Study points to ancient trade connection in Central Travancore

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AWAITING VALIDATION: Dr. Ajit Kumar displays the ancient handle that his team found.
AWAITING VALIDATION: Dr. Ajit Kumar displays the ancient handle that his team found.

G. Mahadevan

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: A team from the Department of Archaeology, University of Kerala, that undertook surface exploration studies in the Central Travancore region of Kerala claims to have stumbled upon what could well be Nelcynda, a trade emporium of ancient Kerala.

The finds have brought to the fore hypotheses about maritime trade between ancient Rome and Kerala and a sea port that was “preferred” by Roman seafarers to that of famed Kodungalloor.

The 16-member team led by the Head of the Department, Ajit Kumar, found a piece of the handle of what was possibly a Roman amphora — a vessel used at the turn of the first millennium to carry wine and olive oil — from the Alumthuruthu-Kadapra area on the banks of the river Pampa. Pottery shards of local origin were also found during the exploration done in December 2007.

“Till now evidence of trade between ancient Rome and Kerala was confined to references in historical books and to finds of Roman coins. Pattanam near Paravoor recently yielded Roman pottery. Now we have found evidence that points to the possibility that the ancient trade port of Nelcynda was located in what is today Alumthuruthu-Kadapra near Chengannur,” Dr. Ajit Kumar said.

The amphora handle is seen to conform to references to Nelcynda in ancient books. The earliest reference to Nelcynda is perhaps in the book The Periplus of the Etuthraean Sea (Periplus Maris Erythraeai) authored by an unknown seafarer who navigated the west coast of India during the first century A.D. Periplus states that Nelcynda is 500 ‘stadia’ (about 92 km) from Muziris (Kodungalloor) by sea and by river and is 120stadia (about 22 km) from Bacare (Porakkad) along the mouth of the same river.

“Pliny the Elder in his book Naturalis Historia calls the port Neacyndi. Pliny also states that Bacare near Nelcynda was preferred to the one at Muziris as the latter was infested with pirates and because the roadhead was far from the sea. Claudius Ptolemy, the Alexandrian geographer, in his book Geographia dated to the second century A.D. calls this port Melkynda. It was also known variously as Nincylda and Nikinna. Early books say the port was part of the territory ruled by the Pandyas of Madurai,” Dr. Ajit Kumar explained.

Periplus says large ships came into Nelcynda bearing thin fabric, linen, corak, crude glass, copper, corn, wine and coins, largely from Rome. Exports from Nelcynda included pepper, pearls, ivory, silk, diamonds and sapphire. It is believed that at this point the coastline was further along the eastern side of the present Vembanad lake. Consequently Nelcynda was approachable by sea and river. The name could have its roots in nel (paddy) and ‘cynda’ or ‘candam’ (field).

The area west of Alumthuruthu is called Kadapra, which could have meant a beach. There is a boat jetty called Thomakkadavu now located on a defunct channel of the Pamba; a place where the apostle Thomas is believed by some to have set foot. This, argues, Dr. Ajit, could mean that this area was connected by waterways of the Pamba. An area east of Alumthuruthu is called Nakkada — which could have originated from ‘Nelcynda.’ To the east of Alumthuruthu is Pandanad, on the Pamba.

Other experts who were consulted, however, felt that extensive surface studies and surveys are needed before it could be concluded that the site indeed is Nelcynda. They said the finds are significant.

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