In search of Muziris

Muziris was a thriving port in the Indo-Roman trade in the First Century B.C.E. And one day, it just vanished. Recent excavations have thrown up the possibility that Pattanam, a small village on the Kerala coast, could be the lost port. What happened all those years back?

May 01, 2010 02:43 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 05:52 am IST

Photos of excavations near Kochi Kerala

Photos of excavations near Kochi Kerala

The flourishing town of Muciri where the large beautiful ships of the yavanas which bring gold and take pepper come disturbing the white foam of the little fair Periyar of the Cheras.

Ahananaru(149), Tamil Sangam Poem datable to 2nd C.E.

Pattanam, a small village 25 km north of Kochi is lush and quiet like many other villages in Kerala. It is unhurried and looks deceptively unimportant. In one of the narrow mud paved lanes lives Athira, a 10-year-old enthusiastic girl, fragile looking with bright big eyes. Her house is small and sparsely furnished. One of her prized possessions is a necklace made of many assorted beads.

The shapes of the beads are inconsistent and the colours are uneven. The necklace looks ordinary till P.J. Cherian, an archaeologist accompanying me, informs me that the beads could be 2,000 years old. Alongside the necklace, Athira has carefully placed a cameo blank, a semi-precious stone used to make craved jewellery for the Romans.

Annual bounty

Athira is no treasure hunter; she picked some of these ancient beads from her backyard, some from the streets and a few others from the neighbourhood. “After every rain, when the water rises from beneath, the beads surface with them. You have to just pick,” confirms Dr. Krishnakumar who lives in a larger house near Athira's. He too has a collection including a fragmented bright metal piece.

Pattanam is no ordinary village. Beneath the red earth is the ancient port town extensively described as Muciri by the Tamil Sangam poets and frequented by the Romans and recorded by them as Muziris.

This thriving trade centre was completely lost without trace (at least on ground). What puzzled the archaeologists even more was their informed guesses about its location turned wrong many times till they hit the first reliable trail three years ago. How they reached Pattanam to reach Muziris is a story to be told.

Trade between India and western emporia dates back to 6th century B.C.E. Goods and people moved across land and sea, including the famous Silk Route that connected Central Asia and China. It was probably when the Romans started to dominate the trade from the 1st century B.C.E that the Kerala coast got busier.

While the journey from Muziris was easier with the northeastern winds, the journey from Rome that used the rough south west winds was tough. The whole journey was relatively quick but risky. Lionell Casson, a well-known archaeologist working on Roman trade, thinks that the Romans had the right kind of ships that were ‘designed for safety than speed'. The vessels usually arrived in Muziris in September and were anchored till December or early January.

Gold coins, topaz, coral, copper, glass, wine and wheat were imported from Rome, while pearl, diamonds, sapphire, ivory, silk, pepper and precious stones were exported from the west coast. Casson estimates that a 500-ton ship could have carried goods equivalent to the price of 2,400 acres of fertile farmlands in Egypt. While another archaeologist, Federico Romanis, estimates that one ship carried nothing less than 68,000 gold coins worth of goods.

The trade, it appears, was seductively profitable and worth the risk. As the Vienna Papyrus, a rare document discovered about two decades back reveals, the trade between Muziris and Alexandria was well worked out and traders from both sides went to great lengths to secure it.

Muziris should have been a busy and large settlement to host this kind of trade. But it suddenly vanished. Before the question as to why it disappeared could be answered, archaeologists had to first find where it existed.

For long, many thought Kodungallur, a town seven km north of Pattanam, was Muziris. Probably, William Logan's Malabar Manual, written in 1887, influenced the thinking and search. Logan thought Kodungallur, with many medieval monuments and located on the north bank of river Periyar was Muziris. However, this conclusion needed material evidence.

In 1945, for the first time, excavations were taken up in Kodungallur. It did not produce any evidence related to ancient commercial links. Another excavation was carried out in 1969 by the Archaeological Survey of India in Cheraman Parambu, two km north of Kodungallur. Only antiquities of the 13t h and 16th century were recovered. Muziris remained elusive.

Unexpected help

Help came from an unconnected development.

In the 1990s, ecologists and archaeologists were studying the evolution of Kerala's coast line. Shajan Paul, a research scholar then, was surveying the Central Kerala region between 1993 and 1997 as a part of his doctoral research. It appeared to him that the River Periyar could have shifted its course. He had reasons to think so. The coast line near Kodungallur, studies show, could have moved inward, flooding the coastal areas and later receded to expose land and creating new water channels sometime during 5,000 to 3,000 BP (Before Present — radiocarbon years before 1950).

This understanding turned out to be crucial.

Earlier searches were looking for Muzris on the north banks of River Periyar and near to its mouth since the texts mention so. If the river Periyar had shifted its course, then a whole set of new locations emerge.

It was at this time, in 1998, that Shajan heard from his friend Vinod, a local resident of Pattanam and an engineer, about the appearance of a seemingly ancient brick wall in his compound while digging for coconut planting.

Though he and his friend V.Selvakumar, along with Prof. Vimala Begley, the renowned expert on Indo-Roman trade had surveyed Kodungallur region before, they had never looked at Pattanam. However, this time, given its proximity to Kodungallur and the fact that the place name Pattanam means a port town, Shajan thought it was worth the try. He also conjectured that if the River Periyar had shifted northwest, its earlier course would have been closer to Pattanam.

Tell-tale signs

When he arrived at Pattanam to look at the brick wall, to his surprise, he found lots of pottery shreds, evenly burnt and of superior quality in comparison to the megalithic pottery of south India. It was clear to him that they were not locally made. Pattanam, it appeared, could be connected to Muziris.

Shajan and Selvakumar had to wait for another six more years to do a trial excavation. “During this period we had formed a good core team which included P.J. Cherian and Roberta Tomber, an authority on Roman pottery. We were actively looking for more surface evidence and wanted our future search to be systematic, institutionally backed and sustained,” Shajan explained.

“We walked around the village and experienced the topography and landscape. The north eastern part was a raised mound indicating a potential spot. After negotiations with the plot owner we dug two pits to a depth of three m each. Much to our excitement, we found artefacts that one would find in a Roman site such as Arikamedu. We were convinced that we were closer to Muziris,” recalls Selvakumar, now an archaeologist from the Tamil University, Thanjavur.

The research team subsequently grew and a larger team was formed under the aegis of Kerala Council for Historical Research. The year 2007 turned out to be important.

“A wharf complex with a dugout canoe made from a single log of wood and several wooden posts/bollards were found during excavations in 2007. Carbon dating fixed the date of the canoe to 1st century B.C.E. A large quantity of botanical remains such as pepper, rice, cardamom, frankincense and grape seeds belonging to the same period were also discovered. It clearly emerged that Pattanam was once a thriving link in the Indian Ocean trade. Evidences pointed out that it was a site of continuous habitation pre-dating the Roman phase. The earliest strata so far unearthed dates back to the Iron Age — 10th to 5th century B.C.E.

P.J. Cherian, Director, Pattanam excavations, is however cautious. “We would still like to retain some humility on the identity of Pattanam as Muziris. Evidences indicate that the site is closely associated with Muziris, but we are not sure which part of the ‘first emporium of the orient' is Pattanam. Where could be its satellite sites? Nelkynda, Bycare and Tyndis, the other ports mentioned in the texts (yet to be identified) are of equal importance and we need to know about them as well,” he adds.

Work continues at Pattanam with more institutions such as ASI and Pondicherry University joining the team. Excavating amidst habitation has not been easy. “Pattanam is a living village and we have to work with the people,” says Cherian. He is busy convincing the villagers that they will not be displaced because of excavations and there is nothing to fear. “The challenge is to find an alternative, a people-friendly approach to heritage management,” he explains.

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