Dholavira: An early Harappan metropolis

In our school days, we learnt about the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley and China. Of these, it is generally accepted that one in Mesopotamia is the oldest, while the other three are contemporary to each other.

Focusing on the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), the most prominent centres as mentioned in the textbooks are the Harappa, Mohenjo Daro and Lothal sites. Harappa and Mohenjo Daro were famous for having covered drainage systems and the great bath, while Lothal was the famous dock for trading ships.

For regular Indians, it is difficult to visit the Harappa and Mohenjo Daro sites, since they are in Pakistan, and right now, the countries are not on the best of terms.

The issue with Lothal docks is that one has to imagine a lot to understand how things might have been. The reason for this being the river that would have been the entry and exit to the port has shifted considerably, so now, Lothal is more of a landlocked location, with a dock. Also, the dock is almost the size of a big swimming pool.

The “dock” of the Lothal Docks

The excavations that have been found and unearthed near the docks, signifying the township, are in absolute ruins and it makes imagining structures and the life of the IVC residents a little difficult, at least, this was my personal belief.

Then, with a little research, I stumbled upon the site of Dholavira. On paper, Dholavira is not as famous as the other IVC cousins, had been found relatively recently and the place gets ignored since it is close to a much better advertised natural wonder of the White Rann of Kutch. On our trip to the Rann of Kutch, we chose to stay at Dholavira, instead of the Dhordo campsites and till date, that has been a major highlight of the trip for us.

What follows below is the account of my visit to Dholavira in December 2021.

The Dholavira excavation site is an  ASI site and is still not the most crowded one. We arrived close to opening time at about 9 am and found parking quite easily. Having already visited Lothal a few months earlier, we did not have a lot of expectations of the place. But, since we had read that it is a big space, we hired a guide to help us understand better.

First glimpse of the Dholavira Metropolis mound

From the parking to the site as we walked, we crossed a small bridge over what appeared to be a dried river bed (river Manhar). Moving on, we got the first glimpses of the party piece of the Dholavira citadel. Just outside the city limits are multiple, deep reservoirs.

These reservoirs were basically water filtration plants. Water from the Manhar river (the dried one we crossed earlier) would be routed to the first tank via multiple check dams, which would serve as the primary holding tank for the water. This would allow the heavier impurities to settle and in the first step filtered water would be routed to the next tank, via covered drains. In the subsequent reservoirs, the lighter impurities which would be floating on the top surface would be eliminated by runoff due to constant water inflow. This would in principle allow the residents to obtain fairly clean water, devoid of major physical impurities. Another interesting thing to notice was that water inlets were at different heights connecting wells within the citadel, ensuring that the wells are full of water as long as the reservoirs have water in them. One of the biggest reservoirs, bigger than the great bath of Mohenjo Daro, has a proper rock cut slope on its side, clearly signifying that water drawing was done using wheeled carts.

The citadel was divided into the upper town or castle, a bailey, a huge ceremonial ground separating the castle and the middle town, and beyond the middle town, the lower town. A little further away from the residential areas were the burial grounds.

The Dholavira layout and the 10-lettered introduction plaque for the metropolis as seen in the museum

Within the castle area, one can see clearly the foundations of the different houses and their rooms. One can see the rocks on which raw stone would be polished by repeatedly brushing them in linear motions. Remains of seating arrangements can be still seen. Interestingly, the guide mentioned that the beads and other rock ornaments which were manufactured in Dholavira had been found in Egypt while seals from Egypt had been recovered from Dholavira. While I do not remember seeing the Egyptian seals in the museum there, it is extremely believable that a flourishing trade existed between the contemporary civilizations.

Moving on, between the upper town and the middle town is the ceremonial ground, about 250 metres long and 30 metres wide. This served as the main gathering space for the residents of the three towns for games, festivals or other general business. And there appeared to be rock-cut galleries as well, which could have very much served as seating space for spectators.

One of the exits leading towards the middle and lower town, ceremonial ground in between

By this time, what we had planned to be an hour-long trip through the ruins, had turned into a 3-hour-long journey through time. The best part, we could relate to what was being told to us much easier since we could see most of the structures. Yes, we did have to imagine a bit, but then, we could see the foundations, the walls, the water inlets and the outlets to the reservoirs very clearly. What makes it more intriguing is the fact that this civilization existed from 3000 BCE till about 1500 BCE, i.e almost 5000 years from the present; and they had properly segmented township and water management systems already in place.

After revelling in the past for a while, we checked out the middle town. This part of the metropolis had one central road. Smaller roads branch out on either side and on each of these branches were ruins of the houses that had existed in the past. This area has not been completely excavated yet and it is expected that more of the same shall be found in the locality.

Since we were getting quite late by now, we hurried back for a visit to the museum. The museum houses some of the interesting finds that had been recovered from the site, such as storage jars, standardized weights, stone mortars, polishing stones, terracotta figurines, etc.

We left Dholavira, happy to have visited this amazing historic place. But there was a shred of disappointment that this place is not advertised enough. While Dholavira often features in the day tours from the Rann of Kutch, there is not enough curiosity amongst us to visit these ancient cradles of civilization. We often choose to visit the Machu Pichu in Peru or the Pyramids of Giza while referring to ancient civilizations, while ignoring the fact that right here, in our own country, we have a very rich heritage, which a lot of us do not know of. So, dear reader, next time you are curious about history, ancient history, beyond religion or cultural division, do pay the Dholavira metropolis of IVC a visit, I feel, you will not be disappointed.

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