From Kashi to Maheshwar and Ekamra to Adalaj, one sight that is common to all is ghats on rivers, tanks or step-wells – all pointing to one idea, India’s spiritual journey through life-giving force, water.
Ghat refers to a series of steps leading to a water body, either a holy river or a small pond and in western India even step-wells. From the beginning of Indian civilization Indians have understood how water was critical, not just for biological survival, but also to meet our spiritual quest.
In Indian tradition ghats in step-wells are like bridges linking with the tropical Indian sun to a clear pool of water. Through these ghats, people travel from one realm to another. The weakening light descending the ghats conveys a sense of passage deep into the womb of earth, moving further into darkness. The experience is spellbinding. With no ripples, bubbles or sound, the pool has an eerie comforting silence. Here time stands still and you forget that anything is urgent.
Gujarat, Rajasthan and Western Madhya Pradesh are a large semi-arid plateau with limited perennial water sources. Here the idea of water harvesting has found deep meaning and its origin can be traced to the mysterious Harappan time, 4,500 years ago at Dholavira in Khadir Island of Rann of Kutch.
Ghat at Maheshwar
The Indus Valley Civilization (3300 – 1300 BCE) is the earliest civilization of South Asia. It is one among the few old world civilizations that had developed through intense agricultural activity based on wheat and barley and domestication of animals, such as sheep, goats and cattle. In its matured phase (2500 – 1700 BCE) the civilization had spread from Afghanistan in the west to Western Uttar Pradesh in the east and South Gujarat – North Maharashtra region in the south. It was spread over an area 680,000 sq.km, an area twice the size of Egypt and Mesopotamia Civilizations.
Gujarat was the southern province of the civilization. Around 2500 BCE, the inhabitants of Indus Valley Civilization had moved to Kutch region from the core area of Indus Valley. So far 60 Indus Valley settlements have been found in Kutch. Dholavira is located in Khadir Beyt, an island in the Great Rann of Kutch. It is the largest among all the Indus Valley settlements in Gujarat.
Kutch is an undulating terrain consisting of rocks, hills and Arabian Sea with no perennial source of surface water. The region is marked by inadequate rainfall. However, the main attraction is the pasture lands and the long coastline. Against this harsh climatic condition water exploitation and management was one of the key challenges for the Indus Valley people.
Landscape and People of Kutch around Dholavira
Today Kutch is separated from Indian mainland my marshy rann, but during the 3rd millennium BCE, rann was probably an open sea. Agriculture, fishing and pastoralism were the main activities of the inhabitants of the region during the period of Indus Valley Civilization.
Dholavira was one of the last among the major cities discovered so far from the Indus Valley Civilization. The site was excavated by archaeologist Dr R S Bisht between 1989 and 1998. The city had both striking similarities to Mohenjo Daro and Harappa and significant differences. It was over 100 hectors in size and consisted of 3 tiers of settlements, such as a citadel, the middle town and the lower town. In contrast, both Mohenjo Daro and Harappa though bigger in sizes had two tiers, a citadel and the lower town. Dholavira, unlike its counterparts, was located on an island of a shallow sea. Stone was used for its construction whereas bricks dominated as construction material in other Indus Valley cities.
Dholavira is located in Gujarat’s Kutch District at a distance of 400 km from Ahmedabad and 220 km from Bhuj (both have airports and railway stations). The nearest town to Dholavira is Rapar, 100 km away. Rann Resort (https://www.rannresortdholavira.com) is a latest addition for comfortable stay at Dholavira, located 3 km before the archaeological ruins. While at Dholavira also visit the Jurassic Wood Fossil Park and go for long hiking in the remote countryside. Both Sunrise and Sunset in White Rann of Kutch are spectacular. You can see migratory birds, such as flamingos during winter, which is also the best season to visit. Keep 3 days for village visit and Rann safaris at Dholavira.
The earliest settlement at Dholavira is traced around 3000 BCE. Around that time a small town developed, surrounded by a wall of stones and clay mortar. At the beginning of the Harappan phase, i.e., around 2500 BCE a citadel was erected over the earliest settlement. It grew in size in subsequent periods.
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Beyond the citadel’s walls was a walled residential area (the middle town), with cardinally oriented streets and with jars and sumps instead of drains. Houses in the middle town had verandas, interconnected rooms and bathrooms with sloping slabs for water to flow into a covered drain that extended into the streets.
The Central Thoroughfare in the Middle Town
Dholavira is located in a seismic zone. It had suffered badly by an earthquake around 2200 BCE. Then after the city was rebuilt and extended to the east (lower town). After 2000 BCE, the city saw a decline and was eventually abandoned.
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Dholavira is located in-between two seasonal streams Manher and Mansar. Both these were seasonal bringing water from the hill slopes during monsoon. The early settlers must have felt necessary to dam them, which they did. Here we find South Asia’s oldest check dams over the streams built by the Harappans.
A Check Dam Built Over Manher During Harappan Period – One of the earliest in South Asia
Once dammed, the early settlers facilitated a rock-cut well, the earliest South Asia. Excavated during the 1990s, the rock-cut well is found at the bottom of the earthen reservoir, the most elaborate and largest among 13 reservoirs that surrounded the Indus Valley city through interconnected sluices and channels. The rock-cut well has few rock-cut steps and stone made an enclosure of later date.
The Earliest Rock-Cut Well in India
The eastern reservoir and five of the series to the south of it are considerably exposed through excavations. The remaining ones are confirmed through trial digs. The eastern reservoir is of the rectangular shape measuring 75 m N-S and 30 m E-W and 10 m deep. At three corners the reservoir was provided with a flight of 30 steps. This reservoir was constructed however in the matured phase and it was accessible to all the city dwellers living in the citadel, middle town and lower town. It was fed with water from Manher largely.
The Eastern Reservoir
The other five on the southern side are of varying sizes and depth, partly cut through the alluvium and partly through the bedrock, displaying South Asia’s eeriest evidence of rock-cut architecture. Two masonry flights of steps led to their interiors. All the tanks were interconnected with drain carrying water into each other. The surplus water finally flowed out through a masonry drain into another series of reservoirs excavated further west.
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The Citadel has revealed an intricate network of stormwater drains, all connected to an arterial one and furnished with slopes, steps, cascades, manholes (air ducts/water relief ducts), paved flooring and capstones. The main drains were high enough for a tall man to walk through easily. The rainwater collected through these drains was stored in yet another reservoir that was carved out in the western half of the bailey.
Besides rainwater harvesting, Dholavira has yielded toilets, sullage jars or sanitary pits. Drains even included cut stone ones and pottery pipes.
Dholavira declined around 1500 BCE and was never revived as an urban centre. There are multiple causes attributed to its decline. But its concern for water harvesting did continue throughout Indian history. The step-wells in Gujarat and Rajasthan and Puskarinis in South India are examples of attempts of future civilization to harvest water, a legacy from the Indus Valley Civilization and Dholavira perhaps.
Author – Jitu Mishra with inputs from Shailaja Shah
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org