Kerala’s ancient glory revealed, but creators untraced (Letter From Kerala)

March 18th, 2010 - 11:14 am ICT by IANS  

By B.R.P. Bhaskar
Thiruvananthapuram, March 18 (IANS) A multi-disciplinary project launched three years ago has yielded archaeological evidence of Kerala’s ancient glory. The official establishment plans to exploit the find to boost tourism but has little interest in identifying its creators.

Kerala has boasted of a long history on the basis of references in ancient Tamil texts and the accounts of foreign travellers. However, barring a stray find of Roman coins, no tangible proof of its antiquity was available until now.

Tamil literature of 2,000 years ago contains references to a prosperous port city of Muchiri, where ships from distant lands came with gold to fetch pepper. Romans called it Muziris and said there was a temple of Augustus Caesar north of the city.

Apparently, it was through Muziris that Christianity and Islam entered the subcontinent. Jews fleeing from Jerusalem found refuge there. The younger generation having migrated to Israel, the Jewish community is now almost extinct.

Muziris, which according to foreign accounts could be reached from Egypt in 40 days under favourable wind conditions, disappeared 10 or 12 centuries ago in circumstances that are unclear. Until recently scholars believed Kodungallur, 35 km north of Kochi, was the legendary port city but no evidence of maritime mercantile activity could be found there.

According to Roman and Tamil literature, Muziris was located at the mouth of the Periyar. A few years ago, K.P. Shajan, a geoarchaeologist, pointed out that the river had changed course over the centuries and suggested the ancient port might have been at Pattanam, where broken pottery and ancient fired bricks had been found during digging.

In 2007, the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR), of which eminent historian K.N. Panikkar is chairman, began excavations at Pattanam with the permission of the Archaeological Survey of India. KCHR director P.J. Cherian led the field team, which included Shajan and V. Selvakumar as co-directors.

The team made a rich haul of broken Roman and Indian pottery. Other finds included early coins of the Chera kingdom, human bones, storage jars, a gold ornament, glass beads, stone beads and utilitarian objects made of stone, copper and iron.

The team also found an ancient brick wall, a brick platform, a ring well and a wharf with bollards. The structures indicated that there was a big urban settlement. A six-metre-long wooden canoe lay parallel to the wharf, about 2.5 metres below surface level. Carbon dating done by the Institute of Physics, Bhubaneswar, showed that Pattanam’s story goes back to the first millennium BC. The place was probably under continuous occupation from 2nd century BC to 10th century AD and Roman contacts were at the peak from 1st century BC to second century AD.

The state government, recognising the tourism potential of the Pattanam finds, sanctioned a Muziris heritage project, the first phase of which will cost Rs.1,400 million. It also decided to approach Unesco to declare Muziris a world heritage.

The project envisages preservation of identified monuments and restoration of old bazaars, roads, canals and bridges, spread over two municipal towns and six panchayats. They will form part of a cultural tourism circuit, dotted by a coir museum, an aquatic museum, a fishing tools museum and a spices museum, producing a new product for Kerala Tourism.

Many of the elements that form part of the project actually relate to a comparatively recent period. But, says Benny Kuriakose, a Chennai-based architect who is the chief project consultant, the Pattanam finds, which prove the area’s long history and ancient maritime links, will be the key component.

When did Muchiri disappear and how? Who were the makers of the glory that was Muchiri, and what happened to them? With the official establishment turning the history project into one of tourism, there is no serious attempt to find answers to these questions.

The official Kerala Tourism website attributes the port’s disappearance to natural causes and European colonisation. It says, “The Muziris port underwent a tragic incident some time around the middle of the 14th century in a massive flood and resultant silting triggered by the river Periyar. Since the 15th century, the region began to come under the influence of foreign powers, starting with the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and the British.”

Available historical material does not warrant the conclusion that the port flourished much beyond the 10th century. Whatever the explanation for the disappearance of the structures, it is reasonable to assume that the port’s decline began with the establishment of a feudal order dominated by the Vedic community, which looked down upon seafaring, between the 8th and 10th century. Historians have noted that in the north, too, several prosperous Buddhist towns declined as feudalism struck roots and the caste system relegated their builders to an inferior status.

Kerala’s cultural ancestry goes back much farther than Muchiri. According to noted historian, M.R. Raghava Varier, the engravings in the Edakkal Caves in the Wayanad district include a man with jar cup, which was a symbol unique to the Indus Valley Civilization.

“We do not claim that the Indus people reached Wayanad,” Raghava Varier said. “Nor do we argue that Edakkal was a continuity of the Indus civilisation.” However, he added, the presence of a rare and interesting Indus motif in Edakkal was striking.

Edakkal and Pattanam testify to the vibrant cultural and economic traditions of societies that were overrun by migrants in the last millennium.

(18.03.2010 - B.R.P.Bhaskar can be contacted at

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