No child growing up in India fails to study the Indus Valley Civilisation, which is now more popularly referred to as the Harappan Civilisation after Harappa, the first of its sites to be excavated in the 1920s by British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Growing up, I was fascinated by Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, which now top my bucket list. I remember being awestruck, like many, when I saw in Delhi’s National Museum the famous bronze beauty, the ‘Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro’, cast some 4,500 years ago.
The Harappan Civilisation was widespread: it covered parts of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even though, post-Partition, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro fell in Pakistani territory, there are many sites of the Harappan Civilisation in India too. I intend to learn as much about them as possible before my dream of visiting Mohenjo-daro and Harappa comes true.
The importance of trade
Indian archaeologists started the search for cities of the Harappan Civilisation post-1947 in Saurashtra, Gujarat, and were amply rewarded. Archaeologist S.R. Rao led teams who discovered a number of Harappan sites, including the port city of Lothal in 1954-63. Two sub-periods of Harappan culture are marked out: period A dating to 2,400-1,900 BCE, and period B dating to 1,900-1,600 BCE. The word Lothal, like Mohenjo-daro, means the mound of the dead. Lothal is located between the Bhogavo and Sabarmati rivers near the Gulf of Khambat.
When I got a chance to visit Lothal recently, I jumped at it. It was a long and dusty ride from Ahmedabad to the village of Saragwala where the archaeological site of Lothal is located, but it was well worth it. I really couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw the remains. The bricks truly look as though they are from the recent past and not from 2,400 BCE!
My first stop was the rectangular basin that was said to be the dockyard. It is 218 m long and 37 m wide and is bound on all sides by baked bricks. It had gaps for a sluice gate and inlet. As we haven’t yet deciphered the Indus script, we don’t know if this was really India’s first port as is claimed by some and questioned by some historians. But it is true that the discovery of Lothal seals in other ancient cities points to its importance in trade that was conducted with other ancient civilisations. The dockyard proves the maritime activity of the Harappans.
The 4,500-year-old city was mathematically planned. It had a grid pattern with proper streets crossing at right angles, drainage systems, and a great bath. The emphasis on cleanliness can be judged from the discovery of toilets and lota-like jars described by Tony Joseph in his fascinating book, The Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From. He writes that “the way South Asians wash themselves hasn’t changed all that much”. Imagine, our fixation with washing up goes back all the way to the Harappan Civilisation!
As this thought was crossing my mind, I made my way past an ancient well, the remains of a storehouse, and found myself in the upper town or citadel. The city was divided into two parts: the upper town and the lower town. The remains of the brick walls there suggest wide streets, drains and bathing platforms.
Off to a bead-making factory
After spending some time in the citadel I followed the signs to a bead-making factory. I wish the signs were more accurate. Amidst ruins, my search turned into a guessing game with all the signboards being so vague.
Lothal was in the thick of Harappan maritime trade, and beads made from semi-precious stones, terracotta, gold, etc. were popular in areas as far as Sumer (modern-day Iraq), Bahrain and Iran. The Lothal bead-makers were highly skilled. According to the signboard in the Archaeological Survey of India museum there, which displays these beads, a bead-maker’s house was excavated in the lower town. It had several rooms and a kiln. Eight hundred cornelian beads in various stages of production and tools and raw materials were also recovered from there. In the cool confines of the museum, I was also bewitched by the unicorn seal. There must be few students in India who have not seen that seal in their history textbooks.
I also learnt from The Early Indians about a vase discovered at Lothal. It has the painting of a crow standing next to a pitcher with a deer looking back at it. It reminds one of the tale of the thirsty crow in the Panchatantra. As Joseph writes, “So some of the tales we tell our children may have been the same ones told by the Harappans to their children.”