Fantastic workers of the terrain

About 4,000 years ago, people in Lothal showed us how best to integrate land and water management practices

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Fantastic workers of the terrain

-- (Credit: Ram Haikai Tane)About 80 kilometres from Ahmedabad, Gujarat stands the ancient Harappan town, Lothal. The town has no great wealth, its landscape is miserably sun burnt and its soil dry and parched. It is little wonder that Lothal means the mound of the dead in Gujarati. But 4,000 years ago, the city was a thriving port -- among the principal centres of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Lothal was excavated between 1955 and 1962, revealing many marvels of ancient technology and traditional wisdom. These include developed systems of weights and measures, intriguing remains of seafaring vessels and sophisticated environmental design and town planning concepts. While all this is quite well known, there is also tangible evidence that Lothal's residents had a fascinating terraquaculture system -- integrated land and water use practices. Such systems are in fact common to most traditional societies, but the one in Lothal seems to be particularly advanced for its time.

Terraquaculture in Lothal was based on lunar farming cycles and made effective use of seasonal flooding. The system involved a dextrous integration of the city's settlement infrastructure with its ecosystem. Waterways were created for transport within Lothal; there were canals for irrigation and aquifer fed drop wells for domestic water supplies. And this is not all: Lothal's residents developed intricate drainage systems and sophisticated brick cisterns for cleaning and purifying water. These were equipped with aeration chambers and lime and charcoal filters. Mining, manufacturing and other industries were located near waterways and linked through networks of river ports, canals, shipyards and warehouses.

The farming practices in Lothal's floodplains were imitated elsewhere in the city as well: creatures such as fish, crustaceans, turtles and snakes were common in the pond-paddy systems worked by water buffaloes. Linking diverse activities required great environmental, technical and cultural skills and intelligence. The Harappans did this without a written language. Like their Asia-Pacific neighbours, the Indus valley people transmitted traditional wisdom using graphic, iconic and symbolic information systems.
Doing without a script The Harappan seals typify such information systems. For example, let us consider the yogi seal of Mohenjo daro (archaeologists describe it as seal 33). Most archaeologists and historians interpret it as a nude male deity with three faces. From a traditional villager's perspective however, the figure is simply a pregnant hermaphroditic ensconced on a rustic three leg stool or platform with bovine legs. On the figure's right side is a female breast above a pregnant belly. The creature carries a branch of the tamarind tree in its right arm. The hermaphrodite's male side has muscular pectorals and it's left arm carries another tree branch with pinnate. Another tree, the Bodhi (ficus religiosa) appears right above the figure. All trees represented in the seal have medicinal values -- interestingly, in the Indus and Asia-Pacific regions, traditional medicinal plants often have gender attributes.

It is quite likely that Harappan seal 33 is an accurate representation of medicinal tree crops, bovine livestock, fishponds and fertile family life rather than a complicated religious token reflecting some esoteric matriarchal cult or early religion -- as has been claimed by several scholars. Viewed from a peasant's practical viewpoint, the Harappan yogi seal is an iconic picture of fertile humanity thriving upon terraquacultures integrating trees, fishponds and buffaloes (and other bovine beasts). In fact, the traditional paddy-pond-dyke systems represented here are found in many places throughout the Asia-Pacific. Similar systems are even found today in many villages near Lothal.

Sometimes the eclectic wisdom of traditional peoples is far too iconic and enigmatic for specialised modern sciences. Moreover, because pictorial imagery varies from place to place (and in such dynamic ways as well) it is not scientifically measurable or replicable except by art, myth or legend. So, it is little wonder that traditional cultural icons are misunderstood as ancient writing forms, interpreted as obscure deities or worse still, simply ignored.

What do we learn?
Today Lothal is no longer the thriving centre of trade and commerce, nor a centre of innovation and excellence. But why did the port city succumb so thoroughly -- and yet remain quite intact, buried under metres of flood deposits? Historians and archaeologists say that the expansion of human settlement in the Lothal watershed gradually denuded the landscapes, stressing the city's water systems beyond the limits of their resilience. The consequences were long term and entirely predictable: catastrophic floods and the eventual collapse of riparian ecosystems. Regular droughts and floods, eroded gullies and sunburnt soils are in fact, quite common physical symptoms of long term environmental abuse and dysfunctional watersheds.

The lesson from Lothal is timeless. It matters not how sophisticated our science, how clever our technology; nor how beneficial our trade and commerce -- even with their manifold benefits we can still fail dismally and be obliterated. The port city reminds us that the secret for sustaining communities is developing a culture that operates within the limits of environmental systems.

However, Lothal's few remaining shade trees, patches of browse-resistant shrubs and abundant weeds indicate considerable potential for environmental restoration. In fact, the Anand-based non-governmental organisation (ngo), National Organisation for Sustainable development, has recently, begun work on a 20-hectare site near the erstwhile Indus port city in order to create a rural training, research and development centre. The ngo intends drawing lessons from the Indus civilisation.

Ram Haikai Tane is director, Centre for Catchment Ecology, Twizel, Aotearoa, New Zealand

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