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Ruins on the Tropic of Cancer

The heat is rising and nameless villages blur past. The SH 40 runs like an interminable, taut, black tape slicing the Rann of Kutch. It is virtually free of traffic and lined with cacti, acacias and shrubs. The earth is a pale brown, broken here and there by rocky outcrops. Farms are few: the sea is not far and soil salinity is high.

Finally, a large, blue board announces that Dholavira, a metropolis of the Indus Valley Civilisation, is not far. The driver slows down and honks his way through a herd of sheep that two rabaris are jauntily herding. A short drive later, we are in the village.

Dholavira village is dusty, windswept and nondescript. There is a Border Security Force camp here. And the ruins, 2 km away, are clearly demarcated. Dholavira is crucial to India’s prehistory, as prominent a site of the Indus Valley Civilisation as Mohenjodaro or Harappa. And it happens to be located right on the Tropic of Cancer.

Yet, there have been no excavations here since 2005, and the findings, so far, are very small, compared to what lies buried.

Ruins on the Tropic of Cancer

In fact, only about 10% of the site has been excavated, says Y.S. Rawat, former director of the State Archaeology Department of Gujarat, who was part of the excavation team here. “There is still a long way to go. We know very little about the residential part of the settlement, for instance.”

Serendipitous stumble

In February this year, Current Anthropology published what has been called a “treasure trove” of new discoveries based on a long-term study (2007-2014) of the northwestern Indus region. The findings have been significant enough for the report to say that studying the Indus civilisation might help us understand what it takes for cities to survive dire climate change.

The Indus digs, they say, show how an ancient society coped with diverse and varied ecologies and a changing environment.

If the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) were to take up digging in Dholavira again, who knows what could be unearthed. It was in the mid-60s that ASI serendipitously stumbled upon the site when villagers tilling a field found three stamps and seals. They took these to the village postmaster, Sabhundan Gadhvi. Gadhvi handed them over to the Kutch museum at Bhuj. In 1967, J.P. Joshi, the then Director General of ASI, saw them and linked them to the Indus Valley. Excavations began in 1990 and went on for the next 15 years.

For all the attention the archaeological site receives, the village, with a population of around 2,000, is fairly unperturbed. The residents are either subsistence farmers or work on the salt farms of the Rann. Some youngsters work at factories in Bhachau city well over 100 km away.

On the porch of a small museum near the site, I meet Tulsibhai Makwana, a tall man in his early 20s. He lives in the village and helps his father on the farm where they grow groundnut and lentils. Makwana has also been trained as a guide by Gujarat Tourism.

“During summer there aren’t too many visitors, but in the cooler months tourists come to Kutch to see the white, moonlit desert. And some foreign visitors come to Dholavira too; I show them around,” he says. If ASI resumed excavations, academics and others would come too, says Makwana. “Nahi toh khandar, khandar hi rahega (Else, the ruins will remain ruins)”. He realises his village is known only because of the archaeological findings.

As we walk through the unearthed ruins, I realise how large its scale is, and how well-acquainted its erstwhile inhabitants were with the concept of town planning. The divisions between the various parts of the city are geometrical. In comparison, our contemporary cities and towns seem crammed and cluttered.

Excavations have revealed three distinct sections of the township—a citadel, a middle town and a lower town—spread over 100 hectares in the shape of a parallelogram. An amphitheatre on the northern side was likely used for sports, community or religious events or as a marketplace. The citadel lies to the south, while a castle and bailey (where officials lived), also fortified, are to the east and the west respectively. Arterial streets divide the residential units.

Ruins on the Tropic of Cancer

Rise and fall

Archaeologists have identified seven cultural stages in the rise and fall of the civilisation at Dholavira. For about 1,200 years, till 1450 BCE, the settlement grew and then faded. Stage IV is considered its apogee. The town, by this time, had acquired gateways and towers, large edifices and a drainage system. Pottery, seals, weights and measures, beads, gold and silver items, copper, ivory, steatite and stones have been excavated in abundance from the site. The ASI’s site museum displays some of these finds.

But perhaps the most astonishing insight we have into this ancient city is the scientific temper of its inhabitants. Excavated evidence suggests, for instance, that the people had spectacular knowledge of hydro-engineering and water harvesting.

Dholavira lies in an isolated, water-scarce island, Khadir, which is surrounded by the salty expanse of the Great Rann of Kutch. But the site is flanked by two rainfed streams, the Manhar and the Mansar. This township met its water needs with the aid of check-dams, reservoirs, and stormwater channels. Sixteen reservoirs of varying sizes and designs were built around the township and a series of ducts carried water around it. The ASI estimates water management structures made up about 10 hectares, translating into 10% of the total area. At the eastern entrance to the citadel is a stone pulley—nothing short of a work of art with its exquisite design—that has withstood extremes of temperature, dust and corrosive air.

The paper published in Current Anthropology describes Dholavira’s formidable water management network of dams, reservoirs and tanks. “As water cascaded through the terraced city of approximately 100 ha, it reached the lower levels of the city carrying potable and domestic water before being channeled to agricultural fields. The complexity of this system and the substantial labor force needed to construct and manage its flow could have been managed and monitored at each level by collective groups, as has been documented elsewhere by a more centralized bureaucracy in view of its complexity. The Dholavira data provide evidence for the significance of water storage and the contribution of small-scale producers at Indus’s major centers.”

The 13-metre gradient between the high and low areas was indeed well suited for cascading reservoirs. These were separated by bunds and connected through feeding drains. Six water tanks, one to the east of the castle and five to its south, have been fully or substantially unearthed, the largest 10.60 metres deep. The citadel also had a network of stormwater drains, each connected to an arterial one with slopes, steps, cascades, manholes, paved flooring and capstones. The main drain was large enough for a person to walk through. The rainwater collected was separately stored. Toilets, in the form of sullage jars or sanitary pits, have also been excavated.

23.5 degrees north

Dholavira’s location—on the Tropic of Cancer—had an added advantage. The sun is directly overhead at noon at this latitude (23.5 degrees north) during Summer Solstice. Mayank Vahia, professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (Mumbai), and Srikumar Menon of the National Institute of Advanced Studies (Bengaluru) have hypothesised in their paper in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage that two circular structures found in the bailey—distinct from the usual rectangular ones—were possibly used for solar astronomy.

Ruins on the Tropic of Cancer

Dholavira was at that time surrounded by the sea and was a trading port. The two scientists surmised that a record of time and seasons would have been important. “This was essential to exploit seasonal winds for sail-driven ships,” as Menon says.

It is apparent that the design of the circular structure was very deliberate. Excavations in other Indus valley sites have not so far yielded astronomy-related structures, making Dholavira unique. And why was the low-lying bailey chosen? The answer, of course, is its latitudinal location.

The Rann of Kutch is open country, marsh, sea and nothingness. It offers an untrammelled, 360-degree view. I stood on the citadel ground and looked westward. I could see Kala Dungar, a tall hillock about 70 km away.

Could a people who knew geometry, complex city planning, water management and engineering have also been aware of their location on the Tropic of Cancer? Was astronomy a corollary to a rational culture?

We don’t know for sure yet. Rawat believes we need renewed work on the site. “If excavations could go on for the last 200 years in Egypt, why shouldn’t we persevere longer at Dholavira,” he asks.

The writer pretends to read and write a little. His other interests are photography and Western classical music.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 12:22:27 AM |

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