It is quite appropriate that this ancient town is in a remote of Kutch. Such remoteness adds to the allure and antiquity of the place where perhaps modern civilization has not yet obscured the ways of ancient civilizations, where perhaps a little of that antiquity is still to be observed shining through uncovered layers of soil and dust.
Somewhere I read that to reach Dholavira one has to undertake a long camel ride through the Rann of Kutch. This may be so in days of old. These days there are buses, though few in number, that take you to the doorstep of the village. The nearest significant town is Rapur 90 kms away. If there are buses to Dholavira, I must assume there is a road to it.
It would be impossible for me to get to Dholavira without the excellent bus service run the State Government. Visiting a place as remote as this is unimaginable in either Orissa or Madhya Pradesh where mostly private buses operate.
At half seven this morning I am ready at the bus station at Patan for a bus to Bhuj. The bus departs at quarter past eight. Even the bus conductor does not know about Dholavira. All he can say is, ‘This is going to Bhuj. Where will you get off?’
He looks at me above the rim of his glasses while his right hand fumbles with the metal clippers poised to issue me my ticket. A young man seated beside me tells me that I could get off at Bachhau (save me!). I will surely get a connection to Dholavira. I will not need to go all the way to Bhuj. So that’s what I do and get off at Bachhau at half past one.
Indeed, there is a bus at 3 pm to Dholavira. I have a superb lunch near the bus station. The waiter keeps filling up my glass of buttermilk every time I down it. I ask the waiter about Dholavira. He has never heard of this place. After lunch, it is a long impatient wait for the bus. I am still having difficulty with Gujarati script. Every time a bus arrives I ask someone if this is the one. Then at 4 pm two buses bound for Dholavira arrive. One is on time. The other is an hour late.
I board the crowded bus but there are still a couple of empty seats at the back. It is an old bus and I know it would be a bumpy ride once the bus leaves the highway. A group of tribal woman dressed in black embroidered skirts, blouses and head shawls are seated in the bus. Though in black, the embroidery of colours and mirrors makes their dresses bright and cheerful. The women wear metal earrings that dangle like weights, often ten pierced in each ear. Almost all of them have tattoos of symbols and unrecognizable alphabets on their arms. Some tribal men are also in the bus wearing their white turbans, full sleaved short white tunics that frill like skirts from chest to waist level, and white dhotis but these are worn not worn in South Indian style. Decoration and colours are minimal in their clothes but they do appear they attract attention. In this bus, I am clearly the odd one out. By the time the bus reached Dholavira at quarter to nine that night, there is only one other passenger to give me company. The bus driver and conductor will probably sleep in the bus while I head into darkness.
I have been informed that there is a hotel about a kilometer from the village. I take the lonely road towards it and away from the village. Thorny bushes on both sides of this narrow road appear to be reaching for me. There is not a sound to be heard. I hear my own footfalls. The crackle of a plastic bag in my hands wakes up some birds in a nest. They start to chirp in half sleep. Thankfully a half moon gives enough light to brighten the tarmac. A wonderful tapestry of stars gives me company. I do not know what is beyond the bushes that flank the road but the landscape looks magically eerie in this half lit darkness.
I finally arrive at a signboard that points the way to the hotel. Two dogs welcome me with their barks but quickly quieten when they see my unhurried step. I have dinner and then check into a comfortable room. The antiquity of Dholavira would have to wait till the morning.
The alarm sounds at half past five this morning. I turn it off and go right back to sleep. It’s cold out here and the room is cosy enough to make me lazy. Gujarat Tourism runs this lovely hotel. I am in a room that’s a modern thatched hut and circular in shape. The thatching is a mix of cane and wood. A ceiling fan hangs 8 feet from the center. The attached bathroom projects out from the circle exactly opposite the entrance doorway. Four windows bring in light. A single framed photograph decorates the room. There is a water heater in the bathroom and hot water can be had at all times. I like the room so much that I decide to stay here for two nights. This room is a modern re-creation of traditional thatched huts of Kutch.
I wake up only at half eight and in no hurry to make a start of the ancient ruins. I catch up on some old notes, touch up an unfinished drawing and wash my clothes. The manager knocks at my door.
‘I was getting worried. I haven’t seen you all morning,’ he says smiling. The group from last night have left and I am now the only guest at the hotel.
‘I am going to stay another night,’ I assure him.
When I leave the room it’s half eleven. I head to the village. Children just get off from school and head home. They laugh and giggle as they pass me. The younger ones stare at me in bewildered. Others hurry by and their looks betray shyness.
Many of the houses are conventional brick buildings. Some are of stone. A few circular huts, like the one in which I am staying but more original, interest me a lot. They are called bhungas. I hear from a villager named Rud that an earthquake nine years ag brought down most of the houses. With government aid new houses in brick were constructed. He lives in one of these makaans, as he calls them.
Another villager, Narayan, was not so enthusiastic about government aid. His family built their house at their own expense. They did not get any government aid. He did mention that his bhunga did not collapse during the earthquake. He was proud that it had been solidly constructed. The walls are of stone plastered with mud and cowdung. This plastering holds even when the rains come. Roofs are wooden and straw-thatched on top.
I was curious to see the interiors of such a bhunga. Here is a change to see in original what was seen in copy at the Museum of Man at Bhopal. I enter a clean courtyard. One old woman is standing in a corner. A young one is seated on the verandah while her companion of her own age is seated on a charpoy. Both are colourfully dressed and are busily engaged in embroidery. The words of Gandhiji comes to my mind about making something for one’s personal use. The man of the house walks up to me.
‘I have come from Bangalore to look around Dholavira,’ I start off.
He nods while six women spanning three generations are look at me, some from behind their colourful veils. I gather that is only married women who are more conscious of keeping their faces covered but this is at most a hasty guess. The man is not in a mood for small talk. He doesn’t get strangers visiting him unannounced in this manner.
‘Would you mind showing me around the house?’ I ask.
‘Dekh lo (see it),’ comes the reply without any attempt to lead me inside. I am to see it from here in the courtyard. I can see some colourful wall hangings but I do not want to be peering about while the family stood about waiting for my next words.
‘Do you go to school?’ I ask the little girl standing before me. She nods, smiles and hides behind her father in shyness.
‘Can I take a picture of your family?’ I ask as a last resort. A conversation follows between the man and the women. The middle-aged woman giggles. The man is hesitating. He finally shakes his head. I take this for a ‘no’ and leave it at that.
I pass some kids playing cricket. I pass a village temple. I take a picture of a colourful wooden door. Doorways are flanked by two niches at the top. Oil lamps are usually placed at night in these niches. A wooden cart lies in a courtyard, solidly constructed and with tiny decorative motifs all over it. I head back to the hotel for lunch since there is nowhere to eat in the village.
It’s half past one. I rush to the site of the ruins with an uneasy feeling that I may not enough time to see it all. It is four hours to sunset and that is all I have to experience a town 5000 years old.
Dholavira is one of those towns from the Harappan Period of the Indus Valley Civilization. The other great sites of the period are in Pakistan. Dholavira is the greatest of the ones on the Indian side of the border. I wander into town past a museum which I intend to visit on the way out. It is like entering a ghost town that once flourished and then fell into abandon and decay. The sun has come down from its zenith and it is casting shadows of stone walls and stone steps. The sun is warming once again a town that has remained buried for long until recent excavations by the ASI. Holes in the sandy ground lead to deep burrows of perhaps mongoose.
There are huge reservoirs, one leading to the next by overflow channels. Wells many feet deep stand dry today but would have supplied water back then and filled up the connected tanks (kunds). Steps lead into the reservoirs and kunds for townfolks to collect water. Drains just above the deep stone foundations of lost buildings are blocked with layers of silt today; but 5000 years ago they would have flowed freely ad kept the town clean. A straight street lined on both sides with houses leads to a crossing (chowraha). The houses are without walls and only foundations remain. Some men are repairing the walls, putting numbered stones into their original places.
‘Is Bangalore in India?’ one of the workmen questions me. I remove his doubt, take a couple of pictures of this 21st century mason repairing a 5000-year old wall and move on. I walk around absorbing the imagined scenes of a civilization long gone. I wonder for a moment their need for safely, comfort, cleanliness and order – not very different from ours.
In the museum is a modest collection of beads, seals, pottery, mortars and pestles. As I leave this site, a group of men and women from another village arrive at the scene. These villagers are tourists. Their bright reds and clean whites enliven the ancient brown town standing against a clear blue sky.
Rann of Kutch
‘Do not go into the Rann. Walk along the shore.’
So tells me a villager. The Rann of Kutch is patrolled by the Border Security Force (BSF). No one is allowed to enter it without prior permission. You may be mistaken for a Pakistani and get shot.
‘The border is only 16 gaavs,’ he says giving me a sense of the proximity of our dear Pakistani friends. ‘Gaav is a local term which stands for three kilometers,’ he adds before I can ask him about it.
‘What’s the shortest route to the Rann?’ I ask.
‘It’s about 4 kms from here. You can follow the bullock cart path leading out from the road,’ he points in the northwestern direction.
I walk for an hour on sandy tracks bordered with thorny bushes typical of this arid region of Gujarat. I pass a few fields, herds of goats and women collecting firewood of bringing water. High salt content in the soil does not allow anything much to grow here. Farms of cumin and sesame are about the only ones here; and I have been eating only potato curry at the hotel at all meals.
After almost an hour of walking, I finally see the salt plains stretched to the horizon. The heat makes them glimmer at the surface. Bowl shaped depressions in the ground, carved out regularly in long rows, tell of attemptsto extract salt for consumption. I walk towards the edge of the Rann passing a narrow army trench along the way.
Some 9 kms away from the village of Dholavira, a piece of fosslized wood some170 million years old has been found. About 100 meters away I see a large piece of wood silhouetted against the western sun. I approach it with excitement. Could it be that I have covered 9 kms in just an hour or taken a direct shortcut instead? Impossibly this log of wood, 170 million years old, gets up on its four legs and looks at me cautiously. It is a stray camel having an afternoon siesta that I have just broken.
My luck does not allow me to see any wild asses, only a lonely camel. There is no water in this part of the Rann as far as I can see. A flock of flamingoes are in flight. I have seen some of then yesterday from the bus at the Little Rann of Kutch.
I begin to return to town but I am unable to find the path by which I came earlier. I use the three tall telecom towers for reference and walk towards them. As I near the village I encounter thorny fences. Not finding an alternative path I jump them. As I pass through the farm house I am surrounded by three dogs barking their head off at this unusual intruder. A herd of goats look on to see what will happen next. The woman calls out to her son to control the dogs. The boy is in no hurry. He ambles along looking for a stick. He picks one at a bush and heads towards me. The dogs are put away and I continue my walk without further adventures. I reach my room just before sunset.
I meet a school teacher from Vadodra at dinner. She teaches history. She is full of curiosity and knowledge, just the right attributes for a teacher. She tells of all the things she has seen for the day. She tells of catacombs in the ancient town, of the world’s oldest signboard and of a recently excavated well that continues to yield sweet drinking water. I ruminate silently on all that’s wonderful of Dholavira that I have missed.