In the footsteps of the ancients at Lothal

OSTIA ANTICA, THE PORT of Ancient Rome is constructed mainly with baked clay bricks. When I visited it some years ago, I remember thinking that it looked like a recently built place because of the brickwork that looked so contemporary. Ostia dates back no further than the 4th century BC. The port at Lothal in Gujarat (western India) thrived long before Ostia, probably between 2500 and 1900 BC, but like the Roman port, the remains of Lothal are mainly (sun baked) clay bricks, giving them a far from ancient appearance. Lothal, excavated in the 1950s, was a port inhabited by people of the Bronze Age Harrapan (or Indus Valley) civilisation that thrived between about 3300 to 1300 BC.

We drove to Lothal from Ahmedabad along a good highway that runs through flat landscape with numerous tidy looking factories. We arrived after about 75 minutes of steady driving. The archaeological site, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is in the middle of very flat fertile agricultural land far from the nearest village. Unlike most other ASI sites that charge an entrance fee, that at Lothal is the same for both foreigners, who are usually charged a high fee and Indians. Each ticket cost only 5 Rupees.

The ticket gives access to a small but well laid out museum, whose exhibitsand information panels demonstrate how Lothal fits into current understanding of Harappan civilisation and what life might have been like in the ancient port. A fairly simplistic video was shown. It concentrated mainly on Mohenjo-Daro, a large Harappan site now in Pakistan. The evidence dug up at Lothal and other Harappan sites shows that the civilisation was both technically and artistically sophisticated. On display, were systems of weights and ingeniously crafted fine jewellery, both examples of products that could only have been produced by people of great intellectual ability.

The ruins are, as already mentioned, mostly made of brick. A low mound, known as the ‘Acropolis’, is covered with structures that might have been warehouses or residences of the upper echelons of Lothal. The mound overlooks what looks like a huge rectangular brick lined swimming pool, now filled with rainwater. When Lothal was thriving, this dock was connected to the nearby sea (now the Gulf of Khambat) by a channel along which vessels could sail. Over the millennia, the coastline has shifted and what was once Lothal is separated from the sea, far away from it. The ASI keep the dock filled with rainwater to show what the dock must have looked like in its heyday.

Various other structures outlined by brickwork, including circular wellheads, can be visited. These include the former bead factory, a cemetery (where all the skeletons discovered were from people who died aged 30 or less; maybe older people were cremated), and a ‘lower town’. What little that has been excavated is well looked after, but without the explanations provided in the museum the casual visitor would have no idea of what he or she was seeing or how ancient these remains are. With a little background information it was thrilling to walk in the footsteps of townsfolk and traders who lived and thrived so many, many years before us.

We met only three other visitors while wandering around the ruins. They were all from Bangalore. They were touring Gujarat but lamented the fact that most signs are only in Gujarati script. In Karnataka, where they live and where we visit often, signs are often not only in the local script but also in English and/or Hindi.

There are no refreshments available at the Lothal site. An employee suggested that we might get tea in the modern village of Lothal, a few kilometres away. Our driver had his doubts about this and so did I when we drove along the winding dusty road through the small village. There were no shops or stalls to be found.

We parked outside a pair of wrought iron gates separating two houses. A lady appeared in the door of one of them, and my wife asked (in Gujarati) whether tea was available in the village. The lady said she would make some for us.

We followed her through the gates and into a long wide alley lined with houses. Two ladies were embroidering gold thread, jewels, and sequins onto long silk saris spread out along the incredibly clean concrete floor of the alley. Other ladies were sitting around.

Our hostess brought us each a plastic chair from her home. We sat chatting with the ladies while we awaited our tea. The alley was lined with houses that a farmer had built for his sons. Each of the ladies was one of his daughters in law.

Our hostess arrived with a large metal cup filled with tea and two china saucers. Each of us was handed a saucer, which she filled with hot tea. We slurped the tea from the saucers as is the custom when sharing tea in Gujarat (often one person drinks from a cup and the other who is sharing it drinks from the saucer: a system known as ‘cutting chai’).

The ladies doing the embroidery take about a day to decorate a whole sari with a complex design. The silk is sent to Lothal from Surat, where the decorated saris are later sold. An old lady with barely one tooth in her smile, the mother in law of the women we were talking with, joined us. This wizened relative asked if it was true that a man’s haircut would cost 1000 rupees in the USA, as she had seen on YouTube. We told her that it would cost at least that. She was then told to go back to rest on her charpoy in the nearby farmyard.

We asked where the menfolk were. They answered: “In the fields. What else could they be doing?”

Our hostess, who seemed to be the brightest of the very hospitable women, took us to see the cow whose milk had been used to make our tea. We thsnked her calf for sharing his mothers milk. She also proudly showed us the two fine horses the family owned.

Just before we left, my wife asked our hostess whether we could leave a small gift for her children. She said that they were at school and there was no need for a gift. She told us that she was very keen that they should do well at school, and hoped that they would be able to study in the USA, because she said: “There is no future for them, nothing here anymore.”As we drove away from our new acquaintances through the village, people waved to us. We waved at three old men on a bench. They waved back. We felt that we had received a warm welcome at ground level in Gujarat.