The grand histories of Lothal and Vadnagar and the museums that will honour them
A national maritime museum will soon come up at Lothal which will have, among many other things, a recreation of the Harappan dock-yard scene and how it functioned. An "on-site, experiential" museum is also coming up at Vadnagar, Gujarat, adjacent to the trenches dug around the Sharmistha lake in Vadnagar town, where the ASI is conducting excavations from 2014 in several of its localities which are underway to this day.
This is the second part of a series about museums and ancient civilisations in India by Mr T. S. Subramanian. The first part may be found here. He was physically present, in February 2019, for several days, at ASI’s excavation at Vadnagar, Gujarat, where a big museum is going to be set up soon, and virtually took part in the excavation there. He was also present at the ASI’s excavation at Vadnagar, the Taranga hill, Dhagolia, and Rakhigarhi.
Just visualise a world-class maritime museum in India that will boast of hundreds of Harappan artefacts, models of life-size dhows used during the Harappan days, two decommissioned ships from the Navy, a diorama on the dock-yard which existed at the Harappan site of Lothal, massive galleries that will showcase the ancient maritime tradition of India's present-day coastal States, how the people of these States were an adventurous sea-faring lot, theme parks, an IMAX theatre showing 3-D pictures of India's maritime traditions and employing the latest display techniques and lighting systems, and so on.
All these will become a reality in less than four years from now on a 400-acre site, about a kilometre and a half from the Harappan site of Lothal, Gujarat. This maritime museum complex will be built at a cost of Rs.3,150 crores. Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation for this museum complex at Lothal in March 2019. Lothal is situated about 80 km from Ahmedabad.
If the details given by Dr Professor Vasant Shinde, Director-General, National Maritime Heritage Complex, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, are any indication, it is going to be a huge maritime museum. "Lothal will soon have a national maritime museum. We will recreate the Harappan dock-yard scene of Lothal and how it functioned. It is going to be a world-class maritime museum at Lothal," he told this writer late in the evening of March 14, 2020. "It will be like any other standard museum in the world. It will have the latest display techniques. There will be working models and theme parks," said Dr Shinde, a specialist in the Harappan civilisation and former Vice-Chancellor of Deccan College Post-graduate and Research Institute, Pune. Deccan College is a deemed-to-be university.
He added, "The concept plan for Lothal's maritime museum is ready. We are finalising the plans for the buildings. We are preparing the contents for the galleries. Once these are done, we will invite the tenders for the construction of the buildings. There will be 14 big galleries." But these are not all.
In her Budget presentation speech on February 1, 2020, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced an allocation of Rs.3,150 crores to the Union Ministry of Culture for the maritime museum to be established at Lothal. The big project is being implemented by the Ministry of Shipping through its Sagarmala programme with the involvement of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the Navy, the Gujarat government, and other stakeholders.
She announced that site museums would come up at five archaeological sites at Dholavira in Gujarat, Rakhigarhi in Haryana, Adichanallur in Tamil Nadu, Hastinapur in Uttar Pradesh, and Shivsagar in Assam. A museum on tribes would be built at Ranchi in Jharkhand. Although Nirmala Sitharaman did not mention this, an "on-site, experiential" museum would be set up at Vadnagar, Gujarat, where the ASI is conducting excavations from 2014 in several of its localities. The excavations are underway to this day. This museum will come up adjacent to the trenches dug around the Sharmistha lake in Vadnagar town, with the artefacts found in situ in the trenches. Hence it is called an on-site museum. Vadnagar is the home town of Prime Minister Modi.
Before we discuss the salient features of the museums to come up at Lothal and Vadnagar, let us have a look at the grand but sad history of Lothal, which was "a model port-town" of the Harappan age, and a vibrant centre of international maritime trade. About 4,300 years ago, the Harappans built the most scientific dock-yard there for berthing ships, a wharf for unloading the cargo that arrived from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Oman, and a massive warehouse for storing the goods. Lothal was much closer to the Arabian sea at that time than it is now because the sea has receded several km in the past 4,000 years. Lothal then was sandwiched between two rivers which are now called the Sabarmati and the Bhagawo rivers. It had a sheltered harbour. Lothal's dock-yard boasted of sluice gates for letting in water to bring in the ships, gates to let out the water to create a dry dock-yard for repairing them, locking mechanisms, and so on. The Harappans had thoroughly studied the sea currents, the high tide, and the low tide before they built the dock and the wharf with mud bricks.
As the reputed archaeologist, the late S.R. Rao of the ASI, who discovered Lothal, says, "At the apogee of its prosperity, Lothal could boast of the cleanest streets and the world's largest dock where ships from the distant lands of Egypt and Mesopotamia were berthed." S.R. Rao excavated Lothal from 1955 to 1960 and revealed the grandeur of the town.
It was under interesting circumstances that S.R. Rao discovered the Harappan site of Lothal in 1954. Lothal in Gujarathi means "the mound of the dead." Mohenjo-Daro (now in Pakistan) in Sindhi means "the mound of the dead."
In his book. "The Secrets of the Indus Valley", R. Rajagopalan says: "Rao was trying to find the route that the Harappans followed while moving from Sind to Saurashtra - one Indus site had already been discovered at Rangpur in that area. It should have been a river route and Rao tried the Sabarmati [river] valley. Searching from village to village, he reached the mouth of Sabarmati without success. It was monsoon time and the going was difficult. He had almost given up when his tenacious driver, Baburao Kadam, took him to Gundi. There an enthusiastic resident, Meghpat Singh, took them to the low mound at Lothal. One look at the objects found on the surface was enough to confirm that it was a Harappan site. Adventures in archaeology are not over with Marshall and Wheeler!" (Children's Book Trust, New Delhi, published Rajagopalan's book in 1992.)
The Harappan Civilisation was extant over two million square km. There are about 2,000 Harappan sites in India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. There are about 1,500 sites in Pakistan, 500 in India, and a few in Iran and Afghanistan. The Harappan sites in India are located in Gujarat, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. The civilisation's southernmost outpost is Daimabad in Maharashtra, on the banks of the Godavari river. The civilisation has fascinated town-planners, architects, metallurgists, specialists in hydrology, epigraphists, astronomers, craftsmen, and so forth.
The Harappan civilisation can be divided into three stages. The Early Harappan phase lasted from circa 3000 BCE to circa 2600 BCE. The Mature Harappan phase, when the civilisation reached its high-water mark, lasted from circa 2600 BCE to about 1900 BCE. The Late Harappan phase, which saw its decay, decline, collapse, and death, was extant from circa 1900 BCE to circa 1500 BCE.
S.R. Rao, in his book, "Lothal and the Indus Civilisation", says, "Human activity started at Lothal around 2450 BC, if not earlier, and lasted up to 1600 BC. During that period, a small village that Lothal was, developed into a large port-city of the Indus empire and witnessed a great many changes in its political and social life. It was destroyed by floods at least four times during its span of life but was reconstructed each time. However, the inhabitants were soon tired of the floods and could not withstand the onslaught of nature any more. At the apogee of its prosperity, Lothal could boast of the cleanest streets and the world's largest dock where ships from the distant lands of Egypt and Mesopotamia were berthed. In the largest warehouse it had erected, the foreign merchants vied with one another to procure gemstones, ivory and cotton goods in exchange for the metals and wool they had brought. The story of Lothal is an epitome of man's struggle against nature to master the environment. Though not completely successful, he had taken many strides in mastering the sea and taming the rivers before vacating the scene..." (The book was published by Asia Publishing House.)
The salient features of the Lothal town, as the Harappans built it more than 4,300 years ago, were: the dock-yard, the wharf, the warehouse, the industrial estate with its workshops, the residential area comprising the Acropolis and the Lower Town, a series of baths or hammams with a drainage system, a bazaar with a row of shops on either side, a cemetery away from the town and so on. The elite, including the Ruler, lived in the Acropolis, which had spacious two-storeyed houses. The residential quarters in the Acropolis were built on a three-metre tall platform of mud bricks. The houses had paved baths and underground drains. In the Lower Town lived the merchants, traders, and craftsmen. The town was similar in planning to Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. It was rectangular in plan, running to several hundred metres from east to west, and about 400 metres from north to south. It had streets and lanes running in straight lines and cutting each other at right angles. There were wells for potable water. On the western side, there was a wall, 13 metres thick, built with mud bricks to protect the town from floods.
(While mud bricks are merely dried in the sun, the baked bricks are fired in kilns under several hundreds of degrees of Celsius. So the baked or kiln-fired bricks are strong. The Harappans intelligently but sparingly used the kiln-fired bricks to pave the bathrooms or build a network of underground or surface drainage systems to carry stormwater or sewage. This was done because the kiln-fired bricks can withstand the salinity in the water in the bathrooms, toilets, and drains.)
The Harappan dock-yard at Lothal was 214 metres long and 36 metres wide. It was built with fine bricks. The mud brick-built wharf behind it was 220 metres long. The warehouse, which came next, was 50 metres long and 40 metres wide. The dock was for berthing the ships. The wharf was built to haul the cargo from the ships and take them to the warehouse where the cargo was stored. S.R. Rao says in his book titled, "Lothal", published by the ASI, "The dock...is an engineering feat of the highest order. Its very location away from the main current avoided silting but at the same time ships could have access to the dock in high tide."
What led the Harappans to build the dock, the wharf, the warehouse, the Acropolis, the Middle Town and so on? Around 2450 BCE, Lothal had burgeoned into an important industrial centre of the Indus empire with its craftsmen producing beads from semi-precious stones, gold beads, bronze and copper artefacts, bangles made out of ivory, shell, copper and terracotta, beautifully painted pottery, cotton textiles, and so on. Engravers produced beautiful seals with carvings of animals and the Harappan script. The ceramics made at Lothal included perforated jars, goblets, beakers, the slipped tableware for the ruling elite, dish-on-stand, big storage jars, S-shaped jars, vases, and pots. But it had a make-shift port. With the increase in trade, the number of ships coming from abroad to Lothal went up. There was a felt-need for a modern port.
It was then that the Harappans turned a tragedy into an opportunity. One of the two ancient rivers, sandwiching Lothal, overflowed its banks in 2350 BCE and destroyed the entire settlement. But the calamity brought the Lothal residents together and there emerged "a leader-genius" from amongst them. A far-sighted blueprint was prepared. The entire town was divided into several blocks, which were erected on a two-metre to three metre-tall platform built with sun-dried bricks. The blocks comprised the Acropolis, the Lower Town, a separate industrial park, the bazaar, and the graveyard away from the town. A dock-yard, a wharf, and a warehouse had to be built.
Dr S.R. Rao explains in his book, "Lothal and the Indus Civilisation": "All this needed careful planning and meticulous execution according to a blueprint. There is little doubt that engineers, architects, masons, and craftsmen joined hands with the ruler to build a model port-town of the age. The enormity of the effort can be visualised from the fact that nearly five million cubic feet of earth had to be excavated and turned into bricks for erecting solid platforms and to raise impressive public and private buildings over them. The dash and skill exhibited by the engineers become apparent from the massive dockyard with water-locking arrangements. It was the first-ever venture made by man to build artificial basin ships at high tide."
A wharf and a warehouse were built, the Acropolis and the Lower Town came up, and workshops sprouted where craftsmen made fabulous products. As ships started calling at the newly-built dock, the Lothal residents lost no time to "set themselves to the task of organising trade on sound lines." Ships waited at Lothal to carry goods to Dilmun, Ur, and Lagash. The goods were put in cloth bags at the warehouse, which were tied up in ropes. On the ropes, lumps of wet clay were stuck. Impressions of seals were stuck on these clay lumps to show that taxes had been paid on these goods to be exported. (These seal impressions are called sealings.) The goods imported were also stamped with sealings or seal impressions to signal that taxes had been collected from the importer.
However, in the next 150 years, a few floods occurred including "a devastating" one which damaged even the 13-metre thick wall meant to ward off the floods and three-metre-high platforms on which the Acropolis and the Lower Town stood. Many houses collapsed. But the Harappans of Lothal galvanised themselves to set things right. There was another flood in 2050 BCE. But by circa 2000 BCE, Lothal had reached its acme of prosperity. It became "the busiest port of the Indus empire", handling the largest volume of trade. All this made the Lothal residents "over-confident of the safety of their city" and they did not maintain the protection walls. Around 2000 BCE, a third flood of great magnitude ravaged Lothal. The entire town became a messy mass of coagulated mud bricks. Everything collapsed. S.R. Rao says, "As if the destruction of houses and factories, the dock and warehouse was not a sufficient blow to the complacency of the inhabitants, the river silted up its flow channel and took a sudden swing to a distance of two km from the city, leaving the dock high and dry. This calamity brought all overseas trade to a standstill and dried up the very fountain of prosperity."
Its residents abandoned Lothal and moved inward. "Those who returned were exhausted and leaderless." There was no leader-genius to galvanise the people and rebuild the town as they had done earlier.
A fourth flood engulfed Lothal around 1900 BCE. S.R. Rao observes: "It was not an ordinary flood but a deluge which swept away simultaneously several towns and villages and buried irrigation canals and dams, if any, in the delta region of the major rivers in western India. This fact is established by the excavations at Desalpur in Kutch, at Koth and Rangpur in Saurashtra, at Megham and Bhagatrav in the Narmada-Tapti valleys, and Chanhu-Daro and Mohenjo-Daro in Sind. A thorough exploration followed by careful digging may bring to light many more Harappan settlements lying buried under a thick mantle of flood loam in the estuaries of Gujarat and the Makran coast."
The glorious rise of Lothal thus came to a tragic end.
(Floods repeatedly damaged a beautiful Harappan site of Khirsara and Dholavira, both situated in Kutch district, Gujarat. This writer visited Khirsara when Dr Jitendra Nath of the ASI was excavating it from 2009 to 2013. Makran coast is in the present-day Balochistan in Pakistan).
It is this poignant story of Lothal that will be recreated at the massive maritime museum to come up, about a km and a half from the Harappan site there. A small museum exists now at Lothal, displaying the artefacts unearthed during the excavations from 1955 to 1960 but the national maritime museum will supersede it.
Dr Shinde said a team was preparing the list of objects that would be displayed in the 14 galleries to be set at the maritime museum. There would be an IMAX theatre with 3-D presentations related to the maritime tradition of India. Theme parks on the same subject would be established. Models of life-size boats from the Harappan age and the native boats used by fishermen from India's coastal States would be displayed. A couple of de-commissioned ships from the Navy would be positioned near Lothal so that people could visit them. "People want these types of experiences", he said.
What is important is that, in Dr Shinde's words, "We will recreate the dock-yard scene of the Harappan Lothal. We will actually have a diorama on the dock-yard." Asked whether a dock-yard that would resemble the Harappan dock-yard of Lothal would be created, he responded, "We will not create a real dock-yard. But with the help of models, we will show how the dock-yard looked like at that time in Lothal. We have an idea of how it was functional. We will create digital scenes of how it functioned. It is called a diorama... I am spending most of my time at Lothal... we plan to complete the maritime museum in three years and a half."
The museum complex will comprise a big interpretation centre, a cafeteria, quarters for the staff and a car park.
Vadnagar, PM Modi's home town in Gujarat, will also boast of a museum in the next few years. It is a small town with a population of 25,000. It is situated in Mehsana district, about 85 km from Ahmedabad. It has an ancient fortification wall running around it. The old town is situated inside this fortification wall. The new Vadnagar is coming up now outside this fortification wall. Vadnagar has many lakes and ponds in and around it. Excavations, with several scores of trenches, conducted by the ASI from 2014 till now and earlier done by the Gujarat State Department of Archaeology from 2005 to 2012, have established that the town has been in existence continuously from the sixth century BCE. It grew within a fortification that was first built perhaps during the Mauryan period (fourth century BCE to third century BCE) as an earthen rampart. Successive dynasties built and rebuilt a massive fortification wall made of kiln-fired bricks until the period of the Gaikwad dynasty in the 19th and 20th centuries. These dynasties included the Mauryans, the Indo-Greeks, the Saka-Kshatrapas, the Guptas, the Maitraks, the Solankis and the Gaikwads. (Frontline, October 13, 2017)
The young Dr Abhjit Suresh Ambekar (repeat Ambekar), Deputy Superintending Archaeologist, ASI's Excavation Branch-V, Vadodara, who has been heading the excavations at Vadnagar, said, "The prosperity of Vadnagar never degenerated. It faced no economic problems..." He said Vadnagar was a big manufacturing centre, noted for its bangles and columella made from conch shells. Shell bangles of remarkable artistic beauty were made especially during the rule of the Solankis from the 10th century CE to 13th century CE. Every phase of Vadnagar's cultural history yielded fine pottery, revealing its foreign contacts, Dr Ambekar said. The excavations yielded a hoard of lead coins, terracotta sealings, schist stone images of Ganesa, Mahishasuramardini, and a beautiful human face, a bullae or a round tablet engraved with a human head of great charm and so on.
Significantly, the excavations brought to light that Vadnagar was a Buddhist centre with ten monasteries, where about 100 monks stayed. The excavations in the Ghaskol locality within the fortified town have uncovered a stupa, a vihara, and cells for monks. Terracotta artefacts portray scenes from Jataka tales related to the Buddha's life, Buddha heads etc.
Y.S. Rawat, who led the excavations from 2005 to 2012 as the Director of the Gujarat State Archaeology Department, said, "We firmly established that the site had many Buddhist remains. So many Buddhist remains in the form of minor antiquities were found. We established the sequence of the growth of the town during the successive dynasties and its various structural phases, how the town came into existence, how it prospered and so on." Rawat asserted, based on archaeological remains, that the earliest date for the founding of a settlement at Vadnagar could be around sixth century BCE. (Frontline, October 13, 2017)
From 2018, excavations by the ASI have been proceeding apace around one corner of the Sharmistha lake. The excavations have revealed a series of cells, remnants of shell bangle industry etc. An on-site museum will be established on the south-east corner of the lake.
On March 4, 2020, Ambekar revealed to this writer the plans for the on-site museum. From November 2019, the ASI has been digging three trenches on the land in the south corner of the Sharmitha lake. He said, "I am waiting to receive more land. Once the land is allotted to us, we will dig 37 more trenches, each measuring 10 metres by 10 metres. These 40 trenches will be laid out in a single pocket. It is a continuation of last year's work." These 40 trenches would be laid on one acre. The on-site museum will come up adjacent to these 40 trenches to be dug up. These trenches will not be filled up. Whatever they reveal - brick structures, artefacts etc. - will be maintained in situ. The museum will display the artefacts unearthed from the trenches dug all these years at Vadnagar. "There will be a lift in which you can go down into the trenches and see the remains in situ," Dr Ambekar said.
While the museum would be built on the one-acre site with its 40 trenches, an interpretation centre, a cafeteria, and a car park would be established on the adjacent three-acre parcel of land, he added.