Gujarat built world’s first naval dockyard

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A Letter From Grandpa

By Niranjan Shah

My dear Nikita and Sanjna:

About 50 miles from Amdavad, in Gujarat, India, lay a landmark of Indian maritime history. Archaeologists believe the first dockyard in the world was built in Lothal. A port city, Lothal was the focal point of Saraswati-Indus civilization in Gujarat.  Built here was the earliest known dock in the world, equipped to berth and service ships. Lothal engineers studied tidal movements and their effects on brick-built structures and constructed kiln-burnt brick walls. Archaeo-logist S.R. Rao, who excavated Lothal site, writes, “Lothal dockyard had features which in terms of height, width,  and length compared favorably with the modern dockyards of Mumbai and Visakhapatnam.”

Boats of 60-75 tons capacity and 20-25 meters in length could enter Lothal dock, which was designed in such a manner as to ensure berthing 20-30 boats of a fairly large size. Large foreign and Indian ships could enter the harbor without any difficulty. The Harappan merchants and navigators were familiar with Indian Ocean routes and overseas markets. In those days, Gujaratis (Indians) traded with countries like Iraq (Mesopotamia), Qatar, Persia and Egypt.

The brick-laid docks, wharfs, jetties and warehouses provided infrastructure facilities to the inland and maritime trade, while bullock-carts provided transportation. Added to this the Harappans’ knowledge of weight and measures, which enabled customs officials to count and collect revenues from imports and exports, and we get glimpses of an administrative set-up of considerable sophistication.

Lothal is one of the most prominent cities of the ancient Saraswati-Indus civilization. Located in the modern state of Gujarat and dating from 2400 BCE or earlier, it is one of India’s most important archeological sites that dates from that era. Discovered in 1954, Lothal was excavated from February 13, 1955 to May 19, 1960 by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Lothal’s dock-the world’s earliest known-connected the city to an ancient course of the Sabarmati (Subhramati) river on the trade route between Harappan cities in Sindh and the peninsula of Saurashtra when the surrounding Kutchh desert of today was a part of the Arabian Sea. It was a vital and thriving trade centre in ancient times, with its trade of beads, gems and valuable ornaments reaching the far corners of West Asia and Africa. Lothal provides with the largest collection of antiquities in the archaeology of modern India. The people of Lothal made significant and often unique contributions to human civilization in the Indus era, in the fields of city planning, art, architecture, science, engineering and religion. Their work in metallurgy, seals, beads and jewellery was the basis of their prosperity.

Harappans were attracted to Lothal for its sheltered harbor, rich cotton and rice-growing environment and bead-making industry. The beads and gems of Lothal were in great demand in the West. The settlers lived peacefully with the Red Ware people, who adopted their lifestyle-evidenced from the flourishing trade and changing working techniques-Harappans began producing the indigenous ceramic goods, adopting the manner from  the natives. Before the arrival of Harappan people (2400 BCE), Lothal was a small  village next to the river  providing access to the mainland from the Gulf of Khambhat. The indigenous people maintained a prosperous economy, attested by the discovery of copper objects, beads and semi-precious stones. Ceramic wares were of fine clay and smooth, micaceous red surface. A new technique of firing pottery under partly-oxidising and reducing conditions was improved by them-designated black-and-red ware, to the micaceous Red Ware. Lothal’s people were responsible for the earliest-known portrayals of realism in art and sculpture, telling some of the most well-known fables of today. Its scientists used a shell compass and divided the horizon and sky into 8-12 whole parts, possibly pioneering the study of stars and advanced navigation, 2000 years before the Greeks. The techniques and tools they pioneered for bead-making and in metallurgy have stood the test of time for over 4000 years.

— Grandpa’s blessing

Niranjan Shah, a civil engineer, who pioneered famous high-rise buildings in Baroda, is a broadcaster in India and the USA and a prolific writer. Under “A Letter from Grandpa.” he has been writing since 2002 on India’s historical, philosophical, and literary heritage. He can be reached at nshah32@hotmail.com

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