Sangam Port – Muchiri in Kerala

Kerala’s ancient glory revealed

BRP BhaskarFirst Published : 18 Mar 2010 10:15:39 AM IST
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: 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.

More evidence unearthed at ancient port of Muziris-A. SRIVATHSAN

Archaeological excavations being undertaken at Pattanam, a village near Kochi. Pattanam has been identified as Muziris, the ancient port described in Roman and Tamil Sangam texts. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Archaeological excavations being undertaken at Pattanam, a village near Kochi. Pattanam has been identified as Muziris, the ancient port described in Roman and Tamil Sangam texts. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Pattanam, a small village located 25 km north of Kochi, is the new pilgrimage spot on the international archaeological map. This quiet place, archaeologists now confirm, was once the flourishing port known to the Romans as Muziris and sung in praise by the Tamil Sangam poets as Muciri.

Every year since 2005, excavations have yielded artefacts, structures and even a canoe in one instance to confirm this conclusion. This year has also been productive for archaeologists.

A figure of a pouncing lion carved in great detail on a semi precious stone and a bright micro metal object with intricate designs are two of the special objects found during the ongoing excavations that began in February. Copper antimony rods, usually associated with cosmetic use, were also found.

The semi precious stone with the lion figure measures about 2 cm and is rounded at the edge. It appears to be part of a pendant or a ring.

The object is yet to be dated in a scientific manner, but going by the depth at which it was found, it is tentatively placed in the early historic period — 1st century BCE to 4th century CE. It was during this time that trade with the West Asian and Roman ports was extensive.

P.J. Cherian, director, Pattanam Excavation, thinks these ornamental metal objects and work on semi- precious stones reflect the fine artisanship that was prevalent at that time.

Dr. Cherian’s team has found a multitude of pottery shards, including that of a Roman amphora, early Chera coins, turquoise glazed pottery and cameo blanks (cameos were popular jewellery in ancient Rome). These attest to the existence of an active habitation and trading activities.

Despite abundant references in Roman and Tamil texts, Muziris, the famous western trade post, remained elusive to archaeologists for long.

Places such as Thiruvanchikulam and Kodungallur were initially thought to be Muziris, but excavations at these places did not yield any evidence. The trail excavations at Pattanam began in 2005, and the evidence obtained since has finally helped archaeologists locate the ancient port.

In 2006, the Kerala government launched the Muziris Heritage Project to “scientifically retrieve and preserve the legacy of Muziris.”

The Kerala Council for Historical Research has undertaken inter-disciplinary archaeological research, and the fourth season of excavations is on.


5 Responses to Sangam Port – Muchiri in Kerala

  1. Sir
    Pattanam excavations ,at present give not much knowledge about Muchiri.It is a fact that the area around Kodungallur was well known to maritime people before1st c.BC.We have no evidence to prove that ParavuR-The Pattanam area -was the muhiri por of Shanghai period.It is assumed that Muyirikkod or muyirippattanam is Paravur.It is to glorify a small nodal point that all these efforts are being done.One Observation in the note given in the site is that such a port was disappeared because of the activities of Vedic people.Another observation is that thereis a Zeal in Indus script which shows a bowl in hand and such a figure is there in Edakkal Cave writings and it can be a signifier of relation to Indus Civilization! The next stage of this view will be that the Bowl is a vessel with liquor.thus it will be easier to connect this area pattanam to Indus Civilization on the basis of”Amphora” pieces.The zeal may be an indication of Rakteswari a female Deity too.In thovari,a site close to Edakkal such signs are seen.A temple mound near Thovari supplied an Icon of Rakteswari in 1986.I was along with the district collector Sri Raveendran Thampi who conducted a Survey in wynad to establish a museum .Another surprising remark is that Vedic people were behind the disappearance of PATTANAM Port! Are these views are the net result of an investigation which is spending Crores of Rupees for Studying Kerala Culture? see my Blog malayaalan and website Dr N M Nampoothiri 18/4/010 Alleppy Mob9388603201

  2. devapriyaji says:

    Very Interesting.

    Any researcher of Kerala must read Tamil Sangam Literature in Tamil and see there is no Aryan or Dravidian and people are proud of Vedic Heritage.

  3. devapriyaji says:

    Recognition from U.K. for Pattanam research

    Hasan Suroor
    Formation of international research group accepted
    BASAS has accorded the recognition

    KCHR is carrying out the research

    LONDON: In a significant recognition of the work being done by the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) on the archaeological site at Pattanam in Ernakulam district, the British Association for South Asian Studies (BASAS) has accepted the formation of an international research group of Pattanam enthusiasts.

    It has also decided to recognise the Indian Ocean exchanges of the Early Historic and subsequent periods as a theme for inter-disciplinary and international research.

    “This is a great recognition for the KCHR research at Pattanam since 2007. We hope this good beginning will bring together more scholars and resources for a new range of research activities and academic solidarity,” stated Professor P.J. Cherian of the KCHR, and Dr. R. Tomber of the British Museum, conveners of the Ports and Indian Ocean Exchanges, an international research group which concentrates on Indian Ocean exchange of the Early Historic and Medieval periods.

    “The group will use port sites as a springboard for investigating broader issues, initially concentrating on the site at Pattanam. A newly discovered, multi-period site excavated by the KCHR, Pattanam has revealed diverse finds associated with Indian Ocean exchange including imports from Rome, West Asia and China. These finds, together with its urban character, argue for its equation with the famed ancient site of Muchiri or Muziris to the Romans,” the BASAS said.

    It said the purpose of the research group was to provide a forum for international collaborators, to direct future research at Pattanam, including conservation.

    The group comprises land and maritime archaeologists, anthropologists, historians and epigraphers, who have broad expertise throughout the region and have published extensively.

    They include Dr. Shinu Abraham (St. Lawrence University, U.S.), Dr. Lucy Blue (Southampton University, U.K.), Professor Robin Coningham (Durham University, U.K.) Dr. Federico De Romanis (UniversitÀ degli Studi di Roma ‘Tor Vergata,’ Italy), Dr. Derek Kennet (Durham University, U.K.), Dr. Raghava Varier (Arya Vaidyasala, Kottakkal), Dr. K. Rajan (Pondicherry University), Dr. Steven Sidebotham (Delaware University, U.S.), Dr. V. Selvakumar (Tamil University, Thanjavur), Dr. Heidrun Schenk (Tissamaharama-Projek des Deutschen Archäologischen Institut, Bonn), Dr. K.P. Shajan (U.K.), Dr. Y. Subrayalu (Institut Français de Pondichéry) and Dr. Kesavan Veluthat (Mangalore University).

    Heritage site
    The Pattanam site, which has yielded valuable evidence dating back to the 2nd century B.C. and up to 10th century A.D., is to be protected as a heritage site by the government.

  4. In 1975 when I had occasion to first visit the various ship museums in Oslo and Stockholm such as the Fram, the Kon Ti Ki, the Vasa and Viking ships, I felt that a re enactment of the ancient – 1st c. BCE CE Red Sea – Muziris voyages about which I had written a lot from at least the early seventies in colaboration with Maggy George Menachery, would be a historic event and would go a long way to help tourism on a large scale and would gain a lot of world media and scholarly attention to make the Glory that was Kerala known to the whole world, and more especially to prove the claims of historians about the country’s close contacts with world cultures. The detailed and generally accurate accounts of the various aspects of the journey with full descriptions of the commodities exported from the Muziris entrepot and the demand for these cargos in Rome and elsewhere as given by Pliny the Elder, Strabo, the Periplus & c, and our own Sangam poets Paranar and Erakkandiyur. could be of the greatest advantage in re- enacting such a Muziris voyage to Bernice, Aden and other Red Sea Ports, and to Socotra,Mukkalla & so on. The National Geographic and the UNESCO could assist in such an undertaking and even take the lead in such a project. Simultaneously a real world class Muziris Museum could be set up in Kochi. The works on Kodungallur and Muziris down the past four or more decades by Prof. Menachery could be of considerable help. It is high time the Union Govt. and the Kerala Govt. started thinking on a high level instead of wasting time , energy, and money on superficial and peripheral matters connected with the true Muziris Heritage.

  5. The articles on ancient Muziris by George Menachery, Steven Sidebotham, Frederico de Romanis & may be of considerable interest to students of Muziris

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