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The rise and fall of a Harappan city

Dholavira, now identified as one of the five largest Harappan sites, tells the story of a civilisation that flourished across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The layout of the excavated city consisted of a citadel which can be divided into a "castle" and "a bailey", a middle town, a lower town, two stadia, an annexe and a series of reservoirs. All of these were set within an enormous fortification wall running on all four sides "We are standing on the outer fortification," announced Ravindra Singh Bisht to L.S. Rao, his junior colleague in the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), as they went around a mound at the Harappan site of Dholavira situated at Bhachau taluk in Gujarat's Kutch district on the island of Khadir. The island is surrounded by the vast emptiness of the Great Rann of Kutch.

A habitational site, running in cardinal directions, at the excavated city That was in the 1980s and Professor Bisht had enough reason to be excited. "When we dug, I showed Mr Rao the bricks used in the fortification," he recalled on April 29, 2010, some 20 years later. "Today, I am very happy that whatever I visualised, I have duly realised by the excavations," said Bisht, as he sat in his office at Purana Quila in New Delhi, surrounded by trunks full of artefacts excavated at Dholavira.

Bisht, a scholar in Sanskrit, led 13 field excavations at the Harappan site from 1990 to 2005. He held various posts in the ASI, including those of Superintending Archaeologist (Excavation branch 5) at Vadodara and Director of the Institute of Archaeology in New Delhi. He also served as Director (Excavations), ASI, New Delhi, before retiring in 2004 as the ASI's Joint Director General.

It was in the mid-1960s that Jagat Pati Joshi, who went on to become the ASI's Director General, discovered Dholavira, which lies between two seasonal channels, the Manhar to the south and the Mansar to the north. The site is a five-hour drive from Bhuj town. The nearest town from Dholavira is Ropar, 100 km away.

The rock-cut reservoir discovered on the southern side during the excavations In the 13 seasons of field excavations, Dholavira has been revealed to be one of the five largest among the 700 Harappan (popularly known as Indus Valley) civilisation sites covering 1 million sq km in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The other four sites are Harappa, Mohenjo-daro and Ganeriwala, all in Pakistan, and Rakhigarhi in Haryana.

Ravindra Singh Bisht, former Joint Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, explaining the four-sign inscription on sandstone discovered at Dholavira While Dholavira's fortified Harappan city was built on 49 hectares, its remains have been found over an area of about 100 hectares. Its story commences in the beginning of 3000 BCE (Before Common Era) and ends around 1500 BCE.

"Dholavira adds a new dimension to the personality of the Indus civilisation," says Bisht. In the Indus civilisation map of several hundred sites, Dholavira has an important place on several counts. They include (1) its long cultural sequence, documenting the rise and fall of the Indus civilisation over a period of 1,500 years; (2) its meticulous urban planning with mathematical precision; (3) its monumental architecture; (4) its huge stadium with terraced stands, which could have been used for manifold purposes such as organising sports, community gatherings or a market; (5) the uniqueness of its funerary/sepulchral architecture; (6) the discovery of a sandstone quarry from where sandstone was excavated, converted into huge architectural members and even exported to sites such as Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, several hundred kilometres away; and, above all, (7) its amazing water management system with a series of reservoirs built around the built-up portions of the city but very much within the city's fortification wall.

"Dholavira is characterised by monumental architecture, massive fortifications, the use of dressed stones, elaborate water management, and meticulous town-planning of a unique kind," says Michel Danino, independent researcher on the Harappan civilisation. It also enjoys the distinction of yielding the longest Indus inscription, running to a length of three metres and comprising 10 large-sized Indus signs. No less significant is the discovery of a large piece of natural sandstone engraved with four big Indus signs. These discoveries are in addition to a large number of seals and tablets with Indus signs that Dholavira has yielded.

An underground drain. It was more than 1.3 metres deep and about one metre wide. Dholavira has yielded pipes made of terracotta and stone to let out water from residential quarters. According to Bisht, the "citadel" yielded an intricate network of stormwater drains "to let out water during the rainy season. This network was connected to an arterial one and it boasted slopes, steps, cascades, warholes, paved flooring and capstones." Dholavira's elaborate town planning was based on the conscious use of specific proportions for various enclosures. Says Bisht: "The city of Dholavira in its fullest form was a precisely proportionate whole and a proportionately resolved configuration, which followed a resolute set of principles of planning and architecture with mathematical precision and perhaps with astronomically established orientation." For instance, the city was 711.10 metres long and 616.87 metres wide, the length to width ratio being 5:4. The castle internal was 114 metres long and 92 metres wide, maintaining the same ratio, and the castle external was 151 metres long and 118 metres wide, the ratio again being 5:4.

Danino, who has done research on the Harappan metrology at Dholavira, said the question of units of length used in the Harappan civilisation had never been solved satisfactorily. According to him, while studying Dholavira's plan a city where, exceptionally, the intricate layout of the fortifications is largely intact it occurred to him that it might offer a simple way to calculate the unit of length used by the city's architects and builders.

The inscription on wood, with 10 signs, is the longest Indus inscription discovered so far at any Indus site in the subcontinent. The board itself is three metres long Danino said that using the specific proportions Bisht mentioned and the city's actual dimensions, he had calculated that the unit in terms of which most of these dimensions took a simple expression that too with a very low margin of error was close to 1.9 metres.

He added: "Applying this unit to Dholavira's enormous reservoirs and to major structures at other Harappan sites, including Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, has yielded promising results. I have also proposed that a smaller unit of 1.76 cm, similar to the angula (the traditional Indian digit), was at the root of the whole system. Further research is under way to validate it."

Cultural sequence

The most important discovery made from the Dholavira excavation is the long cultural sequence of a gradual rise, culmination and fall of the urban system of the Harappan civilisation, in seven stages. Says Bisht: "It means we found the nascent, childhood, adolescent, ageing and finally the 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 too 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 surmised that it must have been erected above the northern gate of the citadel. Since the letters were made of baked gypsum it must have been visible from the middle town and lower town, he added The layout of the excavated city at Dholavira consisted of a citadel, which can be divided into a "castle" and "a bailey", a middle town, a lower town, two stadia, an annexe and a series of reservoirs. All of these were set within an enormous fortification wall running on all four sides. The castle and the bailey together made the citadel. "The city was perhaps configured like a large parallelogram, boldly outlined by massive walls, with its longer axis being from east to west," Bisht said.

The castle and the bailey were strongly fortified. The castle was guarded by impregnable defences and it had massive gates and impressive towers. The excavation has so far exposed 17 gates, all built in the fortification wall. While people in authority lived in the castle, artisans and craftsmen lived in the middle town and the lower town. The annexe was meant for those attending on the privileged occupants of the castle.

The four-sign inscription on sandstone, reportedly the first of its kind on sandstone found at Harappan sites The first settlement, established during stage I, beginning circa 3000 BCE, included a strong fortress. In stage II, the settlement expanded towards the north. Around the end of stage II and the beginning of stage III, an earthquake struck the area. In stage III, which was the most creative phase and lasted from about 2850 BCE to 2500 BCE, the fortress was converted into a castle, and the castle was attached to another fortified area, later christened "bailey" by ASI archaeologists. The castle was the seat of authority. To the north of the citadel was the big, multipurpose stadium, 283 metres long and 48 metres wide. A smaller stadium also came up near by. Reservoirs were created south, north and west of the built-up divisions.

Stage III ended when a powerful earthquake struck again. Its effect could be seen in several places exposed by the excavation, especially on the defensive wall of the fortification. After the earthquake, repairs were undertaken and a lower town was built during the terminal phase of stage III. The city walls were extended to enclose the lower town. Thus, the entire settlement attained the status of a cityscape. The streets in this city ran in cardinal directions. The city had a drainage system, with drains about 1.5 metres deep and one metre wide. There was an efficient system for letting out storm water so that the city did not flood during the rains.

Three square steatite seals were excavated from deposits at various stratigraphic levels of stage III. The seals had figures but no Indus inscriptions. Typical Harappan pottery with beautiful, painted motifs were also found.

One of several architectural stone members found in the citadel during the excavations. They were hewn out of sandstone and used for decorative purposes "Stage IV, which began around 2500 BCE, belongs to that form of classical Harappan culture which is so familiar to us from a large number of excavated sites. Almost all the salient features of city planning had been scrupulously maintained along with monumental structures such as gateways, fortifications, drainage systems and so on," says Bisht. "The famous 10-signed inscription of unusually large size was surely in use during this stage. All the classical Harappan elements, such as pottery, seals, beads, and items of gold, silver, copper, ivory, shell, faience, steatite, clay and stones, were found in abundance."

The Harappan system attained its peak during stage IV and continued for another five centuries, well into stage V. But towards the end of stage V, the system was under stress. Says Bisht: "In this phase, you find a proliferation of craftsmen's activities. This was the stage where we found the maximum number of seals, sealings, tablets, weights and classical Harappan pottery. During this period, one finds a proliferation of shell-work, bead-work, metal-work and work on stone. The Harappans at Dholavira specialised in making beautifully carved architectural members, which they exported to Harappa and Mohenjo-daro."

Indeed, the architectural members found in all three places were made of sandstone and they exhibited the same carvings and workmanship. Architectural members made of the same stone and with similar shape, size and craftsmanship were found at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. "They were finished at Dholavira and transported to other sites because the technology and the right material were available at Dholavira," he explained.


The rich harvest of artefacts that stages III and IV of the Dholavira excavations yielded has to be seen to be believed. While a small site museum at Dholavira displays the three-metre-long 10-sign Indus inscription and other artefacts, the rest of the cornucopia have been brought to Purana Quila, New Delhi, where they are being documented by Appu Singh Sharan, Shalini Tripathi, Rajesh Kumar and Baianath Dutt, all Assistant Archaeologists of the ASI. The artefacts include a giant hammer, a big chisel and a hand-held mirror, all in bronze; a gold wire, a gold ear stud; gold globules with holes in them for thread to pass through; copper bangles and celts; phallus-like symbols fashioned in stone; stoneware and shell bangles; pottery with floral and animal designs; beads made of agate, faience and carnelian; humped animals made of carnelian; a circular seal; square seals with figures and Indus signs; and pottery with painted motifs of indescribable beauty. Other artefacts unearthed include goblets; a big dish-on-stand; perforated jars; beautiful tumblers made of terracotta; architectural members made of basalt stone; grinding stones; mortars; pestles, and so on.

Terracotta figurines of humans Terracotta figurines of animals At the end of stage V, which was around 2000 BCE, the entire settlement was abandoned for several decades before stage VI began and the late Harappans came to occupy it again. But they confined themselves to the citadel and the southern margin of the middle town. The lower town was not occupied at all. The one-time city shrank into a town in stage VI, which is called the late Harappan stage. Homes were laid out differently. They were jerry-built. After the Harappans stayed there for a century or more, they deserted the settlement. The town could have remained deserted for a few centuries.

Terracotta figurines of humans and (below) animals The newcomers of stage VII, who had forgotten all the classical Harappan urban activities of the previous generations, lived in circular huts built here and there. They were poor and lived there for about five decades, and finally abandoned the site around 1500 BCE. Bisht summed up: "Thus, the urbanisation that made its humble beginnings in stage I and kept progressing through stages II, III and IV, started decaying in stage V. It underwent a transformation in stage VI with a feeble revival only to become totally de-urbanised in stage VII. The site was never occupied thereafter."


The water-harvesting system developed at Dholavira was stupendous. It formed an integral part of the planning of the city. Since the city lay between the seasonal channels of Mansar and Manhar, their waters were harnessed fully.

A big bronze hammer The ASI unearthed evidence of check-dams on the Mansar and the Manhar. From these check-dams, water was let into a series of reservoirs raised on the eastern, western and southern sides of the city's built-up areas but within the fortification walls. All the reservoirs were interconnected. One reservoir was purely rock-cut. The Harappans cut the rock from the surface to the depth they wanted and then they raised linear walls on the sides. The largest of the reservoirs had three flights of steps leading to the bottom and the others had two flights. The staircases were to enable people to walk down and fetch water as the water level went down. Indeed, a beautiful stepped well was carved out of rock-bed in the eastern reservoir.

A wire and an ear-stud, both made of gold "The kind of efficient system the Harappans of Dholavira developed for conservation, harvesting and storage of water speaks eloquently about their advanced hydraulic engineering, given the state of technology in the third millennium BCE," said Bisht.

Copper objects found at the site included hand-held mirrors, bangles, plates and fish hooks Danino estimated that Dholavira must have been an "impressive lake city" with reservoirs covering more than 10 hectares. One of the largest, just south of the castle, was cut in rock and measured 95 metres by 11.42 metres.

A game, apparently involving a puzzle, found at the site The ASI team also found a sandstone quarry where it unearthed beautiful architectural members. Obviously, after the sandstone was quarried, it was cut into architectural members at the quarry and transported to the nearby settlement. Several pieces with defects were found discarded in the quarry.

Source: Frontline


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