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Is this the seventh pagoda?

BARELY NOTICED locally — but getting a big spread abroad — has been the discovery of acres of man-made structures beneath the sea off Mahabalipuram. The earlier discovery of another submerged construction off the Gujarat coast has been paid only a little more attention. Whether all these are 9000 years old or 5000 years or only 2000 years still has to be determined, but surely the discovery of some of the ancient cities of the subcontinent deserve at least as much attention as the unsavoury political goings-on in the country. But let's not go into all that; let me stick to my brief.

An in this case that is to wonder about the finds made by a joint team of scientists and divers from the National Institute of Oceanography and a British scientific institution. Together they've found what could be the six lost pagodas which, together with the Shore Temple, once gave Mahabalipuram a name born of a legend: Seven Pagodas. One day, we'll find out whether these are the remains of an ancient city or, indeed of six temples. And whether the Shore Temple was the seventh pagoda. We'll also find out when they date to. But for the nonce, let me join the speculation game.

I'd plump for around 2000 years and a tidal wave burying whatever existed of an earlier Mahabalipuram, before the Pallavas in the 4th-7th Centuries raised their open air museum of living stone. The unwritten ancient history of India has always been a fertile field for speculation. And one thing I've always speculated about is the great maritime traditions of the Coromandel Coast.

The early Cholas, from Manu Aruran Chola, in the 2nd Century B.C. — the Elara of the Sri Lankan chronicles — to the great Karikalan in the 2nd Century A.D., were frequent and victorious invaders of Sri Lanka. Their overlordship stretched to Tondaimandalam, the hinterland of modern Madras and Mahabalipuram. To conquer overseas — and stay there for long stretches at a time — the early Cholas must have had large fleets. Could they have sailed from Mahabalipuram? The Thomas legend of the 1st Century A.D. also speaks of a great port in Mylai. So, could the major ports of the early Cholas have been Poompuhar (Kaveripoompattinam), Mahabalipuram and Mylapore — all mentioned in South Indian maritime tradition, but none of them resembling any kind of port today?

The ancient port of Mylapore is said to have been just north of the present Adyar estuary, presumably off Foreshore Estate. The NIO is exploring beneath the seas off Poompuhar and are said to have found significant indicators. And now there's the news from Mahabalipuram. Could these great ports of around the time when B.C. became A.D. be the submerged cities, traces of which are being found off the Coromandel?

This speculation gives me the opportunity to raise another question that has always intrigued me. Given the great maritime traditions of the Kalingas, the Cholas and the Pallavas who took the culture of India to the lands of the East, how is it there is not a single representation in sculpture or fresco, or description in inscribed word, of what their ships looked like. I'm told there is a bas-relief in Borobudur, Java, that depicts a Chola ship. But that's it! Leaving as intriguing a mystery as these cities under the seas off India's coasts.

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