Saturday, October 11, 2014

Dholavira: a Harappan City in the Rann of Kutch

When I was a boy dreaming of archaeological adventures on the other side of the world, only two great cities of the Indus Valley civilization were known: Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, both in Pakistan. Now there are three more: Ganeriwala in Pakistan and, in India, Rakhigarhi and Dholavira. Dholavira is the smallest of these and the last to be founded, but it is very well preserved and has many striking features. It was discovered in 1968 and it has been excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India since 1990.

The strangest thing about Dholavira is its location, on an island within the salt flat wilderness known as the Rann of Kutch. These days the surrounding area is desert most of the year -- Dholavira sits in the middle of a "Desert Wildlife Sanctuary" -- but during wet monsoons it fills with water and becomes a vast shallow lake. In other years it does not rain at all. What the environment was like in 2500 BCE is much disputed. Some hold that it was an arm of the Arabian Sea, some that it was salt marsh, others that there were permanent freshwater lakes; but it certainly was not a fertile landscape of lush fields. Nor was it ever a good port, since the water (if there was any) was shallow, with no evidence of a navigable channel.

Dholavira was established around 2650 BCE, just before the beginning of the Mature Harappan Period (what archaeologists call the glory days of Indus Valley Civilization, usually dated from 2600 to 1900 BCE). The great buildings mainly date to Stage III, the early part of the Mature Harappan. The visible stone and brick walls were once regularly plastered with white or pink mud, so the city was brightly colored. (Above, north gate of the citadel, from here.)

You can see that Dholavira has a clear geometrical layout, quite unlike the more random patterns of the older cities. Its rebuilding in 2500 BCE was centrally planned and directed. What look like rivers on that plan are seasonal drainages for monsoon rain, very shallow and dry for most of the year. Right now the excavators think that Stage I of the city was a small fortress under the Stage III citadel; if that is right, it suggests the place was founded as an outpost by a political power based elsewhere. Perhaps that same power or its local representative was responsible for the plan of the larger city.

Digital reconstruction of the town. The citadel is at upper left; most of the seals and other indications of government came from there.

The most remarkable thing about the city is its hydraulic engineering. It contains at least 16 reservoirs and elaborate systems of drains and sewers:
The citadel has yielded an intricate network of storm water drains, all connected to an arterial one and furnished with slopes, steps, cascades, manholes (air ducts / water relief ducts), paved flooring and capstones. The main drains were high enough for a tall man to walk through easily. The rainwater collected through these drains was stored in yet another reservoir that was carved out in the western half of the bailey.
Altogether the reservoirs have an area of about 10 hectares, or 10 percent of the area within the walls. This fabulous system made it possible for the Dholavirans to thrive in their desert home.

As with other Harappan sites, there is nothing that really looks like a royal palace, nor are there spectacular tombs within the cemetery. So the political organization of these societies remains mysterious; perhaps they were aristocratic Republics, or were ruled by colleges of priests. Some evidence of trade was found in Dholavira, including artifacts from Mesopotamia, and some people think that it was a trading center served by possible port sites a few kilometers away. Numerous seals were found.

The most famous discovery at Dholavira is the Sign Board, which was found just outside the north entrance to the citadel. This was made of white bricks used like mosaic tiles, attached to a wooden background. At some point the wooden sign fell face down in the dirt; eventually it rotted away and left the bricks in place, spelling out ten characters in the mysterious Indus script. This is actually one of the longest Indus inscriptions known, which tells you why nobody has been able to read it. Did it welcome visitors to the city, or proclaim the power of its rulers? One wit suggested that it says CONSERVE WATER.

Adjacent to the citadel on the north side was an open space, similar to open spaces near to the centers of other Harappan cities. It has long been suspected that these were for public rituals. The open space at Dholavira is surrounded by several steps that form low bleachers, suggesting an amphitheater. The excavators call it a "stadium."

On the weirder fringe, these Indian academics think one of the stranger buildings at Dholavira was an observatory. I won't express an opinion except to say that it was certainly something out of the ordinary.

Like the other Indus Valley cities, Dholavira began to decline around 2000 BCE. Around 1900, it seems to have been completely abandoned for at least 50 years. It was then re-occupied by people who were still part of Harappan civilization but lacked the means to keep the city as it once was: the all important water system fell into disrepair, the drains blocked by debris. But the Indus Valley script was still in use, as shown by seals, and the pots were still recognizably Harappan. Around 1750 BCE the city was abandoned again. When it was re-occupied a century later, dramatic changes had taken place: the people used new pottery, built round huts unlike anything seen in Harappan times, and generally lived very differently than their predecessors. Around 1450 BCE these interlopers moved on, and the site was abanoned for good.

No comments: