Lothal: Indus Valley's last port of call

Jun 30, 2013, 07:08 IST | Dhiman Chattopadhyay

The world heritage site of Lothal, one of the best-preserved ruins of the 5,000-year-old Indus Valley civilisation, has no temples with intricate carvings. Nor is there a row of shop owners selling replicas of ancient terracotta toys outside. But standing on top of what was once a flourishing port city, Dhiman Chattopadhyay can almost see ancient mariners setting sail for a Sumerian port

You need a lot of imagination to enjoy a trip to Lothal. A visit to this 5,000-year-old ruins, which was once a thriving shipyard and commercial centre of the majestic and mysterious Indus Valley civilisation is only for those who can close their eyes and visualise ancient mariners scampering about as they load cargo onto a giant ancient ship to sail the ancient seas in search of business. Or for those who can look at the remains of a few third century BC brick structures and imagine a Harappan tourist bargaining over vegetables with a Lothalite vendor.

Town of Lothal
The ancient town of Lothal, which is situated 80 kms from Ahmedabad, is one of the southernmost known outposts of the Indus Valley civilisation. Pics/ AFP

But if history fascinates you and a chill runs down your spine when you realize you are standing in the midst of a town once inhabited by an amazing race who did a far better job of building concrete roads, brick houses and closed sewerage lines that their 21st century counterparts – then pack your bags now.

We’d been in Ahmedabad for a few days when the rains finally ushered in pleasant weather. We’d seen much of the city already and the Rann of Kutch or the Gir sanctuary was too far to drive down for a day trip. It was then that a friend suggested we keep those for two consecutive weekends and visit Lothal instead, though warning us not to expect anything remotely touristy, as nothing has been done to preserve the best-known port-city of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation.

Diwan's Bungalow
The Diwan’s Bungalow is one of the most famous heritage hotels in Ahmedabad

Early one morning therefore, sufficiently well-stocked with a picnic basket full of food and beverages, we set out for the 80 km road trip to Lothal. Once situated on the banks of the Sabarmati (and connected, back in those days, to the Indus river as a tributary) this necropolis now lies in the midst of barren land. We turn off the NH8 into a muddy road. Every few kilometres broken, half-obliterated signposts tell us we are on the right track. Finally we arrive in from of a large gate which guards the Lothal archeological museum. And next to it, protected by barbed wires with gaping holes here and there, stands a square kilometre of excavated land on a mound -- the reason why we are here.

At first glance, Lothal is a big disappointment. There are no guides around and all you see is broken, ragged brick-and-mortar structures. There are a few signposts which make you want to cry and laugh at the same time. Laugh because they are funny (like a broken bamboo pole with a sign that says “upper market area, Lothal”..what am I supposed to know from just this much?) and cry because having seen what other nations do to preserve their heritage, you almost feel like using a bit of magic to dump those responsible for this shame, into the sea. But nah! The sea will probably reject them, we think. So we move ahead.

The Acropolis site in the ancient town of Lothal  is one of the most visited places in India for archaeological research

Once a sleepy pottery village, Lothal rose to prominence as a flourishing centre of trade and industry, famous for its system of underground sanitary drainage, and an astonishing precision of standarised weights and measures around 2350BC.

So powerful and organised was their infrastructure, that even four centuries ago, it survived three massive and devastating floods to regroup and thrive once again in a matter of months. The fourth flood in 1,900BC, however, effectively destroyed the city for good.

The unique lockgated dockyard enjoyed great prosperity owing to foreign trade around 2350 BC

To get back to our story, unlike ancient temples of the Gupta, Pala or Chola kings, there are no intricate carvings on walls here or grand statues or fortifications. In fact there were no kings in this civilisation -- for it was a democracy where elected councils ruled.

Instead you see flat and desolate ruins. But then, have come not for what is visible now but to imagine what once was. And in this vast emptiness, we could only imagine what the cradle of the subcontinent’s (and one of the world’s) oldest civilization was.

A cowherd took pity on us and showed us around the place. He was an expert, with the civilisation’s history memorised to a T. He showed us the upper town, situated on higher ground to avoid flooding. Here we could clearly see remains of a few two-storied houses with even the door and windows of one still partially intact! We walked down an arrow-like straight lane where on either side we could very clearly see the remains of what must have been small shops. A little distance away was a large well and what looked curiously like a Jacuzzi (we learnt later that indeed the Harappans knew the use of the Jacuzzi and used it for medical purposes as well).

But the biggest aha! moment was when we stood on top of the town and looked down a few metres at a large and long water body. This, thousands of year ago, was India’s first-ever ship building and ship breaking yard from where many a boat sailed for Sumerian ports for trade. Apparently the dockyard could, at that time, hold 30 ships of 60 tonnes, or 60 ships of 30 tonnes, a capacity comparable to that of the modern docks of Vishakapatnam.

Did they have ancient pirates then? Did they carry a bottle of rum in their bag? Would we see a sail on the horizon in a minute? No such luck, but what’s life without a bit of imagination.

Into the shed and inside the museum, we looked wide-eyed at all the stuff excavated and discovered by archaelogists when they stumbled upon this site in the 1950s. Bronze cups and plates, seals and beads, wooden toys, animal figurines, intricate tools to chop vegetables, weights and measures (they built exact weights and measures that many years ago). But no weapons! Bizarre as it sounds, this highly developed civilization with advanced knowledges in trade, town-planning and medical science, did not ever build attacking weapons since they never anticipated an outside attack.

The terracotta or red soil pottery of Lothal is legendary and we knew why when we saw a few that survived 4,000 years of being used and then buried underground. Yet, despite so much treasure that has been excavated from sites across India and Pakistan (including Harappa, Mohenjodaro and Kalibangan in Pakistan and Lothal and Dholavri in India) -- very little is known about arguably the world’s most developed ancient civilisation. No one has managed to decipher the script that the people used here.

And so, it’s still open to conjecture how Lothal, and most other cities of the civilisation that spread from present-day Western Pakistan to parts of central India, disappeared in a span of a few hundred years, leaving behind no survivors and no story about their unbelievably developed civilisation. If only someone could crack their language code in our lifetime!

Did you know
>> Lothal was coined from two words Loth (dead) and Sthal (place). The actual name of the city remains unknown.
>> Lothal has the remains of a 4,000-year-old town that gives us an idea about how they were ahead of their time in town planning, architecture and shipping
>> The site was excavated between 1955 and 1965 by the Archaelogical Survey of India.
>> The dock at Lothal is perhaps the world's oldest.

Where to stay: Ahmedabad has a huge choice of star and budget hotels. A heritage palace hotel has now come up just seven kilometres from Lothal. The Utelia Palace Hotel can be booked through the Gujarat Tourism website
How to get there: Lothal is 80 km from Ahmedabad and takes about two hours to reach. Tourist buses also go to Lothal several times a day and take about three hours. 

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