Preserving the lost and found acropolis of Dholavira – Heritage Architecture

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Set against a rich backdrop is the historic landscape of Dholavira in the Kutch district of Gujarat. The region lies on the Khadir Bet Island in the Bhachau Taluka and is surrounded by the mesmeric Rann of Kutch. This lost city from the Harappan era reclaimed its identity when it surfaced over half a century ago. Furthermore, on 27 July 2021, it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the name Dholavira: A Harappan City.

The excavated site derives its name from the village of Dholavira, 1 km from the heritage site. Located on a hillock, the city’s ruins are spread over 120 acres. While the ancient city has become the fourth site from Gujarat and 40th from India to be inscribed on the UNESCO list, it is the first site of the 5000-year-old Indus Valley Civilisation to receive the tag. It is documented as the Civilisation’s fifth-largest metropolis after Mohen-Jo-Daro, Ganweriwala, Harappa and Rakhigarhi.

The discovery of the ancient city

Discoveries by chance are considered to be the norm in archaeology. Similarly, it was sometime in the early 1960s, during the Kutch famine, a resident of Dholavira, Shambhudan Gadhvi, was supervising the drought-relief work (the digging of a small dam to collect monsoon waters) at a nearby place called Kotda, when he found seals featuring shapes of animals on them. Astonished, the former master clerk — who was also an amateur geologist — immediately recognised the similarity of the designs with the seals he had seen in his son’s history textbook on Harappan civilisation. After that, he rummaged for more seals and collected many artefacts such as decorative ceramics, bits and pieces of carnelian beads, and metal objects. He preserved the ancient relics in his house. He reported the site to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) – the premier organisation for the archaeological research and protection of India’s cultural heritage under the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Finally, the excavations started in 1989-1990 and lasted till 2005. In all, 13 field excavations gradually revealed a vast city comprising two parts: A walled city and a cemetery. The walled city had a citadel, an intermediate city, a lower town, freshwater reservoirs, underground sewage pipes, bead-making workshops, copper smelters, ceremonial ground, residential units, workshop areas etc. They embodied the Harappan culture and its various manifestations.

Stones and water 

Significantly, this Harappan city, dating from the 3rd to mid-2nd millennium BCE, is one of the few well-preserved urban settlements in the sub-continent. In ancient India, it was considered a commercial and manufacturing hub for about 1,500 years till its decline by 1,500 BC. Urban planning is apparent from the in-situ (in the original place) remains of the city that establishes systematic planning.

The most striking feature is that the ancient city was built almost exclusively of stones instead of bricks. Another prominent facet was its sustainable use of water resources. On the whole, the excavated vestiges distinctly exhibit the origin of the settlement, its growth, its high point, and the subsequent decline in the form of uniform changes in the configuration of the city, architectural elements and various other features.

As per the official records, the heritage city was discovered by archaeologist J.P Joshi in 1967-68. The property is protected by the Ancient Monument and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958.

Measures taken to conserve the heritage

In keeping with the heritage conservation strategy, Dholavira incorporated the historical and cultural aspects since its discovery. So far, conservation measures and consolidation of a few areas have been carried out to prevent deterioration. Additionally, the site has also been stabilised to ensure the preservation of its physical characteristics.

The activities in the areas adjacent to the ancient site of Dholavira are subject to prohibition and regulation as per provisions of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Rules 2011.

The buffer zone of the ancient site covers the entire west strip of Khadir Island, which guarantees the protection of the broader setting of the property. The buffer zone – parts of which cover the Prohibited and Regulated Areas – intersects with the Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary, protected by the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. The Government of India (GOI) lists the ancient quarry sites in the buffer zone as national importance.

The authenticity of the archaeological site is preserved through minimum interventions and scientific conservation principles and methods, as well as by maintaining the exposed structures in their original configurations and in-situ conditions. No additions or modifications have been made to the structural remains.

Centre of tourist attraction 

Geoheritage sites such as Dholavira are becoming increasingly important because of their natural beauty and the curiosity factor that they stir up, in addition to their value as objects of study and research.

The importance of heritage preservation

Heritages are the country’s pride and strength and signify the roots of a nation. They are a valuable educational resource and vividly showcase parts of a rich civilisation and silently convey the history of a bygone era. Hence, their conservation or preservation is a way to save communities and the values they represent. It must not be forgotten that when a country preserves its heritage sites, it preserves its identity.

By Vasundhara Sanger


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