Khirsara, a Harappan site in western Kutch, where an ASI-led excavation was under way (Frontline, June 28), we set out for Dholavira on a hot April 20 afternoon. Our destination was 340 kilometres away. As the car crossed Bhuj, 85 km from Khirsara, rain clouds and gusty winds eclipsed the blazing sun. Spells of rain greeted us as we crossed over to Rapar town, 100 km from Dholavira. On either side of the road were endless stretches of mesquite bushes. The few villages on the route were drowned in darkness owing to power failures after the rain. The car sped through the famed Great Rann of Kutch, that vast, featureless expanse.

Some 11 km to Dholavira, the driver insisted that we halt for the night because the roads ahead were rain-ravaged. We rang up Gautam Chauhan, Senior Conservation Assistant, ASI, Dholavira, and he advised us to go back to Rapar and stay in one of the lodges there. We spent the night on the hard kitchen floor of a “guest house” of the Gujarat State Electricity Corporation, on the way back to Rapar. The guest house was in fact a “control” station, situated right in the middle of the Rann of Kutch. It was a sleepless night, with the cold wind from the Rann blowing through the kitchen windows.

Early next morning, we went straight to the Dholavira site, for the photographs had to be taken before the sun got harsh. Waiting for us at the site museum were Ravjibhai Solanki and Jemalbhai R. Makwana, who had taken part in the excavation and were assigned to guide us.

“The local name of the site is Kotada,” Solanki told us by way of introduction. The entire site was spread over 100 hectares, with the built-up area occupying half that, he said. Solanki sketched the site on the ground with a twig for our benefit.

The layout of the excavated city consists of a citadel which can be divided into a “castle” and a “bailey”, a middle town and a lower town (where the traders and artisans lived), two stadia (one big and one small), servants’ quarters (also called annexe) and the reservoirs. They were set within an enormous fortification wall. Sixteen reservoirs, some rock-cut, formed a garland around the site. Several of them were inter-linked, allowing surplus water to flow from one to another.

As we walked a few hundred metres to the mound of the excavated site, we were greeted by the citadel’s towering fortification wall. (The citadel was the seat of authority as the ruling elite lived there.) The wall, built of partly dressed sandstone blocks, rose steeply but sloped towards the top as fortification walls in Harappan sites do. The wall with its eastern gate and a steep flight of steps inside the citadel proper signalled the grandeur that marked this Indus Valley Civilisation site more than 4,600 years ago.

What gave us an insight into Dholavira’s amazing water-harvesting system was a big reservoir on the eastern side, in front of the eastern gate, that was 79 metres long, 74 m broad and 10 m deep. It could hold 2,00,000 cubic metres of water, Makwana said. It had a beautiful rock-cut, stepped well, too. The city itself lay between the seasonal rivulets of Mansar and Manhar. The Dholavirans had built check dams on these nullahs, and water from these dams was let into the reservoirs too.

The ASI website on Dholavira says, “The citadel has yielded an intricate network of storm water drains, all connected to an arterial one and furnished with slopes, steps, cascades, manholes (air ducts/ water relief ducts), paved flooring and capstones. The main drains were high enough for a tall man to walk through easily. The rain water collected through these drains was stored in yet another reservoir that was carved out in the western half of the bailey. Besides, city has yielded toilets, sullage jars, or sanitary pits. Drains have shown a good variety.” They, it adds, included even pottery pipes.

R.N. Kumaran, Assistant Archaeologist, ASI, who took part in the excavations at Dholavira in the 2001-03 and 2008-09 seasons, said: “Dholavira had the first rock-cut reservoir in the world. The Dholavirans harvested every drop of water and sent it to the reservoirs. The site is ringed by a series of 16 reservoirs, which were built on the eastern, southern and western sides, and they were inter-linked. In several reservoirs, stone masonry was used. The reservoirs had a flight of steps [for people to go down and fetch water when the water level went down]. On the southern side, the reservoirs were rock-cut. These rock-cut reservoirs were inter-linked and had distillation chambers [to provide pure water]. They had channels to divert the overflowing water.” The rock-cut stepped well found in the eastern reservoir was built during the early phase of Dholavira’s development, Kumaran said. It was only 4,000 years later–during the medieval period–that the rulers of Gujarat took to building ornate, stepped wells again.

A steep flight of steps at the eastern gate led to the citadel proper. Inside the citadel was another rock-cut well with a platform for drawing water manually, a drain with filtering chambers to ferry this water to a tank, and a drain from the tank to a “hamam”, where the elite took bath. If this rock-cut well and the “hamam” represented the mature phase of Dholavira’s development, what mirrored its collapse were the ruins of circular huts with postholes, that residents of the late-Harappan phase had built. Two in situ “sthambs”, which looked like Sivalingas, stood near by.

Behind the fame

Bisht said Dholavira’s fame rested on several counts. These included its long cultural sequence documenting the rise and fall of the Indus civilisation over a period of 1,500 years, its meticulous town planning with mathematical precision, its monumental architecture, its water management system, its stadia with terraced gallery for spectators, its sepulchral architecture in the form of spoked wheels and symbolic burials, and the discovery of a sandstone quarry, about 9 km away. Sandstone was mined and cut here and transported to Dholavira to build the reservoirs, fortification walls and residential quarters in the citadel, the middle town and the lower town.

Among the 1,500 Harappan sites found in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, Dholavira has yielded the longest inscription, comprising 10 large-sized Indus signs, embedded on a three-metre-long board. This board was strategically positioned above the northern gate to the citadel. The ten letters, each 37 cm in height, were made of baked gypsum and they shone at night. But there is no knowing what the sign says because the Indus script has not been deciphered yet. It could stand for the name of the city or a king or it could just mean “welcome”. An equally important discovery was a sandstone block carved with four big Indus signs.

Of the two stadia, the bigger one, 305 m in length and 49 m in width, was in all likelihood a multi-purpose stadium, used for royal ceremonies, trade fairs, wrestling competitions and so on. The ruins of its terraced stands for spectators are a reminder of Dholavira’s glorious past. This playground was mud-plastered, with layers in different colours. Solanki scratched the track to show us white, pink and yellow-coloured layers! There was a drainage system in the stadium—it is still in a remarkably good condition even now—to prevent water from stagnating in the playground during the rainy season.

Seven stages

Kumaran divides the seven stages of Dholavira’s rise, fall and collapse into pre-Harappan, mature Harappan, late Harappan and post-Happaran. If the elite of Dholavira, during its mature phase, lived in stone-built houses with inter-connected rooms, verandahs and sullage facilities, the post-Harappans, after Dholavira’s collapse, lived in jerry-built circular huts, made of wattle and daub, in the citadel. “The tradition of building circular huts continues to this day in Dholavira,” said Kumaran.

The first settlement, built during the first stage which began circa 3000 BCE, included a strong fortress (Frontline, June 18, 2010). In the second stage, the settlement expanded northwards. Although an earthquake struck the settlement between the end of stage II and the beginning of stage III, the most creative phase belonged to stage III, from circa 2850 BCE to 2500 BCE. During this phase, the fortress expanded into a castle and another fortified area called “bailey” came up adjacent to it. The castle and the bailey together formed the citadel. The two stadia came up to the north of the citadel and the Dholavirans built reservoirs on the east, south and west of the citadel.

Middle town, with quarters to house artisans and traders, has perfectly aligned streets and houses built to a plan at an elevated level. The houses have verandahs, inter-connected rooms and bathrooms with sloping limestone slabs for the water to flow into covered drains that extended into the streets.

In a few places, collapsed structures serve as reminders of an earthquake that struck during stage III. When the city burgeoned again, the lower town was built. Seals without the Harappan script and painted pottery, belonging to this period, have been found.

The Harappan culture at Dholavira reached its peak during stage IV, which began circa 2500 BCE and lasted for about five centuries. Several massive gates were built into the fortification wall. The board with the ten Indus signs belongs to this period. Classical Harappan elements such as pottery, seals, beads, and items made of gold, silver, copper, ivory, shell, faience, steatite, clay and stones from this period were found in abundance during excavations, according to Bisht. Stage IV extended into stage V. This phase was creatively active, going by excavations that have yielded a bonanza of seals, sealings, tablets, pottery, weights, shell-bangles, stone-ware, copper objects, beads and so on.

At the end of stage V, which was around 2000 BCE, the Harappans abandoned the settlement for several decades. When stage VI began, the Harappans returned to occupy it but they lived only in the citadel and at the edge of the middle town. The city was reduced to the size of a town. The Harappans lived there for about a hundred years, after which they deserted it for a few centuries. Those who belonged to stage VII lived in circular huts in the citadel for a few decades before they abandoned the site for good around 1500 BCE.

In the assessment of Bisht, “Dholavira was a great commercial centre, a great manufacturing centre”; raw materials were brought from Gujarat and southern Rajasthan and converted into finished goods there. These finished products, such as beads made of semi-precious stones, were marketed in other Harappan cities and towns.

Dholavira was “a great centre for making shell products, copper items, beads of semi-precious stones … there is evidence to show that Mesopotamia [modern-day Iraq] imported timber from Meluha, which has been identified as a Harappan area,” Bisht said. Different kinds of shank products—such as jewellery, small medals and souvenirs—and cosmetics were made at Dholavira. “A great amount of inlays” manufactured at Dholavira were unearthed during the excavations there. A variety of shells, which the Harappans at Dholavira used to convert into bangles and tools and so on, were available in the Gulf of Kutch. The Harappans of Dholavira procured raw materials for making shell products from the Gulf of Kutch, Bisht said. They made different varieties of aromatic gums and marketed them in other Harappan towns and even in Mesopotamia.

“So Dholavira must have been a great political centre, a commercial centre, and, of course, a manufacturing centre. It must have been a great hub,” asserted Bisht. It was also administratively controlling the entire Kutch because a powerful king or a group must have ruled from there. “Whatever the administrative structure, whether it was hierarchical or republican, or a monarchy or an oligarchy, Dholavira must have been a great centre of authority,” he added. The entire Kutch and part of Saurashtra came under its administrative control. “Lothal [Gujarat] was possibly under its influence.” About 10,000 people could have lived in Dholavira. Bisht said there were several Harappan cities like Dholavira which lasted a long time. For instance, “Harappa had a long life.” Harappa faced a problem when the water table shot up, and “a major part of the city now lies buried under the water table”.

Asked how Dholavira marketed its products in other far-away Harappan centres because no dockyard such as the one found at Lothal, has been discovered at Dholavira, Bisht replied, “Even if there is no dockyard of the kind found at Lothal, the entire Rann of Kutch was then a navigable sheet of water, which was connected to the Arabian Sea in the west and the Gulf of Kutch in the east. It was connected to the Arabian Sea in the west by the Khori Creek, where one of the tributaries of the Indus also met.”

K.C. Nauriyal, who was Superintending Archaeologist, Vadodara Circle (now he is with the ASI headquarters in Delhi), ASI, who was site-in-charge for several seasons of excavations at Dholavira, said: “The Rann of Kutch at that point of time must have been navigable and ships must have been able to reach Khadir. It was not necessary that there must have been a formal dockyard at Dholavira. Dhows and boats could have been stationed at the mooring point. There was brisk trade by sea and land. There was a high degree of mobility among the people of the surrounding sites. The bigger sites were helping the satellite sites. All of them were production centres, and goods were being exchanged. There was long-distance and short-distance trade. Ships could have come to Dholavira.”

Bisht was non-committal when asked if the two “sthambs” found at the Dholavira site and the phallus-like stone artefacts excavated there but kept in Purana Qila, New Delhi, looked like Sivalingas.

Nauriyal said, separately: “They definitely resemble male organs. What the concept was, it is difficult to comment. Whether they were used for worship, magic, ritual or as a good omen, we do not know.”

On what led to the collapse of Dholavira, Nauriyal said: “The snap in the trade relationship with foreign countries, possibly.” It was largely maritime trade. Goods could not be traded any more. “There must have been a host of factors and the economic factor must have been one of them,” he said.