(A longer version of the article below appeared in the Dec 2008 issue of Himal Southasian.)
The road to Dholavira goes through a dazzling white landscape of salty mudflats. It is close to noon in early April and the mercury is already past 100F. The desert monotones are interrupted only by the striking attire worn by the women of the nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoral tribes that still inhabit this land: Ahir, Rabari, Jat, Meghwal, and others. When I ask the driver of my hired car to stop for a photo, they receive me with curious stares, hoots, and giggles.
This is the Rann of Kutch, an area about the size of Kuwait, almost entirely within Gujarat and along the border with Pakistan. Once an extension of the Arabian Sea, the Rann ("salt marsh") has been closed off by centuries of silting. During the monsoons, parts of the Rann fill up with seasonal brackish water, enough for many locals to even harvest shrimp in it. Some abandon their boats on the drying mudflats, presenting a surreal scene for the dry season visitor. Heat mirages abound. Settlement is limited to a few "island" plateaus, one of which, Khadir, hosts the remains of the ancient city of Dholavira, discovered in 1967 and excavated only since 1989.
Entering Khadir, we pass a village and find the only tourist bungalow in town. It hasn't seen a visitor in three days; I check in and head over to the ruins. I've planned this for months; even the hottest hour of the day cannot temper my excitement for the ruins of this 5,000 year-old metropolis of the Indus Valley Civilization. While hundreds of sites have been identified in Gujarat alone, this is among the five biggest known to us in the entire subcontinent, alongside Harappa, Mohanjo-daro, and Ganeriwala in Pakistan, and Rakhigarhi in India.
At the site office, a caretaker and his friend are playing cards on a charpoy. They offer me a chair and a glass of water, cooled in an earthen surahi. On a wall are the mysterious inscriptions from the famous signboard of Dholavira, painted above contemporary motifs to suggest a continuity of sorts. I learn from the caretaker that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) still excavates each winter, alongside researchers from overseas. Hundreds from the local village are then employed on site. He says he has learned directly from the experts and offers to be my guide. I readily agree but hope that as part of the deal, he will overlook the "Photography Prohibited" injunction I had noticed earlier—a perfectly exasperating habit of the ASI—else I would have to attempt a bribe. I am relieved when the caretaker does not press the issue.
To the casual visitor, the most striking feature of Dholavira is its water management system. One gets the sense that every drop of water had to be saved. About 25 of the city's 250 acres are occupied by 16 rock cut reservoirs of various sizes. Linked by channels and dams, the reservoirs are quite spread out and must have added to the aesthetic appeal of this planned city. I wondered how much of the city's energy went into this effort? What drew its citizens to this location in the first place?
Archaeologists have identified seven cultural stages in the city's evolution, starting around 3000 BCE. The "golden age" was apparently the fourth stage, when most of its monumental structures—gateways, fortifications, reservoirs—were built, accompanied by a prolific output in pottery, seals with inscriptions, weights, beads, and items of gold, silver, copper, ivory, shell, faience, steatite, clay, and stone. Later stages saw rising levels of impoverishment and urban decay (and a brief revival), until it was finally abandoned around 1500 BCE. We can't be sure why. But Dholavira did outlast other major centers of the Indus Valley Civilization.
The city was enclosed by an outer wall. Three major sections of the city have been identified: the "citadel", "middle town", and "lower town", in descending order of prosperity and civic amenities. To the south on higher ground stands the citadel, where the "royalty" had lived. Further north is the middle town and a lower town to its east, both residential quarters for commoners, with streets and homes laid out on a grid-like plan. The caretaker points out portable wastewater pots (sullage jars) outside many houses, similar to the large earthen matkas of today. Pottery shards lie scattered on the ground. I pick up a broken stone bangle. Someone probably wore this 4000 years ago!
The imposing citadel, fortified with layers of walls, gates, and towers, has a "castle" atop with concealed passageways, stairs, and chambers, many supported by chiseled pillars of finely polished limestone. What dramas unfolded within these walls? What fears and hopes were expressed here? Or myths, anxieties, humor, repressions, prejudices? Unless the Harappan "script" is deciphered, much of what we say is speculation. What we can be sure of is Dholavira's water harvesting acumen, plainly evident in the citadel's intricate network of storm water drains, with slopes, steps, cascades, manholes, paved flooring and capstones. A tall man could walk through the large arterial drains that fed a reservoir on the citadel. The caretaker leads me to a deep well, once fitted with ropes and buckets. Water drawn from it cascaded down rock-cut channels to feed showers in a royal bathroom. Who were the people who occupied this privileged spot? What social organization supported them?
Between the citadel and middle town is an open field, with stepped stands on all four sides. It might have hosted a market, royal or religious ceremonies, sports, executions, performances, or festivals. Though there is no evidence of competitive sports, some Indian historians prefer to believe so and have accordingly dubbed the field a "stadium". Overlooking this field was the citadel's north gate with the famous three-meter wide signboard of ten mysterious symbols, which must have been legible from across the field. For all we know, it might say: Long Live the King or Conserve Water!
With the region's water resources clearly not ideal for agriculture, what economic activity drove the city's fortunes? Scholars have suggested that Dholavira, with its coastal location may have been a regional hub of maritime trade and commerce (back then the Rann was a navigable channel to the Arabian sea). To the modern visitor, Dholavira could well be a symbol of an epic struggle against the elements, where a whole city strived to wrestle an order out of its hostile environment. All that for what? The stones aren't talking just yet.