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.

Spotted in Bhavnagar

Mahatma Gandhi studied for a few months at Samaldas College in Bhavnagar. The Gandhi Smruti in that city contains a first class collection of photographs recording the life of the Mahatma. This echibition is on the first floor of a building. Its ground floor is occupied by the exhibits in the city’s Barton Museum.

The Barton contains some fine artefacts made in different eras. Amongst these, there are some lovely Jain stone carvings.

One area of the museum oncludes a case showing the evolution of the flag of what was to become post-colonial India. Near to this, there is a vitrine containing ageing historic postage stamps in various states of decay.

While looking at the stamps, I spotted several bearing the name “Ifni”. Never heard of it? Well, I had. I used to spot Ifni on the pages of atlases published before the 1960s. However, I had never seen stamps bearing this name.

Ifni was a tiny Spanish colonial enclave on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. The Spanish ruled Ifni from 1860 until 1969, when it was returned to Morocco. The Sultanate of Morocco had ceded the tiny piece of land to Spain in 1960.

According to an article in Wikipedia, Ifni issued several new postage stamps each year. More of them remained unused than used.

I do not know who donated the sheets of postage stamps to the Barton Museum in Bhavnagar, but those from Ifni were certainly isdued orior to 1969.

The museum in Bhavnagar is, like many other museums in provincial towns in Gujarat, filled with a variety of artefacts. You never know what you will find when you enter one of them. The stamps from Ifni were certainly unexpected.

The maharajah’s garage

I am not sure that we would have discovered the collection of cars assembled by the maharajahs of Gondal had we not had a detailed guidebook to Gujarat. Maybe we might have learned about it by chance but being in possession of a guidebook made certain that we were aware of it.

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Detailed guidebooks of Gujarat, written in English, are few and far between. During the planning and our actual trip, we made use of two books.

book 1

Philip Ward’s “Gujarat Daman Diu – A Travel Guide” was published in 1994. Like his excellent guidebook to Albania, Ward presents Gujarat and its associated former Portuguese colonies in the form of a detailed, informative travelogue. It is a book that is both designed to be read in an armchair and to be used ‘on the road’. However, it was written before the earthquake of 2001 and its practical information is out of date. Nevertheless, it is a useful book for those who are planning to explore Gujarat.

book 2

The “India Guide Gujarat” by Anjali Desai was published in 2007. This colourful production includes many maps, which help with orientation but lack detail and were occasionally inaccurate. It is a thorough guidebook with entries on most of the places that are worth visiting in Gujarat. We made much use of the Kindle version of this publication during most of our trip until we reached Baroda, where we managed to obtain a paperback version, which is far easier to use than the electronic edition. Even though it is a few years out of date, anyone planning to visit Gujarat should carry a copy of it.

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During our two month odyssey through Gujarat, Daman, and Diu, we saw many of the things recommended by Desai, but also attractions that she does not mention either because they have been built since her book was published or because of our exploratory instincts. One place, which gets a two line mention in Ward and three lines in Desai, is the collection of vintage cars at Gondal.

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The collection is in the grounds of one of the palaces built by a Maharajah of Gondal to house his guests but is now used as a hotel. In my recently published book about Gujarat, I wrote:

“The grounds of this palace contain a collection of vintage cars, which I was permitted to see after paying an immodest fee (by Indian standards). More than thirty cars are stored in a series of garages surrounding a courtyard. They range in age from a pre-1910 model to some built in 1997. They include vehicles ranging from racing cars to small vans. Many of them were made in the USA, but others were British, German, and French. All of them are in immaculate condition, and, I was informed, each one is still in perfect working order. In Bombay, we saw some of these cars taking part in a vintage car rally held in February 2018. All the cars are owned by the family of the Maharajahs of Gondal. Photographs on the walls of the garages record the former royal family’s involvement with motor racing.”

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We visited Gondal because of reading about it in Desai’s book. She mentions the palaces as being worthy of a visit, but our curiosity led us to discover more, which is not included in her book. One of these places, which I describe in detail in my publication is a large Victorian Gothic school, which was founded by a forward-thinking maharajah. We were fortunate to meet its headmaster, who provided us with fascinating insights into the school system of Gujarat. If it were not for Desai’s book, we would not have stopped in Gondal. If we had been less adventurous, we would not have visited the venerable school.

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I regard the listings in guidebooks as nuclei around which the fruits of our curiosity can crystallise. My travelogue about Gujarat, Daman, and Diu describes a journey initially based on recommendations from guidebooks. It shares with the reader the myriad of experiences and discoveries, many of which have not yet been described in guidebooks, that we enjoyed in a part of India less-visited by foreigners and Indians alike.  

 

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TRAVELS THROUGH GUJARAT, DAMAN, AND DIU

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