Dholavira: The Rise and Fall of a Harrapan City

The Harrapan city of Dholavira in Kutcha desert of Western India

The Harrapan city of Dholavira flourished for 1,200 years (3,000 BCE-1,800 BCE) as an important outpost of the Indus Valley civilization.  Eventually, it succumbed to climate change and the shifting of rivers away from its shores.  It lay buried for several millennia before being rediscovered in 1956.  Dholavira is unique among Harrapan cities due to its elaborate water storage and distribution systems, well-organized town planning and sophisticated construction methods. 

Getting there

Dholavira is in the middle of the white salt desert of Kutcha region in Western India.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a major archeological site.  Since it is off the major transportation systems, the best way to get there is by car.  The area around Dholavira is sparsely populated, except for several boutique hotels made of small huts with wooden roofs. 

Map showing Dholavira

Map showing Dholavira 2

A Harrapan City

Dholavira flourished as a major outpost of the Harrapan civilization for 1,200 years from 3,000 BCE to 1,800 BCE.  It was on the banks of two seasonal rivers that provided navigational channels to the Sea for its residents.  Dholavira’s elaborate water storage and distribution systems together with a system of dams and water channels display the ingenuity of the Harrapan people. They were able to harness rainwater and store it in underground reservoirs. Their ability to conserve and manage water effectively sets them apart from other Harrapan cities. 

Dholavira reconstruction

Dholavira Reconstruction 3

City Plan and Design of Structures

The layout of Dholavira exhibits a well-organized system of streets and urban infrastructure.  There are distinct areas for industrial, administrative and residential use. These areas exhibit high density low-rise urban pattern with structures built of loadbearing stone walls and wooden roofs. The interior spaces within these structures were supported by stone columns with wooden poles in the middle for reinforcement.  This method of column construction suggests that the Harrapan people understood the engineering behind transfer of loads from roof to the ground. 

Excavations at Dholavira

Excavations at Dholavira 4

Rise and Fall of a Dholavira

There are several theories that attempt to explain what caused the decline of this thriving city.  It appears that a gradual decrease in sea level resulted in dry and arid climate, which was not conducive to human habitation.  In addition, a gradual shift in the path of river away from its shores drained the reservoirs of water.  Once people migrated to more habitable areas of the Indus Valley, the city lay buried for several millennia before it was rediscovered in 1956.  The excavations did not start until 1990 and are still ongoing.  Dholavira is a gentle reminder that climate change and resulting effects on human civilization are real and were responsible for the decline of this thriving Harrapan city.

Excavations of reservoirs

Excavations of Reservoirs 5

Significant findings

The excavation continues and a lot remains to be discovered about this city.  One important finding was a signboard which was discovered near its northern gate.  The signboard consists of unique characters, which show that in addition to the knowledge of engineering, construction and town planning, the people had developed a sophisticated language. 

Cracked earth near Dholavira

Cracked Earth near Dholavira 6

Alien landscape

While walking around the white desert sand of the Kutcha area, I had an eerie feeling that I had arrived 4,000 years too late to witness the lost civilization of Dholavira.  That is the closest I have been to an alien landscape where life and human existence appeared to be impossible to sustain.  In spite of the harsh climate, the image of a camel adorned in vivid colors will always remind me of the human resilience and adaptation. 

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