Saturday, February 4, 2012

Lothal - A Port of Harappan Civilization

The Indus-Saraswati Harappa Civilization is the largest among the pre-historic civilizations that existed and flourished around 3000-2000 BCE. At its peak, this civilization boasted of more than 2000 sites spread across a massive area of 800,000 sq km. Mohejendaro in now Pakistan, and then Harappa, also in now Pakistan, were the the first sites excavated (though Kalibangan in northern Rajasthan had been discovered a few years earlier by , but it was only later that this site was tied to the Indus Saraswati Harappan culture).

The site at Lothal was discovered almost 60 years ago.
The site measures 7 hectares (1 ha = 100m x 100m = 10000 sq. m, or basically 2.4 acres), which is roughly 17 acres. The town's peripheral wall is massive, 12 to 21 m thick, and was clearly intended to offer a measure of protection against floods, whose repeated onslaughts left tell-tale marks of ravage on the town and probably brought about its end. [From The Lost River, by Michel Danino]

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The site of Lothal is about 7kms away from the Ahmedabad-Bhavnagar highway. For half the distance the road is not in good condition, and fairly potholed - as you can see from the photo below. After that the road improves considerably, and all told, you can get to the Lothal site from the highway in about 20 minutes.

The impetus for excavating around the Indus and Saraswati basins was the partition of India and the fact that both Mohenjedaro and Harappa, the largest and most famous sites of the Indus-Saraswati Harappa Civilization, had become part of Pakistan. India needed to unearth sites within its own borders to be able to continue this archaeological work.
"The ancient site of Lothal (place of the dead) was discovered in 1954 by S.R.Rao during the course of exploration launched by the Archaeological Survey of India to discover sites of Indus civilization (Harappan civilization) beyond the Indus valley. The excavation of the site from 1955 to 1962 established Lothal as a Harappan port town and a manufacturing center of many objects, especially beads of semi-gems, possibly for export to other Harappan and West Asian cities." [From the board outside the ASI Museum at Lothal. I have scanned and OCR-ed the photo, and then made minor edits to correct obvious errors in the OCR.]

"Phase II witnessed the planning and building of Lothal along the patterns of cities of Indus.As a first measure against floods, the houses were constructed on sun-dried brick platforms. The town was divided into two divisions-the citadel, where the ruler of Lothal lived and important manufacturing activities like ivory working took place and lower town, where other manufacturing activities were organised. The citadel had the ruler's mansion, paved baths for ceremonial purposes, well-laid and covered underground drains and a well. The lower town was divided into a main road possibly for trading activities and the other area where manufacturing of beads and copper tools were done. In fact, remains of a bead-maker's house, complete with kiln, pot-full of beads in various stages of product ion was exposed."

Signs such as the one below are placed at strategic points to guide the visitor to appropriate parts of the town. However, the place is otherwise bereft of any other explanatory signs. Small, unobtrusive pacards of sorts would have helped. Sadly, there are none. One has to rely on the services of a guide, or to go to the Archaelogical Museum, pick out a book on Lothal, and there is one written by S.R Rao, the ASI archaelogist who helped excavate and discover this site, and then head back to the site to figure out the site. The book is useful, yes, but you get the sense that a knowledgeable guide could make the place come to life.

This is another instance where I would have benefited greatly from the services of a guide, who may have been able to shed light on how this cemetery below functioned. Without the services of one I could only theorize, and that too without the help of any prior knowledge about the town.

In the photo below, you can make out the drain running in the bottom left corner. Outlets from houses ran off into drains, that then emptied into septic tanks. Clearly, the level of urban planning and civic sense displayed by the Harappans five thousand years ago surpasses the sense of planning displayed by many town administrators in the 21st century!

The most outstanding structures of lothal - the dock and warehouse - were built during this phase. The dock is a trapezoidal (218 x 37m average) tank-like structure with an inlet in the northern arm and a spillway in the south. The dock was connected to the sea through a river (now dried up) on the western margin of the town. Studies show that this was a tidal dock, size of which are comparable with modern docks. The warehouse, a massive structure with a series of platforms, was built near the dock and the ruler's mansion, all indicating the active role of the ruler in the trade of Lothal.

The excavation established two periods of continuous occupation of the site. During phase I period, the Harappans arrived at Lothal to settle among an indigenous people already knowing the use of copper and bead-making. The rich rice and cotton growing hinterland and proximity to sources of gems and semi·gems and other raw materials perhaps attracted the Harappans to Lothal. A minor flood around 2350 BCE destroyed the village and provided the Harappans to build a town in their typical plan.

This phase also witnessed the introduction of unique Indus standards in industrial products like tools, ceramics, ornaments, weights, seals with a script etc. Manufacture of various goods and the trade in them flourished adding to the material prosperity of the town. A massive flood around 2200 BCE destroyed the town. Soon it was rebuilt in phase III, The Climax.

The prospering trade brought in many foreign materials like imported ceramics, Terracotta models of mummy and gorilla, gold beads, a seal of Persian Gulf origin etc. It also induced abundant production of local artefacts like seals, weights, beads, jewelry, decorated pottery and the like. Fire worship was introduced by building fire altars in public places. The artistic endeavors were stimulated and a new style of painting the pottery with animals in their natural surroundings and depiction of age old tales were witnessed.

A flood again around 2000 BCE affected the prosperous the town in phase IV, the Decline Phase. Importantly, the ruler seems to have left the town and cobblers, dyers and bone-workers occupied the citadel area. The efficiency of the dock was reduced due to sudden shift in the direction of flow of the channel. The prosperity of the town started to decline leading to disorganized manufacturing activities.

A massive deluge around 1900 BCE triggered a large scale dispersal of Harappans to interior Gujarat, leading to springing up of many smaller settlements during Period B. Largely known as Late Harappans, these sites were de-urbanised and mainly dependent on agriculture and less on trade. Lothal was occupied by similar people with improved material remains, with no standardization, particularly in weights and seals.

The material of Harappans of Lothal reflects their high standards in many areas. To mention a few such objects: the numerous remains of beads of various shapes and materials, third largest collection of Indus seals next only to Mohenjodaro and Harappa, variety of shell objects, copper objects like an ingot of 99.18% pure copper, various copper and bronze objects like drill-bits, saw and fish·hooks, tools of stone, weaving tools, pottery with intricate painting, games objects, terracotta figurines, animals like gorilla, horse, and rhinoceros, series of accurate weights, ivory scale with linear divisions, shell compass for sighting a line and measuring cardinal angles etc.

This museum, established in 1976, preserves and exhibits these objects in originals as they'Were recovered from the excavation.

[From the board outside the ASI Museum at Lothal. I have scanned and OCR-ed the photo, and then made minor edits to correct obvious errors in the OCR.]

The Lost River: On The Trail Of The Sarasvati, by Michel Danino (Amazon, Flipkart, Infibeam)

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.