In search of Muziris – A. Srivathsan


“Muziris was a thriving port in the Indo-Roman trade in the 1st century BCE And one day [in 1314 CE], it just vanished. Recent excavations have thrown up the possibility that Pattanam, a small village on the Kerala coast, could be the lost port.” – A. Srivathsan



Pattanam

Pattanam, a small village 25 km north of Kochi is lush and quiet like many other villages in Kerala. It is unhurried and looks deceptively unimportant. In one of the narrow mud paved lanes lives Athira, a 10-year-old enthusiastic girl, fragile looking with bright big eyes. Her house is small and sparsely furnished. One of her prized possessions is a necklace made of many assorted beads.

The shapes of the beads are inconsistent and the colours are uneven. The necklace looks ordinary till P.J. Cherian, an archaeologist accompanying me, informs me that the beads could be 2,000 years old. Alongside the necklace, Athira has carefully placed a cameo blank, a semi-precious stone used to make craved jewellery for the Romans.

ANNUAL BOUNTY

Athira is no treasure hunter; she picked some of these ancient beads from her backyard, some from the streets and a few others from the neighbourhood. “After every rain, when the water rises from beneath, the beads surface with them. You have to just pick,” confirms Dr. Krishnakumar who lives in a larger house near Athira’s. He too has a collection including a fragmented bright metal piece.

Pattanam is no ordinary village. Beneath the red earth is the ancient port town extensively described as Muciri by the Tamil Sangam poets and frequented by the Romans and recorded by them as Muziris.


“The flourishing town of Muciri where the large beautiful ships of the yavanas which bring gold and take pepper come disturbing the white foam of the little fair Periyar of the Cheras.” — Ahananaru (149),Tamil Sangam Poem datable to 2nd century CE.


This thriving trade centre was completely lost without trace (at least on ground). What puzzled the archaeologists even more was their informed guesses about its location turned wrong many times till they hit the first reliable trail three years ago. How they reached Pattanam to reach Muziris is a story to be told.

Trade between India and western emporia dates back to 6th century BCE. Goods and people moved across land and sea, including the famous Silk Route that connected Central Asia and China. It was probably when the Romans started to dominate the trade from the 1st century BCE that the Kerala coast got busier.

While the journey from Muziris was easier with the north-eastern winds, the journey from Rome that used the rough south-west winds was tough. The whole journey was relatively quick but risky. Lionell Casson, a well-known archaeologist working on Roman trade, thinks that the Romans had the right kind of ships that were “designed for safety than speed'” The vessels usually arrived in Muziris in September and were anchored till December or early January.

Gold coins, topaz, coral, copper, glass, wine and wheat were imported from Rome, while pearl, diamonds, sapphire, ivory, silk, pepper and precious stones were exported from the west coast. Casson estimates that a 500-ton ship could have carried goods equivalent to the price of 2,400 acres of fertile farmlands in Egypt. While another archaeologist, Federico Romanis, estimates that one ship carried nothing less than 68,000 gold coins worth of goods.

The trade, it appears, was seductively profitable and worth the risk. As the Vienna Papyrus, a rare document discovered about two decades back reveals, the trade between Muziris and Alexandria was well worked out and traders from both sides went to great lengths to secure it.

Muziris should have been a busy and large settlement to host this kind of trade. But it suddenly vanished. Before the question as to why it disappeared could be answered, archaeologists had to first find where it existed.

For long, many thought Kodungallur, a town seven km north of Pattanam, was Muziris. Probably, William Logan’s Malabar Manual, written in 1887, influenced the thinking and search. Logan thought Kodungallur, with many medieval monuments and located on the north bank of river Periyar was Muziris. However, this conclusion needed material evidence.

In 1945, for the first time, excavations were taken up in Kodungallur. It did not produce any evidence related to ancient commercial links. Another excavation was carried out in 1969 by the Archaeological Survey of India in Cheraman Parambu, two km north of Kodungallur. Only antiquities of the 13th and 16th century were recovered. Muziris remained elusive.

UNEXPECTED HELP

Help came from an unconnected development.

In the 1990s, ecologists and archaeologists were studying the evolution of Kerala’s coast line. Shajan Paul, a research scholar then, was surveying the Central Kerala region between 1993 and 1997 as a part of his doctoral research. It appeared to him that the River Periyar could have shifted its course. He had reasons to think so. The coast line near Kodungallur, studies show, could have moved inward, flooding the coastal areas and later receded to expose land and creating new water channels sometime during 5,000 to 3,000 BP (Before Present — radiocarbon years before 1950).

This understanding turned out to be crucial.

Earlier searches were looking for Muzris on the north banks of River Periyar and near to its mouth since the texts mention so. If the River Periyar had shifted its course, then a whole set of new locations emerge.

It was at this time, in 1998, that Shajan heard from his friend Vinod, a local resident of Pattanam and an engineer, about the appearance of a seemingly ancient brick wall in his compound while digging for coconut planting.

Though he and his friend V. Selvakumar, along with Prof. Vimala Begley, the renowned expert on Indo-Roman trade had surveyed Kodungallur region before, they had never looked at Pattanam. However, this time, given its proximity to Kodungallur and the fact that the place name Pattanam means a port town, Shajan thought it was worth the try. He also conjectured that if the River Periyar had shifted north-west, its earlier course would have been closer to Pattanam.

TELL-TALE SIGNS

When he arrived at Pattanam to look at the brick wall, to his surprise, he found lots of pottery shreds, evenly burnt and of superior quality in comparison to the megalithic pottery of South India. It was clear to him that they were not locally made. Pattanam, it appeared, could be connected to Muziris.

Shajan and Selvakumar had to wait for another six more years to do a trial excavation. “During this period we had formed a good core team which included P.J. Cherian and Roberta Tomber, an authority on Roman pottery. We were actively looking for more surface evidence and wanted our future search to be systematic, institutionally backed and sustained,” Shajan explained.

“We walked around the village and experienced the topography and landscape. The north-eastern part was a raised mound indicating a potential spot. After negotiations with the plot owner we dug two pits to a depth of three meters each. Much to our excitement, we found artefacts that one would find in a Roman site such as Arikamedu. We were convinced that we were closer to Muziris,” recalls Selvakumar, now an archaeologist from the Tamil University, Thanjavur.

The research team subsequently grew and a larger team was formed under the aegis of Kerala Council for Historical Research. The year 2007 turned out to be important.

“A wharf complex with a dugout canoe made from a single log of wood and several wooden posts/bollards were found during excavations in 2007. Carbon dating fixed the date of the canoe to 1st century BCE. A large quantity of botanical remains such as pepper, rice, cardamom, frankincense and grape seeds belonging to the same period were also discovered. It clearly emerged that Pattanam was once a thriving link in the Indian Ocean trade. Evidences pointed out that it was a site of continuous habitation pre-dating the Roman phase. The earliest strata so far unearthed dates back to the Iron Age — 10th to 5th century BCE.

Prof. P. J. Cherian, Director, Pattanam excavations, is however cautious. “We would still like to retain some humility on the identity of Pattanam as Muziris. Evidences indicate that the site is closely associated with Muziris, but we are not sure which part of the ‘first emporium of the orient’ is Pattanam. Where could be its satellite sites? Nelkynda, Bycare and Tyndis, the other ports mentioned in the texts (yet to be identified) are of equal importance and we need to know about them as well,” he adds.

Work continues at Pattanam with more institutions such as ASI and Pondicherry University joining the team. Excavating amidst habitation has not been easy. “Pattanam is a living village and we have to work with the people,” says Cherian. He is busy convincing the villagers that they will not be displaced because of excavations and there is nothing to fear. “The challenge is to find an alternative, a people-friendly approach to heritage management,” he explains. – The Hindu, 2 May 2010


  1. Pattanam: A rupture in the cultural heritage of Kerala. This blog exposes the Christian bias of Prof. P.J. Cherian who heads the Pattanam dig.
  2. External connections of early historic Pattanam
  3. Muziris, at last?
  4. In search of Muziris
  5. Muziris Heritage: The ancient Indo-Roman port
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4 responses to “In search of Muziris – A. Srivathsan

  1. Tejaswini Vemburia

    The Indian historians having bred in Marxist/secular theologies are Kerala centric and get fascinated in ridiculing Namboothiris as intruders driving Buddhist through Ad hi Sankara. Ad hi Sankara and Kaladi are the greatest hoax encouraged by Left theologians including Nehruji. Ad hi Sankara could have never lived in Kerala in eighth century AD since during that period Cheras had occupied Kong country and lost the glory of Malabar. Further Cochin Travangore was completely under Any and Pandya kings. The problem is completely due to neglect of Tulu. There is fascinating article on MUZIRIS in Karnataka. This is absolutely correct for the following reasons. A part of North Malabar was ruled by Nannnan. Adjascent to him was Parambu ruled by Vel Pari. Between Mysore and Mangalore there is Original Tagaduru ruled by Atiyan. Mangalore was ruled by Uchangi Pandiyas following matrilineal system referred by Megasthenes. Till the advent of Satavahanas the largest territory from Mysore to Bellary and central Andhra comprising Krishna Godavari was known as Chodas. Unlike Pandiyas or Cheras Chodas represented territory and not ethnic tribe which is supported by Katyana who specifically states that Chodas referred to people living in a particular country. Though initially Chera king subdued Kadambas and sea pirates subsequently after the fall of Cheras Kafambas became powerful kings. The Malnad consisted of a lot of velir kings including Hoysala. A branch of Hoysalas occupied Choda territories and became Irungolas. Though initially they were hostile to Cholas they became the most trusted allies with a branch leaving to Kodumbalur. This is substantiated by the fact that they patronised Kalamukha sect and attached to Lagulisa mutt of Kogali.(Sri Manikkavasagar was specially attached to Kogali). There is deep connection between Malnadu and Trichy evidenced through numerous inscriptions of Cholas referring to settlement of Malnadu(Malayala Brahmins referred as Malnadu Brahacharanam) and the territory of Lalgudi is still known as Mazhapadi. Coming to Tulu during Kadambas the entire region was full of activities and Kadambas along with Guptas were the first to promote Sanskrit issue gold coins built temples with Patashalas which was followed by Cholas. It is only in Kadamba geneology we hear kings having God’s name more so from Ikshvaku line. Moreover Tulu was the bridge between Tamil and Prakrit/Sanskrit and having fascination for the name Vell in Tamil or, Bela in Kannada. However the antiquity of ports in South Canara comprising Tulu and Konkan has never fascinated researchers. All the so called Kerala ports of Sangam period would not have been in south Malabar but in South Canada only.grc

  2. The Indian both South and North Indian history is so confused and nothing can be said of at present.The foreign travellors from Pliny Strabo Arrian down to recent travellers is so contradictory to literary evidences. Even at the height of Imperial period starting from Guptas to Cholas the glorious cities of Kanauj, Ujjaini, Badami, Kanchi, Thanjavur, never attracted the attention of such travellers. The specific account of Kollam. Broadh, Tamralipti did not attract the attention of local gazetters. In the case of Muzirius though occasional reference has been made in Sangam Literature, it is not like Madurai, Pukar or Kanchi where separate poems have been written giving every aspect of it. Probably the only conclusion that can be arrived is that the port towns may be open ports devoid of local population existing for the purpose of commercial transactions only. The reference to Puduke etc. May be interpolation since at that even Tindivanam was referred in detail as capital of Oymanadu and Pavithiri (Palaverkadu near Chennai) has also been mentioned.Hence it is highly puzzling why foreiign travellers always mentioned lesser known port towns without reference to celebrated cities or it may be due to texts availabele with reference to latest updated versions only? Regarding Muzirius why no research has been done to two other places in Tamilnadu one by name Musiri itself in Trichy district and another by name Musirium near Tiruvarur?

  3. http://devapriyaji.wordpress.com/saint-thomas/
    Dr, K.V.Raman quotes in Tamil -Tholliyal Ayvugal பக்-68-70 கே.வி..ராமன், தொல்லியல் ஆய்வுகள் from ASI’S Researches under Anu John Achan- in all the places shown by church as ancient and found that Man started living in 8th century only.
    i.e., they were below sea till then.
    தோமோ வந்து இறங்கியதான கொடுங்கல்லூர் அகழ்வாய்வுகள் முடிவுகள்
    கொடுங்கல்லூர் நகருக்குத் தெற்கில் பல இடங்களில், வடக்கில் பழமையானவை என்று கருத்ப்ப்ட்ட சில இடங்களிலும் அகழ்வாய்வுகள் மேற்கொள்ளப்பட்டது….
    கேரளாவில் நடைபெற்ற இந்த அகழ்வாய்வுகளை நடுநிலை நின்று பார்த்தால் கீழ்கண்ட, தற்காலிகமான முடிவிற்கு வரலாம்.
    கொடுங்கல்லூருக்கு உள்ளும் புறமுமாக, பல முக்கிய இடங்களிலும் நடத்தப்பட்ட அகழ்வாய்வுஅள் எல்லாவற்றிலும் கிடைத்த மிகப் பழைமையான படிவுகள் கி.பி.8 அல்லது 9-ஆம் நூற்றாண்டைச் செர்ந்த்ததாகத்தான் உள்ளன. ஆக, ஓரே சீரான பண்பாட்டுக் கூறுகள் எல்லா இடங்களிலும் வெளிப்பட்டுள்ளன என்பது தெளிவாகிறது.
    கொடுங்கல்லூர் பகுதியில், மனித சமுதாயத்தில் முதல் குடியிருப்புகள் 8,9-ஆம் நூற்றாண்டுகளில் தான் ஏற்பட்டிருக்க வேண்டும். குலசேகர மரபினர், கண்ணனூர்ப் பகுதியில் குடியேறி, அதைத் தங்களுடைய தலைநகராக கொண்ட பொழுது இந்தப் பகுதி முழுவதும் முக்கியத்துவம் பெற்றிருக்க வேண்டும். குலசேகர மரபினர்களைப் பற்றிய நல்ல காலக் கணிப்புகள் நமக்குக் கிடைத்திருக்கின்றன. ஆனால் அதற்கு முற்பட்ட காலத்தைச் சேர்ந்த எந்த விதமான ஆதாரமும் கிடைக்கவில்லை.. ..
    திருவஞ்சிக்களம் இங்கே ந்டந்த அகழ்வாய்வு கலவையான(M) பல ஆதாரங்களை வெளிப்படுத்தியது. அவை மிகவும் பழைமையானவை10 அல்லது 9ம் நுற்றாண்டுக்கு முற்பட்டதாக இல்லை.
    திருவஞ்சிக்களம், கருப்பதானா அல்லது மதிலகம் போன்றவற்றின் பெயர்களை மட்டும் கொண்டு, அவைகள் பழைய வஞ்சியாகவோ கருராகவோ இருக்கலாம் என்று கருதப்பட்டது. ஆனால் இங்கு நடந்த அகழ்வாய்வுகள் கி.பி 8-ஆம் நூற்றாண்டைச் சேர்ந்த இரண்டாம் சேரப் பேரரசுக் காலத்து ஆதாரங்களைத் தான் வெளிப்படுத்தி உள்ளனவே அல்லாமல் பழங்காலச் சேரர்களை பற்றிய எந்தவிதமமன ஆதாரத்தையும் வில்லை. ஆகவே, இந்த இடங்களில் தான், பழைய வங்சியோ, கருரோ இருந்தது என்று சொல்ல முடிய வெளிப்படுத்தவில்லை.
    பழைய முசிறித் துறைமுகம் இருந்த இடத்தைக் கண்டுபிடிக்க வேண்டிய அவசியம் ஏற்பட்டிருக்கின்றது. அது நிச்சயமாக கொடுங்கல்லூராக இருக்க முடியாது. பக்-68-70 கே.வி..ராமன், தொல்லியல் ஆய்வுகள் and this article was earlier published in Araichi, 170, under the Heading “Archaeological Investigations in Kerala”
    November 20, 2008 6:26 PM

  4. According to Dr. S. Kalyanaraman, Muziris disappeared in 1314 CE due to a devastating flood on the River Periyar.

    We need third party authoritative corroboration for this statement. Does anybody have it?

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