Dholavira, known locally as Kotada (which means large fort), sprawls over 100 hectares of semi-arid land at the north-west corner of the island of Khadir, one of the islands in the Great Rann of Kutch that remain above the flood-plains in months when the rest of the desert is submerged by the monsoon. Dholavira has two seasonal nallahs, or streams: Mansar in the north, and Manhar in the south. The journey to Dholavira itself is beautiful, taking you through the saline desert plains of the Great Rann, where you can spot wildlife such as chinkara gazelle, nilgai (blue bull, the largest antelope in Asia), flamingos and other bird life.

The site was unearthed by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1967, but has been systematically excavated only since 1990. Artifacts include terracotta pottery, beads, gold and copper ornaments, seals, fish hooks, animal figurines, tools, urns, and some imported vessels that indicate trade links with lands as far away as Mesopotamia. Also found were 10 large stone inscriptions, carved in Indus Valley script, perhaps the world’s earliest signboard. These are among the most important discoveries about the Indus Valley Civilization, but remain tantalizingly undeciphered.

The remains show an imposing citadel in the center, with a middle and lower town, each fortified separately, built with pleasingly smoothed structures of sun-dried brick and stone masonry, and with remarkable town planning. Well laid out lanes lead outward systematically from the citadel, with a well-constructed underground drainage system for sanitation. There is a large stadium with a complex structure and seating arrangement.

Finally, Dholavira has one of the world’s earliest water conservation systems ever excavated. Satellite pictures show a reservoir underground, an expertly constructed rainwater harvesting system extending from the walls of the city, without which the settlement would not have thrived in the sparse rainfall of the desert.

Dholavira is one of the two largest Harappan sites in India, and 5th largest in the subcontinent. Like Lothal, it passed through all the stages of the Harappan culture from circa 2900 BC to 1500 BC, while most others saw only the early or late stages.

The excavation found a decline of the civilization in the 5th of 7th stages, after which were signs of a temporary desertion of the site. Settlers returned later in the late Harappan stage, with a change in their pottery, influenced by cultures found at sites in Sindh, South Rajasthan and other parts of Gujurat, but they did not bring the return of the civilization. Their houses, for example, were built in an entirely new form that was circular (bhungas), and the material signs were strikingly deurbanized and simplified. Perhaps the last stage of the powerful civilization had become aware of its future, and was preparing itself for a gradual end.