Lothal, India: Pushing the Frontiers 5,000 Years Ago

GUEST BLOGGERS, Historic/Museums, INDIA — By on October 19, 2011 at 01:19

Story by guest blogger Roona. Photos Copyright © Roona.

THERE IS NOTHING like stability to drive some people nuts and my guess is that even 5,000 years ago, human beings were no different. The people of the Indus Valley had mastered urban planning and maritime engineering, trade, commerce and art but they were not content to live in quiet stability within their elegant towns and cities. They wanted to push the frontier and an enterprising group pushed it all the way from the Indus Valley—in present day Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan—to Lothal in the Gulf of Cambay in Gujarat, India.

They went even further but I have not yet been there with them, so my story begins and ends in Lothal.

Now, Lothal was not exactly unoccupied when the Harappans came across this place on their travels. Situated in a strategic place, acting as a sheltered port to the rich cotton and rice growing hinterlands of the country, it also had a thriving bead-making industry and dealt in copperware and ceramics. The culture was not as sophisticated or advanced as that of the Harappans, but they lived a good life and had no qualms about sharing their land and resources with the Indus Valley explorers.

I’d never heard of Lothal until my husband and I decided to do a road trip to Diu, a small island and formerly a Portuguese colony off the coast of Gujarat. On the way, about 80 kms from our current home city of Ahmedabad, we came upon road signs directing us to the site (excavated in 1953-54) of a Harappan city in the village of Lothal. This was too tempting so we took a detour to check out the place.


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It was a beautiful drive through verdant countryside. Long stretches of fields were filled with monsoon rainwater, getting ready to grow the rice. Startling to think that this piece of land has been devoted to rice for more than 5,000 years.

Before I move on, I’d like to ruminate on the name. Lothal literally means the “mound of the dead.” Why would people call their own city by such a peculiar name? Is it possible that, once the great flood destroyed the city, the resultant large-scale deaths motivated the survivors and later settlers to call it by that name? I guess we’ll never know.

The Archeological Survey of India has covered up many of the excavated areas with earth to protect them from the elements; however, enough remains above ground to electrify the mind. You can see the well-preserved dock with the original kiln-fired brick wall around it and a clear expanse of water that served ships coming in at high tide bringing with them cargo from as far away as West Asia, Egypt and Africa.

The Lothal industry of bead making included gemstones, metallurgy and jewelry (I am frankly inspired to replicate some of their ornamental designs), beautifully decorated pottery, stone, shell and ivory working.

The ruins of the bead factory

The ruins of the bead factory

There’s clear evidence that they had even mastered the use of a compass for navigation purposes (2000 years later the Greeks reinvented it), used complex weights and measures, had a classy script and practiced religious freedom. In those years, it meant that they did not impose their own practice of worshipping the Sea God and Mother Goddess on the native people of Lothal; instead, they joined them in worshipping the Fire God and animal deities.

The enterprising city planners divided the city into the Citadel or Acropolis and the Lower Town, and there are the remains of a bead factory and a warehouse. The cities were symmetrically laid out with a well-planned drainage system, cesspools, wells for drinking water, public and private baths—all laid out according to specific measurements.

The remains of the Acropolis

The remains of the Acropolis

In addition, they strictly forbade anyone from encroaching on public property and so succeeded in maintaining a beautifully ordered city. Apparently, the Harappans were a highly disciplined set of people with strong civic sense, which is not surprising considering the magnitude of their achievement. In their city, the ruler and his entourage lived in the Acropolis situated close to both the dockyard and the warehouse, so he could supervise the trading activities.

The foundations of the warehouse

The foundations of the warehouse

They lived a rich life, successfully riding out three minor floods as they had intelligently planned their city to survive such natural disasters. However, complacency, the sin of prosperity, did not stay away from the great people of this great city and they neglected to keep up the protective measures. There came a mammoth flood in 2200 BC that permanently destroyed this place and the ruler either died in it or fled to a safer place.

Some people returned after the floods receded, trying to recapture their former glory. But in the absence of a commanding central force, their science, art and industries rapidly deteriorated. They built poorly constructed houses and some enterprising merchants established factories (could they have been precursors to our modern sweatshops?!) and hired artisans to work for them, where formerly the bead factory was a separate entity by itself.

Lothal, a once-great city

Lothal, a once-great city

Gradually, the place degenerated into a muddy mound of illiterate, unorganized settlements, however, despite this and later brick stealing through the centuries, the remains of this once great civilization continues to endure through the scorching heat, lashing rains and the slow passage of time.

Today it comes across as a peaceful expanse of land guarded over by earth and her creatures. In fact, when you look at the unafraid behavior of animals and birds around the place, you cannot help but wonder if the ancient rite of animal worship continues to send beautiful vibes to the wildlife of this land.

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RELATED INFO

A Walk Through Lothal

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Roona

Roona

ROONA has lived and worked in India and the United States and recently moved back to India. In the process of settling down in her home country, she continues to miss her life in the USA. On the other hand, for the first time in her life she has an opportunity to focus on her one true passion: writing. She blogs at IndiaRepat and Aesara Says.

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