We, the Citizens
By HUGH & COLLEEN GANTZER
We shared the Prime Minister’s joy when we learnt that Dholavira had been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. “Absolutely delighted by this news. Dholavira was an important urban centre and is one of our most important linkages with our past. It is a must visit, especially for those interested in history, culture and archaeology,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted (GP 30 July 2021).
Dholavira is in the Rann of Kutch: a stretch of tidal flats glistening with crystals of salt, weird and alluring at the same time. Out of it rise occasional hillocks. Dholavira is built on one of these. Early one morning in March, we stood at the scrubby edge of the Rann and looked across a dusty, pockmarked stretch, at the impressive rise of Dholavira. Massive brick walls soared in receding terraces to a high citadel. Deep, water-harvesting reservoirs, encircled the base of this ancient metropolis.
A self-appointed guide said “It was called Dhola Vira, the White Brother. Our women refer to wells as ‘brothers’ because they help them survive in this dry land. We get only 300 to 400 mm of rain, and it all comes over a very short period, filling the nullahs. Then the land dries.”
Using check-dams, Dholavirans had diverted the water of the torrents into enormous, brick-lined reservoirs. “Their fired bricks are wedge-shaped so they fit tightly into each other making the reservoirs water-tight even to this day.” We looked down at those deep, wide tanks, abandoned and dry now. They had steps going down to the bottom, predecessors of the elaborate step-wells of Gujarat. In our mind’s eye we saw long lines of slim women walking up and down the steps of the reservoirs, balancing pots of water on their heads.
We clambered up to the equivalent of the Nob Hill of Dholavira: the so-called Citadel. This is a misleading term normally applied to a fortress overlooking or protecting a city. In fact, this ‘Citadel’ was where the leaders lived, protected by thick stone walls and gates. It was a ‘gated community’. Some scholars believe that the privileged people who resided here were priest-kings like those in the Sumeria of that age. But there are no ruins of temples or the remains of impressive sacred statues indicating a powerful theocracy. It is most likely that Dholaviran society was a technocracy, the first of its kind in history. The Citadel was where the CMD, CEO, COO and other honchos lived. There is, also, an undeciphered signboard of 10 characters which could have stood here. We feel that this, the world’s first street sign, permitted the entry of hand-pulled hawkers’ carts carrying domestic ware and fresh supplies, but prohibited animal-drawn heavier vehicles.
We stepped down past pillars which could have been gate-posts, into the enormous stadium. It stretched for 193 m by 49 m and had tiered seating all around. Of all the million square kilometres once covered by this mysterious civilisation in our sub-continent, Dholavira is the only Harappan city with a stadium. It could have been the civilisation’s capital. Scholars believe that this stadium could accommodate 10,000 people with special seating for the VIPs who lived in the Citadel. The stadium was used for ceremonials, festivals and sports. One of the gymnastic feats was bull-leaping, where agile, naked, young women grabbed the horns of a bull and somersaulted over the enraged animal. It was an extreme sport, popular in parts of the Mediterranean at that time!
Hygiene was an obsession with the people of Dholavira. Every house had a bathroom with its sewerage being drained into a cesspit. Clearly, this was a tightly controlled civic society. In the Middle Town was the residential area of the burghers, the solid middle-class traders who form the stabilising ballast of most societies. Here, the stone foundations showed houses of regimented similarity, set in streets laid out in a disciplined grid pattern.
There is no evidence of horses, weapons or fortifications, leitmotifs of the Aryans. Surely, then, our cultural ancestors were the manufacturing and trading Harappans and not the pillaging and aggressive Aryans who appeared millennia later!
Does ‘White Brother’ refer to people with a pale complexion? Does itihas need to be re-examined?
(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)