Discover the treasures of Dholavira, an ancient Harappan city

A photo walk through India’s newest UNESCO world heritage site that dates back to the Harappan civilisation, which flourished 4500 years ago.

There’s been a lot of international interest in Dholavira in Gujarat ever since it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site earlier this month. This major Harappan site that is spread over an area of about 100 hectares, is one among the five biggest sites in the Indo-Pak subcontinent and the larger of the two most remarkable excavations of the Indus valley civilisation dating back 4500 years. While the other, Lothal, is impressive as a trading port, Dholavira is striking for its exquisitely planned urban spaces and excellent water management system.

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En route to Dholavira. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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A map in the museum shows how close Dholavira is to the Indo-Pak border and from Mohenjodaro. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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Kotada today. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

Although it was found by an archaeologist named Jagat Pati Joshi in 1968, the Archaeological Survey of India started to excavate the site only in 1990. Dholavira, locally known as Kotada, is built in the shape of a parallelogram and guarded by fortifications. An area that is 771.10 metres in length and 616.85 metres in width is divided into three principal parts – namely the citadel, the middle town and the lower town – built using sandstone and limestone. The majestic citadel consists of 245 divisions, the castle in the east and the bailey in the west. The fortified middle town lies to the north and is separated from the citadel by a long ceremonial ground, while the lower town is within the general fortification to the east.

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This map of the very organised city of Dholavira that can be seen in the museum gives you an idea of the town planning by its builders.
Image: Priya Pathiyan.

Even an untrained eye can see the network of drains both small and large, the stonework that shows the layout of homes of varying sizes to befit the stature of their owners, and high walls that still stand today after several centuries.

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The stones still speak. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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The sheer scale of the constructions is huge. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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Part of a column that looks almost contemporary.
Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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One of the many polished stone pillars, perhaps used as markers or tethers. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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Part of a large storage vessel can still be seen in the corner of a home.
Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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Remnants of dwellings that even rose up to two storeys in some cases. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

You can visit the three gargantuan reservoirs that were probably used for storing freshwater diverted from seasonal streams, see the perfectly made steps going down to the water level, and even explore the channels through which the water was routed. In a place where the rainfall today averages from 300-400 mm, these reservoirs show great foresight and a civilisation that was determined to thrive even in adversity.

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One of the three water reservoirs, with neatly created steps at every level. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

Another fascinating thing about Dholavira is the archaeological find of what researchers believe is the world’s oldest signboard. Made from gypsum, each hieroglyph or symbol on it is about 37 centimetres high and the board on which the letters were inscribed is about three metres long. The letters are from a language that is not yet deciphered by archaeologists, but they probably spell the name of the king and other details of the shop the sign represented. Sadly, this is not kept on view for visitors.

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The modern-day signboard bears images of what the ancient signboard spelt out. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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A picture of the photograph in the museum depicts how the ancient signboard looked. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

But a stop at the museum will offer you an idea of the lettering. The museum also exhibits a collection of pot shards, seals, urns, and other finds from the dig. A graduated scale made from animal bone; terracotta figurines; ornaments made in gold, silver, copper, and shell; and a vessel of chlorite schist and some other antiquities of West Asian origin indicate Dholavira’s trade links with Mesopotamia and other ancient civilisations of the time.

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Entrance of the museum at Dholavira. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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Replicas of seals that were found on the site. The one on the left has created great excitement amongst archaeologists as it resembles a unicorn. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

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Earthenware used to store grain found almost intact at Dholavira. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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Fish hooks, bangles and other metalware found at the site show that the ancient civilisation was adept at metalwork. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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A tiny Indian Desert Jird pops out of its burrow to greet us. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

The Kutch Fossil Park just 10 kms away can be a fascinating stop if you’re interested in petrified wood fossils from the Jurassic period (from 187 million to 176 million years ago)! In the right season, you might even spot flamingos on the surrounding mud flats here.

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The terrain around the Kutch Fossil Park looks rather other-worldly. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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Nature’s wonders at the Kutch Fossil Park. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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Plant fossils from the Jurassic period. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

Around Dholavira

Khadirbet, the island it is situated upon, is about 225km by road from Bhuj, the nearest airport. We were doing a road trip and started off after staying the night in the port of Mandvi. We took the longer route and stopped at the crafts centre at Bhujodi, 66km away, where you can watch artisans in action and buy tie-and-dye fabrics, Kutchhi embroidery work, etc. From here, we drove on to the army check post at Kalo Dungar, very close to the Indo-Pak border, which is the highest point in Kutch and offers a fantastic panoramic view of the white desert of the salt pans. The drive from here via Rapar to the island where the Dholavira dig is located was beautifully surreal, with salt pans on either side and the black ribbon of the road stretching to the horizon.

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The road journey from Dholavira to Rapar is surreal. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

After exploring the ancient city and fossil park for a couple of hours, we left for Ramji Meriya’s homestay about 120km away in Chobari village, at the edge of the Ekal Rann, the less visited part of the white desert in the Rann of Kutch (away from the touristy Rann Utsav in Dhordo). We reached the village after sunset and drove around in the pitch dark to find the Meriya Nature Resort. A campfire dinner later, we did a midnight drive into the glimmering Ekal Rann lit by the full moon, with just the eerie calls of the demoiselle cranes to keep us company. It was the most exhilarating and exquisitely beautiful experience imaginable. But that’s another story for another day.

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