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Dholavira | Ruins of an Indus Valley civilisation site

The Harappan city is the first Indus Civilisation site in India that received the World Heritage tag

August 01, 2021 12:15 am | Updated August 05, 2021 07:52 am IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

With its planned streets, intricate water management system and architectural features, the ancient Harappan city located at Dholavira in Gujarat’s Rann of Kutch has a lot to offer on the ancient civilisation. With its inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage list on July 27, experts hope the lessons from Dholavira will reach a larger audience and that the site will get greater care.

Discovered in 1968 by former Archaeological Survey of India Director General Jagat Pati Joshi, the site dates back to 3,000 BCE to 1,500 BCE, covering nearly 1,500 years of continued habitation. Excavations that were carried out from 1989 to 2005 unearthed a city that showed the “unique and masterpiece ingenuity of the Harappans during the third millennium BCE”, according to India’s nomination submitted to UNESCO. The city is believed to have had trade ties with Mesopotamia and Oman peninsula. Spread over 70 hectares, the remains are encompassed within an outer fortification and make for the fifth largest Harappan site after Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Rakhigarhi and Ganweriwala, or sixth if Lakhanjo-daro is taken into account, according to the nomination dossier.


The site’s entry onto the World Heritage list has been welcomed by India with delight. “Absolutely delighted by this news,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on July 27. “Dholavira was an important urban centre and is one of our most important linkages with our past. It is a must visit, especially for those interested in history, culture and archaeology.”

For retired Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) Joint Director General Ravindra Singh Bisht , under whose watch the excavations were carried out, Dholavira getting the World Heritage tag means it will get the attention it deserves. “Certainly, the ASI will take better care of the site. The eyes of the world tourist will be on it.” Along with becoming the 40th Indian site on the list, Dholavira is also the first Indus Valley Civilisation site in India to receive the tag.

Considered one of the best preserved urban settlements from the period, the site has a walled city, a castle, a ceremonial ground, two seasonal streams and houses of different categories, indicating a social hierarchy. The water management system shows the ingenuity of the inhabitants to survive in an otherwise arid region. Excavations have unearthed objects of shell, copper, stone, semi-precious stones, terracotta and gold.


Excellent example

Dholavira was the first such “excellent example of town planning with mathematical precision, both arithmetic and geometry”, Dr. Bisht said. Stone quarries that manufactured beautiful objects were found and objects like beads found in Mohenjo-daro and Harappa seem to have been transported from Dholavira, he said.

The site also has several gates, including the North Gate that had a signboard above it, a first of its kind found at Harappan sites. While the board itself could have been made of wood and decomposed completely, the gypsum letters of the inscription were found, according to Dr. Bisht.

Divided into a citadel, the middle town and lower town, Dholavira was designed for different categories of residents and purposes. There was a castle for an important person, while the middle town housed rich merchants and generals and the lower town was for the common people.


An annexe used as a warehouse, two grounds, bead-making workshop and graves were also found. According to Dr. Bisht, the larger of the two grounds, with seating for spectators all around, much like stands at a stadium today, was used for cart-racing, animal races and races by humans too. But, that wasn’t all it was used for. A large number of beads that would have fallen down from the wearers’ bodies while dancing were also found at the ground, pointing towards festivities, he said. Evidence of the ground being used for trading purposes was also found. Temporary structures of grass and wood would have been put up for bazaars.

The water management system included drains constructed through two monsoon channels and a cascading system of reservoirs, according to Dr. Bisht. In houses in the lower and middle town, septic tanks were found. The castle had a network of drains connected to an arterial drain that was underground.

“All these drains are usually found containing fresh water deposits, and not sewage nor household waste, nor are these connected to house drains. It was only during Stage VI [1,950 BCE - 1,800 BCE] that a house drain seems to be discharging into one of the storm water drains, when those had already become defunct. The purpose of these drains was surely to let out the monsoon run-off, which is why these are found furnished with air ducts at short intervals,” the nomination dossier said.

Memorials at the city

One of the finds that stands out are Dholavira’s memorials. Dr. Bisht said they seem to be constructed a year after the death of the person as there were no skeletons found, though there was evidence of offerings being made. This, he said, was like the shradh ceremony to mark one year of a loved one’s passing. The memorials also had design that was found in Buddhist stupas.

Now with the site getting the World Heritage tag, ASI officials said it would get greater care. However, the ASI’s own nomination dossier raised concerns over the increase in footfall at the site.

“…approximate 20,000 visitors are reported to visit Dholavira annually. The site witnesses minor pressure and vandalism in terms of visitors walking over the excavated remains due to lack of a defined movement plan. This, in future due to increase in tourist footfall, may pose threat to the integrity of the excavated remains,” the nomination dossier that was submitted in 2020 read.

While it remains to be seen what impact a potential increase in visitors will have in the future, the archaeological remains at the site show how important maintenance, or the lack thereof, was in the past. From 2,100 BCE-2,000 BCE, there was a general decline “particularly in the maintenance of the city”, seen more in the citadel, the dossier said. There was evidence of poor quality ceramic wares that became brittle as well as signs of desertion for a few decades. Finally, the area of the city began decreasing and the last phase of habitation had no resemblance with the urban features of Harappan settlements. “The site was never occupied thereafter,” the dossier noted.

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