Those were the days: The Periplus Maris Erythraei is a credible account of ancient India

The ‘Periplus’ describes an ancient India that was a wealthy hub of high-end trade

September 11, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Pirate adventures, treasure hunt and old transportation concept. Vector illustration, vintage background

Pirate adventures, treasure hunt and old transportation concept. Vector illustration, vintage background

The Periplus Maris Erythraei (Journal of Sailing the Red Sea) is a book of which only a single original copy exists in Heidelberg. The book is 2,000 years old, dating back to the time of Christ, and is the work of a merchant, most likely a Greek from Egypt, who sails to India. The author is not named but there is no doubt that he tells a real story and that he himself travelled the route he writes of.

His book tells us of his sailing to India on a trade vessel, describing the route and also giving us fascinating details about our land. There was no direct passage to the Red Sea from the Mediterranean before the Suez Canal, but there must have been some way to get through the rivers and arrive at the entrepôt of Aden.

The Arabs jealously guarded the trade route to India, not allowing Europeans to emerge out of the Red Sea. One had to hug the coast and go up Yemen, Iran and what is now Pakistan before arriving in India — even then the spice ports of Kerala were far off. The better way was to come out of the Horn of Africa past Somalia and use the monsoon winds directly to the Malabar, but this was something only the Arabs and the Indians knew.

Direct route

In Aden (known to Rome as Eudaimon), the European traders would receive their goods from India, hand over their own wares, and return. This changed sometime in the first or second century before Christ, when an Indian sailor was found marooned and taken to one of the pharaohs of the Ptolemaic dynasty who were, of course, Greeks descended from Alexander’s general Ptolemy. The pharaoh dispatched a navigator named Eudoxus of Cyzicus, who accompanied the Indian back to our country. This opened up the route directly for Europeans — the writer of Periplus tells us about a route that was already well-travelled.

Description of the trade along that route forms the primary part of his text. Half the book is devoted to the trade that Rome had with India, which was more important for it than trade with Africa or Arabia. Indian exports and imports were high-end — not for mass consumption but for the nobility.

Indian ports were two in the northwest — Karachi and Bharuch — and two in the south — Muziris and Nelcynda (Kerala). The northwest imported fabrics, minerals and coral, and exported silk and cotton. Karachi was only a port while Bharuch was also an industrial centre. It required, as did the southern ports, copper, tin, lead and raw glass, from which it fashioned higher-value products. Bharuch was rich, importing eye-shadow and perfume. It may amuse readers to know that Arabian wine was delivered to Bharuch, the port between Surat and Ahmedabad. Today, one can legally purchase alcohol in Karachi but not in Bharuch.

Credible account

The ruler of Bharuch received slave girls, slave musicians, and silverware and lived in a much grander space than the ruler of Karachi. In contrast, it seems that the rulers of the southern Indian ports lived as simply as their subjects. Another difference was that the trade in Karachi and Bharuch was run by the locals. In the south, there were signs of a colony, apparently of Romans (there is reference to a temple of Augustus). These Westerners were likely traders settled in India who acted as middle-men between India and the world.

Bharuch exported ‘long pepper’ while Muziris exported the famed black pepper to Europe. All these goods would return via the same route, going up the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and Rome.

Remember that this is 1,500 years before Vasco da Gama. What we are told about the ‘discovery’ of India by him as the ‘first’ European to sail to India is exaggerated. Indeed, many of the ancient classical texts that talk of visits to India contain exaggerations. Herodotus, the father of history, was described by Plutarch as the ‘father of lies’ for good reason. The Periplus author is credible — for instance, he describes the facial features of Indians from the Northeast accurately — making the book an interesting and engrossing read even after 2,000 years.

Aakar Patel is a columnist and translator of Urdu and Gujarati non-fiction works.

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