World’s oldest dock for ships found in India

This structure has been identified as a tidal dock for sea-faring ships at this site a remarkable feat for its time.

By Benoy K. Behl

The world’s oldest tidal dock has been found in India during excavations at Lothal in Gujarat. Lothal is one of the important sites of the Indus Valley Civilization in present-day Gujarat, on the western coast of India. Here, a large structure has been identified as a tidal dock for sea-faring ships (a remarkable feat for its time).

There is a great deal of evidence that the Indus Valley cities had extensive trade with other civilisations of that period. Mesopotamian records mention their trade with cities here and objects from the Indus region have been found in West Asian cities as well. 

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In the fourth millennium BCE, one of the earliest civilisations of the world was developing in the river valleys of the Indian subcontinent. In these fertile valleys, with the growth of agriculture, civilisations prospered. Instead of fighting for survival, people could now begin to improve their lives.

Largest ancient civilisation

The first sites of this culture were discovered in the basin of the River Indus and consequently the name Indus Valley Civilisation has remained. However, scores of other sites have been found in recent decades spread over a vast area, including coastal Gujarat, Maharashtra and eastwards till Uttar Pradesh. Estimations of the area covered by this civilisation vary from 1.2 million square kilometres to 2.5 million square kilometres. In any case, it was the largest area of any civilisation in the world at that time.

The cities which have been excavated reveal a well-planned grid with broad main roads and smaller lanes, intersecting at right angles, revealing a well-developed and sophisticated concept of town planning. There were large networks of hundreds of wells that supplied water to the residents.

A complex drainage system existed and even the smallest houses were connected to it. Houses, some with several storeys, were made of fired-clay bricks. The standardisation of dimensions of these bricks, found in many cities across this civilisation, is remarkable.

Image source: Dholavira, Gujarat – Benoy K. Behl.

Unlike other civilisations in the world of that period and later, excavations across this culture have not revealed evidence that points to military forces or weaponry for warfare. While the art of other early civilisations such as the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian has many images of prisoners, monuments to war victories and other activities related to warfare, the art of the Indus Valley has not yielded a single such depiction.

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Whereas the sites of other civilisations have yielded many thousands of weapons of war, the Indus Valley sites have only provided single or very small numbers of blades, which would be expected to be hunting or kitchen implements. (It is true that in 2018, the Archaeological Survey of India found a few copper swords at a burial site at Sinauli in Uttar Pradesh. However, this site is of the 2nd Millennium BCE, late / post-Indus Valley period.)

While the above facts are not necessarily conclusive proof that the Indus Valley civilisation was a unique example of a culture that was managed without military and police forces, it certainly points towards such a possibility. We may also note that these people were not isolated from the rest of the world, but were in fact trading with other lands.

Very prosperous people

Even as a possibility, what a remarkable example of peaceful living and harmony emerges from the study of this ancient civilisation. Here were very prosperous people who were technologically advanced for their time and they appear to have lived in great harmony, without finding the necessity to have barracks for police or armies!

 The writing of this period has not been deciphered as yet, so many of our questions about this culture remain unanswered. It is the art of the Indus Valley Civilisation which provides vital clues to understanding it. As with any culture, this art provides a glimpse of the political, social and philosophical ethos that underlies it.

Image source: Dancing Girl metal, Mohenjodaro – Benoy K. Behl.

The artefacts excavated from the Indus Valley culture are unique in their small scale. No monumental sculpture has been found at the sites. All the art objects, whether in terracotta, stone or metal can be described as being on an intimate scale. This is surely related to the fact that no palaces or other monumental architecture have been excavated either. All archaeological evidence indicates a cooperative system and not a conventional kingship. Monumental structures and art which display royal authority only follow much later in the Indian subcontinent.

What a marvellous civilisation we are talking about! There is highly developed town-planning and technology, sea-fairing ships, a dock as evidence of trade with faraway lands, yet no evidence at all of any army or police. What is more, we find no evidence of royal grandeur or kingly rule. All archaeological evidence points to a cooperative society. There is no evidence of grand and monumental art. All art that we find is on a small and personalised scale. Here we see the roots of a great tradition of art that evolved and continued till the middle of the First Millennium CE.

Contributing Author: Benoy K. Behl is a filmmaker, art historian, and photographer who is known for his prolific output of work over the past 44 years. He has taken over 53,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage and made 145 documentaries which are regularly screened at major cultural institutions worldwide. His photographic exhibitions have been warmly received in 74 countries around the world. He holds the Limca Book Record for being the most travelled Indian photographer and art historian.  

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