INTACH Coimbatore takes back 2000 years in search of the Romans

A rather unremarkable patch of land greets us at Pattanam. This is it? We are standing on an archaeological site. Recent excavations indicate this was part of an ancient port city, Muziris. “You have to use your imagination. There was a bustling Roman settlement here,” says S. Suresh. He is Tamil Nadu State Convener, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). He is leading us on a two-day tour of 2,000-year-old Roman settlements. The heritage tour, organised by Kalaivani Chengappa (convener, Coimbatore chapter, INTACH), will retrace the footsteps of Roman traders from the time they landed at Muziris (in Ernakulam district) to Kodumanal (in Erode district) through Vellalore in Coimbatore, 2,000 years ago.

“Romans came here to trade in spices, especially pepper, as well as gemstones, textiles, ivory, sandalwood and iron and steel. In exchange, they brought with them wine, gold and silver,” says Suresh. He points to one side of the site where huge cement containers hold shards of pottery. “The bigger pieces that included almost intact amphora and pots have been taken away for safe keeping,” he explains. The excavations in Pattanam are being carried out by the Kerala Council for Historical Research.

It is believed that Pattanam is the erstwhile Muziris, a key port where the Roman traders first landed. The Periyar River once flowed into the sea here. But the river must have altered its course, says Suresh. “Along with Mediterranean pottery, glass beads, semi-precious stones and metal nails, they have unearthed an entire boat not too far from here.” Another reason to believe that Pattanam could very well be the vanished Muziris.

Our next stop is Azhicode, Kodungallur, where the Mar Thoma Pontifical Shrine stands overlooking the Periyar as it flows into the sea. St Thomas is said to have founded the church that today holds his relic — a bone from his arm. He is believed to have landed on the Malabar coast on one of the Roman vessels. We now follow in his footsteps and go to another small hamlet, Eeyal, where a banana farmer clearing his land discovered two small caves and a cache of Roman coins. People believe St. Thomas rested in these caves. This site is unique because it is one of the very few where both silver and gold coins have been excavated.

The biggest haul of Roman coins in this part of the world, says Suresh, was unearthed in Vellalore, in Coimbatore.

Ancient presence

Vellalore, Padaiyur, Pollachi, Kodumanal and Noyyal, all find mention in ancient Latin and Tamil records. And Vellalore is where the second day’s tour kicks off. We are gathered at Sri Chitra Gupthar Yama Dharmaraja Temple, because in the 19th Century, a huge haul of Roman coins was found right here. We then head to Padaiyur, where quantities of beryl were unearthed. They were mined there in the Roman days and then taken to Kodumanal, which is midway between Muziris on the Arabian Sea and Kaveripattinam on the Bay of Bengal. According to Suresh, this little village was once a large Roman settlement with workshops where iron ore brought from the nearby Chennimalai Hills was forged into weapons for the Romans. There is a story that one of Julius Caesar’s swords was made right here!

The Archeological Survey of India, Tamil University and the Central University of Pondicherry have carried out extensive excavations at Kodumanal. We are met by Ramchandran, a former math teacher and, currently, the Village Administrative Officer. He accompanies us on a stroll along the banks of the Noyyal. A nearby excavation site yields shards of patterned pottery. Ramachandran shows us a megalithic burial site on his land that has been left open for public viewing. Similar sites have yielded many treasures, including a gem-encrusted gold tiger, he tells us. But these are not Roman artefacts.

About 50 km away in Erode, at the Kalaimagal Kalvi Nilayam, is a museum that has plenty of Roman artefacts. During some building activity in the school, remains of Roman urns and coins were found there. The school has a beautiful museum displaying these and other findings from Erode and Gobichettipalayam districts. The remarkable museum is the last leg of our tour.

Kalaivani Chengappa and S. Suresh host a sumptuous dinner on the last day, and the Roman surprises continue. Suresh appears dressed as a Roman sailor and tells us that at least two of the dishes we will be eating that evening are Roman recipes. We are served a large white and pink cake with an olive wreath iced on it, and a fruit salad served with nuts and honey. That concludes our Roman holiday.