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[NOTE from Barb: I’m travelling in India with old friends, Janine and Jaya. Wednesday was a day of amazing discoveries that had waited hundreds and even thousands of years for us. This post tells about the first half of one of the most incredible days of my life.]


We witness a 5000 year old discovery! But first…we have to get out of bed.

“Five and a half hours,” promised the SatNav.

“Six and a half,” agreed the other guests, staff, and random locals at our last hotel. “At least.”

Allowing for chai breaks (we’re on two-hour tea-feedings), emergency photo-op stops, unexpected roadwork “diversions”, and navigation-by-passersby, we bumped that up to eight hours, minimum.

“We’ll leave by six tomorrow morning,” we decided. Negotiation with shocked hotel staff produced a reluctant agreement to provide cornflakes and milk at that ungodly hour.

“Chai?” Jaya was stern. Much, much unhappy discussion followed. Janine and I could have saved her opponents a lot of time because we both knew she would win in the end. Sure enough, chai was finally added to our obscenely-scheduled predawn fare.

It wasn’t our fault we missed our departure time.

[This and all photos unless otherwise noted are ©2018 Jayalakshmy Ayyer & Janine Smith]

Next morning, we stumbled on schedule through the darkness over to the open-air dining pavilion.  But the bare bones offerings grudgingly promised the night before had been transformed into platters of fresh-sliced melon, papaya, and bananas. Smiling helpers staffed the toaster, coffee, and tea stations, waving us to the selection of melted butter, honey, jam, and marmalade. There was a pot of fresh curd, and the ever-present—if slightly mysterious—giant bottle of ketchup.

Okay, so we didn’t make it out by six. Still, by seven o’clock we were stuffed, caffeinated, packed, and on the road to Dholavira, the site of the archaeological excavations of a major city of the five-thousand year old Harappan civilization. For once, the roads were better than forecast, the biggest traffic delays from the herds of goats, cows, water buffalo, sheep, and occasional shepherd in his white turban and elaborately pleated shirt, with his long pole across his shoulders.

Our road became a slightly-elevated bridge across the shimmering-white salt flats of the Rann Desert, broken by sudden shocks of green in the ever-expanding swaths of agriculture reclaimed from the desert through the Gujarat government’s aggressive irrigation program.


In the car, Jaya explained what we’d be seeing. Five thousand years ago, she told us, the prosperous Harappan (Indus Valley Civilization) city at what is now Dholavira was a seaport, part of trade routes stretching halfway around the globe. After twelve hundred years, the site was abandoned, possibly because the port was silted over and no longer accessible. As recently as 600 years ago, the Rann desert was still underwater, the entire Katch area an island surrounded by the sea.

In the 1960s, surveyors from India’s Archeological Survey investigated mounds on the little island of Dholavira rising out of the salt flats of the Rann, and uncovered one of the largest Harappan sites in India.

Since then, they’ve excavated the foundations of an entire city, from the citadel which must have once dominated the top peak, to a stunningly engineered series of reservoirs and water harvesting that let fifteen-thousand people live comfortably year-round. During our visit, we were the lucky witnesses to the latest discovery.

We were greeted by Jamail, who told us he’d worked on the excavations for the past twenty-nine years. He showed us around the museum before heading out to the site itself. Through his descriptions, we saw a mighty hilltop citadel behind fifty-foot thick stone walls, but with surprisingly modern touches within—bathrooms with shower systems, drainage and septic facilities, huge outdoor stadia for outdoor performances, and workshops producing pottery, stone carvings, jewelry, and fine knives.

Series of reservoirs designed to capture, filter, and store water for a city of fifteen thousand.

From the citadel, Jamail took us to the middle city, home of a wealthy business and merchant class, followed by an expanse where the lower city housed working classes. Jamail joked that as a guide, he was far more likely to be constantly scanning the ground instead of meeting the eyes of his guests, even when they are top government or celebrity visitors.

At one point he was showing us an old workshop, where a rock with scored grooves had once provided a cutting surface for shells or rocks such carnellian which were cut and polished into beads. He bent over as he spoke, and seemed to be tickling a small rock. After a moment, he worked the rock out of the surrounding dirt and brushed it off to reveal a beautiful carving, perhaps of a peacock. Our serious, professional guide was clearly thrilled.


“I’m holding a toy made five thousand years ago.” Even after 29 years spent excavating the site, Jamail was obviously delighted.

We each had a chance to hold this bridge to people who had lived, worked, and crafted millennia ago. We’d walked on the same streets they had used five thousand years ago.

We’d outstayed the official opening hours for the site, but left with an incredible memory.

What we didn’t know was that more than chai still waited for us. Please come back for my next post about the two breathtaking, once-in-150-years events still to come that day.