Dholavira- The zenith of Harappan town planning!

An article by Levina

Dholavira is a sleepy village in the great Rann of Kutch. Being one of  the five largest ancient cities in the subcontinent, Dholavira has yielded many firsts towards the ancient Indian civilisation. But unfortunately not many within the subcontinent are aware of it, infact, awareness about ancient India is so poor that we call Sindhu river as Indus. The sobriquet by which the civilisation is now known is IVC- Indus valley civilisation, when it should have been ideally called Sindhu Saraswati civilization (SSC). A lot remains to be studied about this 5000 years old city which was excavated fairly recently in 1990s, when compared to Harappa and Mohenjodaro which were excavated in early 20th century. The site which covers about 48 hectares is largely undisturbed and ergo easier to study, if one takes interest.

Do watch our video on Saraswati Sindhu Civilisation:

What makes Dholavira special??

1) Triple acropolis:

Unlike the Harappan city which was based on duality acropolis, Dholavira’s plan is based on triple acropolis. On the basis of the relative location, planning and architecture, the city can be divided into :

  1. A Citadel (fort)– the highest platform which has a height of about 16m high or equivalent to a 5 storeyed building.
  2. A “bailey” or the middle town which is about 8-9m above ground level.
  3. A lower part of the city, which also includes reservoirs. It is due to the presence of reservoirs that Dholavira is also called the “Lake city” of Indus Civilisation. When cut through vertically, each reservoir is about 7.5m in height. 

The city was configured like a large parallelogram. Builders of Dholavira had used fired bricks for the foundations, and the un-fired ones for the walls, with each wall of citadel being about 15-18m thick. The people living in Dholovira had their own system of units–dhanus and angulas, and they gave a lot of importance to proportion. At myriads of places, the margin of error was as less as 0.2%. The perfect rectangular layouts, lavish wide open spaces, careful aesthetic and practical planning of divisions does tell us a lot about the builders of this civilisation. The city  also had a ceremonial ground which had a dimension of 300m X 50m, and a seating capacity of 10,000, a stadium equivalent to it in the present times would be Madhav Rao Scindia stadium in Rajkot that can seat 15,000 people.

Madhav Rao Scindia Stadium, Rajkot

2) Holy ratios:

Another point that stands out in case of Dholavira is– while most of the other cities of SSC had largely been constructed on a 2:1 ratio (like Mohenjodaro, Kalibangan and Surkotada), the prime ratio of Dholavira is surprisingly 5:4 or 1.25. The city’s length to its width, the castle’s proportion, the ceremonial ground, follow this master ratio. A millennium later in Vaastu-Shastra the same ratio is prescribed for construction.

3) Water management systems:

Dholavirians impressed it’s visitors with their knowledge of hydraulic engineering. The sophisticated water conservation system of channels and reservoirs, were the earliest found anywhere in the world. There were about 16 or more reservoirs, which were created on the south, west and north of the built-up divisions, rectangular in shape. These pits were dug upto the rockbed, which puzzled the archaeologists initially. These were the rock cut wells, which date as one of the oldest examples across the subcontinent, and the most impressive one is located in the citadel.

In the citadel large storm drains with apertures were found, which were first thought to be used for carrying wastewater. But since they were not connected to housing or bathing platforms, it was later concluded that these were used for storing rainwater. The air-apertures in them ensured easy passage of rainwater.
Much later, when the real purpose of the reservoirs was stumbled upon by the archaeologists, it shocked them that a 5000 years old city could be so brilliantly planned.

The purpose— Reservoir’s acted as an obstacle to reduce the speed and ferocity of the approaching flood water , that kept the structures in the city safe. The reservoirs took advantage of the slope of the ground to fill up water during flood. A drop of 13 m from north-east to north-west meant that the reservoirs on North-West filled up first as the flood water approached the city, and slowly filled up other reservoirs towards the North-East. This is exactly how you fill the ice-cube containers in your fridge.

Dholavira was flanked by two storm water channels; the Mansar in the north, and the Manhar in the south, ergo it flooded almost annually.

4) Stepwell:

A stepwell which measured 73.4m long, 29.3m wide, and 10m deep was found in Dholavira. Going by its dimensions, it is three times bigger than the Great bath of Mohenjedaro. The excavation on the rectangular stepwell was initiated were recently, in October 2014.

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Different stages of Dholavira

The Dholavira settlement underwent seven major cultural stages; it is serially numbered from Stage I to Stage VII, which takes us through the inception, maturing and finally, the fall of the urban system of the Harappan civilization.

Stage-I : The foundation of the city was laid, which formed the nucleus on which the subsequent settlements of the later stages expanded gradually.

Stage-II: This stage stands out for the use of white and pink clays and improvement in the pottery forms, both qualitatively and quantitatively.
The use of white and pink clay on the walls continued till stage-IV, and then it came to an abrupt end as if people were asked to stop using it by a royal decree.

Stage-III: This is one of the most important stage of Dholavira city building, this is when the reservoirs were created.

Stage-IV: The famous ten-signed inscription which is about 3m long was used during this stage. It is assumed that this probably was the first traffic sign ever used.

Ten Indus glyphs discovered near the northern gate of Dholavira.


Stage-V : This stage is associated with the decline of the city. Around this time the global warming had started to wreak havoc on many civilisations as far as Syria and Euroasia.

Stage-VI: This stage is associated with cultural transformation. This is when new ceramic traditions began to appear. The one time city, was by now reduced to a town.

Stage-VII: The newcomers had started to settle in Dholavira who used to live in circular houses, and had no concept of planning (which is strange because till then they preferred rectangular shapes of 5:4 proportions). Dholavirians had forgotten the classical Harappan fabrics, shapes and designs. This stage is often misconstrued as the stage when SSC came under “invasion”, but there’s nothing at the site which proves there was an invasion. Those who came Dholavira towards the last stage and settled there could have very well been gypsies, who lived in circular houses which were not as stable as the rectangular ones.

Ostensibly, this was the end of the great city which existed 5000 years ago. But what is surprising is the fact that thousands of years down the lane, not much has changed in the sub-continent vis-e-vis worship of God. For example Michel Danino in his book “The lost river” has published picture of a statue of a deity found at Harappan site which is very similar to the present day Shiva’s statue at a south Indian temple. Add to it the fact that Shiva Linga and its shape has also not changed in last 1000’s of years. This is proof that Sindhu Saraswati civilisation has not perished, and that it survives through the present day followers of Sanatana Dharma in the sub-continent. 

Comparison between statue of deity found at Harappa with that of present day statue of Shiva at a south Indian temple
Shiva Linga found from Harappa and Kalibangan which are very similar to the Shiva Lingas worshiped today.

An article by Levina

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  1. Great to read about this forgotten city. It should be included in the history curriculum. Agree name shoul be changed.

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