Dholavira- Story of a Metropolis

Dholavira is a tiny hamlet in the western State of Gujarat in India. A part of the fabled Harappan civilisation thrived in Dholavira eons ago. The sheer scale of the site and the deep understanding of the ways of Mother Nature exhibited by the erstwhile inhabitants left the authors spellbound.

“The Hindu” had featured an edited version of this article 

Earlier, we covered the Great Rann of Kutch and you can read the article here Rann of Kutch- The Great White and Beyond

Welcome to Dholavira- the land where the remains of a part of a Harappan metropolis lies. Dholavira is located on an island called Khadir Bet and locally known as Kotada.  We met our guide Mr. Jaimal Makwana at the entrance of the site. Archaeological Survey of India began excavating this site in 1990. Mr. Jaimal was associated with the ASI and its digging team right from the beginning.  We could not have found a better person !!  A massive mound with wall running across its width greeted us. Mainly, the Harappans were masters in rainwater harvesting and the art of water conservation. No significant rivers were flowing by in those times but just two rivulets which go by the names of Mansar and Manhar. There are nine reservoirs into which water would have flown and stored by the inhabitants for their consumption. 

First look. Reservoir in the foreground

The site is divided into three parts- the Citadel on the South, the Middletown on the North and the Lower town on the East.  A ramp which runs for about 30-40 ft turns left into the Citadel. Alongside the ramp runs a large tract of open land which has been identified as an amphitheater or the stadium. Here, one has to wear the imagination cap and hum the tune of the old TV series “The Sword of  Tipu Sultan” or that of the all-time blockbuster movie “Ben Hur” as you walk up the ramp. In the stadium, gladiators (aka Russel Crowe) might have fought, there would have been the dull thud of wrestlers’ bones meeting bones, or there could have been a dance performance which would have regaled the audience. 

Enter the stadium! Note the ramp on the left

Spectator stands- Bring on the popcorn!

Walking up the ramp

The wooden board at the entrance of the citadel would have read- Royal Chambers, and once you turn left, you walk through a sunken passage which is flanked by two large and elevated verandahs. There would have been doors which would have opened and lead you to the houses were populated by the royal family. Now you should ask me-  board at the entrance ??  How do I know there would have been board at the gate ? Am I high on something or what!!

Ten mysterious alphabets will intrigue you to no end.  As the inhabitants started deserting the city, somebody would have removed the board and laid it inside a chamber which is rectangular in shape. Father Time later enveloped it in his embrace for centuries. The board has since deteriorated . Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI) has taken an imprint of the alphabets on a blue board which was casually used to cover the rectangular chamber. Unless you climb a verandah on the right, you will totally miss it. No one has yet been able to decipher the ten alphabets. Take that!

The ten mysterious alphabets!

What  also amazed me was that the clefts  on a stone-made door frame are made as though by an electric stone cutter of some kind. The lines are straight and razor-sharp. As you will notice there the outer cleft displays wear and tear and while the inner one is more or less intact. May be a smaller outer door where the entrant had to bow low and show himself and identify? While the inner cleft would have held the door which would lead into the Citadel.  So  Sherlockian stuff ain’t it?

Note the two clefts- One outer and the inner inner

Once you enter the citadel, you will notice another astounding work.  A huge grinding stone? No. It seems like a central foundation stone on which the roof of the rooms was mounted. A hole in the center indicates that. Can you imagine what kind of tech the inhabitants had to grind the massive stone with such finesse? 

The massive centre stone

Once you are past the elevated chambers, you reach a flat piece of land on which several houses would have stood.  Children would have played in the courtyard. Elders would have huddled around a bonfire and told stories to the kids or just stared at the vast starlit sky. 

On the far left, two pillars embedded in the ground will scream for your attention. What in God’s name is that? They stand mute and seem to mock us on our inability to understand their purpose.  Again the smoothness of the stone would astound you to no length. Jaimal said that they still do not have any clue on its purpose other than the assumption that the pillars would have been used somewhere else and later installed in the citadel. To me, it seemed like it would have been used in a pier and to which boats would have been tethered. What do you think?

Two Yellow Pillars

Intricate water channeling systems interconnect the houses and finally flow into an aqua-duct. Jaimal then took us to another well from which water was drawn manually. On the deepest end of the well one can notice the edges of the platform are broken, and smooth. Signs of repeatedly vessel hitting the bottom to draw out water from a puddle!

Damaged bottom of the well

There is a well which is now closed by an iron grill. On the mouth of the well, lies a massive stone slab with cuts-some are thick, and some are not. Again, put on our imagination cap, switch it on and think where did the cuts come from? Varthad and Varthadi- two new words will make a grand entry to your glossary. Jaimal said the ASI team were stumped when they excavated the well and tried to imagine how the water would have been drawn?  Then they hit upon the idea of going around the village and observed how did the villagers drew water from the well. They used two types of ropes. A thick one was called varthad, and the thin one was called varthadi. Big water bags were used to draw water from the well, and bulls pulled the ropes. These practices are handed over to the succeeding generations, and now safely we can deduce how the cuts came into existence.  Interesting isn’t it? Enjoying?

Varthad and Varthadi

Now to the reservoirs. The reservoirs are built partly on stone beds, and partially mason made. The tanks are fed by aqua ducts which collect water from various parts of the city. The reservoir consists of two levels. The higher level will hold the clean water, and the lower level which is like a step down will allow the sedimentation to happen where in the dust will settle on to the base of the reservoir. The reservoir has steps built to its base which used to allow the inhabitants to go down in case of low water levels and also to clean the aqua ducts in case of any blockages. 

This reservoir is part mason made. Note the masonry work on the left as the steps end

Note the hole on the wall on the left far end being the aqua duct through which the water would flow and two step base of the reservoir..whew!

On the North side of the site lies the  Middle town and to its East lies the Lower town. The Middle Town consists of a central street running down on a slope with houses/shops on either side. Jaimal said there might have been a bazaar during those times. Again, well-laid drainage systems are seen and to save every drop of water is the central theme.

Middletown – On a slope

Water channeling systems in Middle Town

Earthen pots were found embedded into the ground, and in one peculiar case, on a raised platform covered in soot. Whoever was operating it ( a stove??) was scorching the platform with fire.

Pot embedded in the platform covered with soot

The Lower Town was populated by the working class. There are remnants of quite many houses.We took a shortcut to the stadium from the Middle Town and walked across the stadium field.  To the west corner of the stadium lies another work of ingenuity. Huge slabs on the ground hid a large aqua duct. Does it mean that there would have been a drainage system which channeled the water flow beneath the stadium field which we had just crossed? I am not sure. Neither was Jaimal. The inhabitants would have taken considerable time to hew the stone and haul it up from the quarry. Hey, if you have the time, you can visit the quarry too which is quite some distance away from the actual site.


On the far back ground you will notice stones embedded on the ground leading to the aqua duct. Water passage below it? Maybe!

We spent 3 whole days walking and imagining those times. Dholavira will spellbind you with the knowledge of the inhabitants possessed about Nature and her ways. Nature bound them, and later Nature willed them to abandon the site to migrate. Who knows, dear reader, our ancestors would have been a part of the huddle over the bonfire!

Best time:

The best time of the year to visit the Great Rann of Kutch will be from October to March. Summers will be scorching. While till September,  the Rann will be slushy.

Days required to see Kutch on the Eastern Side:

Here, I would like to combine both the Rann and Dholavira. You will require at least 2 whole days to do justice to the Rann and its surroundings.We extended our stay by one day.  Dholavira  can be wound up in 1 hour or it will take up a day or two. Totally depends on the interest you evince.

Rail Travel:

Nearest railhead is Bhuj if you want to visit the Rann Festival and in case you wish to enjoy the solitude on the East then you need to alight on any of the three stations viz Samkhiali, Bhachau or Gandhidham. From these stations, you can drive down to Dholavira.


Fly down to Bhuj or Gandhidham depending on the side of the Rann you want to visit

Signing off…

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