Muziris, at last?

Published : Apr 23, 2010 00:00 IST

in Kodungalloor and Pattanam

Here lies the thriving town of Muchiri, where the beautiful large ships of the Yavana come, bringing gold, splashing the white foam on the waters of the Periyar and then return, laden with pepper.

Akananuru (149.7-11), an anthology of early Tamil poems in the Sangam collection Ettuttokai.

An incredible blend of myths, legends, local lore and history startles you at every turn down the narrow, winding roads in Kodungalloor, a region near the delta of the Periyar, the longest river in Kerala, about an hours drive from the port city of Kochi.

This quarter in central Kerala figures prominently in the ancient history of southern India as a vibrant urban hub of the Chera empire (with a confusing chronology of kings extending from B.C. 300 to A.D. 1200) and is believed to have served as the gateway to India for three major religions Judaism, Christianity and later Islam.

Arguably, it was a place to which Jews sailed, as some say, during the time of King Solomon, or, as others claim, in the first century A.D. after the destruction of the Second Temple. Christians believe it was here, at a place called Azhikode at the mouth of the Periyar, that St Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ, landed in A.D. 52, bringing Christianity to the subcontinent.

Local Muslim tradition asserts that it was from Kodungalloor, at some point between the ninth and the 12th century A.D., that Chera ruler Cheraman Perumal distributed his suzerainty among local chieftains, set sail to Mecca, met the Prophet Muhammad and converted to Islam.

Later, from his deathbed (while on his return journey) on the Arabian coast, Cheraman Perumal is believed to have sent instructions to his countrymen through a missionary group headed by Malik Ibn Dinar, who travelled throughout the area explaining the faith and established nine mosques, including the first one at Kodungalloor, marking the introduction of Islam on the Malabar coast.

The Kodungalloor region, named after one of the towns with an ancient temple, was thus a religious and cultural melting pot throughout, no doubt also of Dravidian, Jain, Buddhist, Brahminical and Hindu revivalist influences which arrived through the Palakkad Gap in the Western Ghats a key land route linking the Indian Ocean trade from the Malabar coast with the rest of India.

Thus, as a culturally and commercially thriving centre of sea and land trade, it was a region coveted by rulers at all times, a place of disarming natural beauty but a bone of contention, especially in later centuries, for the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Sultans of Mysore, the Zamorin of Kozhikode and the Rajas of Cochin and Travancore.

They fought intermittently for control of its strategic location, with its forts overlooking the expanse of the Periyar and with a criss-crossing network of lakes, island deltas and waterways opening out through a grand western estuary to the Arabian Sea and thence to the trade routes of the Indian Ocean.

Naturally, Kodungalloor was long presumed to be the location of Muziris, the Indo-Roman port known to have been frequented by the large ships of the ancient ocean traders, including Arabs, Egyptians and Romans, as far back as the first century B.C., or even before it. But Muziris subsequently disappeared from every known map of antiquity, and without a trace, presumably because of a cataclysmic event in 1341, a cyclone and floods in the Periyar that altered the geography of the region.

The historians Rajan Gurukkal (Vice-Chancellor of the Kottayam-based Mahatma Gandhi University) and Dick Whittakker (of Churchill College, Cambridge) say in a study titled In Search of Muziris that the event, which opened up the present harbour at Kochi and the Vembanad backwater system (in southern Kerala) to the sea and formed a new deposit of land now known as the Vypeen Island near Kochi, doubtless changed access to the Periyar river, but geologically it was only the most spectacular of the physical changes and land formation that have been going on [there] from time immemorial.

According to them, for example, a geophysical survey of the region has shown that 200-300 years ago the shoreline lay about three kilometres east of the present coast and that some 2,000 years earlier it lay even further east, about 6.5 km inland. If Muziris had been situated somewhere here in Roman times, the coast at that time would have run some 4-5 km east of its present line. The regular silting up of the river mouth finally forced it to cease activity as a port.

A geo-archaeological study conducted by Shajan K. Paul recently has shown that the Periyar had shifted its course from the Paravur area towards north-west to its present position.

So that was probably how that pre-historic gateway to India was lost track of. But descriptions of Muziris abound in early Tamil Sangam literature (in Akananuru and Purananuru, anthologies of poems considered to have been derived from the proto-historic Iron Age and Early Historic period between the third century B.C. and the third century A.D.) and in classical Graeco-Roman accounts.

The latter include, among others, Periplus Maris Erythraei (Periplus of the Erythraen Sea of the first century, an unknown Greek merchant-mariners handbook on travel and trade in the Indian Ocean); Pliny the Elders Natural History, which describes Muziris as the first emporium of India, not to be sought because of pirates nearby and where the shipping station is a long way from the land, and cargoes are brought in and carried out by light boats; the Vindob papyrus, a celebrated mid-second century papyrus now in the Vienna collection, which is a written contract dating to A.D. 150 that refers to the repayment of the loan in the agreement(s) referring to Muziris; and the Tabula Peutingeriana (or the Peutinger Map), an odd-sized medieval copy of an ancient Roman road map, with information which could date back to 2 A.D., in which both Muziris and Tondis (Tyndis) are well marked, with a large lake indicated behind Muziris, and beside which is an icon marked Templ(um) Augusti, widely taken to mean a Temple of Augustus.

But paradoxically, though Kodungalloor and its surrounding areas have a number of religious monuments that keep alive myths and legends and remnants of forts and palaces that stand testimony to a more recent history, archaeological evidence, which ought to have been there for this supposedly ancient port city or the phenomenal trade between the Malabar coast and the Roman empire, had been elusive. The remains of the rich Muchiri of Sangam poetry where the ships of the Yavanas came with gold and returned with pepper was never found either in Kodungalloor or elsewhere on the entire western coast.

We were so immersed in repeating our myths and legends, of how Parasurama created Kerala by throwing his axe, and so on, that we failed to do any work on this coast. The west coast failed to produce any significant archaeological evidence because there were no serious excavations in this part, the former Chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research, Prof. M.G.S. Narayanan, said. Strangely, however, this lack of archaeological effort on the western coast of India (but for very few exceptions) was often blamed on the steep geography and the monsoons that washed away all evidence down from the mountains to the oceans.

More than a decade ago, three young archaeologists, K.P. Shajan, P.J. Cherian and V. Selvakumar, chanced upon a profusion of pottery sherds in the yards of small houses in a nondescript village, Pattanam, about 8 km from Kodungalloor across the Periyar and 4 km from the mouth of the river on its southern side. They were involved in the surface surveys (at Pattanam) as faculty members of the first archaeology course in Kerala conducted by the Union Christian College Aluva. An experimental excavation that Selvakumar and Shajan undertook later unearthed interesting material evidence for Indo-Roman trade in Kerala and for the first time indicated a location other than Kodungalloor for Muziris.

The excavations at Pattanam since 2007 by the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR), with the approval of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), have entered their fourth season this summer and have been bringing forth evidence of a multi-cultural, urban and maritime society that existed there for 3,000 years, significantly, perhaps, even before it became an Indo-Roman trade port. Surely, Pattanam has now yielded the first and only extensive real evidence of the Indian Ocean trade contacts during the Early Historic (B.C. 300 A.D. 500) and Early Medieval (A.D. 500-1000) periods from the Malabar coast, P.J. Cherian, Director of the KCHR and of the excavations at Pattanam, said.

Major findings from Pattanam have regularly been published in detail by the KCHR. The excavations revealed brick architectural remains, Roman amphora (large storage jars used to transport wine, olive oil, fish products, and so on throughout the Roman empire), terra sigillata (tableware, mostly plates and cups, distinguished by their red surface), Indian roulette ware (which were made in the northern parts of India and which indicated ancient trade links with the rest of the country), West Asian and Arabian pottery (turquoise glazed ware and torpedo storage jars lined with bitumen, from the time of the last pre-Islamic Persian, or Sassanian, empire (A.D. 224 to A.D. 651) to the early Islamic period, and cameo blanks (a kind of locally made jewellery known to have been very popular in ancient Rome and presumably meant for export).

A huge collection of beads made of glass and semi-precious stones, waste material from bead manufacturing, fragments of Roman glass bowls (first century B.C./A.D.), terracotta lamps (tentatively dated from B.C. 100 to A.D. 100), iron objects including knives and nails, and hooks and slags (with those made locally having a higher carbon content than the Roman ones), copper objects, including square or circular Chera coins (obtained for the first time in Kerala, from a stratographic context), gold ornaments (right from the Early Historic Period), sherds of coarse ware with Tamil Brahmi letters and graffiti on them (some found this season have pre-firing marks) and modern-day blue-and-white Chinese ceramics have also been found.

By the end of the second excavation season in 2008 itself, Roberta Tomber of the British Museum in London, a specialist in Indian Ocean commerce through the study of Roman-period ceramics, particularly from the Red Sea ports and India, had declared in a paper presented at an international symposium: By its durable nature pottery provides some of the best evidence for the importation of foreign goods and the pottery from Pattanam is particularly rich both in quality and diversity, including imports from the Roman world, from Saudi Arabia and others that travelled to Pattanam from the Persian Gulf.

About two years later, in early March this year, at the unique archaeological site right in the middle of a residential backyard, adjoining a green temple pond and with modest houses, lines of washing and packets full of pottery pieces all around, Cherian and his teammates told Frontline proudly that the largest number of Mediterranean amphora fragments excavated outside the boundaries of the Roman empire came now from that very vicinity at Pattanam. The Italian sigillata finds there were also the first to be obtained from the western coast of India.

Another season of excavations has just begun at Pattanam. The trenches in the neighbouring compounds that were dug up in earlier years, including the one that had the most important structural feature revealed at Pattanam a huge wharf complex with a canoe, bollards and an adjacent commercial or warehouse area have been relaid with earth. Scientific analysis showed that the canoe belonged to at least the first century B.C., if not earlier, thus making it the earliest watercraft excavated from an archaeological context in India, as reported by a team of researchers in Current Science in July 2009.

A KCHR statement indicates that the cultural deposits in the 2007 trenches represented artefacts from four periods in history, the Iron Age (10th century to the fifth century B.C.); a Transition Layer (fourth century B.C. to the second century B.C.); the Early Historic Period (first century B.C. to the fourth century A.D.); and the Modern Period (16th century A.D. onwards). There is lack of evidence for the Late Medieval Period (11th century A.D. to 15th century A.D.).

According to Cherian, the AMS carbon dating of the charcoal samples suggests that human life and habitation began around 1000 B.C. at Pattanam; there were pre-Roman commercial contacts with West Asian and North Indian regions from the fourth century B.C. to the second century B.C.; there was peak activity and substantial evidence for urban commercial life at the site during the first century B.C. right up to the fourth century A.D., the time of trade with Egyptians and Romans; and then the place remained deserted from the 11th century A.D. to the 15th century A.D. for reasons yet to be discerned.

The team could not dig further (from where they found the canoe-wharf structure) onto nearby areas because of local apprehensions of the government taking over the land. The KCHR is now distributing pamphlets denying any takeover and explaining why the village is today a centre of international importance and clarifying that the team of researchers, including those from several international universities, only needs to have the land on rent for a few weeks and is offering compensation for valuables obtained from there and the trees cut. After a visit to the site, M.G.S. Narayanan told Frontline that initially he had indeed been worried because a project of such importance ought to have been taken up by the ASI, one of the largest archaeological organisations in the world.

But it began as an initiative of a few individuals and now is being organised by the KCHR, which had no prior archaeological expertise. But I found that the excavations are being done professionally and the objects being recovered match very well with classical accounts of the Indian Ocean trade [in the Malabar coast].

We know that South Asians, probably especially from the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, traded with and likely dwelt at both Berenike and Myos Hormos, two Roman-era ports on the Red Sea coast of Egypt, Steven E. Sidebotham, Professor of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Delaware (see interview), told Frontline.

For archaeologists at Pattanam it was important, therefore, to see whether the finds there matched the extensive archaeological research data already available from Berenike and Myos Hormos (through 10 seasons of excavations done by Prof. Sidebotham and his colleagues) on the one hand, and Arikamedu (near Pondicherry) on the eastern coast of India, a contemporary Indo-Roman port, on the other.

Sure enough, Roberta Tomber said in an article: The pottery assemblage from Pattanam can be clearly related to other sites within the Indian Ocean: sites on the Red Sea, the embarkation point for Roman trade, as well as stopping off sites on the journey, in Yemen and Oman, and other sites in India. Of particular interest is the relationship between Pattanam and Arikamedu (near Pondicherry) on the Coromandal Coast. Until the discovery of Pattanam, Arikamedu provided the richest artefactual evidence for Indo-Roman contact, but comparison of the pottery from Pattanam and Arikamedu may suggest that foreign goods first reached Pattanam before travelling, whether by land or sea, to Arikamedu. Thus the pottery from Pattanam is significant not only for constructing a site narrative, but contributes to our broader understanding of Indian Ocean trade.

Already, the enormous number of artefacts recovered, the evidence and comparisons that they offer, and the significance of the location in relation to the paleo-coastline (a mere 1 km to the west of the excavation site) and other waterbodies, have dealt a blow to the fictional character of that ancient port of classical accounts so far kept under wraps by lack of archaeological efforts and a bewildering variety of myths and legends of Kodungalloor.

In the coming days, as archaeologists grapple with the evidence and try to rework theories on the nature of the participation of the ancient local community in the Indian Ocean trade and how it incorporated the Yavana trade with the local systems, the Government of Kerala would, however, be trying to do business on the very myths and legends (among other mundane things) that the researchers are trying to discard.

A grand tourism venture with a predictable title The Muziris Heritage Project is all set to be launched and will include the democratic archaeology site at Pattanam, the forts and waterways of Kodungalloor, its ancient temples and synagogues, church and mosques that commemorate the arrival of major religions, along with international commerce, on the banks of the eternal Periyar.

Commercial tourism ventures have an uncanny knack of destroying the old and derailing history, Narayanan said, cryptically.

But have we at last found that Muziris, the one with the drum of the sea which lay by the great river with its false mouth where the shipping station was a long way from the land, cargoes were brought in and carried out by light boats made of hollowed tree trunks, and huge quantities of pepper changed hands for gold and exotic goods from the West?

Scholars at the modest excavation site at Pattanam are reluctant to cry out Muziris Ahoy! at present and believe there may be a large number of satellite sites in the region from Chettuva to Kochi that could provide further evidence of the diverse activities relating to that ancient port and the Indian Ocean trade.

K.N. Panikkar, former Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Chairman of the KCHR, explains it (see interview): Pattanam is Muziris will be considered a hazardous conclusion. It can be decided only if a fairly larger area is excavated.

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