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Following the Roman trail

The members of the group worked their way just as carefully as the ancient traders had done before them. A journey across South India, it was packed with surprises, says USHA KRIS.

Along the iron-rich Chennimalai hills _

WHEN we met Mr. S. Muthiah, co-convenor of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and Dr. S. Suresh, archaeologist, for the initiation programme, we knew that this was going to be a very special trip. It was our maiden tour with Dr. Suresh and INTACH, except for Barbara, the German Consul General's wife, who had been on the earlier "Maratha" tour. The theme tour was like any that is conducted outside India, and Suresh had us know that it was for the first time that a group had got together to travel the same route as the ancient Romans took when they came to South India for trade.

This was during the Sangam age in South India — 200 B.C. to 300 A.D. The arts, crafts and literature flourished. There was plenty. The rivers were free flowing and provided a wonderful means to cross vast stretches of interior Tamizhagam, or the land of the Tamils, that, in those days, included Kerala. It was during this period that the Romans travelled east to India for trade. They came for spices, iron, precious stones, sandalwood, teak and ebony, exotic birds and animals — they even took peacocks back! Indian dancing girls had a special fascination for them, ivory and pearls (found in Tirunelveli), cotton and silk were other items that they were on the look out for. In return, they brought with them pots of gold and silver coins and jewellery, olive oil, wine, blue glass, metal and terracotta artefacts including lamps. Whereas they took back some 120 items, they brought in 30, showing that their need for exporting and trading in Indian goods was high.

As they traded with India through the Sangam period spanning 500 years, they had made many places their home and perfected the route that we had to trace, explore and speculate upon with the evidence that surfaces periodically. Sangam poems such as the "Ahananooru" and "Purananooru" refer to the Romans as "being loud, of coarse speech, wearing shoes, and a somewhat cruel people".

As nearly 2,000 years have passed since the Romans left us, many of the old South Indian village names mentioned in their literature have changed. And the old names are unknown to present-day people. Also, sometimes two neighbouring villages bear the same name! Hence, at places, we had to go slow, Suresh keenly and anxiously watching out for important landmarks such as milestone or a tank or, in one instance, a coconut tree standing at 45 from the ground! He would repeatedly cheer us up by assuring us that our team was the first to uninterruptedly traverse this difficult, and unique, coast-to-coast route. On earlier occasions, archaeologists including Dr. Suresh had visited each of the sites independently from Chennai.

Somewhere along the Western coast, where the Periyar river meets the Arabian Sea, the Romans landed in India. Although there is a wealth of archaeological evidence in other places, this point of entry continues to be an enigma to everyone. Muziris means cleft lip, and the coastline does resemble one, especially the aerial view. It was late afternoon. A gentle giant of a river, the Periyar (true to its name meaning "Big River") slips into the aggressive choppy and somewhat frenzied sea. As we walk along the river, large Chinese fish nets stand in line. The nets dip into the water as the fishermen return after many hours to haul in the catch. The sun dips lower in the horizon and Suresh bids all of us to imagine a laden Roman ship coming into this natural harbour. The pristine white sands, and coconut groves sans the tons of fish drying on the hot sands is the sight that must have greeted them as they sailed the seas on Arab ships and decided to cross India by land, as navigating Cape Comorin was rather hazardous. By foot, on horseback, and mainly by boat wherever the rivers flowed towards the east, they crossed South India to go on to Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

The exact spot of Muziris is unknown to us: but Azhikode Mukku, as it is now known, must have been a similar vista, the estuary having been displaced by time and tide. Kodungallur, as the neighbouring city is known today, must have been a part of Muziris. Having reached the place, we went in search of a Portuguese fort wall. This was of significance because it was named St. Thomas Fort, after St. Thomas who arrived on the Malabar coast from the West in the First Century A.D. Had it been in any part of the Western world, its antiquity of 500 years would have been a point of tourist interest and revenue. Here, we had to search for the fort walls, and trace it as we walked along, and much to our delight, Dr. Suresh even found an open cave!

... the Santhome Basilica, the only reminder of the Roman presence in Chennai.

We then moved on in search for Eyyal. Suresh made enquiries, and we moved close to Eyyal. All of a sudden, we were close to the twin caves. It is said that in the midst of houses, someone was clearing the undergrowth, and discovered the caves. This was not all — two pots full of Roman coins were also dug up, much to the excitement of the locals. Well constructed and clean, one of the caves even had a supporting pillar.

Close on hand was Thrissur (Trichur) where we stayed overnight. The museum with its artefacts has evidence of the Roman presence. A set of beads and some pottery were well displayed.

The Palghat Pass, spanning a distance of about 30 kilometres was our next stop. It is now the Palakkad (Palghat) town. But for the pass, it would have made entry into the other side of the Western Ghats impossible in the olden days. Walking up to the Fort built by Hyder Ali, we got a glimpse of the land stretching all the way across. This was a vital corridor, for the Roman and Greek traders travelling from the west coast to the east coast of India.

The belt between Coimbatore and Tiruchi was probably the central band where travellers to and fro stopped for a while. Camping here to rest and trade, they set up colonies over the years. The maximum number of Roman coins and artefacts have surfaced in many places in this historic region. Karur became a boom town, Vellalur village repeatedly brought up pots of coins — around 1932 there was a huge haul of silver coins, and in 1939 some gold jewellery, and again in 1984, some finger-rings, all of which seem to have disappeared from public view. There was constant movement of foreign traders between Chennimalai where there are iron ore deposits, and Kodumanal where the ore was processed for export. Many burial sites have been excavated in these areas and one left open for all to see, proving the presence of the Roman settlements there. Even now, 2,000 years later, old quartz stones and broken beads are strewn on the fields. Imagine the thrill for the Roman traders when they found many a large priceless beryl in Padiyur, another village in the region. In Tiruppur, some years back, a rare Julius Caesar coin showed up. Though the Noyyal river at Kodumanal is now highly polluted, the Cauvery is sans water owing to the many dams and scarce rainfall over the years. These rivers were vital navigational arteries for the Romans to reach the Bay of Bengal. Wherever possible, they moved eastward on boats using the skills of the local boatmen.

At Erode, Kalaimagal Kalvi Nilayam is very different from all schools in one respect. It has its own museum. The students have done some excavation themselves and the coins and artifacts, from beads to precious stones, to pottery are kept in glass shelves, well-lit, and a tribute to our interesting history. We were greeted with tea and snacks after our long journey. The best part was that they allowed me to photograph the terracotta bust of Apollo, dated around the First Century A.D. It is an unspoken lesson to most of our government museums, which fear photographers and researchers alike. The Cauvery river flows right into the Bay of Bengal at Kaveripoompattinam. We walked to the estuary at sunset, and surprisingly enough, there was a flow of the gentle and narrow Cauvery slipping unnoticed into the bay. At this point, the Romans moved North to Arikamedu, the old settlement near Pondicherry.

The next day, we went to explore Arikamedu. We walked through thick thorny brushes, till we could go no further. We retraced our path. Barbara, the tallest in the team, suddenly sighted the river! This is the Ariankuppam river after which the old settlement seems to have been named. Happily, we walked down the fork across the recently cleared ground (Is a building coming up? We already saw a temple being constructed much to our dismay.) This scenic spot may never be the same again. Picking up oyster shells, we chatted all the way to land's end, the bay stretching out once again. Of all the ancient Indian sites that have been discovered, Arikamedu remains the most widely publicised. This may have been due to the dedicated efforts of a woman archaeologist, Vimla Begley. She came with her team all the way from the United States, seeking permission to excavate the site. During her digs, she came up with an abundance of material enough for a lorry load, they say! Her first book on her excavations was published and before the second could be completed, alas! cancer claimed her.

Recently, Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram), hitherto known only for the great Pallava temples, has gained significance after the recent excavations around the shore temple revealing an old harbour, probably used by the Romans. Earlier the neighbourhood of Mahabalipuram has yielded Roman amphora jars in which the Romans brought wine, apples, and many other food items. No wonder, some of the Pallava sculptures in Mamallapuram display Roman elements. In fact, scholars have found similarities between the gigantic Mahishasuramardhini sculpture in the porch of the Mahishasuramardhini cave temple here and the sculpture of the Goddess of Amazon now in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.

So we covered 1,500 kilometres and more — the actual spots seldom reveal themselves to a casual or careless traveller. It was indeed hard enough even for the meticulous Dr. Suresh to take us through meandering lanes in little known villages and dirt tracks in forests. We are proud to have successfully followed the route, criss-crossing our path at times, to be faithful to the Roman route. In these modern times, we worked our path just as carefully, the only difference being that we made merry at meal times and had comfortable lodging with hot baths, all of which have now become necessities.

Mylapore in Madras of old was the last marked point. Mylapore was referred to as Mylarpha by the Romans. So let us not think for a moment that Mylapore is just 350 years old! Tirumangai Alwar mentions Mailai, a name that is familiar to us even today. And so it was at Santhome church where we came back to the here and now. We were once again the inhabitants of a modern congested metropolis. We said our farewells, being the richer for the experience. And I am now proud to share this little known history of South India with you.

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