Dholavira & the Story of a Civilization

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    Drive seven hours North from Ahmedabad, deep into the arid stretch of Kutch and you will come across an island amidst the salt pans, the site of a mega city in the Harappan times. More than 4000 years ago, Dholavira was one of the largest cities of its time. It was also one of the oldest, in continuous occupation for over 1200 years.

    More than 4000 years ago, Dholavira was one of the largest cities of its time

    First discovered by archaeologist JP Joshi in 1956, excavations at Dholavira started only 35 years later in 1990 under RS Bisht of the Archaeological Survey of India. Spread over an area of 100 hectares, the site of Dholavira shows a continuous evolution and studies here have brought out some fascinating aspects of the Harappan Civilization.

    Dholavira was occupied from 3rd millennium BCE to the middle of 2nd millennium BCE, which is from about 2650 BCE to 1450 BCE and has seven different stages which document the rise and fall of the Harappan Civilization.

    The earliest phase of Dholavira between 2650 BCE and 2500 BCE shows evidence of a pre-Harappan culture of scattered settlements with a very rudimentary style of pottery. Dholavira seems to have evolved into a sophisticated planned city, a trademark of the mature Harappan period, by 2500 BCE and it continued to be a great urban center till 1900 BCE. Like most other cities of the period, Mohenjo-Daro, Rakhigarhi and Harappa (city), Dholavira also had monumental structures, a sophisticated drainage system and gateways. It was a well-planned town and its layout has given archaeologists great insight into the life and times of the Harappan people.

    At the height of its habitation the city was surrounded by enormous walls measuring 15-18 mts in thickness. Within the rectangular fortification lay a one-of-its-kind city space with the citadel divided it into two parts along with a middle town and a lower town. Prof. Vasant Shinde, Vice Chancellor of the Deccan College of Archaeology and one of the authorities on the Harappan Civilization believes that Dholavira gives a clue of how society was stratified during that period.

    ‘The citadel part is the so called ‘elite’ area. In excavations here we get some big structures, which are believed to have been occupied by the administrators.’

    Next to the citadel there is a broad empty space to the north, probably used for multiple purposes like as a venue for public gathering on festive or ceremonial occasions, a stadium or a market place for exchanging merchandise during trading seasons. A regular house at Dholavira consisted of four rooms, a spacious courtyard, a bathroom and also a kitchen.

    One stand-out find here at Dholavira was what looks like a sign board made up of ten large-sized letters of the Harappan script. The 3 meter long inscription was found below the northern gateway and archaeologists speculate that the letters must have been inlaid on a wooden signboard right above the door of the gate so as to be visible from afar.

    Another striking aspect of Dholavira is the water management system. In the midst of an arid stretch today, Dholavira was at best an island in a brackish sea during the Harappan times. The main sources of water were the two seasonal water streams outside the settlement and some ground water. What is amazing here is how the city administration harnessed the fresh water, creating a complex and effective water management system that allowed Dholavira to prosper.

    Another striking aspect of Dholavira is the water management system

    The water conservation system here consists of a combination of channels and reservoirs, which are among the earliest such networks made of stone, in the world. During excavations, remains of three large reservoirs were excavated. One of these is three times bigger than the Great Bath of Mohenjo-Daro. Within the Dholavira city walls, 16 fresh water reservoirs have been found, each of varying size.

    Prof. Shinde believes that the two small streams played a crucial role. Even today the rivulets flood up during the brief rains in the area. The Harappans were able to capitalize on this brief spurt and harness the rain water. A skill that could well be used in this parched land, today.

    Prof. Shinde explains,

    ‘The Harappans dammed both these streams, and they diverted all the water inside the settlement. Excavations show that the city was divided into three parts and in each part had underground water tanks and they are connected by an underground water channel. They made sure that water kept circulating inside the settlement even in the desert. That is how they could not only survive, but flourish in Dholavira.’

    While Dholavira prospered for centuries, excavations here also give us clues about its decline. One of the most debated issues, recent archaeological studies have thrown a great amount of light on what happened. And there is evidence of this in Dholavira.

    While there are other theories, most archaeologists today agree that it was climate change, probably triggered by a tectonic movement that led to the collapse of these great Harappan cities. Interestingly, this was seen across the Bronze Age civilizations during that time.

    Archaeological research from Cambridge University draws a link between the decline of the Harappan cities and global scale climate change and its impact on the Bronze civilization documented in Minoan Civilization of Crete Islands south of Greece (2700 – 1500 BCE); Akkadian Empire of Mesopotamia around 2300 BCE to 2100 BCE; old kingdom of Egypt Civilization ending in 2150 BCE, all of which declined due to abrupt climatic changes.

    Cameron Petrie, an archaeologist from Cambridge University says that

    ‘By the mid of 2nd millennium BCE, the major cities of Indus Valley Civilizations, all the great urban centers, had dramatically reduced in size or been abandoned.’

    According to Prof. Shinde

    ‘The climatic change, which potentially leads to drought and destruction, is visible. We also have scientific data (to corroborate this). The period between 2100 BCE and 1800 BCE shows severe aridity. And that is not only confined to the Indian subcontinent. We have data from China, Mongolia, West Asia and Europe and they all indicate the same.’

    However, the Harappans at Dholavira managed to survive for another hundred years after this till 1550 BCE. Archaeological evidence at Dholavira shows that the great urban center was gradually deserted and it became a rural settlement in the last 50 years between 1500 BCE and 1450 BCE. After that Dholavira was deserted and abandoned.

    Archaeologists like Prof. Shinde believe that as the climate of the North West region and the Indus plains became drier and harsher, people started moving towards the East and the periphery areas of the once great civilization which were already occupied by local farming communities.

    The Harappans merged with people from the rural communities of the Jorwe and Malwa culture existing in the regions of Deccan and Malwa plateau. There is archaeological evidence that suggests that the Harappans also merged with Ochre Coloured Pottery (OCP) Culture spread around the North-western parts of India. Prof. Shinde sheds some light on this-

    ‘Harappans got mixed up with the local cultures, like OCP. We get mixed pottery of OCP (Ochre Coloured Pottery) and Harappan together at some stage, as we come towards the end of the Harappan culture. So in the initial stages we get OCP and Harappan pottery together’

    They started moving to those parts and started mixing with people there and over time they got absorbed into the society of Gangetic plains.

    Without writing or records, the end of Harappa and the trauma that the people faced remains lost to us because the script hasn't been deciphered. But Dholavira is the closest we can get to see how this great civilization the largest of its time rose and fell.

    Cover Image: Esha Prasad

    The Dancing Girl from the site of Mohenjodaro is a symbol of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization. But while the original sculpture lies in Delhi’s National Museum, you can still own one made exactly using the same technique exclusively at Peepul Tree India, click here.

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