Lothal: India’s First Port City



While the great cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were discovered by Sir John Marshall in the 1920s, it is astonishing that it would be 40 years before another significant Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) site – Lothal – would be found. The discovery of this great port – the only one of its kind – was the result of a concerted effort to search for the IVC’s legacy in India, at a time when India had lost most of the Bronze Age civilisation's sites on the subcontinent to Pakistan.

Post-Partition, in the early 1950s, the Archaeological Survey of India undertook a massive programme of exploration and excavation in western and northern India. What they found was a bonanza.


Hundreds of sites were found strewn across Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana and Gujarat, with 50 of them concentrated in Gujarat alone.

These discoveries revealed the vast spread of the civilization, which was clearly not restricted to the Indus valley – it extended till the Ghaggar-Hakra river systems. In fact, over the years, some of the biggest cities of the mature Harappan era were found along the dry beds of Ghaggar-Hakra (also believed to be the mythical Sarasvati river). In the clutch of discoveries made, Lothal marked a special milestone.

Lothal
Lothal|Wikimedia Commons

First discovered in 1954, Lothal was excavated from 1955-1960 by S R Rao of the Archaeological Survey of India. Sites like Lothal, Dholavira, Kalibangan and Rakhigarhi were discovered during this intense phase of post-Independence archaeology. Interestingly, the name ‘Lothal’ comes from the local name of the place, roughly translated to ‘Mound of the Dead’ in Gujarati; Mohenjo-daro, 670 km from Lothal, means the same in Sindhi.

Remarkably, Lothal is home to what is believed to be one of the oldest docks in the world and has many of the features that set the towns and cities of the Harappan civilisation apart from others elsewhere in the world.

Extend of Indus Valley Civilization during the Mature Phase
Extend of Indus Valley Civilization during the Mature Phase|Wikimedia Commons

Where Exactly Is Lothal?

Lothal is surprisingly close to Ahmedabad, just 85 km away. It is perhaps the most accessible site of the Harrappan era in western India. Situated along the Bhogava river, a tributary of the Sabarmati and just 30 km from the present-day Gulf of Khambat, it is easy to imagine this ancient port being even closer to the sea when it was a thriving city. Lothal is also less than 200 km from the Modhera Sun Temple and the Rani-ki-Vav in Patan other major historic sites, albeit of a much later era, in Gujarat.

The plan of Lothal
The plan of Lothal|Wikimedia Commons

The Site Itself

Lothal is believed to be 3,700 years old and is the only major port-town of the IVC, discovered so far. The site itself is small, at 7 hectares, and is 18 times smaller than Mohenjo-daro. It displays many of the features that make the Harappan Civilization distinct, like the division of the town into two sections – the Upper Town and Lower Town – and advanced town planning.

The town has thick peripheral walls, which are 12 to 21 metres long. These were probably built to protect the town from tidal floods, which ravaged the city periodically. It is believed that these floods may have ultimately destroyed it. What really sets Lothal apart is its dock.

World’s Oldest Dock?

At the northern end of the town is a basin with a vertical wall, an inlet and outlet channels. This has been identified as a ‘tidal dockyard’. Satellite images show that the river channel, now dry, would have brought in considerable volumes of water during high tide. This would have filled the basin and facilitated the sailing of boats upstream.

Lothal Dockyard
Lothal Dockyard|Wikimedia Commons

The basin exhibits a remarkable knowledge of hydraulics and tides, which further supports the assumption that this was a dock and not an irrigation tank, as some archaeologists contend.

Archaeologists have also identified the remains of stone anchors, marine shells and seals, which can be traced to the Persian Gulf. These, along with a structure identified as a warehouse, strongly suggest that Lothal was a port with a dock.

Town Planning & Drainage System

The Upper Town or the citadel is located in the south-eastern corner and is demarcated by mud-brick platforms 4 metres high instead of a fortification wall. Within the citadel are wide streets, drains and rows of bathing platforms. These suggest a planned layout. In this enclosure is a large structure identified as a warehouse with a square platform and whose partly charred walls retain the impression of sealings.

The drainage system at Lothal
The drainage system at Lothal|Wikimedia Commons

While we still struggle to create functional infrastructure and drainage systems in the modern age, the drainage system of the Harappans, including that in Lothal, is renowned as an ancient marvel. The people of Lothal created corbelled roofs and an apron of kiln-fired bricks over the brick face of the platform where sewage entered the cesspool. Wooden screens inserted in grooves in the side drain walls held back solid waste.

Disposal of the Dead

Multiple mechanisms for disposal of the dead have been found at different Harappan sites. They include burial, cremation and burial of cremated remains in pots. But the most unique method was found at Lothal – twin burial, i.e the burial of two individuals together.

Twin Burial
Twin Burial|Wikimedia Commons

Artefacts, Innovations & Other Findings

The people of the Indus Valley Civilization were experts in many areas and gave us many scientific innovations like the compass, the ruler and advanced town planning. One of the most remarkable facts about the Civilization is the uniformity of bricks, weights and other measurement tools across the land. In fact, S R Rao in his reports mentions that Lothal craftsmen took care to ensure the durability and accuracy of stone weights by blunting the edges before polishing.


The method of bead-making in Lothal was so advanced that it is still followed by bead-makers in Kathiawar more than 4000 years later!

The largest collection of archaeological artefacts in Indian archaeology comes from Lothal, and among the more fascinating remains are their equipment – metal tools, weights, measures, seals, earthenware – and ornaments. Amazingly, these were of uniform, standard and quality across the Indus civilization.

Artefacts from Lothal
Artefacts from Lothal|National Museum, Delhi

Lothal was one of the most important centres of shell-working, owing to the abundance of high quality shells found in the Gulf of Kutch and near the Kathiawar coast. It also produced a large amount of gold ornaments—the most innovative item being microbeads of gold, unique for being less than 0.25 millimetres in diameter. Cylindrical, globular and jasper beads of gold with edges at right angles as well as a large disc with holes have also been found. Studs, a cogwheel and heart-shaped ornaments of faience and steatite were popular in Lothal.

Trade With Other Centres

The presence of the dock points to the important role Lothal played in trade. It imported raw materials like copper, chert and semi-precious stones from Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, and probably distributed it to villages and towns in the hinterland. The town also produced large quantities of fish hooks, chisels, spears and ornaments. Lothal exported its beads, gemstones, ivory and shells in a network that stretched till Egypt, Bahrain and Sumer. Evidence of a global trade network in Lothal is the discovery of a typical Persian Gulf seal – a circular button seal.

Pottery Artefacts from Lothal
Pottery Artefacts from Lothal|LHI

The Indus Valley or Harappan Civilization was grand in its scale and spread. We also know that it was built on trade with the West, and it was the collapse of the Bronze Age world that led to its decline. For a civilization so driven by trade, Lothal was undoubtedly an important centre, and echoes of this can still be heard in the legend of Sikotari, a Goddess believed to be worshipped at Lothal for millennia.

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