Lothal: Where the story of civilisation started in the Indian Sub-continent
By Abhinav Kumar
Everyone has a place they return to time and again or a thing they simply can’t resist while on vacation. Think beloved mountains or beaches, spas, street food, an 18-hole course or bungee jumping, et cetera. For me, it’s World Heritage Sites*: majestic reminders of a glorious, often mysterious past, scattered all over the globe, to be guided through, explored solo, photographed and cherished.
My search for such sites led me to Lothal — an enigmatic lost port-city, one of the central characters in the mysterious drama of the subcontinent’s origins. Part of a national obsession – the Indus Valley Civilisation: perpetually hiding in plain sight, its broken cities scattered across the north and west. Its script continues undeciphered, its story always tantalisingly beyond reach — confined, until that moment, within the yellowing pages of my schoolboy history books, with their prim descriptions of planned cities, streets meeting at right angles, baked bricks and standardised weights.
At a distance of just 80km from my hotel, Lothal was perfect. Lying forgotten in its ruinous state, Lothal was perfect.
Gujarat’s well-laid roads zipped past as we hurtled towards our destination. Bountiful rains this year, the driver Ratan informed me curtly, as we passed soaked paddy fields that glittered in the morning sun. Unprecedented. Looking out at the gentle, jovial cumulus clouds that glided past, I prayed that they withhold their yield until at least that evening.
Presently, we turned left onto a narrow country road. Had it not been for a brown board, proclaiming that this was the way to the Lothal archaeological museum, I would have begun to deeply mistrust Ratan, who had dropped into my lap right out of the first page of Google search results. After a couple of pauses to give way to quizzical farmers on tractors, we drew up at the muddy parking lot of the museum.
“I’ll take a couple of hours. You can eat these paranthas I had packed, I’m not hungry.”
Ratan raised a surly eyebrow and shrugged his acknowledgement.
Dating back to 2500 BCE, Lothal was a riverine port town of the Indus Valley (Harappan) civilization. Located at Saragwala in Ahmedabad District, its ruins were excavated in the 1950s as part of India’s push to locate its own Indus Valley sites after the most famous discoveries – Harappa and Mohenjodaro – happened to fall on the other side of the border.
The archaeological museum – established by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1976 –is large, cool, dark and instructive. But without a guide, or an eccentric curator who drops the occasional anecdote on unsuspecting visitors, it lacks a soul. Even a voluntary, unencumbered solo traveler like me runs the risk of fatigue from the tedium of reading reams and reams of description and conjecture about one of India’s favourite subjects.
The treasures hidden within its depths, though, have the power to captivate those who come willingly. You are greeted by an artist’s imagination of the town at its zenith. As you stare at the arresting image – which depicts not only boats laden with goods easing into Lothal’s dockyard, but even a funeral procession progressing along the main street of the lower town – you are compelled to remind yourself that this inconspicuous mound was once a center of thriving activity. While this is true of most ancient ruins, what makes Lothal (and any Indus Valley site) unique is that these were the people who – simply by living – created history, determining the things that were worth doing and preserving with no template, no instructive tradition. As you walk along the dimly lit corridors of the museum, with its trappings of a classic government office (creaky ceiling fans, white tube-lights, the occasional paan**-stain), it’s difficult not to feel a sense of direct continuity between the inhabitants of Lothal and yourself. Unlike other historical sites, which evoke grandeur and invariably make you feel rather small, Lothal feels different. Here, the makers of history are ordinary folk who floundered along their lives, creating sparks here and there, much like we do.
Having studied the Indus Valley in some depth, albeit several years ago, I had a fair idea of what the museum would have to offer and was not disappointed: pots of clay, ornaments of shell and semi-precious stone (try muttering lapis lazuli under your breath a few times — it’s borderline hypnotic) and enigmatic seals printed with those unknowable letters and fascinating cattle motifs.
“Lothal” means “mound of the dead” in Gujarati, and one of the center pieces of the museum is a replica of a set of two skeletons, intertwined in an elegant but macabre death-embrace. The head of the shorter one (possibly a child?) lolls on the other’s shoulder as they face the same direction and grin their mirth at the few visitors who shuffle by and stare — emblematic of the joint burials that were common in Lothal, the museum informs one.
Providing a bit of relief from the macabre, yet poignant couple is an exhibition of bits of painted pottery. Even as I reminded myself to temper my expectations of finesse, I was enchanted by the clarity and imagination on display in some of the pieces. Snakes, trees, leaves, fish and birds abounded, crying out that though the exquisite Ajanta Cave paintings (near Aurangabad, Maharashtra) prevail on beauty and artistry, these rudimentary pieces are unmatched in their antiquity; they represent the thoughts of a settled people who recognised the worth of making art. As at Ajanta, some of these paintings tell a story. One beautiful S-shaped jug, referred to throughout the museum, but tucked away in a corner, depicts a dog-like figure jumping up to catch falling fish, and a couple of birds perched on a tree overhead.
The accompanying text ventures an educated guess: the clever fox who flattered birds carrying fresh fish in their beaks until they dropped them right into his lap. I was instantly reminded of the numerous Jataka tales that line the cave walls of Ajanta, the only conspicuous layer of sophistication in those stories being the incorporation of human elements – often depicting, with chastising self-awareness, the greed and cruelty of men. The Lothal paintings exclude humans entirely – possibly, for good reason.
As I traversed the exhibits, I began to feel increasingly restless. My appreciation of the treasures before me was on the wane. Though packed to bursting with artefacts, the museum’s arrangement and display (in the ilk of Indian museums generally) is not instinctive. Descriptions are more often than not gathered in one place, while the exhibit referred to could be three, four or five columns away. The text itself begs revision and simplification: even a present-day historian could be excused for stifling a yawn on their way around. Though Lothal was a port, the only boat motif you’ll see is on the museum signage. The famous Harappan boat seal and moulded tablet belong to Mohenjodaro – beyond reach, probably for my entire lifetime, across the prickly border.
“What about the miniature clay boat models, the ones shown in those pictures?” I asked one of museum attendants, only half-hopeful.
“Delhi museum leke gaye (They took it to the Delhi museum),” he responded, smiling ruefully. For once, I felt cheated, not privileged, that I should be able to see this priceless artefact a few kilometres from my own home, rather than in this sleepy port-museum, where it belongs.
Finally, after doggedly completing a round, including a viewing of the Indus Valley “movie” in the museum’s dusty audio-visual hall, I was free to make my way outside. Armed with knowledge of the dead city, I could finally discover Lothal for myself.
It was a brilliant day. The sky was blue and high in the way it simply isn’t any more at home, trapped between stuffy office buildings made of glass. I ambled along the path leading to the ruins, feeling the sun dampen my neck and arms, already wondering if I had managed to unearth my discovery of the year.
Reaching a gentle fork in the path, I could see remnants of black brick walls rearing up to my left, but on the right? I laughed aloud with joy, marvelling at my luck. The dockyard – which I had imagined to be no more than a large, rectangular well, mossy growth lining its damp base – was full to the brim. Unprecedented rains, Ratan had muttered, and near-unbelievable was the sight before me.
The blue water sparkled in the sun and lapped at the dockyard’s banks invitingly. It resembles more a lake, a picnic spot laid out by a farsighted administration, than the fulcrum of a city’s commerce. Yet, from my perfect vantage point, with the dockyard to my right and the ruins to my left, I could now superimpose the museum artist’s likeness into the sight before my eyes: of boats rowing into the dockyard from the river that once flowed beyond, gliding along its banks and unloading their goods for dispatch to the city. The museum painting, until that moment no more than a pretty picture, much like the triangle mountains and slice of sun that my friends and I would draw in art class, instantly came alive, permitting me to imagine the bustle of the city from four thousand years ago. I thanked the rain gods for allowing me that moment and traipsed on.
A group of students had assembled at the eastern bank and were busy taking selfies and pictures in creative poses — several risking a tumble right into the water! Considering myself a more sophisticated visitor for the moment, I attempted to cross the muddy incline onto the brick bank from several points, until one student took pity on me and called out the most appropriate point of descent. Waving my thanks, I stepped down to the bank, beside the sparkling water. It seemed appropriate to walk down the edge. The bank slopes downwards, with neat steps cut in at regular intervals, bringing the water closer and closer to the edge as one walks along, though drain outlets built into the steps allow the water to flow out.
With every few strides, I turned back to marvel at the raw beauty of the scene behind me – the glittering water, flashes of red from the brick bank, the frolicking students and the museum building receding into the distance. When I hit the corner, I found that I could go no further, for the water had flooded the western bank and blocked my hopes of completing a tranquil round. I was tempted to sit and drink in the scene, but the wet surface kept me on my feet. Finally, after having taken several pictures of the dock itself, I dropped my veneer of sophistication and, standing on my exclusive slice of Lothal, indulged in a couple of selfies of my own, for prompt dispatch to my partner, slumbering away on the other side of the world.
I soon crossed a couple of covered (and fairly unremarkable) small wells, climbed up the mound, and faced the city. To my pleasant surprise, I began to encounter signboards, directing the visitor towards locations that the museum had described – the warehouse, the bead-making factory, lower town, cemetery. Here is where I began to sorely miss the other kind of companion I have befriended during my solo trips (the first, of course, being Ratan and his brethren) — guides. Unlike at some other sites, such as Ajanta/ Ellora (paintings/ sculptures), Konark (giant chariot wheels) and the more familiar Qutb Minar/ Humayun’s Tomb (tower/ tomb and dome) etc., where the principal attractions are plain even to the most undiscerning eye (though I would urge you to obtain the services of a guide without exception for a more wholesome experience) — Lothal requires imagination. And only one human can fire another’s imagination. It is decidedly better when the human doing the firing is walking beside you, and not mingling with the soil underfoot.
Even without an interpreter, the ruins have the sort of haunting allure that had led me to Lothal in the first place. I could discern the upper and lower towns only by their relative heights, and the location of the better-preserved edifice of the “warehouse” in the former. I decided to walk to the furthest point possible before retracing my steps to the warehouse. As I descended into what I assumed to be buildings of the lower town, the structures became smaller and the spaces between them, narrower.
History lessons on Harappa chimed in my ears as I walked along — perpendicular streets, standard weights and bricks, a perfect drainage system… The museum movie, too, drew the viewer’s attention to the fact that several of our ways of life today (often newly enlightened ways, e.g. rainwater harvesting), have their bases in the practices of this ancient-modern civilisation. Again, the plainness of the monument was called upon to draw attention to its value, and to its very tangible and direct link to our lives. Guides at the more celebrated sculptures of Khajuraho draw attention to apsaras (celestial nymph) with hand-mirrors and handbags. But the sturdy, unromantic stones scattered around me did as much, and with much less.
I glimpsed a monitor lizard slithering under the leaves as I crossed the “cemetery” – neat rows of stone lining the sunken ground – and went back up the slope towards the warehouse. A foreign tourist, pink and sweaty under the harsh afternoon sun, smiled and nodded. I grinned back, starting to say a word or two about not expecting many other tourists, but eventually deciding to let him discover Lothal for himself.
The warehouse reminded me of the Mahanavami Dibba at Hampi (near Hospet, Karnataka), another intriguing structure that puzzles historians till today. Its large square base has a flat top, on which sit several solid cuboidal platforms of grey-black brick, leaving pathway-like spaces between them.
The industriousness of the people is highlighted by a couple of half-pots attached to other brick clusters scattered nearby. The pot-like structures appear to be part of an oven — remnants of bead-making operations, probably. On a cursory examination, I discerned some scratchings on one of the pots — excited, I drew closer. Graffiti signatures on potsherds — several of which are on display at the Lothal museum, some simple and others wildly erratic — are one of the principal discoveries at the ongoing excavations at Keezhadi in Tamil Nadu, which some feel hint at an eventual migration of the Indus peoples to South India (as opposed to the general doomsday theories that are resorted to, to make sense of their abrupt disappearance). This one, though, was no ancient graffiti.
Resisting the urge to climb atop the warehouse, I stood at the highest point possible and turned around. Before me stretched the ancient, stolid stone that I had travelled halfway across the country to see. Behind, the dockyard glittered, serene and growing bluer under the clear sky. A breeze picked up, cooling the sweat on my brow and shoulders.
Heritage sites are, by their very nature, meant to evoke different emotions in their visitors. More often than not, they make you exclaim at the breadth of vision and passion of the dreamers who commissioned them. In most cases, these are pointed to as a testament to the cultural strength and treasures of India, of the Indian way of life, and of past glories which may or may not return. At Lothal, however, you forget where you are, who you are and the country of your birth. You are compelled to ponder, for however fleeting a piece of time, the collective history of our kind, and the palimpsest of human effort — stone by stone, brick by brick, painting by painting — that brought us to where we stand today. And that, perhaps, is what the common potter who lived, worked and died at Lothal, intended.
*Lothal is on India’s list of tentative World Heritage Sites. See “Archaeological remains of a Harappa Port-Town, Lothal”.
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