By Hemang Desai*
The Indus Valley civilization existed five thousand years ago. This great urban civilization, contemporaneous with those of Egypt and Mesopotamia, covered an expanse that stretched from Baluchistan in the west to the Upper Ganga-Yamuna Doab in the east. Harappa, Mohenjo Daro, Channu Daro, Rakhigarhi, Lothal and Dholavira are among the famous towns of the Indus Valley civilization dug out by archaeologists. Dholavira, located near Khadir Bet, in the Great Rann of Kutch and Lothal in Gujarat are two incredible examples of Indus Valley civilization settlements.
The area of the Indus Valley civilization was larger than that of today’s Western Europe. Dholavira perched at one end of this civilization on a small island, was possibly surrounded then by the sea. With its unique geographical location, in the middle of the Rann today, Dholavira may have been a port once when the sea extended inland. Lothal in Gujarat too is one of the most prominent settlements of the ancient Indus Valley civilization. It is located in the Bhāl region of the modern state of Gujarat and dates from 2400 BCE. Discovered in 1954, Lothal was excavated from February 13, 1955 to May 19, 1960 by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Archaeologists believe that the 5000 year old Dholavira must have been a lovely city of artificial lakes during its heyday. In fact, the residents of Dholavira who had settled the town between two water streams, known today as Mansar and Manhar, collected their waters during the monsoon and used that water during the rest of the year. They used clever water storing and collecting techniques, prompting the New Delhi based Centre for Science and Technology to believe that ancient Dholavira has a lot to teach the modern water starved world about water collection, usage and storage of this vital resource.
Like other towns of the Indus Valley civilization, Dholavira too is a parallelogram. The wall of the citadel is 18 meters thick. Buildings in Dholavira were made of sun-dried mud bricks and stone and some of them are in good condition even today. The refinement of buildings that the Dholavirans possessed and materials used reveals a deep knowledge of civil engineering. Ornaments made in lapis lazuli, agate, carnelian, shells, silver and gold as well as utensils and toys made from clay also reveal a refined artistic and technological sense.
The water wells and street remains of the town speak of the technological sophistication of the Indus Valley people. Dholavira is the first site of the Indus Valley to have yielded a signboard with large Indus letters. Unfortunately, the script of the Indus Valley civilization remains to be deciphered.
All around Dholavira is another wonder of the land of Kutch: The White Rann. For thousands of years, each night the great constellations of the Great Bear and the Orion guide the traveler here; during the day time it is full of mirages and pools of shadow, scooped half-moons of water. During the full-moon nights the white Rann becomes truly the wonder of the world. Th film “Refugee” is inspired by the famous story by Keki N Daruwalla based around the Great Rann of Kutch titled “Love across the Salt Desert”.
The Bombay Gazetteer noted way back in 1880 AD:
“It is believed to be the bed of an arm of the sea, raised by some natural convulsion above its original level, and cut off from the ocean. It was navigable lake during Alexander’s time (325B.C.) and a shallow lagoon at the date of the Periplus (third century AD) and there are local traditions of sea ports on its borders. Geologically, it is of recent formation. The northern or larger Rann-measuring from east to west about 160 miles, and from north to south about 80-has an estimated area of not less than 7000 square miles.
“The eastern or smaller Rann (about 70 miles from east to west), which is connected with the larger Rann by a narrow channel, covers an area estimated at nearly 2000 square miles. Between March and October, when the whole tract is frequently inundated, the passage across is a work of great labour, and often of considerable danger. Some of this inundation is salt water , either driven by strong south winds up the Lakhpat river from the sea, or brought down by brackish streams; the rest is fresh , the drainage of the local rainfall.
“The flood waters, as they dry, leave a hard, flat surface, covered with stone, shingle and salt. As the summer wears on, and the heat increases, the ground, baked and blistered by the sun, shines over large tracts of salt with dazzling whiteness, the distance dimmed and distorted by an increasing mirage.
“On some raised plots of rocky land water is found, and only near water is there any vegetation. Except a stray bird, a herd of wild asses, antelope, or an occasional caravan, no sign of life breaks the desolate loneliness. Unseasonable rain, or a violent south-west wind at any period, renders the greatest part of the Rann impassable.”
Indeed, the very idea of the Rann is made of the stuff of legends and myth, not to mention many loves across the desert that never fail to attract the humans. AB Wynne of the Geological Survey of India had crossed it in 1872 AD. He writes in his memoir:
“The Rann’s flat unbroken surface of dark silt, baked by the sun and blistered by saline encrustations, is varied only by the mirage, and great tracts of dazzlingly white salt or extensive but shallow flashes of concentrated brine; its intense silent desolation is oppressive, and save by chance a slowly passing caravan of camels or some herd of wild asses even less likely to be seen there is nothing beyond a few bleached skeletons of cattle, salt dried fish, or remains of insects brought down by floods, to maintain a distant and dismal connection between it and life which it is utterly unfitted to support.”
Indeed, the White Rann of Kachchh is the most silent place in the world.
Right at the edge of the great White Rann is the area known as Banni famous for its kaleidoscopic colours around the world. It is known in the local language as ‘khir ji nadi’- meaning the river of milk- encompasses 52 villages and the people of this region are some of the best pastoralists in the world. The dwellings of these pastoralists are called Bhungas which are built in a refined vernacular style of architecture. Bhungas are ornaments of the landscape of Banni. This pleasant, circular house-form expresses the genius of the people living in Banni expressing in its design the element of timelessness that seems to be missing in architecture everywhere else in the world. This architecture of dwellings allows the people of Banni to survive in hostile climate.
Constructed with adobe technique, Bhungas are made of local grass-reeds structure that is plastered with clay, mud and cow dung. The roof of Bhunga is thatched by Cyprus- a green species of grass growing in abundance in Banni. A Bhunga interior space is an incredible mixture of functionalism, joy of living and beauty created by utensils, textiles and mirror-work, a stunning lyricism celebrating the quotidian. The materials used in a Bhunga provide insulation from extreme climate and frequent seismic activity in the area.
A variety of views prevail regarding the origins of the Banni Maldharis. Most of them have migratory history. The Jaths are pastoral nomads who originated outside the subcontinent. The Mutvas claim that they are from ‘Arbistan’. Lohanas claim to have come from Sindh. A collage of communities lives in Banni, lending the area an incredible diversity- Jat, Raysipotra, Saids, Mutava, Node, Hingoria, Bambha, Kurar, Sumra, Jumeja, Bhatti, Halepotra, Khatri, Lohana and Meghwal are some of the Banni communities.
Living in hostile environment, these people have managed to live with nature even when she has been particularly harsh to them. They have not only made peace with nature but have gone beyond and made their lives an act of joy. Every aspect of their culture; be it their houses or their festivals, or their clothes or their ceremonies speak about the sparkle of joy that fills the fabric of their lives.
It is as if the general desolation of the Rann has turned their gaze more meditative, spiritualizing everything that they do. This is why perhaps; their houses and their embroidery are not simple constructions but vibrant resolutions in the form of kharek, paako, haramji embroidery and the inimitable Bhungas. The way they lead their lives for thousands of years itself is art. Their life itself is their great and glorious masterpiece.
*Independent researcher, scholar and writer. Photo credit: Vatsal Vekaria