Lothal: remnant of ancient India

By Julie Skurdenis
This item appears on page 74 of the December 2008 issue.
Sun Temple and stairwell at Modhera. Photos: Skurdenis

Its name means “mound of the dead,” but in its time Lothal was anything but moribund. It was a thriving seaport, part of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

In the same way that Egyptian civilization developed along the Nile, Mesopotamian on the Tigris-Euphrates rivers and Chinese along the Yangtze, there arose a civilization in the fourth millennium BC in the Indus River Valley in the area that is now Pakistan and northwestern India. It was called the Harappan Civilization, also the Indus Valley Civilization after the river which gave it birth.

Two of the best-known Harappan sites, Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, both now in Pakistan, were large cities of about 200 to 250 acres with well-defined acropolis-citadels as well as residential areas.

Foundations of a former brick-paved bath and drain in the upper town at Lothal, India.

At the same time as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, there developed smaller sites. Lothal was one of them. Located in the southern part of the Indian state of Gujarat, itself located in northwestern India beside the Arabian Sea, Lothal grew to be extremely important.

We don’t know if Lothal was a tributary state under Harappa or Mohenjo Daro, an independent “city-state” or a satellite settlement of a larger city. We do know that it resembled Harappa and Mohenjo Daro in its physical layout but that there was one dramatic difference from the two larger sites.

Engineering marvel

Lothal was discovered in the 1950s by the Archaeological Survey of India, a professional group which was searching for Harappan sites within India after the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. This partition left the two Harappan sites of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan.

Lothal was a major Harappan seaport that flourished between 2400 and 1900 B.C. Its large dockyard, 122 feet by 73 feet, is what made it unique. It’s considered by archaeologists to be the most important work of maritime architecture before Christ.

This dockyard, necessitating a complex knowledge of tides, hydraulics and materials (specifically, how materials like bricks are affected by seawater), was connected to the Sabarmati River, which emptied out into the Gulf of Cambay, part of the Arabian Sea.

Ships would sail in from Egypt, Sumeria and perhaps Africa to berth in the dockyard, bringing goods from these places in exchange for the beads manufactured in Lothal as well as cotton, shells, copper and semiprecious stones.

Close to the dockyard were warehouses clustered together, with corridors in between, atop a 12-foot-high mound. Numerous clay seals have been found here that were once used to label exports and imports.

Foundations of warehouses at the archaeological site of Lothal. The walls probably were made of stone.

Steps away from the warehouses was an upper town where Lothal’s rulers lived. Their houses no longer remain but, interestingly, their brick-paved baths and drainage systems do, testifying to their quality of life more than 4,000 years ago.

Beyond the upper town, where the rulers could keep a close eye on warehouse and dockyard activities, was the lower town. Here were workshops and shops selling what was produced as well as the homes of the merchants, all built atop a brick platform high enough to protect against floods. There was also a bazaar area nearby with a residential area.

Besides the workshops producing pottery and copper work in the lower town, there was an industrial area where one of Lothal’s most important products — beads — was manufactured. A kiln has been discovered as well as thousands of beads.

It is estimated that Lothal covered perhaps 50 acres — much smaller than either Harappa or Mohenjo Daro but nonetheless important because of its trade.

Surmising the demise

When did it end and how? Lothal began its irreversible decline apparently between 2000 and 1900 B.C. Many reasons are suggested — earthquakes, food shortages, lack of rainfall, deforestation, disease — but the reason most often suggested by archaeologists is flooding, perhaps brought on by earthquakes that changed river courses.

Asiatic wild asses in Little Rann Sanctuary.

The floods may have destroyed the dockyard and the warehouses at Lothal. No dockyard, no trade. No trade, no food.

The rulers left first, followed by the townspeople, who abandoned their crafts to become farmers in order to survive. Lothal gradually disappeared until only its memory remained. Four millennia passed before it was discovered and excavated.

There’s a good small museum on site displaying some of the seals with different animal motifs, tools, beads and even toys that the children of Lothal played with 4,000 years ago.

If you go. . .

We traveled to Gujarat in January ’08 with A Classic Tours Collection (1801 S. Catalina Ave., Ste. 101, Redondo Beach, CA 90277; phone 888/605-8687 or 310/373-1001, e-mail mark@aclassictour.com or visit www.aclassictour.com), a company that offers personalized service in designing trips worldwide to suit a client’s individual needs.

Ask for something special and ACTC will try its best to arrange it, as they did with my husband, Paul’s, request to visit Palitana and its temples and as they did for me with my request to visit Lothal.

Woman in a Kutch tribal village.

ACTC had arranged a wonderful trip to Rajasthan, India, for us a few years ago and we were eager for them to make all our arrangements for our Gujarat trip — international flights, internal flights, hotels, meals, car and driver, and guide.

Our Gujarat visit was part of a larger trip that Paul and I arranged, but I estimate that a 3-week private tour of Gujarat alone would cost about $6,200 per person plus another $1,600 each in round-trip airfare from New York to Delhi. The $6,200 would include internal airfare from Delhi to Ahmedabad and back; accommodations; breakfasts; some lunches and dinners; private car and driver; a private guide, and admission charges. We found it to be a great trip and worth every cent.

Don’t forget to take along Lonely Planet’s “India.” It’s a hefty volume, but take it along anyway. It’s chock-full of information about all areas of India and is one of the few books giving any information at all about Gujarat and about Lothal — excellent.

We stayed at the Nilambag Palace in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, from which Lothal was a day excursion. Room rates range from $50 to $95.

Nilambag Palace, built in 1859 by His Highness Sir Takht Singh, was one of four Heritage Hotel properties we stayed in on our Gujarat trip. The others were Balaram Palace in Balaram, Orchard Palace in Gondal and Vijay Vilas near Palitana. Each was unique, and most had once belonged to a maharajah.

Lothal was about a 2-hour drive from Bhavnagar. Allow at least one to two hours for a visit to the ruins and museum.

Other Gujarati sights

Lothal was just one of the highlights of our 3-week trip through Gujarat. Others included the ashram founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1915 in Ahmedabad; tribal villages in the Kutch, where life has remained unchanged for hundreds of years; palace hotels; Little Rann Sanctuary, where the last remaining khur (Asiatic wild asses) roam free; Sasangir Wildlife Sanctuary, where Asia’s last lions live in the company of crocodiles and nilgai (large deer), and temples, temples, temples, including the 11th-century Sun Temple of Modhera and the Temple of Somnath overlooking the Arabian Sea.

There’s also the very special Palitana complex of 863 temples reached via a climb of 3,200-plus steps or by being carried up in a dholi, or swinging platform, by two bearers.

Tourists have not yet discovered Gujarat. Go before they do.