May 25, 2020
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Circa 2000 Bc

From under the arid soil of Kutch comes a major city on the old Harappan map

Circa 2000 Bc

A curious procession trundles into the heavily-protected, 4,000-year-old, sand-and-brick archaeological site at Dhola Veera in Gujarat. Three ox-drawn carts flaunting chillired, Kutchi mirror-worked capes are participating in a mock race. Villagers, equally kaleidoscopic in their vivid costumes and chunky jewellery, are cheering them on.

Project director R.S. Bisht is reenacting for his video team a scene from the Harappan period when its priest king must have similarly presided over the stupendous stadium unearthed recently. The professor-student team from the National Institute of Archaeology, now winding up the year's operations and preparing for the first-ever exhibition (starting April 11) of its thrilling finds, can finally piece together the puzzle bequeathed by the Harappans who descended upon this windswept, semi-arid land around 2500 BC.

Dhola Veera, which translates into the "white clay well", lies on the north-west corner of the Khadir island, hemmed in by the blinding-white salt deserts of the desolate Rann of Kutch. Though the golden-yellow sandstone mound was discovered in the '60s by archaeologist Jagat Pati Joshi, curiosity was whipped up only decades later when Bisht, who is also the director of the archaeology institute, conjectured a map of the buried civilisation.

But by then sufficient damage had been done by the state government trying to build bunds and the local farmers attempting to eke out harvests. Several skeletons were lost during this period, says site supervisor Sanjay Kumar Singh. But intensified excavations carried out since then have resulted in a cache of archaeological treasures that now marks Dhola Veera as a significant Harappan site among the six important ones in the subcontinent. These include Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Gharo Bhiro and Juderijodaro in Pakistan and Rakhigarhi in India. "For the first time a conjectural map of the site, done merely by studying whatever was found on the surface, matched almost completely with what was actually excavated. Also, Dhola Veera is remarkable for its yield of the 10-letter Harappan inscription, described as the discovery of the decade," says Bisht. Though the letters, 37 cm in height and 27 cm in width, have yet to be decoded, they offer that elusive key to the cryptic pictographs of what is described as the Indus Valley Civilisation. For the first-time a three-tiered city structure has been dug out intact and proper gateways have been laid bare with most of their metal-polished stone pillars in situ.

Bisht also believes Dhola Veera is unique with its detailed chronicle of the seven stages of the Harappan culture from 2500 BC to 1500 BC. Finds here have etched the tapestry of the entire Harap-pan civilisation within the India context. The 12-metre excavated deposit stratifies the seven stages neatly. It reconstructs the passage of these settlers, probably people akin to the ancient Sumerians, from the time they landed with their baggage of an already well-evolved culture, to their growing maturity in trade, sophistication depicted through pictographs, seals and exquisite jewellery, progressive engineering and water management techniques and their final, mysterious nemesis from which they never recovered.

According to Urmila Sant, superintendent archaeologist, the discovery of bead-making sites, shards of ceramic tiles—now being cleaned, assembled and restructured to present a whole pot or jewellery piece at the Archaeological Survey of India's pottery camp here—point to the skilled craftsmanship of the Harappans of the first and second stages. These early settlers exhibited further creativity in the third stage. Though a vicious earthquake struck at the very root of their fiercely protected fortress at this stage, the Harappans recovered sufficiently to continue with their march to further prosperity. The fortifications expanded with several accretions, a castle, a bailey where the cattle folk lived, monumental gateways with frontal terraces. And stamp seals, weights, script and typical pottery forms and motifs made their debut.

A few centuries later, this affluence ushered in the mature or the fourth stage of the Harappans. It is believed that the 10-lettered inscription belongs to this phase and probably hung over the gate that commanded over "the long and wide open space which was meticulously maintained, levelled and floored over several centuries, obviously for special ceremonies presided over by the highest authority of the city".

ARCHAEOLOGISTS feel that at this stage too, the structure of sun-dried bricks, perched atop the buff-toned sand mound, winged on either sides by thick strands of water, must have resembled a jal durga or water fort. The Harappans, deeply conscious of the need to conserve water, had plastered their walls with water-repelling clay and hammer-dressed their stones, thus coaxing every drop of water into the large reservoir. But by stage five, the rot or decline set in, followed by a temporary desertion of the site. By stage six, the city had shrunk, and the late Harappans abandoned the settlement altogether. Their lesser-endowed successors constructed their houses right into the streets, relinquishing the parallel symmetry introduced by the early Harappans. An article by Bisht in the bulletin Puratattva notes: "Something drastic occurred and the city lost its glory and grandeur and also its urban character. The city was rapidly abandoned by the administrative authority and affluent people. Only the poorer folk and artisans stayed on. These squatters raised their constructions anywhere."

D.N. Dhimri, deputy superintendent archaeologist with the institute, feels that the many facets of the civilisation unmasked here indicates that Harappan culture was not confined to the Indus Valley alone. The majority of the 1,500 such sites in Pakistan, Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra have been discovered on the Saraswati's banks. Only about 50 sites have been actually located in the Indus Valley itself. "It would be appropriate to term the culture Harappan rather than Indus Valley," he argues. That, however, is still a matter of debate within the fraternity.

For Bisht, clearly besotted with his find, the site is remarkable for the neat layout unearthed with the fortified metropolis, which stretches over an expanse of 100 hectares. It boasts a citadel with elaborate gateways, a middle-town and a lower-town, along with a burial ground which has riveting evidence of different forms of cremation, from ash urns to the megalithic burial system that belonged to the original inhabitants. A skeleton, askew with age, lies embedded in one grave surrounded by ritual pots. Close by is a stupa-like structure which might have been the burial spot of the king.

The ancient engineers of the intricate waterways had anticipated drought conditions and built water shutes in individual homes to direct all the precious moisture from dew and rain into the yawning reservoir where archaeology students are now huddled, gently knifing out samples for further research. The network of storm water drains, criss-crossing beneath the city, had been improved upon by successive generations. "You can see that these were deep enough to allow a person to stand. There are large orifices allowing these drains to breathe," Bisht points out.

The Harappan mound is strategically embraced by the Mansar and Manhar seasonal torrents, whose beds are now only rocky patches. For the archaeologists camping on site, one of the most exciting moments was when a cloudburst released a torrent of water into these deep gashes cut into the mound by the now-extinct rivers. As the water thundered down, the archaeologists rushed to capture the sight on camera. "We heard this loud roar and ran out to see this electrifying sight. We managed to photograph it. For us it seemed as if history was repeating itself," recalls Bisht of that unseasonal wet afternoon, showing a snapshot of the frothy tongue of water.

The climate when the Harappans landed in Kutch must have been similar to the current semi-arid conditions, the parched land indicating that their interests in colonising it should have been other than agrarian, according to Bisht. They might also have cultivated cotton or other cash crops for domestic and international markets. Or, they might have been involved in lucrative livestock farming. Though mineral resources in Kutch were scarce, the presence of chalcedony, ochre, white clay, Fuller's earth, agate, jasper, salt and gypsum might have led them into mining and manufacturing these for export. Researchers also believe there must have been a navigable sheet of water or deep meandering channels in the Rann which the sea-faring Harappans exploited, though there are no traces of these water routes now. "Otherwise, the location of a city of enormous dimensions would remain a big enigma," notes Bisht.

He believes the excavations at Dhola Veera suggest Harappans brought here their full-blown culture and lived a full life before their culture declined and fragmented, causing large-scale migration from Kutch to the hinterland of Gujarat and perhaps Saurashtra. Before them, there is only evidence of a microlithic people ignorant of the advanced technology of pottery-making, use of copper and who lacked the trappings of urban living. Perhaps the Harappans, encountering these technologically primitive people on arrival, drove them across the Rann before starting to either befriend or subjugate them. Ajita Patel, fondly referred to by the faculty as 'Bony' Patel for her research on the bone fragments thrown up by the excavations, is looking into the Harappan animal economy. She has zoomed in on two types of fowls, one a chicken and the other an unknown bird. Patel is also studying the butchery pattern of the Harappans and says these meat-rich people, fond of pig and deer, also indulged their palates with deep-sea catfish.

In the deepening dusk at the camp site where the tents squat, lit up by generator-powered bulbs, archaeology students enjoy a rare privilege. They are allowed to handle the antiquities and coo with pleasure and awe at the sight of the paper-thin copper hand-mirror encrusted with centuries-old blue sediment, the large stone lizard stiff with age and artwork, the headless stone priest who stands 38 cm tall, bigger than any of his counterparts so far laid bare in other Harappan sites. Wafer-thin terracotta pots, some of them bead-small, figurines of birds and animals, the thin and delicate gold beads interspersed with polished-blue lapis lazuli, bone beads smaller than a pin-head, and agate and jasper stones painstakingly polished to bring out their beautiful hidden veins.

In a few days, the tents will be folded up. Only the border patrol will keep vigil over the mound, doing their lonely rounds on camel-back. Till the next batch of students arrive to dig around the ancient site, each hoping to find that piece which will make the Harappan puzzle complete.

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