Historical insights

Print edition : April 23, 2010

K.N. Panikkar says legends in India have not been subjected to serious analyses.-S. MAHINSHA

K.N. Panikkar explains the historical significance of the recent excavations in Pattanam in Kerala.

Why is Pattanam causing so much excitement?

Until now, there hadnt been any archaeological effort [in the Malabar coast] to understand the Indo-Roman trade. We had only literary sources. The way people talked about it, Muziris had assumed a legendary dimension. But this is the first time that an archaeological excavation has brought out evidence of the Roman presence and, compared with other places, the evidence is much more in quantity. It actually proves the scale of the trade. The other important factor is the possible conclusions that might emerge about the relationship of this coast with the Middle East before the Roman trade, which is already being debated. That is a possibility but it requires detailed studies before it can be confirmed, which then will be a very important insight.

Ideas about Indian Ocean trade have so far been provided by Western travellers, merchants and scholars. What is the Indian perspective that emerges from the Pattanam finds?

One is about the spread of a network of trade, where it was not one point where the traded goods were collected but possibly a network in the region, which would mean a trading pattern internally connected with that centre. That is a very important idea, but to understand that much more extensive excavation is required. At the moment excavations are limited to a very small area. The second possible implication is regarding the goods of exchange. There is this traditional view of pepper and spices, of Europeans coming and collecting them in exchange for whatever goodwill or gold they could offer. That has been the assumption about it so far. But whether this pattern of trade had any other character is another important aspect.

Does Pattanam reveal anything about the commercial, economic and political system of the period?

Obviously the rulers or whoever controlled power were interested in establishing contacts and continuing to have trade relationships. Because, as such there is no evidence of any conflict and it was some sort of a free exchange that was taking place, where you have Roman materials available and you also have Indian coins available at the same place.

Therefore, one can make an assumption that political forces were not antagonistic to such trade, as had happened some time later on the Kerala coast. As to the extent or volume of trade influencing the economic life of the people, one indicator that we can see from the massive evidence that has come forth look at the large number of amphora sherds it shows that the volume of trade was not insignificant. The material of trade, as it seems now, was limited to spices and things like that. But I am sure that when a larger area is covered, possibly there will be more information about it.

Is there any possibility, as some are saying now, of small workshops, primitive industrial ventures, being active links in this trade?

I dont think it is possible to say that now. One nature of ancient history is that it tempts you to speculate. But I am very hesitant. I was initially uncertain about even using the word Muziris but now, of course!

The excavation site at Pattanam is spread across backyards of modest homes. A huge number of pottery sherds have been unearthed in the last few years.-R.KRISHNAKUMAR

How do the Pattanam finds fit in with those from the eastern Indian coast, Arikamedu, for example?

I think there is considerable similarity. But as far as the Roman material is concerned, Pattanam has yielded much more than the East, amphora, and so on. That can lead to this assumption that Pattanam was a much more extensively connected trading point than Arikamedu. I think the material emerging from Pattanam shows it perhaps had precedence over Arikamedu, which of course, as far as the Malabar coast is concerned, has several implications.

What would these implications be?

The political implications are of course important; so is the state of economic prosperity of the region; and much more important is agriculture. Because the Romans concentrated more on the western coast, or Pattanam, it means that it had greater trade possibilities than other places. If you had trading of that nature, goods, particularly the spices, had to be brought there from the interiors. So what was the nature of the channel that brought it, who brought it, who were the people who produced it, was it done through intermediaries or was there some sort of control over production? These are all important questions that emerge from it.

How do you explain this dearth of archaeological finds on the west coast for so long, when it is now clear that even a casual dig would have brought out objects of archaeological value at Pattanam?

It is one of the paradoxes that given the importance that Muziris had and about which all the historians are talking about apart from a few excavations, there was no attempt here. It surely reflects on the archaeological organisation that we have. The Pattanam excavations were not initiated through any organisation. Lately, of course, they [the ASI] have been showing some interest.

Will the KCHR [Kerala Council for Historical Research] be able to continue with this project on a scale that such an important find demands?

It depends, because the type of excavation necessary at Pattanam is very large, which also means, in some way, upsetting the local population. The alternative we have suggested is the participation of the local people what I call democratic archaeology in which they would be part of the excavation and take an interest in it, and so on. But there are lingering problems. However, unless that is done, we will have problems even getting permission to excavate. There are a lot of apprehensions that their land would be taken over [by the government].

But can we now say we have at last found Muziris?

An unlikely entrance to an excavation site.-R.KRISHNAKUMAR

I am not sure in the sense, the conception that we have is of Muziris as a port. But what was its population, extent, and so on? My sense as a student of history tells me that Muziris is perhaps a large area and not really small. From this excavation also we have seen structures which possibly are remains of houses, etc. Possibly, Pattanam is part of the larger Muziris and with that possibility comes the questions linked to the volume of trade. But Pattanam is Muziris will be a hazardous conclusion. It can be decided only if a fairly large area is excavated.

But is that a possibility, the area being so thickly populated?

It is a possibility, but it will depend upon innovativeness. I have seen, for instance, in Africa, excavations being done in similar areas, not confined to one pit or two, but the project is spread out so that the spread of the population could be located. Similarly, if we have excavations, say, half a mile away from Pattanam, I am sure archaeologists can make some sense out of it. Even if results are negative, that will have its lessons to tell us. That type of innovativeness has to be there.

The disappearance of Muziris is still a mystery. Some say it was the result of the cataclysmic floods in the Periyar in 1341. But could it also be that it was related to the events at the other end of the Indian Ocean trade network, the waning of trade at the Egyptian Red Sea ports like Berenike?

The floods theory is the general assumption. But the decline of Muziris, I suppose, has something to do with the decline of trade in the early Middle Ages.

But an unanswered question that perhaps Pattanam might resolve is whether the Middle Eastern trade tried to replace it. But after getting into the vacuum left by the Romans, they may not have been able to sustain it as the Romans did. That is a possibility that depends on the type of trade that the Romans did, the success of that trades character, which may not be true as far as the Middle East is concerned.

The excavations at Berenike reported a lot of teakwood being used in buildings, and so on, which had been salvaged from ships that frequented the Malabar coast, and there is a theory that the ships were built in India.

I doubt it, very much. It is pure and simple speculation. It was not a merchandise that was in demand, the ships, I mean. But whether the Romans depended on the timber that could be obtained here, that is not very clear, because all indications are that there were other types of goods that interested them.

Muziris seemed like a myth only the other day, but we are now finding evidence for its existence. The governments new Muziris Heritage Project circuit is so full of monuments that thrive on such myths and legends, including those relating to the coming of three major religions into the country

I think those are legends and we should keep them as they are. People talk about them as if they are real, without any evidence for it. It is as if you construct a history and then bring in things to try and support it. We need to subject such things to scrutiny. In India legends have not been subjected to serious analytical work, as in many other countries.

The legends of Kerala alone will be a fascinating study. But one thing I hope the Heritage Project will concentrate on is the Periyar belt, which is a major civilisational area. Somewhere beyond Kalady [the birthplace of Adi Sankara, the 8th century Hindu philosopher-saint], we had discovered a huge megalithic site, the biggest you can find in Kerala. But nobody took care of it. If someone sees megalithic remains in their land, they tend to hide it. But there is a possibility of it being a major civilisational area, a civilisation which had faded away as new forms emerged.

The Kerala government has boldly named its tourism project the Muziris Heritage Project, even though scholars seem to be unsure about its true extent or location.

I was not really happy about it. Of course, the KCHR is not involved in the project. I have expressed my concern that tourism should not submerge the historical heritage. That is always possible, if it is not controlled. I think tourism as a possible source of revenue can be disastrous for the culture of a place.

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