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Ground Zero | Kerala floods replay the catastrophe that hit the ancient sea port Muziris in 1341

In 1341, the ancient port town of Muziris on the Malabar coast was destroyed by a Periyar in spate. This August, the prized archaeological remains of this legendary trading post nearly met with the same fate, report S. Anandan and Shyama Rajagopal

September 29, 2018 12:02 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:40 pm IST

Doorways to history: On­site museum at the Pattanam excavation site of the Muziris Heritage Project. The large structure is the new museum where work is in progress. The smaller structure (right) is the old museum.

Doorways to history: On­site museum at the Pattanam excavation site of the Muziris Heritage Project. The large structure is the new museum where work is in progress. The smaller structure (right) is the old museum.

In its long history, the Periyar river, which carves Kerala into its northern and southern halves, has proven itself to be as great a destroyer as it is a nurturer. When it rained incessantly in the State for three days in mid-August this year, triggering a menacing swirl in the Periyar, its waters threatened to wreck not just homes and lives but also a treasured historical legacy.

At the exact point where the Periyar empties into the Arabian Sea lies the area considered to be the location of Muziris, an ancient sea port. The region has yielded invaluable archaeological evidence of Kerala’s culturally indigenous yet commercially networked evolution over millennia.

Pattanam, a village at the heart of the Muziris region in North Paravur, had grabbed the headlines in 2007 when it emerged that it had been the site of ancient trade ties between the Malabar coast and Rome. In 1341, in one apocalyptic swell, the Periyar had erased this urban centre. The floods buried both the inter-continental trade ties as well as all evidence of the very existence of Muziris. The sea port and its glories were but a speck in the collective memory of Malayalis until the morning of August 14. But as the Periyar began to rise menacingly that evening, immediate reality and nebulous legend began to merge into a cataclysmic possibility.

“The whole place was under water,” recalls T.R. Sukumaran, 65, a retired schoolteacher from the locality, as he steps over clumps of overgrown grass at the Pattanam archaeological excavation site. He was one of the locals who had spent those three days worrying about the fate of the archaeological remains, even when their own lives were in danger.

 

S. Hemachandran, former Director, State Archaeology Department, tell us that Sukumaran’s fears were spot on. “The 1341 floods had caused huge geographical changes in the stretch between Kottappuram Fort and Pattanam,” he points out. “Their impact is evident in Paravur and Kodungalloor, which are just a few square kilometres apart. Muziris, which was located on the banks of the Periyar, near where the river meets the sea, bore the brunt of that flood. The same would have happened this time, but for Idukki dam, built in the 1970s.”

A close call

About 35 km north of Ernakulam, the stretch of land where the Pattanam excavations were carried out is nondescript. Covered in a thick layer of vegetation, it is separated from the disused staff quarters of the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) by a tall hedgerow. “This whole place went under water. The boxes, which had been moved in only a few weeks ago, were all submerged. Our immediate task is to clean up all this,” says Sukumaran, pointing at the colourful boxes stacked up in the portico of the KCHR staff quarters.

The markings on the boxes indicate the type of artefacts each contains and the date they were unearthed. “They are all scientifically examined, classified and catalogued, and safe,” he says, clearly relieved that the worst fears of local history enthusiasts did not come true. “Now, we need to clean them up for preservation.”

Just 2 km to the south of Pattanam, at Paliam Palace and Paliam Nalukettu — that form a part of the Muziris heritage site in North Paravur — that process is already on. The Periyar in spate had entered the museum, which was set up just recently under the Muziris Heritage Project, and caused extensive damage. The palace used to be the home of the Paliath Achans, who, as prime ministers of the erstwhile Kochi kingdom, had wielded power next only to the king. Today the building is a museum of Kerala history under the Muziris Heritage Project.

A view of renovated Kottappuram market near North Paravur, which was a thriving commercial centre during the Portuguese and Dutch period in the Kochi region.

A view of renovated Kottappuram market near North Paravur, which was a thriving commercial centre during the Portuguese and Dutch period in the Kochi region.

 

When the Paliam Trust manager, Krishnabalan Paliath, reached the museum after the flood waters had receded, what he saw left him shocked. Most of the museum’s artefacts, including palm leaf manuscripts, urns, silver and gold figurines, swords, guns, elephant caparisons made of gold and other metals, mural paintings, sketches of the Paliam estate, and several old documents related to the functioning of the erstwhile kingdom, lay partially submerged in thick clayey water. At the Nalukettu (the traditional home of an aristocratic Malayali family of yore), large and small utensils of the ‘kitchen museum’ were found floating in the flood waters.

“I really didn’t know what to salvage first. These palm leaf manuscripts and each of the artefacts you see here are so precious,” Paliath says, gesticulating towards the young volunteers working patiently to restore each item. The Trust’s rescue efforts were aided by a team of experts from the Indian national committee of the Rome-based International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). Further, the inter-governmental organisation dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage worldwide, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), also based in Rome, got one of their India coordinators, conservation architect Surya Prasanth, to approach the Paliam Trust. “It is the preliminary work of salvaging the artefacts that we have begun here,” says Prasanth, who is familiar with the work at Paliam.

Helping her in the work are conservationists from the Muziris Heritage Project. “We have the support of many international conservation experts who had visited the museum earlier,” says P.M. Noushad, managing director of the Project. “This is quite reassuring as there are no standard processes in conservation in the State’s Archaeology Department. We are confident that we will be able to salvage and restore most of the damaged items.” The museum, set up at a cost of ₹7 crore, has insurance cover and that is also a matter of relief.

A 2,000-year-old wharf

“This is the wharf plot,” says Sukumaran, pointing towards a piece of land that has been backfilled. This was where, in the first season of its excavation in 2007, the KCHR had stumbled upon the remnants of a 2,000-year-old wharf with a dugout canoe tethered to bollards in a trench. The hard wharf structure had been built using a mixture of clay, laterite crumbs, and lime. Its topmost portion, which was just 2 metres below the soil surface, sloped down to what was once the waterfront. There is a 4-metre wide canal that is a stone’s throw away to the east of the ‘wharf plot’. The mighty Periyar is to the south, less than a kilometre away. “Not long ago, Pattanam, a thickly populated part of the census town of Vadakkekara, a village in the Chittatukara panchayat between North Paravur and Kodungalloor, was like a maze, with numerous canals criss-crossing. But most of them have turned into sewers in recent times,” rues Sukumaran. Those sewers could hardly hold the flood waters as the Periyar rose during the August floods.

 

About 100 metres away, as the crow flies, is Khor Rori House, an old style, tile-roofed structure which houses the Children’s Museum at the Pattanam archaeological site. “The waters spared this building,” says Bibitha Praveen, a museum volunteer. “Potsherds and frankincense from the port town of Khor Rori in Oman, dating back to the early historic period (500 BCE to 200 CE), had been recovered during the excavations. We named it Pattanam Khor Rori Ware, as these have been found only in these two places,” she says, explaining the significance of what would have been lost had the waters entered the building. Besides life-size replicas of amphorae from the Mediterranean, the museum also showcases artefacts from the Pattanam find: unidentified objects and iron slag from the Iron Age and the early historic transition period; abundant quantities of glass, terracotta and stone beads from the early historic period; cameo blanks and stone debitage (debris generated during the production stone implements); intaglios from the early historic period; sliced stones that were gaming counters used by the Romans; glass slag, hopscotch and terracotta discs; glass fragments from Alexandria, lead scrolls, and copper coins.

 

“Almost 90% of the finds are from the early historical period,” says Praveen. The museum also has a replica of the famous Muziris Papyrus, a document dated to the second century CE whose original is in Vienna. A translation tells you that it was an agreement, probably between a banker in Alexandria and a merchant from Muziris, that enumerates the items traded. A copy of the Peutinger table, a 12th century facsimile of a fourth century parchment that maps the trade network of the Roman Empire, is also on display. The 22-ft-long parchment has Muziris plotted to its extreme right. “It is as if the world ended at Muziris for them,” says P.J. Cherian, former director of KCHR and head of the excavation team. “That Muziris had links with over 60 other ports across the Indian Ocean Rim, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean, which indicates its role in the proto-globalisation of those times. Here was a civilised society that lived in peace and harmony and thrived on trade,” he says.

Unsolved mysteries of Muziris

The valuable archaeological finds at Pattanam and the historical importance of the place as evidenced by them notwithstanding, there are many questions surrounding the true status that Pattanam enjoyed in its heyday. Was it really the legendary port of Muziris mentioned in the first century annals of Pliny the Elder and The Periplus of the Eritrean Sea? Was it the ‘Muciri’ that finds mention in Sangam literature and is thought to have perished in the floods of 1341? Or was it just another urban trade centre? These have been contentious issues among scholars.

Historian M.G.S. Narayanan refers to popular Graeco-Roman travel accounts to argue that Muziris was located 500 stadia south of Ezhimala in Kannur. Cheraman Perumal Bhaskara Ravi, who had granted privileges inscribed on copper plates to the Jewish trader Joseph Rabban in 999 CE, had referred to the port at his capital city Mahodayapuram (the present Kodungalloor) as ‘Muyirikkode’. “Pattanam, located 20 km away, might have been a different port altogether,” he says.

In the sunlight of glory:  The  Cheraman Juma Masjid, in Kodungallur, a 1,400-year-old structure and   believed to be the country’s  oldest mosque, will soon be restored to its original form.

In the sunlight of glory: The Cheraman Juma Masjid, in Kodungallur, a 1,400-year-old structure and believed to be the country’s oldest mosque, will soon be restored to its original form.

Another set of historians believes that instead of squabbling over the precise location of Muziris, academic energies should be focussed on piecing together the ‘material evidence’ unearthed from Pattanam to produce a meaningful narrative. Kesavan Veluthat, who is set to take charge as director of the Institute for Heritage Studies of Coastal Kerala (IHSCK) being set up by Kerala government, and P.K. Michael Tharakan, chairman of KCHR, believe that historian Rajan Gurukkal’s contention that Pattanam could have been a transit location, a colony of merchants from the Mediterranean, has much merit.

But there is no dispute on the point that the Periyar, which brought the ancient commercial hub under a thick layer of alluvium centuries ago, was integral to the place’s historical prominence. “With a network of canals and rivers merging with the sea, merchants would have found it easier to transport goods from their vessels to inland locations using favourable monsoon winds in May-June. After a short sojourn lasting a few months, they would have returned home using the next monsoon. This is what brought coastal Kerala into regular trade contact with the West. I often joke that Kerala isn’t a part of India, it’s a part of the Indian Ocean. It was the Western influence that shaped it,” laughs Veluthat.

“Most artefacts were recovered from depths of 1.5-4 metres,” says Sukumaran. “A store also emerged in another trench, a little ahead,” he says, pointing to where the trench was. The spot is now covered in grass. This area used to be a part of his student P. Vinod’s ancestral property. Back in 2004, Vinod had allowed geoarchaeologist K.P. Shajan to dig it up. When it yielded pottery and beads in abundance, Shajan teamed up with fellow archaeologist V. Selvakumar to conduct a surface survey and excavation of the area under the Centre for Heritage Studies in Tripunithura. Subsequently, the KCHR chipped in with a multidisciplinary team to take the research forward.

Wary locals

Today, however, the place is desolate, with flood water marks visible on the buildings. Excavation work has ground to a halt, thanks to the lukewarm response of the local community to the resumption of work at the site.

“Though there are no overt protests, there is a marked indifference on the part of the locals towards the project,” says Sukumaran. “They are looking for immediate benefits and jobs, which they had enjoyed when excavation was underway. But these disappeared once the excavation was suspended. They do not have the patience to wait for the project to make further progress, for when that happens, this place could become a tourism hub and an archaeological hot spot. It would definitely open up business opportunities for them — in terms of homestays, eateries, or shops selling antique replicas as memorabilia.”

 

The local community’s reluctance to permit digging in their lands is another obstacle in the way of further archaeological excavations in the area, says Tharakan. While the KCHR has, over the years, acquired about nine acres of land, often paying the owners up to 60% over the fair value fixed by the government, many in the neighbourhood are wary of losing their land. Sudha Anattuparambil, 55, who lives near the Children’s Museum at Pattanam, smiles nervously when asked about the project. “We have been living here for almost 25 years and can never imagine a situation where our property is acquired, either for excavation or for any other purpose,” she says.

A few houses away from Anattuparambil’s is 38-year-old Shiju’s residence. Questions about land acquisition make him uncomfortable. A section officer at the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit in Kalady, Shiju is determined not to allow excavation on his property, even if it were to be done without his land being acquired for the purpose. But there is a way out, says Benny Kuriakose, architect and conservation consultant of the Muziris Heritage Project, which is today an ambitious community heritage conservation and tourism project that covers a 150 sq km area between North Paravur and Mathilakam (where the classical Tamil poet Ilango Adigal, who mentioned Muziris in his Silappadikaram , lived).

Kuriakose is of the view that excavation could go on at Pattanam if the land is taken over on a 90-day lease, especially land that would soon have structures built on it. “It is a model followed in cities like London. It is important to dispel people’s misgivings about the project,” he says. Kerala Finance Minister T.M. Thomas Isaac, who was instrumental in getting the project rolling, believes that the government will have to come up with a protocol for construction activity in the area so that “our precious history is preserved”.

The Children’s Museum itself is a work in progress. Its skeletal structure still stands on stilts, but it came in handy when the local community was displaced from their homes in the August floods. The building, used as a relief camp, accommodated 556 people from 128 families in the Chittattukara panchayat.

The floods this time around did not cause any geographical changes. But they did provide a clear indication of what might have happened in 1341, and what could happen again if the Periyar were to disgorge its waters on an ancient historical site that holds many secret passages to Kerala’s distant past.

With inputs from M.P. Praveen in Kochi

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