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Finding an amphora in Arikamedu

The ruins of striking Roman arches at Arikamedu

The ruins of striking Roman arches at Arikamedu   | Photo Credit: S. S. KUMAR

An archaeological site near Puducherry holds the key to India’s ancient relationships with the rest of the world. That is, if you can find the place first

It’s as if I were trying to hitch a ride from Puducherry to ancient Rome. No one wants to go to Arikamedu. Eventually, a rickshaw driver shows mercy by agreeing to take me for ₹350. It’s twice the amount I paid 10 years ago but I accept his pricey offer, because I recall the archaeological site being a seven-kilometre drive from Puducherry, deep inside a jungle.

The rickshaw crosses the bridge over Ariyankuppam River, which is more of a lagoon, but the suburbs of Puducherry continue to sprawl in a multi-storeyed, concrete landscape rather than giving way to the huts that I remember. As we turn off the Cuddalore highway, the road meanders past Le Paradise Inn AC Bar — which I’m absolutely sure wasn’t there before. Women sell fresh catch squatting in the roadside dust and a narrow path between boxy houses leads to what’s left of the jungle. We bump on a dirt track through rubbish-strewn greenery, the occasional cactus stares back aggressively, until the discreetly green-painted Archaeological Survey of India fence comes into sight. No information board welcomes me to Arikamedu. A handful of cud-chewing cows are the only other visitors.


The fence protects a striking ruin with very Roman arches. But it’s actually the remains of a 250-year-old French mission, built around the time the first rudimentary excavation took place. French scientist Guillaume Le Gentil observed that villagers were already busy recycling the ruins, which explains why there’s no ancient town above ground. But looking closely at the mission’s walls, I notice two different types of bricks: one of a familiar size used even today, whilst others are flatter, larger slabs. I let my fingers slide across their rugged surfaces. I feel I’ve seen similar flat bricks at historical places around the Mediterranean. It seems the mission was built with looted bricks.

Fishing boats along Ariyankuppam river

Fishing boats along Ariyankuppam river   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

Romans and the romantics

In the absence of signposting, the way to explore the site is to follow a path that leads off from the ruin through the jungle and towards the river. Butterflies are disturbed by my steps and flutter up from the grass. Souls of Romans? Reborn as tropical insects? According to excavation reports, somewhere underneath are the foundations of a 45-metre-long 1st century warehouse, surrounded by streets and drains and pits — the latter perhaps used for dyeing the fine muslin cloth that Tamil bards called ‘milky mist’. Archaeologists found imported Roman tableware and wine amphorae shards suggesting that somebody who lived here had extravagant habits, but there were also traces of bead-manufacturing, signifying that the harbour housed a mixed population of indigenous artisans and foreign businessmen.

The site runs half a kilometre along the river and reaches 200 metres inland at its widest, and it may harbour more secrets than archaeology has so far uncovered. In one clearing, myopic as I am, I come upon a meadow of bluish flowers, which on closer inspection turns out to be mineral water pouches and the explanation for their presence is in a nearby grove — empty whiskey bottles and discarded plastic cups. A romantically inclined couple scamper out of the undergrowth. I don’t know whether to apologise for disturbing or take the uncle approach and explain that historical places should be used for history purposes only. But in the end, I tell myself that if Romans drank wine here, then why shouldn’t a certain romantic tradition continue?

Stones of different colours excavated at Arikamedu on display at Puducherry museum

Stones of different colours excavated at Arikamedu on display at Puducherry museum   | Photo Credit: T. Singaravelou

At the riverfront one may descend at one’s own risk by an old rope down the scarp. It’s dicier than expected and I tumble to the bottom of the steep embankment, which is basically a mud-caked flat. As I crawl in the black goo, I’m amazed at the fact that nothing has been done to develop this as a tourist destination. Yet it directly links two of the greatest ancient civilisations, the Indian and the Roman. As if to prove this, I spot pot shards in the mud and layers of bricks in an archaeological jigsaw puzzle laid bare by recent cyclones. This then is the quay that used to jut out into the river and from where, 2,000 years ago, Indian spices, cloth, jewellery and other luxury products were shipped to European markets.

Unsolvable riddle

Holding on to that thought and with my shoes slowly sinking in the mud, crabs running amok whenever I move, I’m struck by how, without appropriate signage, this remains an unsolvable riddle for anybody who isn’t an expert. It’s not as if nobody has thought of doing something about it. One scholar, S. Suresh, discusses in his book Arikamedu: Its Place in the Ancient India-Rome Contacts a plan for a Tamil trail to highlight sites that in ancient days traded with the West. There has also been talk about an onsite interpretation centre. Years ago, a UNESCO World Heritage tag was proposed and Arikamedu is currently on a tentative list of ‘Silk Road Sites in India’. But nothing has happened and when someone built a museum nearby, he was forced to shut it down because it’s illegal for private citizens to collect and display archaeological finds.

Back in town, where the French left an occidental esprit behind in 1954, I head for Rue Saint Louis where a merchant’s 18th century villa has been converted into the Puducherry Museum. Unfortunately, there’s not much information available here either: when I ask the man at the ticket counter, who speaks a tiny bit of English, if I can buy a catalogue or an ASI excavation report, I’m given a free tourist brochure that deals mostly with shopping in Puducherry. I enquire if there’s anybody, perhaps a curator or director, who knows anything about the Arikamedu objects, but he says no.

The ruins of striking Roman arches at Arikamedu

The ruins of striking Roman arches at Arikamedu   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

The museum displays a whimsical collection of European leftovers like rotting pianos and a pousse-pousse type of car from the 18th century powered by two natives who ran behind pushing it. There’s also a room housing Arikamedu discoveries including an informative display of beads curated by a British archaeologist 35 years ago, making it a valuable museum piece in itself. Their minuscule size made beads the perfect export product — fancy Arikamedu style microbeads have been found as far east as Vietnam and Bali.

Wheeler’s discoveries

Luckily, I’ve been doing some additional reading. Finds made by the French in the late 1930s suggested that Arikamedu might be a ville romaine that drew the attention of Mortimer Wheeler, Britain’s celeb archaeologist who at that time headed the ASI. Wheeler excavated in 1945 and announced his discoveries with great enthusiasm: his report has many quotable if factually dicey statements such as the claim that Arikamedu ‘represents the site of a considerable buried town on the Coromandel coast.’ No ‘considerable’ town has been unearthed, but Wheeler’s team catalogued scores of shards representing almost every imaginable kind of Mediterranean pottery. Regarding amphorae, it is possible to pinpoint not only the place of origin but even date of export, as the styles changed with fashions. A normal-sized amphora held the equivalent of 36 of today’s bottles and considering that imported wine costs more than ₹1000 the value of each amphora (at a time when shipping was so much trickier) is easy to imagine.

A coin-sized hole

But I’m especially interested in inspecting the Arretine tableware that Wheeler identified: a standardised high-quality pottery that was used throughout the Roman Empire from 1st century BCE to 300CE. I recall seeing, on a previous visit, a fragment stamped with the name of a prominent potter based at Arezzo in Italy, suggesting that the plate was manufactured around 25CE. Since it belonged to a limited period product line it was significant for dating all the finds, prompting Wheeler to declare: ‘Upon the imported Mediterranean wares the whole chronology of the site, and its special importance therefore to Indian archaeology, depend.’

The road leading to Arikamedu

The road leading to Arikamedu   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

I locate a handwritten label, ‘Italian Terra Sigillata Plate (imported from Roman Empire)’, but the holder is empty. Despite all the sari-clad museum guards keeping a sharp eye on tourists to ensure that nobody clicks a pic, somehow the treasure of the collection has disappeared. I’m in mortal shock. There’s also a display of Roman coins — of emperors Gallienus Antoninianus ( three pieces) and Tetricus Antoninianus (a single piece) – but the occasional empty coin-sized hole suggests that things have gone missing here as well.

There’s still enough evidence left for us to buy the idea that Roman influence was present. However, along with his path-breaking discoveries, Wheeler spread an inflated narrative of Arikamedu being a full-fledged Roman port. Later archaeologists, such as Vimala Begley who excavated comprehensively in 1989-92, disagreed with him. According to Begley’s findings, Arikamedu was inhabited and had lapidary industry as well as pottery production long before any foreigner set foot here — which is probably why Romans came in the first place to trade wine and fine-quality plates. The rich bead finds suggest an indigenous export-oriented business that perhaps started as early as the 3rd century BCE; that is, at a time when Rome was an expanding city state but not yet a vast empire.

Scholars therefore postulate that the excitement over a Roman port in India may be exaggerated. Rajan Gurukkal argues in his paper Classical Indo-Roman Trade: A Misnomer in Political Economy that the ‘history of India’s maritime contact with Rome, generally described as Indo-Roman trade, has been a prominent theme of discussion in her historiography, exciting several historians with the imaginary notion of a maritime civilisation…’ His conclusion is that it should, rather than ‘trade’, be called ‘Roman-Indian exchange, an exchange of serious imbalance, because of its being between an Empire and a region of uneven chiefdoms’. Himanshu Prabha Ray, author of The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia, who was personally present during the excavations helmed by Begley, elaborates that a ‘myth debunked by the recent excavations is the identification of the site as an Indo-Roman trading station… More significantly, the archaeological record confirmed that Arikamedu occupied a nodal position in the inland, coastal and transoceanic networks.’

Yakshi in Italy

The alternative conclusion may then be that Arikamedu was essentially one of India’s early international ports, making local elites so wealthy that they could enjoy the occasional amphora of wine, build the temples that Tamil Nadu is famous for, and patronise Sangam poetry. The references to Indo-Roman affairs in ancient Tamil poems prove the existence but not necessarily permanence of alien settlements, and certainly do not disprove the agency of Indian traders.

Some of the excavated idols

Some of the excavated idols   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

In some recent texts, ironically, more importance is given to Indians in the Roman empire, which tilts the entire affair in the opposite direction, despite there being only fragmentary evidence for Tamil merchant settlements in Egypt — though this paucity could be due to the perishability of Indian goods: spices, textiles. One of the rare Indian objects discovered within the Roman Empire, significantly enough in a merchant’s house, is an ‘ivory statuette found in the Roman town of Pompeii, which was buried in lava’ as noted by Partha Mitter in his Indian Art, which means that this sculpture — some experts suggest it is Lakshmi and others that it’s a Yakshi — would have reached Italy before the volcano’s eruption in 79CE. Might it have come from Arikamedu? It’s an archaeological fact that wines produced in the Neapolitan region found their way here.

Soma and an olive

Drinking in the sight of the amphorae shards, I can’t help but wonder what wine meant to ancient Tamilians. Some scholars argue that imported wine was for the consumption of Romans settled here, yet Tamil poets eulogised ‘cool and fragrant wine’ that was guzzled from golden pitchers ‘that have been fashioned with high artistry’ such as mentioned in the 56th poem of the Purananuru. Sanskrit texts mention that each Indian village had a tavern, while cities had entire quarters reserved for bar-hopping. Jeannine Auboyer, in Daily Life in Ancient India, provides a vivid description of ‘rooms filled with seats and couches, and also counters where perfumes, flowers and garlands could be bought. It was a lucrative business, for the sale of fermented and alcoholic drinks continued throughout the day and well into the night.’

But the bar at my heritage hotel offers a mocktail named ‘Arikamedu’ — a mix of mango, cranberry and lime juices — which feels off, considering what heady beverages the place seems to have served up in ancient days. If one were to name a cocktail ‘Arikamedu’, it ought to contain a splash of Mediterranean wine, lashings of soma (can be substituted with beer), and an olive.

On my last morning in town, I decide to see what the mouth of the Ariyankuppam River, which the Romans sailed up, looks like. I presume I’ll find it if I walk south for as long as the beach stretches, so I head down the seaside promenade. Where Goubert Avenue ends, the beach continues past a popular bar called Seagulls to the old French pier which is off-limits for tourists.

Sea of bottles

Behind the pier, black boulders have been stacked to stop erosion. I climb up the rocks and stumble upon a narrow street in front of huts belonging to fisherfolk — men are mending nets, women dry fish on the asphalt surface. I cross a stretch of sand to a makeshift tarpaulin camp from where a kuccha road leads further.

After another kilometre I see fishing boats moored in a creek. There’s a hillock I climb for a better view of the Ariyankuppam, only to bump into a defecating gentleman. A sewage pipe vomits out a dark waterfall into the river, as if all the puke of Puducherry’s winter party season is channelled this way.

A wading fisherman throws his net out again and again. Occasionally the tempestuous sea reaches his neck and I worry for his safety. Nearby, three men on a motorboat trawl the inlet, shrieking ‘yahoo!’ I climb down to where the Ariyankuppam and the ocean meet and some youths are finishing a pre-lunch whisky bottle while filming themselves dancing surrounded by hundreds of beer empties — which makes me wonder what future archaeologists will think if they dig here?

The sea of bottles is a curious analogy to the amphorae shards just about a thousand metres upriver, but on the other side.

The other side of history, one might add. But with a little signposting Arikamedu might develop into a centre for understanding India’s ancient relationships with the rest of the world — from Europe to the Far East, for the Arikamedu site was obviously close to the heart of it all.

The author is fascinated with places where tourists don’t go, especially if there’s something to eat that he hasn’t tried before.

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Printable version | Jul 2, 2020 4:19:57 PM |

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