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Of ancient trees and trade ports

Anusha Parthasarathy
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Tamil Nadu Anusha Parthasarathy tells you why it is a good idea to wear sturdy shoes for a date with history

stone age A fossilised tree stump photo: anusha parthasarathy
stone age A fossilised tree stump photo: anusha parthasarathy

O n a one-day trip in a car that is packed with more food than people, we find out what “about six to ten kilometres away” really means. It's a weekend getaway to explore history; we zero in on Arikamedu, a Roman trading port which is said to have been inhabited from pre-first century time (we immediately think Fred and Wilma Flintstone) and Thiruvakkarai, which is home to India's first Wood-Fossil Park.

Making our way through ECR for a quick stop at Pondicherry ends disappointingly, as our usual haunt is closed for Sunday. Instead, we are tempted by the smell of fresh bread at Baker Street (a bakery on Bussy street) and stop for muffins.

Arikamedu is four km from Pondicherry on the Cuddalore road but we overshoot by another four, only to have friendly Samaritans send us in circles, searching desperately for a signboard. Of course, there are none. We are then told that the village is about a kilometre before the Chunnambar boat house and somehow battle our way through the tiny streets of Ariyankuppam before a lone signboard pointing left and an old lady with a goat lead us to the ruins of Arikamedu.

A large area around the ruins has been fenced off by the Archeological Survey of India but doesn't give much information about the site. The area has clear cut paths but you can only see the reddish hue of ancient brick and mortar after a ten minute walk inside.

It's green, isolated and silent and two towering pillars turning blackish green stand as entrances to the brick arches of the mission house behind.

Arikamedu's inhabitancy dates back to 200 B.C, when it was a Chola port actively trading beads with Roman traders. While it is said that the area was abandoned after 200 A.D, evidence in the form of a coin of Constantine I suggests otherwise. A French missionary built a seminary along the area in 1771 and abandoned it in 1783, the ruins of which are still there. With large chunks of brick toppled over and window-like openings covered green by wayward plants, only the front façade of the building remains. There are also the remains of a well a little away from the building.

We walk further and find a small canopy leading to the Ariyankuppam River. Ferries from Pondicherry to Arikamedu would dock here but they had been stopped recently, says a worker there. While the surrounding area is wild and clean, the banks of the river aren't; plastic junk, food packets and strips of cloth strewn all over make it difficult to stay on and admire the view.

We walk around a bit more but are told that there's not much else to see. All the coins, roman pottery, jars, oil lamps and other things found at the ruins are on display at the Pondicherry museum. So we dawdle back to the entrance and speed off to Thiruvakkarai, on the way out to Thindivanam.

At the Thindivanam-Pondicherry intersection, you turn off towards Mailam to reach Thiruvakkarai (some 35 kms away). Every ten minutes we stop to hear locals tell us to go ‘eight to ten kilometres more' and many such almost-ten-kilometres later, we find the National Wood-Fossil Park in a rather innocuous part of a large field.

Maintained by the Geological Survey of India, the Petrified Forest begins at a 200-year old banyan that shelters a native Ayyanar temple. Terracotta horses and elephants guard the deity. Caretaker D. Ramachandran takes us around the freshly-made cement path surrounded by reddish-orange fossils and green cover, explaining how trees washed inland by floods were fossilized over million years by silica. While the horizontal trunks look wooden, just one touch and they seem as hard and polished as rock.

There are more than 200 pieces of fossilised wood that you can spot there, most of which had been tamarind trees. It's less than a 15 minute walk to cover the entire stretch that's open to the public. Even these fossils haven't been spared, with the occasional plastic bag carelessly left behind. A bit startled and annoyed, we move on to the large deposits of silica formations near the trees.

The park is visited by people all over the world, as the register at the front desk reveals when Ramachandran gives it for us to sign. And with that, our expedition ends late in the evening.

While fossils and ancient roman trade routes will remain good in my memory what I will associate with them are the thorns I painfully pull out of my leg later that evening. Lesson taken? Wear good shoes or face history's wrath.

Arikamedu's inhabitancy dates back to 200 B.C, when it was a Chola port actively trading beads with Roman traders

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