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Can Dholavira withstand a flood of tourists?

The addition of this Harappan city in Gujarat to Unesco’s World Heritage Sites list is cause for jubilation—but it also underscores the need to protect and maintain the historical site better

The Dholavira archaeological site in Kutch district.
The Dholavira archaeological site in Kutch district. (PTI)

On 27 July , when Unesco added Dholavira, a Harappan City to its list of World Heritage Sites, along with Telangana’s 13th century Kakatiya Rudreshwara (Ramappa) Temple, India was jubilant.

As Jaimal Makwana, a resident of the modern village of Dholavira, in Gujarat, said: “We are very excited. This is very good!” The attractions of this Harappan metropolis are not grand palaces, tombs or temples. Instead, we get a glimpse into the quotidian lives of ordinary people who lived here thousands of years ago. Time has eaten away the mud walls of their houses but the plinths are still intact. So, wandering through the residential area called Middle Town takes you right into people’s homes, into their courtyards and hearths, and into their bathing areas and washrooms, which are clearly identifiable by the drains that collected the wastewater safely in a large pot that would have been emptied at regular intervals. Unlike most modern Indian cities, wastewater would certainly not have run down Dholavira’s streets, nor would sewage have mixed with stormwater.

It’s this kind of detailed urban planning with careful attention to water management that put Dholavira on the Unesco list. To be declared a World Heritage Site, a monument, landmark or area needs to have cultural, natural, scientific or historical significance; India has 40 such sites, encompassing both cultural monuments and natural habitats. Dholavira lies on the island of Khadir Bet in the Great Rann of Kutch, a vast, low-lying marsh that turns into a white desert of sparkling salt for about half the year. The site was discovered in 1968; excavations began in 1989-90, led by R.S. Bisht of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and continued till 2008. It’s the sixth largest Harappan city known so far in the subcontinent and one of two in India.

Dholavira is a prime example of a Harappan city, showing all the phases of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Beginning from a small settlement around 3000 BCE, the city evolved through several stages to its zenith, declined to a post-Harappan phase, and was finally abandoned around 1500BC. In its heyday, it was a flourishing manufacturing centre for several typical Harappan items like beads, bangles, copper objects and pottery. Through trade networks, these items were sent to other Harappan cities and even Mesopotamia. While Dholavira’s meticulous city planning is characteristic of other Harappan cities like Mohenjo-daro (declared a World Heritage Site in 1980), now in Pakistan, elements of its urban infrastructure make it quite distinct.

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Unlike the alluvial Harappan cities, Dholavira had only two ephemeral streams that would swell when it rained but ebb and dry up quickly, sometimes within hours. To see its inhabitants through the rain-free months, Dholavira paid almost obsessive attention to water management. The rivulets were dammed at several places and the water diverted into large reservoirs. Running through the centre of the Citadel—an elevated area in the centre of town—was an underground stormwater drain large enough for you to walk in, with manholes at intervals. This drain collected surface run-off from the Citadel and channelled it to one of the reservoirs. In fact, almost 10% of the city’s area was set aside for reservoirs, some of which could store more than 10 million litres of water.

Also, unique to Dholavira is its building material. Where other Harappan cities used mud brick, the principal building materials here were sandstone and limestone, both from local quarries. In fact, researchers have found that limestone from Dholavira was transported hundreds of kilometres to Mohenjo-daro and Harappa to make pillars there.

A beautifully-finished pillar base of limestone, approximately 4,500 years old. Similar pillar parts were sent from Dholavira to Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.
A beautifully-finished pillar base of limestone, approximately 4,500 years old. Similar pillar parts were sent from Dholavira to Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. (Photo by Aravind C.)

I was struck also by another strikingly modern feature, ironically absent from most modern Indian cities: open spaces. Between the Citadel and the Middle Town is a large, rectangular open ground that was possibly India’s first stadium. Archaeologists believe this open space may have also served as a ceremonial ground, bazaar, sports arena, or more.

Around 1900 BCE, this sophisticated civilisation began to decline. In Dholavira, reservoirs were no longer maintained, trade dwindled, the city shrank. By 1500 BCE, it was abandoned and erased from memory. Scholars believe this transformation was linked to climate change—social and economic changes brought on by a period of climate aridity that began around 4,000 years ago.

This dramatic tale of the rise and fall of the Harappan civilisation is known to us thanks to the labours of countless archaeologists. Disha Ahluwalia, a PhD scholar in archaeology at MS University, Vadodara, says hundreds of archaeologists, including her professors, underwent training at Dholavira. “An entire generation trained there. It really shaped archaeology and the way it is practised today,” she says.

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Although the World Heritage Site tag does not lead to additional protection, the international visibility it brings can be a good thing. Already, in response to feedback from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (icomos) on India’s nomination dossier, ASI has increased Dholavira’s buffer zone to include the portion of the island west of the archaeological site. The government is in the process of listing the ancient quarry sites in the buffer zone as being of national importance.

Dholavira’s location on an island in the Rann means the site is fairly remote. But there has been a concerted push to improve accessibility for tourists. Around 20,000 people visit the site annually, but numbers are climbing. A new road from Bhuj, which will halve the travel time by cutting through the Rann, is nearly ready. Last year, the Union government declared Dholavira an Iconic Site, with the aim of promoting tourism. Now, with the World Heritage tag, tourist footfall will increase substantially post-pandemic.

“It’s a good thing,” says Makwana, who is passionate about the site and has worked with all the excavation teams since 1990; he now works as a guide. “Many people in our village are still illiterate. Tourism will give them an opportunity to interact with people from elsewhere, which will lead to greater exposure, greater awareness,” he says, citing his own example, “That’s how I learnt things!”

But how well prepared is Dholavira for a surge in tourism? A major concern is the integrity of the site itself. “There is not enough security to man such a large site,” says R.N. Kumaran, assistant archaeologist, ASI. Kumaran trained in Dholavira as a student and worked as site supervisor during some excavations. He shares shocking instances of deliberate vandalism, including one of people toppling a 4,500-year-old pillar. Ahluwalia adds: “Archaeological sites are very sensitive, more so than monuments. Conservation here is a very important issue. If people start walking on the structures, they will deteriorate.”

Alarming as all this sounds, simple measures can be implemented quickly to protect the site from the ravages of rampant tourism. Pathways will be needed to ensure tourists do not clamber on to ancient structures. Good interpretation centres, planned walks and good guides will help regulate the flow of tourists while imparting accurate information to them. Regulation of numbers is crucial. Kumaran suggests that visitors should be allowed on site only when accompanied by trained guides. This would help manage the flow of tourists on site and ensure security. “People in Dholavira can be trained to act as guides. It will be a source of livelihood for them, and just as important, they will be the actual guardians of the site,” he says.

Things are more iffy in the larger landscape. As a site protected by the ASI, construction within a radius of 300m from the Harappan site is strictly controlled. But beyond that, there are few regulations. Will the visual integrity of the site be maintained? The circumstances that make Dholavira unique among Harappan sites also make it particularly vulnerable. Most supplies to Khadir Bet, including vegetables, come from the mainland. The nearly half a dozen resorts within a 5km radius of the site bring in bottled water. The bottles are just dumped behind walls.

Perhaps we should take inspiration from the Harappans: Ancient Dholavira was, after all, known for its planning and resource management. Or, as Makwana puts it, “If we are inviting people from around the world to Dholavira, we first need to plan how to protect its uniqueness, how best to showcase it. Tourism planning se ho jaye,” he stresses. “The tourism should be planned.”

Meera Iyer is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer and researcher.

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