The artefacts dredged up at the Tangasseri harbour lend credence to historians’ claims of a thriving port centuries ago

Despite little archaeological evidence in hand, it was claimed by historians that Kollam used to be a flourishing port city of yore where ships from ancient empires used to call regularly for trade. Now, antique Chinese coins and other artefacts surfacing at the Tangasseri harbour complex are backing those claims.

The artefacts, lying on the seabed probably for centuries, are being brought up through the suction dredging under way to increase the draft of the newly constructed Kollam cargo port within the harbour complex, and have triggered interest in the history of the ancient port of Kollam.

The pottery and the ceramic ware, likely remaining intact in the deep, are in bits and pieces now after being sucked by the dredgers and passing about 300 meters through metal pipes before being deposited in the harbour yard. These are being collected by the Archaeological Department for studies.

Travellers’ accounts

The historians based their claims about the ancient Kollam port on the written accounts of famous travellers and explorers who had been to Kollam and had seen the good old days of the port.

They include Fa-Hien from China (337 to 422 CE), Hsuan Tsang from China (602 to 664), the Arab geographer Al Kazwini (1203 to 1283), Italian Marco Polo (1254-1324), Moroccan Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) and Arab traveller Suleiman (date disputed). Those were the days when Kollam was the global capital of the spices trade, especially of that in cardamom, pepper, and ginger. Teak and indigo were the other products.

An old English translation of Marco Polo’s description about Kollam reads as follows: When you quit Maabar (for Malabar) and go 500 miles towards the south-west you come to the kingdom of Coilum (for Kollam). The people are idolaters, but there are also some Christians and some Jews. The natives have a language of their own, and a king of their own, and are tributary to no one.

A great deal of brazil is got here which is called brazil Coilumin from the country which produces it; ’tis of very fine quality. Good ginger also grows here, and it is known by the same name of Coilumin after the country. Pepper too grows in great abundance throughout this country, and I will tell you how.

You must know that the pepper-trees are (not wild but) cultivated, being regularly planted and watered; and the pepper is gathered in the months of May, June, and July. They have also abundance of very fine indigo. This is made of a certain herb which is gathered, and [after the roots have been removed] is put into great vessels upon which they pour water and then leave it till the whole of the plant is decomposed. They then put this liquid in the sun, which is tremendously hot there, so that it boils and coagulates, and becomes such as we see it.

Traders

The merchants from Manzi (for South China), and from Arabia, and from the Levant (eastern Mediterranean countries) come thither with their ships and their merchandise and make great profits both by what they import and by what they export.

There are in this country many and diverse beasts quite different from those of other parts of the world. Thus there are lions black all over (could be the description on seeing a caged lion tailed macaque), with no mixture of any other colour. In short, everything they have is different from ours, and finer and better... Corn they have none but rice. So also their wine (for toddy) they make from palm-sugar; capital drink it is, and very speedily it makes a man drunk. All other necessaries of man’s life they have in great plenty and cheapness. They have very good astrologers and physicians. Man and woman, they are all black, and go naked, all save a fine cloth worn about the middle. They look not on any sin of the flesh as a sin. They marry their cousins and a man takes his brother’s wife after the brother’s death; and all the people of India have this custom.

It is said that Ibn Battuta reached Kollam from Kozhikode through the inland waterways after his ship sank in a storm. A translation of Battuta’s Kollam experience reads as follows: I decided to travel thither, it being a ten days’ journey either by land or by the river, if anyone prefers that route. I set out therefore by the river, and hired one of the Muslims to carry the carpet for me. Their custom when travelling on that river is to disembark in the evening and pass the night in the villages on its banks, returning to the boat in the morning. We used to do this too. There was no Muslim on the boat except the man I had hired, and he used to drink wine with the infidels when we went ashore and annoy me with his brawling, which made things all the worse for me. On the fifth day of our journey we came to Kunji-Kari, which is on top of a hill there; it is inhabited by Jews, who have one of their own number as their governor, and pay a poll-tax to the Sultan of Kawlam (Kollam).

Al Kazwini in 1263 described Kollam as one with magnificent markets and wealthy traders, and another Arab traveller, Suleiman, observed that Kollam was the only port in the Indian subcontinent touched by huge Chinese ships on their homeward voyage from Persia. Later, during the early 1500s, Vasco Da Gama and Saint Francis Xavier also arrived at the Kollam port.

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