At Bhuj airfield, I have the distinct feeling of landing about a hundred years back in time. No modern air-conditioned buses or air bridges. The plane stops far from the concrete box terminal, leaving me and my fellow passengers to lug our suitcases across the tarmac. As it turns out, just around a century ago a prehistoric civilisation was about to be identified on the Indus River.
In the 1920s, archaeologists were to conclude that Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (both now in Pakistan) belonged to a hitherto undocumented four-millennia-old culture—making it as old and refined as the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations. But it was only after Independence that the full extent of the Harappan world was revealed, with the discovery of sites all over Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, and even in the foothills of the Himalayas. First among major post-Independence discoveries, in the 1950s, was Lothal in Gujarat, an hour’s drive south of Ahmedabad. Dholavira, around 460 kilometres from Lothal is a more recent find that counts among the best-preserved Harappan sites, and is still being excavated two decades after its discovery. The team, involving 600 archaeologists, students, and local labourers, has so far uncovered only approximately one-fifth of the ruins.
Before I set out for the site, I whet my appetite at the Museum of Kachchh in Bhuj, which has an illuminating display of Harappan objects. Dating back to the 1880s, it is one of Gujarat’s oldest museums and retains the appearance of a pre-Independence edifice. The time-tripping continues on the drive through the parched landscape, dotted with camel herds, to the tent accommodation where I am to halt for the night. Not exactly a desert nomad’s lifestyle, the Rann Utsav’s state-of-the-art camp features electric kettles and attached bathrooms with running hot water, things that Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia survived without.
Despite the mod-cons, food court, and loudspeaker entertainment, I’m getting the vibe of a caravanserai, surrounded by jolly travellers, camels, and a certain desert roughness. The night gets freezing cold. And guests in the neighbouring tents have apparently forgotten to take their Digene pills after wrestling bouts with the unlimited dinner buffet, causing rumbling ambient emissions.
Although practical constraints make it impossible to go by camel all the way to Dholavira, the expedition must be kicked off in Harappan style. After all, camel and bullock carts were the favoured means of overland transport in those days and I’m desperate to get as deep under the Harappan skin as possible.
The modern equivalent is a camel cart romp to the salt desert, six kilometres north of the tourist tent camp.
On the horizon there’s a mirage of houses floating in the air. The dusty road is silent. The air is clear, the pace slow. Thanks to my cowboy hat I’m cool, but my companion photographer Kaushal Parikh, has to wrap his jacket into a turban to avoid getting burnt by the desert sun.
A few more kilometres down the track there’s a point where camels aren’t allowed further, quashing any hopes we may have had of sunset rides across the salt flats. Here, tourists stumble about in a soggy mix of mud and salt. We’ve soon got goo up to our knees. Too late, we remember that we’ve forgotten our water and snacks on the camel cart on the shore. Tired, dirty, hungry, and thirsty, we return to camp. Being an adventurer is hard work, even today.
These days, the desert gets flooded only in the monsoon, but in ancient times this same desert was one of the distributaries of the Indus delta, connected with other Harappan cities further upriver. (Many earthquakes later, that connection was severed.) The citadel of Dholavira held a strategic position: a majestic port-fort that guarded the mouth of the Indus, part-trading station, part-garrison or naval base.
We travel by car on a tarred road. But, the closer we get, the more remote the place seems to be from the modern world. The last stop for snacks are basic dhabas in Rapar, 82 kilometres from Dholavira. An excavation unearthed Harappan ruins in this very village: in ancient times, dusty Rapar had a walled fort with godowns for storing rice, wheat, barley, and lentils lining its streets. Soon afterwards we reach a dramatic causeway across endless vistas of pure white salt packed so compactly one can walk on it.
Finally, there’s Dholavira, perched high on its desolate island, Khadir Bet. Much of its citadel is built of sandstone and limestone, rather than Harappan standard bricks, which accounts for its well-preserved state four millennia later. It has staircases, gateways, sewage tunnels, tiled shower cubicles, kitchens with grinding stones, and—most impressively—gigantic water reservoirs. The biggest tank could hold 20 million litres, which makes me suspect that Harappans had better access to drinking water than many of us today.
The caretaker shows us around, through imposing gateways and then across a stadium, or parade ground, that seated upwards of 10,000 on three-tiered stands. Ravji has spent his life watching the archaeologists at work and reading all the relevant documents, so he’s acquired a remarkable understanding of the site. Every so often, he stops to point at near-invisible fragments in the rubble.
Suddenly he bends down and sifts through what looks like soil to my unaccustomed eye, but in Ravji’s keen gaze is a set of historical footnotes. Look! There’s a piece of arrowhead copper on the floor of what would have been a workshop.(Indicating perhaps that gatecrashers met with an armed response, I think.) Notice the knife-grinding grooves on that slab. (These folks appear to have been armed to their teeth.) Don’t miss that lump of raw carnelian, used for the beads that the Harappans famously exported around the world. (And they were rich traders too, I realise as I’m starting to put one and one together.) Here’s a discarded drill bit to cut holes in the beads and, there, the fragment of a terracotta bangle. See, a fishbone. (Might this house have been a Harappan seafood joint?)
The buildings of Dholavira were painted in mellow hues of white and pink, as evidenced by chalky residue found here and there. Important gates had signboards with Harappan letters made of gypsum. Today, the scraggy ruins glow honey-golden in the spectacular sunset.
Exhausted, I stand in the empty bazaar—300 metres long and once lined with shops offering toys and games, musical entertainment, fishing hooks, grilled fish—thinking that people who lived here must have witnessed the same magical colours buttered across the sky, then as now.
To the west, approximately where the sun sets, lies Mohenjo-Daro, 450 kilometres away, and everything around, for thousands of kilometres, was once part of a rare, cultured, cosmopolitan civilisation.
Unlike the Egyptians, whose main concern was to build opulent tombs for their royals, the Harappans were a model of decent governance. Their graves are simple. Resources were spent towards the greater common good. They were the earliest people known to put immense effort into water conservation, public works, urban sanitation, running water in every household, and children’s education. The one thing that makes me stop short in every Harappan museum are the toys. A civilisation whose people cared enough for their offspring to manufacture miniature bullock-carts with rotating wheels and intricate board games must have been one where IQ and life skills were prized higher than the riches you carried with you into death.
No wonder that towns like Dholavira attracted migrants from afar. The excavation of the cemetery suggests that people from both Mesopotamia and Arabia came to live here. And now we modern people come here to wonder. A couple from Bengaluru, here as tourists, are staying at the Gujarat Tourism lodge. We crack real estate jokes about the ruins: “needs a bit of renovation before one can move in, eh, but the plumbing is good.”
It’s a day-long drive from Dholavira to Lothal. We break journey for snacks in the historic town of Patan, which lies roughly halfway. It’s not as old as Dholavira or Lothal, being founded as recently as the 700s A.D., but it is a delight. It has a remarkable 1,000-year-old stepwell, the Rani ki Vav, with sculpture galleries that help me imagine what ancient damsels and dudes looked like.
After the silent majesty of Dholavira and the old-fashioned liveliness of Patan, Lothal strikes one as somewhat underwhelming because it conforms to the preconceived notion many might harbour about Harappan sites: it’s mostly piles of brick. But the Archaeological Survey of India’s museum displays beautiful perforated pottery, dice games, and two skeletons huddled together in a single grave like a prehistoric Romeo and Juliet couple.
It’s not at all implausible that people moved around between the Harappan cities and the wider world. Archaeologists have dug up a primitive compass made of shell, miniature models of an Egyptian mummy and an African gorilla, and very pure copper ingots imported from Oman. Some of the skeletons in the cemetery have Mediterranean features while others appear to be Dravidian.
I take my time studying the perfect plumbing, gutters with optimal gradients (drop of 1 in 40 feet) to keep dirt water flowing into cesspools, rather than clogging the loos. The attention to detail is impressive.
The main object of interest is the huge rectangular, roughly 4,360 year-old dock, the oldest in the world, where boats were moored—vessels probably similar to the dhows built along Gujarat’s coast today. The dock is still in use as a reservoir for monsoon water and it’s partially full even on a dry winter’s day, which goes to show that what the Harappans built was made to last.
As I walk around, I become aware of something crunching under my shoes and discover that while I’ve been busy looking at the bigger picture, I’ve missed another detail. The ground around the dock is strewn with potshards, goods lost in transit. From the numbers it is easy to tell that this was an important port. I kneel down to study a piece from the rim of a pot: it’s a real adventure to get so close to 4,000-year-old history that you can actually touch. The Harappans were so advanced, according to a monograph titled Lothal, written by the discoverer of the site, the late S.R. Rao, that “even today the bead-makers of Cambay who export their product to Africa and the West Asian and European countries follow the same technique which the Lothal lapidaries had evolved”.
At Lothal, over 800 carnelian beads have been found in jars, the best samples of which can be viewed in the museum. These were prized as far away as antique Ur (in present-day Iraq). Inspired by the sight of the intricate brick kiln, I decide to hunt for Harappan jewellery. Vipul, the caretaker, claims that a man from Khambhat, or Cambay, still comes to sell traditional beads here, and Prakash, our driver, knows where Khambhat is. Khambhat, 80 kilometres by road in a loop around the Gulf of Cambay, was a fabled port, visited by many explorers before us (including Marco Polo). Although it is Lothal’s junior, it too has silted up, prompting the shipping industry to shift elsewhere. But the city is alive with bead-makers, we discover, as our car is directed through increasingly narrower alleys lined with century-old mansions bespeaking of a more prosperous past, to Powerhouse Road, also known as the Bead Bazaar.
Oldest in the business, founded around 1880, is M.A. Mansuri’s shop, run by Mohammed, Yasin, Hanif, and Aman—the last is a mere toddler but already a fifth generation bead-maker. The workshop consists of a warren of rooms crammed from floor to ceiling with rocks, raw or polished. In the alley at the back, stone-cutters hammer away, while the family members thread the colourful beads sitting on a mattress in a middle room.
We tell them we learnt of carnelian bead-making in Lothal.
At first they’re alarmed thinking that there’s a competing firm there, but when we explain that the Lothal bead-makers went out of business 4,000 years ago, they relax. Over a cup of chai, the artisans confirm that the yellow-red translucent carnelian rates as a great Indian export product today, just like it did in Harappan times, and their firm ships lakhs worth of the product all over the world. The process of cutting, heating (to fix the colour) and polishing remains the same. And price? My companion and I buy a kilogram of carnelian jewellery.
So how does the ultimate Harappan adventure close? I write home about it in style, which is best done at the tiny post office by the Lothal-Burkhi railway station. A friendly postal worker digs out a postcard bearing the slogan “Philately: King of Hobbies” and stamps it for me with his special Lothal Seal, depicting the Harappan bull famous from the seals I’ve seen in the museums. It’s a priceless souvenir, home-delivered.
Dholavira (locally known as Kotada) is in a sparsely populated part of western Gujarat, on a seasonal island, Khadir Bet. Located around 300 km northeast of Ahmedabad, in the middle of the Great Rann of Kutch, it is connected to the mainland by a causeway. Lothal is more centrally located and is in Ahmedabad district, 80 km southeast of the city and 30 km northwest of where the Sabarmati River meets the Gulf of Khambhat.
Air Bhuj is the closest airport to Dholavira, 217 kilometres away, and has daily flights from Mumbai. Ahmedabad airport (80 km) is closest to Lothal, and is connected to Mumbai and Delhi with direct flights.
Rail Samakhiali is the nearest railhead to Dholavira, 136km away. Overnight trains to Samakhiali are available from Ahmedabad, the closest convenient railhead to Lothal.
Road Dholavira is a 220km/4hr drive from Bhuj and 380km/6.5hr from Ahmedabad. The old town of Patan makes for a good stop en route. Lothal is a 80km/1.5hr drive from Ahmedabad.
Both sites are signposted and have walkways, though they are not disabled-friendly. They are open from sunrise to sunset. If you want to get in early or stay late, consult the caretaker. The museum at Dholavira has about 300 objects on display. Lothal’s museum is well-endowed (open 10am-5pm; closed Fridays; entry ₹2 Indians, prices may vary for foreign nationals).
Bhuj’s Shroff Bazaar is a fun place to browse antiques and textiles. Lothal museum’s bookshop has great ASI literature, and Khambhat is known for its carnelian jewellery. At the Rann Utsav in Dec-Jan, you can buy local crafts, or travel to villages, such as Ludia and Hodko, to buy directly from craftspeople. Try M.A. Mansuri’s (02698-220794; www.mamansuri.com; near Pith Post Office, Khambhat) for traditional bead jewellery.
Max: 45ºC, Min: 34ºC. Rain: 0 mm
March to May is hot, dusty, and dry, but views of the salt desert are spectacular, with large, shimmering crystals.
Max: 30ºC, Min: 20ºC. Rain: 700 mm
The monsoon (July-Sept) is an interesting time to see the ruins as the rain washes away the dust. However, the Rann gets flooded, and you’ll miss the salt desert.
Max: 35ºC, Min: 13ºC. Rain: 0 mm
Although October is very hot, Nov-Feb is pleasant with moderate daytime temperatures, chilly nights, and hundreds of species of migratory birds.
Rann Utsav at Dhordo (81 km from Bhuj) has 400 tents ranging from fuss-free dorms to air-conditioned ones. It is operational from mid-Dec to end-Jan. Tours and camel rides are included in packages (1800 233 9008; www.rannutsav.com; doubles from ₹7,046).
Prince Located on Station Road, where most tourists stay, Prince serves decent food. You may be able to obtain an alcohol permit (02832-220370; www.hotelprinceonline.com; doubles ₹3,750).
Gujarat Tourism Toran Tourist Complex (1km from ruins) has accommodation in 11 nice circular huts, with attached bathrooms that could do with a bit of renovation. The cafeteria can offer poha, filling veg meals, and tea. The hotel charges around ₹300 per day per person for all meals (www.gujarattourism.com; doubles ₹1,500 for AC room, but due to power cuts you may want to request a non-AC rate, which is ₹1,000).
Your best bet is to stay in Ahmedabad and, if Lothal is your main interest, pick a hotel near Ring Road on the southwest side of town for quick access.
Treatotel is a stylish hotel with polite staff conveniently close to the Ring Road, just off Drive In Road in a quiet back lane next to Sterling Hospital and within walking distance from many restaurants, local and international (079-27462452, 30488882/3; www.treatotel.com; doubles from ₹3,400).
Appeared in the July 2013 issue as “Shards of Harappa”.
Updated in March 2016.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).