The Vellalur gold hoard revealed ancient trade ties with the Mediterranean region and about the Manmatha festival.
A memorable hoard of gold, along with hundreds of Roman coins in gold, silver and bronze, was found in Vellalur, a suburb of modern city of Coimbatore first in 1843 and curiously the same place yielded three more finds in subsequent period in 1891, 1931 and 1939. These are now preserved in the Madras Museum.
The find attracted the attention of archaeologists all over the world and its connection with trade was also recognised. The hoard included a golden ring with a composite sculpture, which was from the Mediterranean region. Several hundred rings with similar composite sculptures made in the beginning of the Common Era found there are now preserved in the Belgium royal cabinet.
A fine ring incised with a horse and another with a Venus-like figure on ruby have also been found. This collection, including Roman gold coins, establish South Indian trade links with the Mediterranean region.
This was not an exclusive collection of Mediterranean artefacts, but included gold artefacts of local make, such as rings, pendants, etc. It is customary to attribute this hoard to Romans, the Yavanas of the Mediterranean. But a recent pot sherd found at Berenike in the Egyptian coast, has led to a deeper understanding. The sherd carrying Brahmi letters has been read as ‘Kora Puman,’ identifying it with a Chera prince and the language as Tamil. I have revised the reading as ‘Kora Puha’, the word ‘Puha’ is a prakrit word of Puga that stands for a ‘merchant guild’ mentioned in the Dharma Sastra. This has proved that Indian traders visited Egyptian coast as a guild, settled there and continued their trade.
I have also shown that foreign trade in ancient time was not a one-way traffic. The presence of local gold jewellery along with those of the Romans suggests that the Vellalur hoard might be that of gold merchants who stocked them for trading.
The traders, who were well known to inscriptional records as the group of 500 from different countries (nanadesis), came from one thousand directions (ticai ayirattu ainnurruvar). The sea traders used to land on the west coast around Cranganore, pass through the Palghat gap, reach Coimbatore and then Karur, the capital of the Cheras, Pugalur and through Kaveri river go to Uraiyur (modern Tiruchi), the then capital of the Cholas, and proceed to Poompuhar, the excellent port of the Cholas. And these merchants were traders in costly commodities and their transactions were precious gems and gold. The carriers of the Vellalur hoard were local gold merchants, who not only traded with the Romans in Roman goods but also in local jewellery.
Among the Vellalur finds is a remarkable gold ring with an open-mouthed crocodile, obviously made by a local craftsman. This ring provides an interesting cultural trait. It was customary in the Sangam Age to celebrate the Festival of Manmatha (Lovers Day), named Kaaman Vizha (festival), on the shores of rivers or the sea in the month of Margazhi. Young girls and married ones, used to dress up in attractive clothes and expensive jewellery and sing and dance. Andal sang about the festival and also worshipped Kaamadeva.
The month of Thai (a Prakrit form for Tishya of the Vedas) that follows Marghazi is called the Makara maasa. The Silappatikaram also has songs about the festival. Describing one of the charming rings, the dancer Madhavi wore, Ilango Adigal referred to a ring with a figure of Makara with it's mouth open. “Makara pakuvay mudakku motiram.”
It is known that Manmatha, who makes youth fall in love, had a flag with Makara called ‘Makara dhvaja’ in Sanskrit and ‘Makara kotiyon’ in Tamil. Makara being a symbol of love, rings with the animal seemed to have been a favourite at the festival. Similarly, the elephant being the symbol of Indra was a favorite at the Indra festival, celebrated in the month of Chittirai (April). Evidently the hoard from Vellalur, which also consisted of a makara ring and an elephant pendant, belonged to either an individual gold merchant or a gold guild.
The Chera inscription at Pugalur near Karur, refers to ‘Pon Vaanigan,’ gold merchant from Karur. Karur was the major city the traders from the Mediterranean reached via Palghat gap. For that was the region where precious gems were found in large quantities as at Pondalur and Kodumanal. Pugalur, on the banks of the river Kaveri, was perhaps a place of halt for the merchant guild and derived its name from Puga. The merchant’s name occurring along with Pugalur -Chera inscriptions attest to this connection. They have also contributed memorials to Jaina sadhus on the Pugalur hill (now called Velayudhampalaiyam).
This may also be seen against the find of an extraordinary gold ring that depicted a royal couple in the Amaravati style, dateable to second cent CE. I have identified it earlier as probably a Chera and his queen. In the light of the recent studies on the Mediterranean, this could even be the figure of Manmatha and Rathi, given the wide popularity of the Kaaman festival.
The gold hoard at Vellalur shows that Coimbatore’s popularity as a trading centre goes back 2,000 years - to the beginning of the Common Era. As Silappadikaram also mentions the makara ring, it is also likely to date around that time.
(The writer is a former vice-chancellor of Kanchipuram University and former director of the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology)