I was first introduced to Lothal on my visit to Dholavira, another five millennia old Harappan site across the white salt pans of Kutch in Gujarat. Multiple references had been made to it: of Lothal’s significance in the bigger scheme of things in the Indus Valley civilization and the incredible finds unearthed from its excavations.
Now at Lothal three years later, as I sat under a tree in the deserted site, the sun bounced off the satin-silk waters of the dock lined by 4,400-year-old sun-dried bricks. I could almost hear the banter between the dock-hands in the 24th Century BC as they loaded and unloaded the boats with bags full of carnelian and steatite beads, ready to set out for distant lands beyond the seas. Over the distance of time, traders, both rich and poor, in the nearby market haggled with buyers using stone weights and gold discs based on the first ever instance of the decimal system. In the intersecting narrow side lanes, little children played with clay animal figurines, marbles and cowries, punctuated with gleeful peals of laughter.
A flock of sparrows flew over the waters, breaking into my reverie, and I was brought back to reality, and into the present scattered with ruins and remnants of personal belongings. Those lives are all dead now. But Lothal still carries their echoes in its ancient stones.
When India was partitioned in 1947, all the key sites of the Indus Valley Civilization discovered to date, including Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, ended up on the other side of the border, in present-day Pakistan. Convinced of the presence of equally significant towns east of the border, the Archaeological Survey of India led a massive exploration exercise from 1954 – 58 unearthing more than 50 sites, extending the ancient civilization’s footprint by 500 kilometres.
Lothal means “Mound of the Dead” in Gujarati, a name given by the local villagers with reference to the presence of human remains in the ancient mound. It was one of ASI’s key finds in more ways than one. Lothal showed up the earliest known “dock” in the ancient world, a bead-making technique which has stood the test of time of 4,400 years, and the third largest collection of Indus Valley seals. 5,089 objects were unearthed in Lothal, 800 of which are on display at the site’s museum.
Since the Indus Valley script remains undeciphered, one can only conjecture at what these evidences point to. Whilst the accepted hypothesis states Lothal was a tidal port and manufactured beads to export to Sumer and Egypt, as well as other Indus Valley sites, some scholars claim the port to be too small by modern standards and was instead a large irrigation tank with a water canal.
Whatever be the case, two periods of continuous occupation made the site one of the longest occupied in the Indus Valley collective. In its first phase, the Harappans arrived at Lothal to settle among an indigenous people already knowing the use of copper and bead-making. A minor flood around 2350 BC destroyed the village, providing the Harappans the opportunity to rebuild Lothal using Indus Valley architectural plans.
To protect the city from floods, the houses were now constructed on sun-dried brick platforms one to two metres high on which 20 – 30 houses of thick mud and brick stood. The town was also now divided into two parts: The Citadel where the ruler of Lothal and important manufacturing activities took place, with paved baths, underground and surface drains made of kiln-fired bricks, and a potable water well. Next to it was the Lower Town with markets and workshops flanking a north-south main road, and residential areas.
The focus of local activity was, however, Lothal’s dockyard and the adjacent warehouse on a 3.5-metre-high podium to store goods for export. 218 metres long and 37 metres wide, the dock had an inlet in the northern arm and a spillway in the south and was connected to the sea through a river [now dried up]. A massive flood in 1900 BC washed the town away in a single stroke, for good.
It was afternoon by the time I could bring myself to tear away from Lothal. My next stop was Utelia [also spelled Uthellya] Palace, 6 kilometres away—a turn of the 19th Century mansion owned and lived in by the 12th generation of Utelia’s royal family.
Bhavsinhji, a descendant of the Vaghela clan who ruled large parts of Western India from the 11th to 14th Centuries, had founded the State of Utelia in 1646. The Indo-Saracenic home of the royal family currently functions as a homestay.
I came across Utelia whilst reading up on Lothal. The chance to visit a historical heritage property in its original form was too tempting to give a miss. After much asking around I managed to find myself finally outside its towering gates. A Rs. 50 tip to the guard, and I was on the other side of the property, inside a crumbling, dilapidated edifice straight out of the past filled with Edwardian furniture, teak doors, and Minton floor tiles. Creaking staircases took me to the upper floors with picture postcard views of Utelia village. Four-poster beds and crystal chandeliers told stories of its past residents. To tell the truth, part of me was spooked. 😊
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If Lothal took me back many millennia, Utelia took me back into Victorian India—both in a flash. From 4,400 years to 120 years. That is the magic of Gujarat, and the joys of travel summed up. Where else can you time travel through thousands of years in a few kilometres? How else can you experience so much in just a day? Incredible Gujarat in more ways than one. This is also why I will always remain a traveller at heart. ❤
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- Lothal is 78 km south-west of Ahmedabad. Utelia is a further 6 km away from Lothal. The roads in Gujarat are excellent and toll free. Car hire is easily available.
- Both the sites can be clubbed together as a day trip.
- There is an in-depth museum with a film screening run by the Archaeological Survey of India at Lothal. Guides are not available for the archaeological site or museum.
- Lothal tickets and timings: Rs. 5 for the museum, Free entry for the archaeological site; 10 am to 5 pm, closed on Fridays; Permission is required for photography inside the museum.
- Utelia: A tip of Rs. 50 to the guard for entry, unless you are staying at the palace as a guest. If you would like to book a room at the palace, click here.